Thursday, January 28, 2016

Sometimes I Appreciate Complaints I Find Stupid

A while back I shared a post about whitewashing minority characters. It swore to boycott the The Forest over most movies that casted white people when an Asian one would suit, or even be better, because it discussed a real problem in a real place ongoing in Japan.

Because, the poster suggested, that suicide rates of the Japanese are among the highest in the world, and the forest is where many people really do go to kill themselves, having a blonde hair, blue-eyed lead is doing a disservice to the issue, and is extra insulting considering Hollywood’s tendency to cast white actors in roles that minorities could or should have.

I am rarely political on Facebook, partially because of narcissism, partially because it doesn’t have anything to do with why people are on my page, partially because I don’t want to deal with it.

But a lack of diversity in entertainment and the arts is something particularly important to me. To be clear, I’m very white. I’m the sort of girl who flashes a little leg to stop a car and causes an accident. It’s not altruistic, and it’s not something I experience a lot of myself, but it does reflect my personal fears, the experiences of close friends; it’s personal to me.

For starters, when I look at my career and think what is holding me back, I think I need sociability, business sense, a better vision, style, execution, and a go-to attitude. All of these things are under my control. If I’m not where I want to be, my main reasons are changeable.

This is true for everyone. What if you’re an actor who’s not getting any roles? You want to be the next big thing? What can you do to bring yourself above your high competition? It’s difficult, and I don’t think we should belittle white people’s (my) struggle to get to the top. Yet hope is a key factor in helping you continue on. So as I sit back and imagine what it would be like to be an Asian actor struggling for a part and seeing a film that would be perfect for him be taking by the generic pretty blonde girl who could be in anything, and I have no idea what to do. I am helpless. What do you do if the main thing keeping you back isn’t skill or marketing, but something you can’t ever change?

That scares me. Terrifies me even.

The big difference from high school to college was realizing how much you had to fight for just the opportunity. When I was a child, everyone pandered to us, going out of their way to pay for activities we wanted to do. I mean, I came from a rich, charitable town filled with people throwing their fortunes at the arts left and right, so it is probably an extreme case of having prospects available to us. Yet most children see some sort of system or group bending over backwards in hopes that they can be in a play, learn how to paint, to play music, to write. You are offered options left and right for performances and contests and other means to try out activities you may like.

Out in the real world, however, it’s not the same. No one cares if you, a 25 year old actor, gets the chance to be in a play. The directors want to create their vision. They’re not going to cast extra people just to give them something to do. The producers want to create it cheaply. Play producers deliberately pick scripts with fewer actors, limiting the number of people who can even be in the production to about five. The playwrights want to be picked up, so they’re going to deliberately write smaller casts in contemporary settings because those are the ones made and awarded. Everyone is out for themselves and no one is thinking about, “How can I include you?”

To be perfectly clear, that’s true for everyone, and it makes sense to me in both artistic and a business sense. I am going to create the best work I can, and I’m not going to go out of my way to hire a model or actor who doesn’t fit the character, or accept an artist whose work I don’t like just because they need the exposure. I may take a chance on someone if they are just as viable as a more experienced person, or cast the minority actor over a white one if I don’t care about the race and they’re both as good, but that doesn’t happen often. I believe people should do what’s best for their work even if it hurts feelings. It’s not a creator’s job to cause more problems for themselves just to help someone else out. I mean, he should want to and supporting each other does some good, but at the end of the day, he writes the play he wants to write, not the one that actors can do.

But what it means is that everyone has to work their asses off to just find out about a viable opportunity, then work their asses off to prove to the people in charge you are the best candidate, to then work their asses off to do the best job they can do. And after all that, you have to start all over again when the job is done because the art world is most often a contract to contract sort of job.

Now cut those limited “viable” opportunities drastically because you, as an Asian actor, can’t play most parts. Certainly not the leads, but you’re lucky if they’ll consider you for the funny friend. Today it’s getting easier to get one-liners and bit parts like the guy who serves your coffee, but you still have to look the part and, unless you are moderately attractive brown haired, mid-aged white person, people are going to notice you, remember you, be distracted by you. Then there’s the factor that you’ll probably get some sort of racist comment about, “Oh, I see. Hiring the Asian guy as a math teacher,” or, “Trying to buck the trend by making the gym teacher Japanese?”

