Monday, August 31, 2015

“Should I Delete My Dream Sequences?” He Asked

“Should I delete my dream sequences?” he asked us.

Working on his first book, this writer incorporated numerous dream sequences into the storyline until he found out that it is considered amateurish. He wanted to know if he should remove them. He could, he insisted; it wouldn’t take a major rewrite, but they added an artistic side to the work and revealed a little bit more about the characters.

My diplomatic answer was more true to my philosophy: “If you like them, leave them in and wait until you get some feedback on the actual scenes before making a decision. See what other people think and give yourself some time to decide how you truly feel about them.”

Time helps writers digest opinions, lose their biases, and become more analytical and objective about their decisions. A choice to remove an aspect of the story should be founded in personal reasoning; the author should always make the decision he thinks is best (even if that might be trusting someone else). It is possible for a dream sequence to not look like an amateur work, and without reading it, I really can’t say if it does or not.

But if I had to make the decision for him, the answer would be yes. If it was my book, knowing what I do now, I absolutely would remove those scenes.

Here’s why:

1. Dream sequences really are boring.

I’ve tolerated them, to be sure, mildly been amused by a few jokes here or there, but usually I find myself drifting, skimming, and wouldn’t ever be bothered if they didn’t exist. It’s rare for me even to be okay with a dream sequence; most occasions I’m bored out of my mind.

The only exception coming to mind was the episode in Adventure Time where the main character is trapped within a dreamscape, but it is the story of him escaping, worms from the real world affecting his ability to wake up.

A common factor in people’s boredom has to do with lack of progress. They don’t feel like the information being delivered is getting them anywhere—whether that be a dream scene or a tangent on the avocados the protagonist likes to eat. When sections sound like the writer is just talking for the sake of talking, the readers tend to tune out. Dream sequences can give you some new information about characters, but many times we’d rather see that same information delivered by memories, flashbacks, or dialogue. Watching “real” experiences are just more interesting because…

2. When anything can happen, you can’t invest.

You know how kids like to count down the number of days until summer? Readers like to see how many pages are left in a book? It is easier to work with a deadline than without? Running for a finish line is more fun than running until someone tells you to stop?

You can only feel you’re making progress when you have some sort of idea what you’re trying to do and where you’re going. Many writers will try to lure in readers by being purely unpredictable—and this makes sense. Why listen to stuff we already know?—but if they can’t predict anything that might happen, it means they’re not hoping for anything to happen and won’t ever be able to.

Dream sequences have minimal effect on character and almost none on the world. Most of the information being delivered can be discarded as just being about the weirdness of the dream, and the little we can discern from character either tends to be far too subtle for us to realize it’s actually important (unlike the monkey with the banjo), or hits us over the head with what the author wants the character to be.

It’s hard for them not to feel like a complete waste of time.

3. It is amateurish and you are an amateur.

The quality of writing is mainly determined by comparison. Once someone does something great, you can’t just do it again and have it still be considered genius, and when a bunch of “crappy” authors start doing something, it becomes wrong purely by association.

There are, unfortunately, some choices that will label you as an amateur and that’s the only reason you shouldn’t do them. Nothing artistic about it, no real reason outside of superficial labels, nothing that will help or hurt your story. Just don’t because you shouldn’t.

But that’s not necessarily an end all. They say “learn the rules to learn to break them” for this very reason; you can do something “amateurish” and not look like you are one by, in essence, establishing you’re not before the question comes up.

Establishing your credentials is done by either being genuine or being superficial (having a good resume and following the better known writing rules). Write a great deal and you will naturally start easing out typical, easy decisions in favor of more complex and unexpected ones. A person who has written for a long time will be more capable of working a dream sequence into the storyline, more likely to recognize if it’s important, and know how to combat the “amateurish” aspects of the sequence.

Because this is his first book, it is likely it will read like a first book in many places outside of just the dream sequences. It is also probable that he wants to keep them for reasons other than what he thinks is best for the story.

His biggest concern is about whether or not he will look like a beginner if he keeps them in. For the various above reasons, I think it’s very likely they do.

4. Artsy for the sake of artsy usually reads as such.

Perceived motivation of the creator factors into a reader’s enjoyment level, and when the reader feels the author is being self-serving or showing off, that’s a primary reason he’ll consider the writing bad.

Readers need to feel poetry, metaphor, and any other of that artsy fartsy crap comes from a place of depth and genius. A good way to manage this is to achieve actual depth, diving into your own psyche and telling the world what you feel they need to know in only the way you can tell it. It takes a lot of thought to be truly artistic, and it’s definitely a sink or swim sort of action. Either you awe people with your genius, or they think you’re a hack.

If the only reason you’re keeping your dream sequences in is for the artistic aspects they add, they have to be truly, astoundingly artistic. Your readers need to get something from the creative choices, some sort of feeling—probably awe.

From how he said it, I don’t believe that they were truly creative, but rather an excuse in hindsight.

5. You said you can take them out.

No, I don’t believe you should remove something just because it can be, despite many writers suggesting otherwise. But the major thing you should consider when contemplating a change is the cost-benefit ratio, and part of that ratio is the work involved.

Does the choice benefit the story in some manner?

Does the choice hurt the story in some manner?

Do the benefits outweigh the consequences?

It’s about prioritizing. He suggested that the benefits are character development and adding artistic aspects to it. He is worried that it will make him look like an amateur, and I believe they are probably not that interesting. What is more important to you as an author?

I think the answer is obvious to you already. What you’re really asking is whether or not the dream sequences really do all of this things?

Do I think that it really does develop the characters? Probably not a lot. Add artistic aspects? For the sake of the argument, we’ll say sure. But yes, it’s likely you will look like an amateur and they probably aren’t entertaining… and I think you knew that.