It’s easier for people to just cast a white guy and avoid complaints about how they casted the Asian guy wrong.

And while I believe that the best way to overcome a non-white actor’s “noticeability” is by a straightforward casting of more non-white people (which I actually think is being implemented more and more), I also think it’s incredibly wrong to deliberately take jobs away from hard working white males just to encourage a wider variety in artists.

For instance, I read about a suggestion that a fairly successful literary journal should stop producing men’s work for a year to only include women. I don’t agree with that. It is too hard to become a successful author for anyone that refusing men on gender alone is a damaging and sexist tactic. It wouldn’t be a big deal if being a white male guaranteed you publishing, but it doesn’t.

When Colin Trevorrow, the director of Jurassic World, was asked about why female directors aren’t seen as much as men, he responded with most of them aren’t interested in that kind of thing and received a great deal of backlash.

I don’t really agree that there aren’t any women directors out of apathy, but I will say that finding non-white actors in America can be difficult, and I wouldn’t be surprised if you struggled with finding female directors. This doesn’t come from disinterest, however, but discouragement.

Back in college, my theatre teachers had a bad habit of trying to demoralize their students. We had a predominantly Hispanic student body and the faculty were very much guilty of easy criticism wherever they could find it.

They didn’t spare the white males, however; just got more personal with their reasoning. Non-white men were too brown. Women were too fat. White men were… well, one was blonde, so they told him blonde hair couldn’t be lit on stage. (This is directly after requesting a female bleach her hair even lighter than it already was.) Another was “a character actor” and there wouldn’t be parts for him until he was forty. It didn’t matter who you were or what you did, they would come up with some sort of reason you weren’t going to succeed.

As for me? They were kind of scared of me, and so just waited until I was out of the room to bad mouth my projects to the other students with words of wisdom like, “They’re just bad.” Unless, of course, they were talking to prospective students in which their tune changed to how wonderful and common my self-initiated projects were.

My professor’s argument whenever I asked him why he was going out of his way to belittle a student was, “If you can be discourage, you should be.”

“You should teach kindergarten,” I told him.

Get anyone early enough and everyone can be discouraged. Besides, in this business, you’re going to face trials, rejections, and assholes whether or not someone takes it on themselves to make your life harder.

It hit me especially hard when one student approached me in near tears due to a conference he had with his professors. I had actually found it to be worse when they just took it on the chin and accepted their word as law; my fellow students had a habit of just believing these old bastards when they were told they weren’t going to succeed. Out of thirty students my freshmen year, only four of us graduated in that degree. Technically, I graduated alone, but that was because I did so a semester early.

At least, I thought, he had the ability to take it to heart and not just trust these professors who had begrudgingly given up on their dreams and now were determined to never allow a student to waste their lives like they had wasted their own.

We discussed it. I pointed out that they can tell every student they have that they’re not going to succeed and, statistically, they’re probably going to be right. Most of us aren’t going to succeed. It wouldn’t be shocking if none of us did. But it should be noted that most famous artists have a teacher who told them they weren’t going to make it. You don’t need to analyze someone’s talents to say they’re not going to be the next Johnny Depp. It’s just really good odds that they’re not.

They told him, of course, that he wasn’t going to be able to be an actor because there are no Hispanic parts. He abruptly sobered up and waved me away, saying, “Well that part is true.”

It stuck with me.

Yes, it is true that out of the limited parts for “everyone” even less of them are for non-white people. Drastically less.

But from my perspective as a white person, no one, I don’t care how racist they are, is going to admit to you straightforwardly they think like that unless they are trying to hurt you. Sometimes people will make racist jokes to a black guy because they want the catharsis, to release the tension they feel by not being able to voice those thoughts. Donald Trump says horrible things because not being able to talk about race makes people feel helpless and angry, because he knows his audience wants a scapegoat to their fears and lack of control. But when a white person comes up to a non-white person and actually says the words, “You’re not going to succeed because you’re brown,” he is not trying to help you.

For starters, he doesn’t know. Yes, he can recognize it. I see it. I’ve been a stage manager for seven years and I am very aware that the one black actor is not going to get to play Dracula, and he’s certainly not going to get Harker. Maybe Helsing (because he is supposed to be a foreigner to Victorian England anyway), but that’s only if the director is deliberately choosing to try and cast a minority actor.

But truth is, he can only be privy to his own racism, especially, in this case, as a director himself. He can look at statistics and cite anecdotal evidence, but only another actor of your race can really say, “It’s not worth it,” and have the perspective to know if it is or not.

What stood out for me though, in this comment, was how helpless I felt. I believed, and believe, that the only way to get a wider diversity in entertainment is for artists to keep reminding people that they are there, for them to dedicate their lives to their art despite the overwhelming odds against them.

I say that, but could I do it?

Hope is such a key in keeping yourself going. I don’t worry about my race, and I don’t even really worry about my gender, though some women do. I strongly think that I can do something to affect my position in life. I don’t have this overwhelming and unchangeable obstacle stopping me. Could I ever be capable of pursing my work if I knew that it is severely unlikely I will succeed? Just because I might be paving the path for others like me?

It’s a lot to ask.

It’s unfair to ask people like Colin Trevorrow to take a hit on his career and turn down a movie just to give it over to a woman, especially if he did step down, it would still go to another man. Even the implication that he only got it because he is a white male is disparaging to him. I can’t say why he got asked to do it, but I know that whether it was through hard work, networking, or luck, no one said, “Oh, you’re white,” and let him have the job.

It’s difficult to ask writers and producers and directors to write and finance minority leads because it actually does limit your target audience. People point out that the new Star Wars movie had a black and female lead and it sold perfectly fine. Yet, I say that it sold because of the branding, and that script, for many reasons outside of bigotry, would not have done as well if it wasn’t Star Wars. I don’t think it would have even gotten made. I mean, what’s the pitch?

The great thing about self-publishing is we see much more diversity in books from indies because they’re not so business oriented, singularly minded enough to think they can get away with it, perhaps unaware, or it simply being important to them personally. The self-publishing industry begins to normalize the sight of non-white males, which is exactly what needs to occur. But what you also see on these books featuring a dark skin protagonist are comments like, “Sorry, I just can’t relate to black people.”

And God forbid you write an interracial romance.

I think we all know that everyone will go to a movie about a white man, but there are many who were furious to see who starred in this last Star Wars. (Though, it makes sense to me, because Rey isn’t “competing” with Luke personality-wise.)

White people, especially a brown haired, thin, clean-shaven, 30 year old, male, has no personality. That is our sexism against men—you are defined only by your work and how much money you make. In some ways, it’s freeing because a man, especially a character in a book, can be whatever you want him to be. He can’t exactly get away with “women’s work,” but in personality, the character is defined by his actions and only his actions. As a woman or a minority, you already have something said about you the moment you walk in. On the positive side, you have an immediate personality, something that will make people remember you. Even if “all Asians look the same,” when meeting a person in a one-on-one situation, people tend to immediately create backstories for a non-white person or woman, while white males are likely to go ignored and forgotten.

This, in many ways, makes it easier for a writer when sticking to white male characters. Every time you put in racial diversity, or even a female, you’re saying something. It’s not even the issue of everyone being able to implant themselves into a white male easier, it’s that a white male is a blank slate, one that can be transformed into whatever you want him to be. No one’s going to say much no matter what flaws you give him: workaholic, lazy, greedy, selfish, a doormat even. Yes, these flaws will say something about him, but it rarely says things about white men in general. Not unless the author is very pointed in saying, “THIS IS HOW I SEE MEN.”

But you write an Asian person you’re going to get comments. Everything that character does becomes a reflection on how you see Asian people. Even if you avoid stereotypes, it’s going to get complaints.