But the real tie breaker is the amount of work it would take to make the change. A whole rewrite for a slight benefit may not be worth it, but in this case, the writer said that he could take them out if he had to, and, from my perception, the boredom factor takes precedent and neither character development or creativity supersedes that.

And let’s be completely honest here. This question impacted me so much because I’ve been through this very situation before. I still go through this from time to time. And while I have done everything under the sun when it comes to this conundrum (made the change, not made the change, sat on it forever, thrown away the manuscript), and had every result possible, I have learned one important thing: sometimes you know the answer and you just don’t want it to be true.

But that’s exactly why I stand by my original statement. You don’t need to make the change immediately. There’s something that’s holding you back. You need to get over it, solve the problem, and truly understand the issue. Maybe it’s doubt, maybe it’s not enough information, maybe it’s your gut telling you there’s something there. This is also something I’ve learned. As long as you keep working on it, you’ll find the answers come to you more and more gently over time. Keep it as it is, and one day, in the near future, you’ll realize it’s right in front of your face and you’ll want to take it.

Friday, August 28, 2015

What to Do About Too Nice of Beta-Readers (And Why You Might Want Them)

Unlike men, you can change beta-readers.

A beta-reader has become, unofficially, a person who reads your work in order to give feedback, but isn’t exactly an editor either. Usually, they’re used to tell the author the reader’s perspective on the piece, sometimes offering up solutions. They may or may not work professionally in the literary field. Originally, a beta-reader was intended for a final draft before print, the last line to catch any major problems. Today, many writers will use them at various places in the process.

A man is a person who refuses to read your work, but will tell you he did anyway. At least if you’re dating him.

Finding beta-readers, editors, or anyone to give you any sort of feedback is extremely difficult. (Finding men is not.) Getting someone who agrees to read your work and actually does is like not finding a Twilight book on the used rack—possible, but you’re going to have to try really hard.

Agents will often just send back form rejection letters. Sometimes, if you’re willing to pay, you can get a more intimate feedback, but that’s always sketchy. Writers’ groups are a decent place, but many don’t have the time to respond to a full manuscript and can only read it in parts. Combine that with ever shifting members, and what you’re going to end up with is a lot of, “I don’t like this one word,” because they can’t give you a bigger picture issue when they’ve only read three pages mid-story.

You can go online, but directly asking your 3,000 Facebook followers if they’ll read a chapter will often result in crickets. Posting it on a forum may or may not lead to results, and then you have the problem of not knowing anything about the people you’re getting the information from. It’s a lot like trusting the parenting advice from Yahoo answers. And still you have the issue of no one’s going to read an entire novel to jot a few comments down. And while self-publishers have more to worry about when it comes to theft, emailing your full manuscript to a complete stranger always can be nerve wracking.

Plus, no matter where you go, it’s still going to be difficult to get someone to put in the time.

So what do you do when you finally get someone to not only agree to read it, then actually do it? What do you do when you find the feedback is… well, extremely lacking?


Don’t expect them to tell you you’re good or bad at writing.

One of my myriad of rants is about the words “good and bad” in terms of writing. I don’t believe in linear quality, and I promote specify when it comes to discussing art. Saying Fifty Shades of Grey is “just bad” discredits the important fact that it worked extraordinarily well for many people. For a writer to just dismiss it limits their view of what art can be to what they already think it is. It doesn’t mean that they have to like it, but you can see why it would be more beneficial to be clear about what is bad about it and why so many people don’t care as much about those aspects as you do.

So my friend, who heard the rant many times, was pulling up her writing from high school and wanted me to read it. She started with, “Will you look through it and tell me if it’s any g—” then stopped.

“Tell me what you like and I can improve?”

That is an important distinction.

No, I can’t tell you if you’re any good, don’t put that responsibility on me. This is one of the reasons your betas might be too nice. If they get the feeling that any criticism will make you want to quit, of course they’re not going to say anything.

Also, while I can tell you if I like it, I can’t always know how other people will feel, and I definitely can’t speak for its potential. That’s up to you. I can give you my opinion as far as, “Here’s how I felt, this is what made me feel that way,” and even perhaps, “These are the elements I would expand on,” but no, I can’t say if you’re going to be a successful novelist or give you a blanket assessment about your natural talent. I will admit that if you’re looking for me to say if you have an inherent ability now, the answer is probably no. I would be acting a lot more shocked and gleeful if you did.

If you go to a reader, know what you’re there for. Are you asking whether or not you should be a writer? That’s for introspection. Are you asking whether or not you should continue with this story? Ask yourself why you would or wouldn’t you. Are you asking if the story is good as it is? Tell them that. Are you looking for a bit of an emotional pick me up? Let them know.

Don’t put your all your dreams on the shoulders of someone else. Learn to discuss it openly with yourself first. You want people to stop being nice, you need to not put all your emotions on their opinion. Release some of the pressure and they’re more likely to open up.

Once you’ve decided what you want from them, then you can…

Listen what they have to say.

Contrary to the rest of this article, I will suggest that whole, old-fashioned idea of just listening should be initially applied. Let them talk. When they say, “It was good,” wait. Don’t speak a single word, don’t let them off the hook. Make eye contact, show you’re ready, and do not verbalize anything.

If you can get them to talk naturally, their responses will be more genuine, less influenced by external factors, thereby more constant with what other people will feel. Sometimes all it takes is for them to panic about filling the silence that they’ll let their censor down.

After a time, if they still haven’t said anything, find something vague and encouraging to say, like, “Go on.”

Remember that no matter how great your book is, someone will always have an opinion on something. People love to give advice, so if they can’t come up with anything, they’re obviously choosing not to, and that yes, if your book is really “good,” they will be pretty excited about it. Note that saying, “It was good,” in a sort of apathetic way does not mean it was bad, but it definitely means they didn’t love it.