So we have a problem. White male characters are defined by their actions. They don’t need to be role models, but they could be. Pretty much anyone will come and see (and pay for) a movie featuring a white guy, less for an Asian guy. The writer is free, the producer is happy, the audience doesn’t have to be jarred out of immersion wondering why the creators chose to make that character black. The only real reasons, it seems, for anyone to ever make a movie about a non-white character is to either deliberately encourage diversity or because it makes sense for the script.

And in The Forest, it makes sense the character would be Asian.

I am not boycotting the film, though I’m probably not going to go see it either. I don’t believe that just because it is set in Japan it needs to feature a Japanese person, just as much as I would like the entertainment industry to stop jamming in token female characters that don’t belong in the story. Writing a horror film featuring a blonde tourist in the suicide forest of Japan isn’t that big of a deal in itself, but we can see why, being that we don’t see Asian leads often at all, it can be especially painful or insulting to some when it deliberately avoided casting a non-white person obviously because they thought a white girl would yield a more positive reaction.

When I shared the post, I did so because I thought it was interesting, it was passionate, and I felt for him. What I did not expect (albeit naively) was the comments I received about how he was just whining and it didn’t matter and we all needed to stop being so politically correct.

I get this. I like some racist and sexist jokes, and I too have struggled with a culture that demands for contrary and too vast of understanding for anyone to truly be able to accomplish. I have been pained over whether it was insensitive to make my hotel maid Hispanic or if it was insensitive to avoid making her Hispanic. Is this joke poignant or insensitive? How can we reflect the reality we see and yet encourage a reality we want? I have avoided making posts like this, discussing racial issues that I question a lot simply because I am white, because I know people will flip a bitch at the mention of it, and because I don’t want to admit my own warped view of the world. I also don’t want to seem like I’m pandering to a problem I don’t understand, that whole, “But I’m different guys,” mentality. I don’t want to look racist, I don’t want to look like I’m bragging about how unracist I am. I certainly don’t want to sound insincere. How can you discuss race without saying something about yourself? Yet avoiding making commentary about real patterns we see in our life can just make problems worse.

I remember when Jim C. Hines made a joke about how some people respect male authors more than females, his comment following the lines of, “Does typing with your penis really produce better art?”

The next week he posted a second blog apologizing. Someone, very angry, pointed out how they believed “gender” wasn’t defined by autonomy but by identity.

This irritated me beyond all belief. It wasn’t that I was against transgenderism, but that person was ruining a joke—which are pretty much guaranteed to exclude certain perspectives and personal experiences—because he felt his philosophy on what is a man or a woman wasn’t being considered. Get over yourself! I thought. At the time, I believed that it obviously wasn’t the point and that it didn’t matter. Any joke about gender would be a generalization.

Later on I looked back on it and started to realize: even though I still thought this commenter needed to accept that writing, and especially comedy, can’t make a statement while being completely inclusive, I realized that because of that comment I was better aware of that person’s existence and different perspective.

So it’s not that I’m saying we get rid of racist comments or force ourselves to always include minorities in a movie, or that just because one person feels a script should feature a person of their own race it must be limited to that, but instead of shutting down every time someone points out a problem that we don’t care about, that we think they shouldn’t care about, instead of getting mad, do exactly what we’re telling them to: Get over it.

A man I had gone to high school with—quintessential Wyoming guy and everything that comes with it—posted a comment on my share about how we were racist for even focusing on race in the first place. What pissed me off most was that this lazy attack actually got to me, and in the end, it wasn’t an argument. Racism, stupidity, being “fat” or ugly—all easy insults you can state to anyone without knowing anything about them and it will get to them.

And, yes, you can validly label the desire to see more minorities in film as racist, I’ll accept that, but it’s not really the question. The question is why is the Asian blogger bothered so much? Why is the white writer bothered so much? Why is the white classmate bothered so much? Why does racism bother us so much, whose needs are important, whose are petty, and how can we come to a solution?

When I shared that post, I got a lot of “Who cares?” comments. Some were friendly enough, but said, “It’s just one film.” Most people said the problem was irrelevant and wasn’t worth anyone’s time.

But really? Because I post complaints about adverbs and why “minute” needs to be spelled differently all of the time and you never take the effort to state how completely irrelevant it is to your life. And those concerns of mine are pretty damn irrelevant.

If it doesn’t matter if the character is Asian or white, then let those who it does matter for speak their minds and make a change. Because it doesn’t matter, right? So what do you care if they convince someone down the line to start giving leading roles to Asian people? If this post and others like it finally convinces someone to go out of their way, take a chance, and cast someone who rarely gets any opportunities to create the art they love simply because they don’t look right? But if you do care, if you do find yourself feeling unhappy because someone chose to make the lead a non-white, then you should understand best why it’s so important to them to have themselves represented in a film, and why complaints like this are so necessary. Because you know how they feel when they have to look at someone who doesn’t look like them.

And, on the good side, the more open we are to having diversity in our stories, the less restricted we are to having diversity. No more token women crammed into a story-line she doesn’t belong. No more trying to pussy-foot around the issue of the time-traveling African American. Better representation of real cities and locations. More freedom to represent females in the way we see them without fear of “pissing off the feminists.” More freedom to write about a tourist in Japan without instilling pain to the Asian community. The more we see females and minorities on screen, the less we need to see them.

It’s not that one film chose to star a white woman. It’s that it’s one of the few that had very good reason to star someone else, and it still couldn’t be compelled to take the horrible risk of having a non-white protagonist.

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Friday, January 22, 2016

I Need a Break

I find fighting depression works best when I foresee it coming and do something productive. This week I did the opposite. I surrounded myself in reading material to exacerbate pain, fear, and anger. I have avoided working on the things that really mattered to me, though for a time I at least managed to procrastinate with some actual action before crashing.

It is always hard for me to finish one manuscript and move to the next, but this week, combined with passive stressors that started to grind their way into me, it has been ridiculous. I have done nothing. I can't even watch television.

I have been afraid of social media, blogging, and interacting in general. This is nothing new. But despite my attempts to avoid drama, I find I have little control over it. Not so long ago, I allowed myself to bluntly and directly vent annoyance towards an aspiring writer's attitude; no conflict came from that. I answered someone's question about Createspace pricing as best I could, only to be on the receiving end of a rant by that soon to be self-publisher. Already involved, I again allowed myself to respond harshly to his hypocritical disdain of his fellow authors. He immediately withdrew. Later, I would post a pleasant comment on a writer's status, an action that led to my Facebook friend see it. An argument ensued and blew up into ridiculous proportions.

And people wonder why I have social anxiety.

Emotionally, I have been retreating and that has only caused me to feel irresponsible and lazy. I have my quilt made for last December's giveaway, but I haven't yet posted the raffle. I've decided not to post blogs on Monday, but even today's was difficult to write, and I decided to not do a picture.

Yesterday was a bad day. Today has been a mixed bag. I strongly believe if I can clear out my to-do list, I can at least erase some of my current concerns, but right now they are compounding.

I am letting my readers know I will be off social media for a while. If you would like to contact me for any reason, even social, send me an email to DimitriPress[at]gmail[dot]com. I've decided to give myself a break due to the extremes of my current life changing circumstances. I will still post blogs every Friday, pieces written but never put online. I won't be doing next week's web comic. The next Story of the Wyrd will hopefully be up February 1st. I would like to strongly rethink my branding during this time and come back in a better place. I will be doing a quilt giveaway in February, so make sure to keep an eye out for it.

Wish me luck. Think about your needs. We'll meet up again.

Friday, January 15, 2016

When You Have Very Different Opinions on Your Own Work

Back when I first started to seek out criticism heavily, I found myself completely overwhelmed. Most of the critiques were about little things, line-edits, not mentioning the big picture, just complaining about this word here and that word there. Which would have been fine, except it wasn’t consistent, and the specific changes couldn’t be used to make decisions in the future. I couldn’t see why they hated this word so much and left that one alone. Or even loved it. One person would tell me, “You absolutely must change this word!” in which no one else said anything about anything remotely related to it. I was lucky if I got three people out of twenty to agree on something, and in those very rare, cases, it was usually something arbitrary or even dumb, like when I said, “red” instead of “blood,” or “He clamped his mouth shut.”