If you can’t get them to naturally speak, it becomes time to…

Take charge.

Criticism is a skillset, no matter what anyone tells you. Some believe that criticism is about expressing your opinion as bluntly and unthoughtfully as possible, but effective criticism (whether that be reviews or feedback), is analytical, logical, specific, and thorough. Statements like, “It was boring” is not as useful as “I couldn’t get invested in the character.”

But academia doesn’t recognize the importance of teaching criticism, often prioritizing keeping the peace over efficiency. They will promote the idea of shut up and listen, instead of the most important aspect of a critique: an open dialogue. It also often tells children what their opinions should be, and then to argue those pre-existing notions.

When we add in the whole “I’ll know it when I see it,” mentality most readers use to judge books, you have a large population of people who don’t know how to analyze their feelings, trust them, and articulate them.

There’s a decent chance they’re being too “nice” because they don’t know what else to say. They don’t know how to give a critique.

Don’t treat them like a teacher who tells you what you did right and wrong. Treat them like a peer, and remember that it’s not uncommon for you to be the expert in the situation. Even if they are an experienced writer, it doesn’t mean they know how to give their opinion, and it doesn’t mean that they know everything about what you’re trying to do.

Instead of just throwing yourself at their feet, control the session to go as you want it to. Introspection before feedback is so important because you can’t take control if you don’t know what you’re talking about. You need to have a general idea of the story’s strengths or weaknesses first, and an idea of what you’re concerned about. What are you afraid of people’s reaction being? Where do you feel you could use work?

Discuss it.

Even if the person absolutely refuses to say something negative, it can be immensely helpful for you to just speak your thoughts out loud. In most cases, however, talking will encourage your reader to express her opinion too.

Don’t try to expedite the process.

You don’t need to get all the criticism of your book immediately. It’s going to change over time, and fixing one problem will often fix others, or evolve them into totally different issues. That’s the good thing about someone who is being far too nice to you. People who are hesitant to give criticism will tend to give the most important, big picture criticism, where people who are more than willing tend to give thousands of comments on tiny details.

What’s bad about that, you say? Well, mainly that your book will change, as I said, and so their fixation on whether you should use “slightly” or “lightly” won’t matter when the whole scene is cut, and it’s not uncommon for these line editors to miss the more subtle, but more important issues, like continuity errors, plot holes, or a lack of character arc.

Sometimes you’ll get feedback that is thorough with details and big picture issues, where the critic is experienced, specific, and exhaustive, but that can be overwhelming. In those cases, I’ll go through and read their big notes first, make changes, and then find their little notes to be useless because the lines have already been altered to help the larger issues.

If you have a “nice” reader, many times you know you can take their criticism seriously because they’re so disinclined to be negative (versus the people who love tearing you apart and may not be giving you any credit). If they only have one thing to say, it can mean a lot. Sure, they too might be compelled to state, “I want you to rewrite this one sentence,” but if you can get only one important piece of feedback from them, that’s all you need.

Groom them.

Don’t expect everyone to be useful immediately. We all need time to adjust and to learn how to collaborate with each individual. You can’t force a person to read your book, but you can develop a relationship with the person who is willing. Be patient and take your time. Let them know that you really don’t want, “It was good.” Be honest about what you need from them, direct them, have a conversation, be willing to listen, and over time you’ll often get a person who is extremely helpful in your career. Tell them how you feel about their responses, tell them what you would rather see. And if you like their praise, but want more, explain that. You would be surprised how much you can work with a person who wants to be nice.

Monday, August 24, 2015

When Readers are Wrong, Do You Want to Be Right?

So, I’m pretty God-awful at checking for typos. The God-awfulist, I would say, but it might be because I have a God complex—in that I compare myself to him a lot.

You’d think, this being the case, I’d get more messages from people informing me of my mistakes, but usually that only happens if I crack a Hemingway joke. I'm running low.

It’s only every once in a while that I get corrected, and I have to say, I really do appreciate it. If I could have readers inform me of every mistake I made, I wouldn’t have to find them myself. But, unfortunately, my audience of experienced writers tend to be forgiving and diplomatic, so I am left doing my own copyediting. What kind of world is this?

But, that being said, it’s not uncommon for people to be, well, mistaken about my mistakes. Surprisingly, I get about the same number of messages from readers who misread as those who found one of my numerous typos.

For example, a woman (extremely politely) asked me if I meant “accept” instead of “except.” I thanked her, did a quick word search to find that “except” hadn’t been used once. After reading it through, I could only think, “Did you mean ‘expect’?”

The blog, a post about how to deal with unsupportive friends and families, suggested that expecting them to not jumping for joy for your book helped you not feel bad when they don’t. If they do, then it’s an extra bonus. But most authors experience apathy and obscurity in their foray, and it’s something better to predict.

The word in the blog was spelled correctly and meant exactly what I intended it to mean. She apologized profusely, mentioned she was tired, and we continued to have conversations since. All was well, in that case, and I didn’t have any one else (that I know of) making that mistake, so it was easily solved and forgotten.

Writers will constantly have to deal with reader’s opinions, and while it can be frustrating when it comes to tastes, morals, and perspectives, there will be certain times that the readers will be outright wrong about what they’re saying… and there’s not a lot you can do about it.

Recently I read a book about Yellowstone National Park. I live in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, which is right next to it. In the park area, there are all kinds of animals tourists will come to see: grizzlies, moose, elk, deer, and, of course, the buffalo.

Which are not actually buffalo.

The correct term for these majestic animals is “bison.” “Buffalo” refers to a totally different kind of animal living all the way across the planet. To call them a buffalo is an uniformed and inaccurate choice… but one that makes you “from here.”

The only people in Jackson who refer to bison as bison are tourists and hippies. You won’t catch a person who grew up here using the term. It drives my Australian boyfriend nuts, and I tell him, “Saying it just proves you’re an outsider.”

“Because my accent doesn’t do that already.”

It’s also one of those corrections people will make to prove their superior knowledge—which is why locals are so adamant about keeping with the, we’ll say, colloquialism. You want to prove you know more than me by correcting me? I’ll excluded you because you're some idiot 90 day wonder, how about that? So, it’s one of those, you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t, situations. No matter what you call them by, someone will brag to you they know more.

This whole controversy begs the question for a writer discussing Wyoming, especially one who doesn’t have claim to being from around here. Does he use the correct, technically right term, or does he use the wrong term that is more natural?

Then there’s the story I read a few years back in a creative writing class. It was a short piece about a deaf woman whose boyfriend was trying to propose to her while a waiter made a mess of things. Throughout the work, she speaks solely in sign language. At the end, when he finally manages it, she says, “Yes, I will!” (or whatever.)

Well, the story started with the sentence, “Susie was deaf, NOT mute,” and I instantaneously knew what had happened. Someone who received an earlier draft had exclaimed, “Wait, I thought she couldn’t speak!”

It is common for people who are physically capable of oral speech to still communicate predominantly through sign language. In fact, it is unusual for someone who is deaf to also be actually mute. And, from my understanding, deafness occurs more than medical (versus psychological) muteness. It is very likely then, when you see someone signing, they can “speak,” but prefer not to do so.

In this case, the writer was completely correct about what she wrote. The reader was the one misinformed.

Should she care?

In this case, confusing being deaf with being mute isn’t uncommon. Perhaps the writer didn’t make it clear the reason for Susie’s signing and the reader thought she was mute. The reader might have actually known that most deaf people could speak orally, but forgot. None of these cases would surprise me. I would assume that this is a mistake that many readers will make. So, should she go out of her way to explain that Susie can or can’t speak, or should she leave it alone, being that she is right?

Cloverfield made the head of the Statue of Liberty crashing into a New York street. They proportioned exactly to the statue’s actual size… and the audience thought it was too small.

Do you make the reality people believe in, or do you distract them with the reality they are unaware of?

In Wizard of Oz, the original book described the ruby slippers as silver slippers. It was changed for the film because they wanted to optimize the use of techni-color.

If the book Wicked wanted to stay with the continuity of the storyline, should it be true to the original, or the version that everyone knows?

It’s a hard question to answer. Sometimes being “right” will make people lose their faith in you. Saying bison instead of buffalo will make them think you don’t know anything about the area, having your speechless person sudden gain the ability to talk will make them think you can’t track. Having a Statue of Liberty “way too small” will force them to stop being afraid of the monster and wonder what graphics artist you hired.

And while I know many people who would argue that that’s acceptable, I personally believe that being right isn’t always the most important thing. Sometimes it’s better to be wrong if it benefits the story. More importantly, there will be times were you’re going to be wrong no matter what (like the use of the oxford comma), and you have to figure out what the best decision is when you’re going to get crap no matter what.

When readers are wrong it becomes more about what you want the story to do. How much effort do you need to put in explaining it to them? What is the best way to convince them you know what you’re talking about? What would best fit the setting or character? What should the readers be paying attention to? What are the ramifications of perpetuating their misconceptions? And mainly, how many of your readers have to think this way before you should start addressing it?

Despite being godly, I don’t have the answer. It’s just an important question. When is being right not the best thing for your story?

Thursday, August 20, 2015

An Anecdote about Writers Judging Writers

It's pretty meta to judge judgment, and I won't say I'm above either. I don't have my head that far up my ass.

But through social media I can follow the ups and downs of fellow writers, and sometimes that voyeuristic interest in their careers leads me to the unusual position of seeing behind the internet comments and the human who said them.

A writer friend on my Facebook posted a status: “How many books do you publish a year?”

Answers poured in, and the responses were as diverse as, “I’ve really only done one once every five years,” to “Fifteen, bitches!”

And yes, I was a little surprised by the high numbers. When people said more four, I'm always a little skeptical. I have found many self-published books that are rushed, both in pacing and editing, even though I love indie authors and have found many diamonds in the slush, (Mixed metaphor anyone?) it is true that impatience has a great deal of influence on the indie process.

But one man just went off. He told the writers who were producing several books a year that by publishing many, they couldn't be publishing well:

“Quality over quantity!!!!!For those of you claiming you're writing more than 1 or 2, there's no way the quality of those stories would be the same quality as the person that goes over 1 or 2 stories a year. The people that take their time create stories much richer, and memorable that the person that just pumps them out. Take pride in your work, and take the time to perfect it. I've read books from these same FAST people, and I haven't been very impressed yet. Slow down, take your time, quality over quantity, kind of tired of people pumping books out, by saturating the market with mediocre stories, this is only making more book readers walk away from books, they want to be dazzled people, not read mediocre books that could've been so much more, but their authors had either, no patience, or just don't care. I'm one of you, and I've also read books from almost every author in here, so much potential, so little patience. Patience is the 10 years I've worked on my series. Maybe I don't have 50 books out, but the ones I do have out there, deserve to be there, do yours? Or could you have worked on them more, you just got tired of rejections? Makes a person wonder, quite a few stories could've been so much better.”

Me: “I agree with the sentiment, although I don't believe that the time taken is a direct correlation to quality. Sometimes you can think too hard and over work a piece and the sincerity of an uncensored, unthought out story is better. Or sometimes, obviously, you can underwork something and not be pushing it to its full potential. I am suspicious of books with speedy deadlines before they're even written—I believe you should publish because you feel the book's ready, not because you need to get something out—and the amount of time taken to even just be sure it's ready (getting beta readers, reading it for yourself a few times, leaving it alone for a while to get fresh eyes) is usually a while. But I don't think it's impossible for something written quickly to be better than something someone took their time with. Sure, I'm skeptical, but I have seen speedy writers I prefer over those who take ten years.”

I would also like to add that it is a mistake to refrain from sending out a book that you feel is ready just for time’s sake. I personally make that error all of the time.

He agreed with me politely, friended me, and went on with the conversation. As more people commented, he become more and more condescending:

It cheapens the market when the quality slides the way it has. Then people wonder why so many people have stopped reading books. The only way books will exist in a technical society is if the quality starts going back up. I'm now a published author (not self-published) and at one time that meant something. But the way the markets flooded by quickly written, unedited, not thought out, literary garbage, being a published author doesn't have the same meaning anymore. I could've self-published years ago, but if a publisher doesn't want your book, what the hell makes you think hard working people do?”

Two lines that I would like to point out: “Maybe I don't have 50 books out, but the ones I do have out there, deserve to be there, do yours?” and “I could've self-published years ago, but if a publisher doesn't want your book, what the hell makes you think hard working people do?”

We’ll get back to the first one in a minute. This idea of “people self-publish because no publisher wants their book,” is a misconception. People self-publish for lots of reasons, and I would say that impatience is a stronger factor than having been rejected. Many self-published authors didn’t even try the traditional path. Many were traditionally published and didn’t find it to their liking. As for if a publisher doesn’t want to buy something, obviously a reader wouldn’t, I strongly disagree. Many agents will tell you that they get good manuscripts all of the time that they won’t pick up—It’s not their thing, it didn’t wow them more than another one, or, though there wasn’t anything wrong with it, they just weren’t feeling it.”

The benefit to self-publishing for readers is that writers are less homogenized by the (albeit experienced) opinions of a third-party. We are given a larger variety of stories and ones that are willing to take more risks. (That isn’t to say self-publishers won’t follow trends.) We see more diversity in protagonist’s race, the portrayal of women, and the way that a plot unfolds. Self-publishing brings the choice directly to the reader, and many times readers act unexpectedly.

Keep in mind that my publishing credits are short stories in literary journals; my novels have neither been self or traditionally published, so this isn’t about defending my choice in either way. In fact, I would argue that I am one of those people who don’t do enough with my manuscript, and taking a chance on something either by seeking agents or producing it yourself is to be admired, no matter which path you choose.

After he friended me, he sent me a message asking me to buy his book. I went to the site and saw a horribly amateurish cover with a poorly photoshopped face and a Papyrus font on top. I looked at the summary and found a typo. Immediately I went to the website of the publisher, curious if by “traditionally published,” he meant “I started my own publishing company.”

It turned out it was just a small press. It was traditionally published in that they paid royalties and hired editors out of their pocket and claimed they got the books into bookstores.

While I knew of many author friends of mine who had started valid (but inexperienced) publishing companies, it hadn’t occurred to me before just how unhelpful a legitimate one could be. I realized, especially as I am about to submit a manuscript to agents, how much I need to question what I actually want in a publisher. If I am not going to get a team of experts to push me and do their job better than I could, I rather go it alone.

I haven’t read the book itself, and of course, maybe it’s just the outside that is screwy. But if I were to look at it without any background information, it would scream self-published.

I left the page and soon forgot about it.

Then one day he posted a message about how well his book was going.

Subsequently deleted, he was upset. He was going to quit writing, screw the sequel, and succumb to the obvious evidence that no one was interested in his book. Why?

He got a message back from his publisher with his first royalty check. Eight dollars.

Despite all of the people who had told him they’d read his book, he had sold less than four. No one gave reviews, to which he determined as proof that they didn’t like the story. Why wouldn’t they review unless they didn’t want to give a bad one?

I felt for him, but I was surprised. How can you condemn the self-publishing world when you are clearly so naïve to how publishing is these days?

General apathy towards our books is what most writers have to face. Especially in a day and age where stories are being made available to the public every second, combined with the billions already in existence, obscurity, disinterest, and a lack of response is to be expected. Any writer looking to get into the publishing business should understand what is typical, respect other people’s choices, and not assume to be the exception—whether you are self-published or not.

Yesterday I read a post of his saying he bought back the rights from his publisher. Something about their listing on Amazon didn’t work, and it was impossible for readers to buy ebooks. After struggling with them for a few weeks, he finally secured the books back under his name and is now going it alone.

The literary world is changing. It’s becoming more and more difficult to tell the difference between being traditionally published, self-published, vanity published, or outright scammed. The judgment we reign down on other people’s choices can’t be based on sheer labels anymore, otherwise we’re just opening ourselves up for hypocrisy.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Do We Really Want to Strip the World of Poetry?

“The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don't.”

If you had to identify Douglas Adams’ writing style, this sentence would sum it up. Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is one of the most popular science-fiction novels, obviously a comedy, that tells the story about a normal guy dealing with alien bureaucrats, a depressed robot, and a master computer as P.C. as it gets.

Is this poetry? Well, in my personal definition—which yes, I retain the right to have—it does. It’s “distracting,” focusing on word choice over function with an unexpected twist, and in some ways breaks the standard rules of writing. You are supposed to be thinking of hovering when really you’re thinking of the way bricks plop to the Earth. At best, you’re imagining the Vogon spaceships as square, red granity rocks.

And let’s face it, the simile really isn’t necessary. We know what hovering looks like. You could say, “The ships hung in the sky,” and it would more accurately and succinctly sum up the intended visual. Hitchhiker’s Guide breaks all the rules about being short sweet and to the point, focusing on story and imagery over prose.

Yet, without it, it would just be another book. It is the lines exactly like this that make it unique, make it enjoyable, and make it more than just another “average guy gets swept up in atypical speculative fiction conflict.”

Poetry—writing that does not fixate on being ignorable—is prevalent throughout the ages. Rhyme schemes were used to help memorization pre-Guttenberg. Our greatest writers all wrote with a high minded, superfluous way up until the turn of the century.

While Shakespeare’s language was closer to the dialect of people of his actual time, it was still over the top. Unless you believe nobility went around rhyming when they went to exit a room. He made up words, toyed with phrasing and commonly accepted definitions, and wrote beautiful, lyrical words that focused on sound and being clever—often puns—over conveying plot. Not that he doesn’t do that thoroughly.

Even Hemingway—a man known for his simplicity—was poetic despite expectation. His succinct and repetitive style was so much about clarity and minimalism that it could never be confused for conversation—people don’t talk that way. Hemingway’s voice is unique to him and his writing, easily detectable. I argue adamantly that his short stories make me think about word choice far more than most writers. That’s what makes it poetry.

These were just ordinary hoppers, but all a sooty black in color. Nick had wondered about them as he walked, without really thinking about them. Now, as he watched the black hopper that was nibbling at the wool of his sock with its fourway lip, he realized that they had all turned black from living in the burned-over land. He realized that the fire must have come the year before, but the grasshoppers were all black now.

We think of simplicity of prose as being the opposite of poetry, but become so succinct and it exhibits an unearthly, thought-out quality just as much as using any pretentious words do.

There’s an attitude I call the Hemingway Push, based on people citing him as the epitome of simplistic writing. Though I argue that Hemingway does not focus on story over prose, but rather voice and atmosphere over story, many people consider him the example of non-pretentious writing and what we should all aim towards. (Even though, ironically, Hemingway's style came from his hatred and refusal of writing rules, and the opinions often attributed to him came from Elmore Leonard.) Since the 1930’s when literature took a turn from highbrow expectations to entertainment for the public, writing has been pressed to be less and less dense, more accessible to the everyday person. Arthur Miller started writing about the everyman, Hemingway used only the most basic words, pulp fiction began its course, and all of the sudden the great turn-a-phrase of Austen, Dickens, and many of our classic novelists changed to being about clarity and being straightforward.

Which is great. I have definitely picked up books I considered to only be mental chewing gum. Dense, challenging reads are—obviously—exhausting, and it’s not uncommon for me to want to focus on story over prose. But it’s not uncommon for me to get sick of being talked down to, to want something with more meat on it, to appreciate a good sarcastic quip, a new perspective on an interesting aspect. I’m a skimmer. Unexpected phrasing will force me to stop and think. People notice originality and a good, witty line. Language evolves when people are willing to question their definition and connotations. We develop new clichés and new jokes by writer’s desire to do something novel?

So why is it that, no matter what you write, critics will constantly tell you to dumb down your work? Why do writers tell you it’s about “function not form,” or “I understood it. I just don’t think anyone else will.” Even if you haven’t experienced this yet, I guarantee you will. It’s filtrates all our “rules” and advice:

“Don’t use a big word when a small one will do.”

“Only use said.”

“Avoid detailed descriptions.”

“If it is possible to cut a word, always cut it out.”

“Story over prose.”

“Kill your darlings.”

The common word is that certain past trends are no longer applicable. You can’t write like Jane Austen anymore because people won’t accept it. You can’t have a third person omniscient because people aren’t used to it. The shorter, the simpler, the more story oriented, the better. You don’t want readers going meta.

It’s such an integral part of writing advice that you have to ask yourself, is it true? Is poetry dead? Are we supposed to only write non-distracting literature?

I argue there are too many books in the world for every author to try and have the same ignorable voice. I argue that witty, distracting, and lyrical prose can be enjoyable, especially refreshing when you have every author writing like a Hemingway wannabe.

So, why is it so prevalent?

For starters, I recognize the beginning author’s propensity to overwrite. (Believe me, I know.) Writing is about relearning how to speak with several usual handicaps taken away and a few more added (lack of body language and tone of voice).

In writing, you don’t have to worry about breath or conserve your listener’s time. The duration it takes me to choose what I say does not affect the duration it takes to hear me. This is both a benefit and a handicap. I can’t control the speed in which you read by controlling the speed in which I speak, but it allows me to choose the words I really mean, to converse in the way I really want to without having to shove it into a certain time constraint or lose my breath. So when we first start writing, we will have longer sentences and a higher vocabulary than what we’re naturally used to speaking. I say that this, in itself, is only a bad thing for the sheer commonality of it. Add in the fact that most of our heroes are famous for their unique voice, and you have every new writer trying to find theirs in a quick, obvious manner. It’s not that poetry is wrong, it’s that amateurs tend to error on “writing well” over story. It’s not that we shouldn’t have interesting prose ever, but that too many people are inclined on focusing on it first.

The saying goes, “learn the rules to learn to break them,” because no one believes a masterpiece will come from following them. The idea is to establish your experience by meeting certain expectations, so when you defy them, it looks more like an act of choice than ignorance.

Professionalism and creativity contradict each other, professionalism following often arbitrary standards (like wearing a suit to work) for the sake of due diligence. You just want obvious proof that you are willing to put in the work and have been doing this for a while. That obvious proof is usually superficial and has the singular point of saying, “Look, I know what I’m doing!” Creativity, however, is about defying expectation and doing it for a real purpose and not superficial ones.

When examining it this way, there’s actually a clear indication on which expectations will make you look professional and artistic at the same time, and which won’t: perceived motivation.

Overwriting is more about showing off than anything else. If the readers see the main purpose of the style to shock them by the writer’s immense talent, they get turned off, especially if it’s not actually that unique.

They say kill your darlings, and it’s a saying which many people interpret differently (I recently read an article where the writer believed it meant literally killing your characters.) When I hear it, I sometimes feel like it’s pressuring to get rid of anything you like, which makes a little bit of sense if we believe that showing off is the problem of turn-a-phrase. It’s not uncommon for the thing we’re absolutely in love with to read like we’re trying too hard. But I would argue that it’s important to be willing to kill your darlings, and not to cut witty lines because they might possibly be pretentious, even if they aren’t “necessary.”

“Call me Ishmael.” Do we really need to know the name of the protagonist upfront? Is that really the most important or interesting piece of information about this book or the character?

“Speak prose, man!” The humor in someone telling Shakespeare this is completely meta. It takes a modern cliché, replaces it with a term that references a form of literature, not oral conversation, and makes a joke that really is only funny to audience members living 400 years in the future. Yet, it is the only line that made me enjoy Shakespeare in Love, and the line that the producer admits to convincing him to pick up the script.

“As you can see, I have memorized this utterly useless piece of information long enough to pass a test question. I now intend to forget it forever. You’ve taught me nothing except how to cynically manipulate the system. Congratulations.” Not exactly the vocabulary or even the thought pattern of a five-year-old. Yet Calvin and Hobbes is widely regarded as one of the greatest comic strips of all time, next only to Peanuts, which also features children speaking with an ideology and language beyond their age’s scope.

The second, and very important reason, that people keep pushing the “story over prose” ideology, is that the pervasive way lessons of journals gets confused with creative writing. Though we could say it’s not so much true today (not with Fox news and all), journalism is supposed to be devoid of personality and opinion. Good journalism is supposed to convey facts and nothing else.

If you look at the original sources of most pieces of quotable writing advice, they often come from journalists or straight from lessons in journalism.

Of course, I think this is difficult and a fiction author who wants to and is capable of writing this way will often be writing something I want to read (depending on the subject matter). I’m not saying we shouldn’t.

But at the same time, I don’t argue that it is a naturally superior method to tackling literature, that literature needs to be diverse, that if complex prose worked once it then simplicity is nothing more than a trend. Complexity can work again, and writers need to take risks and push boundaries.

The fact is, many dateless writers get famous for their wit in prose and metaphors. It’s allegedly less common today—if we look at the modern writers (post 1980s) whose popularity seems to stick and work is not considered fluff, it does tend to be people with great story ideas and not particularly noticeable word choice. (J.K. Rowling, Stephen King.) But it’s also important to note that critically successful works are less discussed mainstream, and many writers who are successful for poetry often didn’t have their genius acknowledged for years, many times until after death. That includes Shakespeare, Kafka, Edgar Allan Poe, and even Jack Kerouac struggled with his stream-of-consciousness style and people finding him too “weird.”

How many times do we reject new authors because we think they’re trying too hard? We don’t consider their weirdness as innovative, but showing off? Only then they die, lose a bit of their relatability, and become dehumanized martyrs? The moment someone stops being a peer but a man of the past, we change our perception of why he does something, and therefore are more willing to accept it.

To me, it feels that forbidding poetry in fiction is a lie pushed on the unwashed masses to keep us in our place. “You aren’t Jack Kerouac,” they say, “so you aren’t allowed to break the rules in the way he did.”

As an unpublished, non-reputable writer, you must acknowledge your place and not try to push boundaries. If you do write in a complex, poetic manner, you must be trying too hard. It doesn’t matter if your using you’re natural vocabulary, if your methods are affective, if your voice is unique, because you are who you are, I’m going to assume you’re not being genuine, that your motives are selfish, and that you will never be successful.

Sure, being able to write a great story that prose never distracts from is probably your most dependable method of success. But we as writers need to question, is that really what we want? Do we really want every book to be story based without a lick of witty word choice? Would it be such a bad thing to have a wide diversity of novels with great lyricism? Is it really ideal for everyone to write like Hemingway, only use said, and restrict themselves to short sentences?

Maybe, instead of focusing on tactics, we should consider results. We should encourage diversity and be critical about why we think something is a mistake. Instead of forbidding all big words, ask ourselves what the real problem with a complex phrase is. Boring is never acceptable. Being a show off never works. But big words and compounded sentences don’t automatically make for boring or pretentious, and we, as authors, should be more willing to take risks and criticize each choice on an individual, specific basis.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Author Interviews: Matt J. Hilson

Matt J. Hilson is a Christian, Wattpadder, artist, and writer. His enthusiasm for writing began when he was eight and it grew into a passion. He loves books that give you characters to care about and make you look at your life like a conspiracy theorist. He's published a book of poems, entitled Passenger on He is currently writing a novel on Wattpad entitled Fang.

You’re a poet and fiction writer. How does writing each differ? When do you decide to write poetry versus working on your manuscript?

It all depends on how I'm feeling. Sometimes I'll blur the lines of the two barriers and give my poems a little action, while my manuscripts will have a little depth. 

How much unpublished work do you have lying around?

I have four unpublished books lying around. One of the books are currently nameless. I hope to buckle down and start working on it this upcoming December.

What are the challenges of being a young writer, do you think, compared to someone who starts later in life?

Older writers are cemented in their ways. Being a younger writer, my opinions and interests are more likely to change and sometimes that appears in my writing. 

Is there any terrible advice you’ve received for your book or career? Bad advice you’ve overheard someone else be told?

A while ago, I overheard someone say "Write things that people like, " which I completely disagree with. The best thing that any writer can do is write what they like.

What are your biggest concerns about the current literary world?

Way too much fan-fiction. 
Most people would say that family is too kind to give you constructive criticism. Do you find that true for yours?

Yes. My twin brother is the only exception - I can always trust him to give me his honest opinion, good or bad.

How much do your books look like your original vision, and how much do they stray from what you had in mind?

My books are close to unrecognizable from my original vision. Fang wasn't even originally a book. It started as a series of drawings, but I began to give the drawings names and background information and it kind of bloomed from there. 

Where do you find yourself getting stuck most often—beginning, middle, or end?

No particular place. Just anytime that I would have to write interesting dialogue between a child and parent/parental figures.

If you could hire someone to do any of the writing work for you, what jobs would you assign to them?

Making attention-grabbing titles. 
What is an assumption people make about writing that bothers you?

When people say that writing is easy. It's a long, strenuous, and at sometimes frustrating job. It takes a lot of time, thought, research, and effort to make a book.

Can you tell us a little about Fang?

Fang is a fantasy thriller that follows the heirs to the vampire throne, Skai Lawrence and Benjamin Shaw, as they begin their junior year at a boarding school in the human world.

How fast do you tend to write? How long is your editing process?

I tend to write fast, so, the writing process for each chapter can take four to seven days. The editing process isn't very long for me. It could takes a handful of hours to two days.

Do you prefer writing from a female character’s perspective or a male’s?

I feel more comfortable writing from a male's perspective - It's a lot less weird when I work on romantic scenes. 

If you met people like your characters, would you get along?

That's funny that you asked me that, because I actually know someone who acts just like one of my characters and I can't stand him. But for the most part, I think I would get along with my other characters just fine.

What was the hardest part in writing your first book?
Trying to make it interesting enough for my audience. 

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Author Interviews: AKILAM

Malika Dews, pen name AKILAM, is the mother of one daughter and one son. She is from Dayton, Ohio and has quite the vision that will captivate men and women of a vast age range. She has two books currently on Amazon entitled In the Blink of a Bullet released on 12/13/2014 and Deacon Do Me Wright 1/26/2015.  Each book will have a sequel this year.

Her children are also releasing a book as well under her self-published label, Drama She Writes Publishing. She also signed a three book deal with Niyah Moore of Ambiance Books on June 13th 2015.

In The Blink of a Bullet is your first published novel about a teenage girl dealing with her mother’s abuse and the puzzling hatred of her father’s girlfriend, while your next book, Deacon Do Me Wright, is erotica. How much did you consider genre in The Blink of a Bullet and what differences can readers expect between the two?

I really did not consider the genre switch as I transitioned and gave my reading audience a taste of Christian erotica. I wanted to test my versatility. The title came to me suddenly and I started to write. Just shy of two weeks later it was sent to my test reader and the cover was completed. This will have a part two really soon.

How much unpublished work do you have lying around?

I have roughly 20 titles with half of them that already have a synopsis complete. I have a three book series I am working on now and the finale to In the Blink of a Bullet that I am still writing,
Where do you see yourself in five years in regard to the literary industry?

I see myself with several releases and with a demanding and hungry audience that respects and loves my craft. I want to be headed toward the dream of being a playwright or a writer on a sitcom.
Is there any terrible advice you’ve received for your book or career? Bad advice you’ve overheard someone else be told?

This industry is cut throat, so I tend to pay attention to the bad advice if it is constructive. If it leads to drama, I stay away. The bad advice I hear the most is to not keep your readers waiting, Give them your releases fast. Well, it is not about quantity. It is about the QUALITY of the work. It’s not wise to rush a book to please a reader. There are several steps to releasing books with the main step being editing. It’s most important to take the time to release a well thought out book.
What are your biggest concerns about the current literary world?

Being overlooked is my biggest concern. However, it’s all in how you brand yourself and get out there to make yourself known to the readers.
What trends, tactics, styles, or genres would you like to see become popular in modern writing?

I want to see more erotica that is a story not just sex. I also want to see more romance that is not contemporary.

How much do your books look like your original vision, and how much do they stray from what you had in mind?

Since I am still relatively new, I have stuck to the outline pretty well. Sometimes a story just takes a turn though be it age, character name, or some drama. I go with what feels right; what would capture my attention as a reader. It’s about what I feel would make my readers turn the page faster.  

Where do you find yourself getting stuck most often—beginning, middle, or end?

The middle, that’s where the plot pretty much thickens, and starts to be juicy. I like to make sure that it’s not a plot that’s overly drawn out, with too much detail, It has to paced out just right.
If you could hire someone to do any of the writing work for you, what jobs would you assign to them?

Not one thing. I will never hire a ghostwriter. I don’t wish to take all of the credit when I just came up with the title and cover idea. I don’t wish to ever have anyone write for me. The most I will do is a collaboration.
What is an assumption people make about writing that bothers you?

They think it’s boring and or they think it’s easy. It is far from easy. It takes patience, drive, focus and a very creative mind.

Can you tell us a little about The Blink of a Bullet?

The title came from an old school phrase people often say “In the blink of an eye.” It’s about a young girl that witnesses her Mom go through domestic violence and how she has to grow up fast and protect her brother. She also has to get used to living with her father and his not so friendly girlfriend.

How fast do you tend to write? How long is your editing process?

As a mother, I can’t write as fast as I like, I also have a full time job. The editing process should be at least ten days to three weeks. After that the author should do a read through before uploading.
Do you prefer writing from a female character’s perspective or a male’s?

Female, it’s easier. As I go forth, I am sure I can write in a male perspective. That’s all a part of growth.

If you met people like your characters, would you get along?

I would get along with at least three. There’s always a bad seed in a book or shall I say, a character that is not well liked. 

What was the hardest part in writing or publishing your first book?
The hardest part was I had to stop second guessing myself. I had to repeatedly tell myself that I took my time on the book, roughly ten months. I paid a professional editor, I had a professional cover done and I did the promotional footwork to get myself noticed.

Instagram and Twitter: dramashewrites.

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