“With what?”

Call it a cliché even, but I wasn’t being especially clever with that one. You’ve seen this phrasing before, I am positive.

Moreover, I started to get criticism I couldn’t figure out. People would tell me to do something, and it wasn’t necessarily something I disagreed with, I just didn’t get it.

Whenever I met with agents, editors, or authors, I would ask, “What do you do when you get feedback you don’t understand?”

They didn’t get it. “What do you mean, ‘don’t understand’?”

I couldn’t even understand how I didn’t understand it. I’d give them examples and, of course, they just told me what to do with it.

“Oh, just ignore it.”

But the interesting thing was that even though everyone had answers, it seemed that those who were experienced—the agents, editors, and long-term writers—all told me to just ignore it and move on. It was the newbies, the aspiring authors, the non-writers, the beginners, who said, “If you don’t disagree with it, why don’t you just take it?”

Over the years I found how to ask questions, find what I didn’t understand, and use criticism more efficiently. Generally speaking, my personal judgment was key. Sometimes, people would tell me something and I didn’t see it at all like, “You need to set up the scene more.” In those cases, I learned to express my feelings instead of just saying, “Okay,” and struggling to figure it out on my own.  I found every time that someone said there was a problem in my work and I didn’t see it, it was because it wasn’t there. At least, not in the way I was interpreting it.

Usually, it is an issue of miscommunication. By “set up the scene,” he didn’t mean describe the hut they were in better, he meant explain the rules of the entire world faster. “Like, are we in outer space?”

It’s not common that my judgment is completely contrary to someone else’s opinion. In fact, if I don’t agree that the existence of what they’re describing then it says to me that we’re not on the same page. We might disagree if it actually hurts my work, or whether or not the benefits outweigh the consequences, but I do expect to recognize their perspective. If I don’t, I work at it until I do.

People will tell you you can’t edit your own work, that you’ll always be biased against it.

While this thought has some merit, I think it’s actually damaging. Writing is about conveying a story, and learning how people react to certain choices is key. Your perspective will always be different, and that’s why you write. It’s important to at least understand how other people are seeing your work, and in many cases it is the best (maybe even only) way to familiarize yourself with the abnormalcy of your mind. You can’t realize how you think differently if you don’t communicate with others. Getting someone else to read your work is imperative to the process, yes. It teaches you how to put yourself in your readers’ shoes, how to convey thoughts, and how your understanding of words and actions isn’t necessarily everyone’s. Plus, there’s issues like when you, knowing what you mean, might naturally fix errors in your mind that are still there on a page.

And you are biased. Your project is more special and intimate than it is for someone else. You also hate it a little more than others will. You have seen the monster being sewn into the costume, you know the failings of the author—you’ll never put yourself on the idealistic pedestal.

But then again, everyone’s biased. Every reader enters in with pre-existing assumptions, expectations and hopes. Whenever you go into a writers’ group, everyone there, even the most kind and helpful people, want to be a better writer than you. And when you tell someone to examine a novel for mistakes, they’re going to read it very differently than if they had picked it up for their own enjoyment.

You’ll find that if you give an unedited work out to people, you’ll get back responses that you could have fixed yourself. People only dig until they find a mistake, so if you have a lot of typos, you’ll get a manuscript back with only copyediting. (Unless they are an experienced editor and know better.) The less obvious the problems are, the further people will take it.

This is exactly why an author needs to self-edit first. He needs to trust his own judgment and hold himself to higher standards. The worst thing you can do is hand a manuscript to someone and say, “Is this any good?”

My response is always, “Well, do you like it?”

“Not really.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t like anything I do.”

“You’re not being analytical enough.”

It can be overwhelming to judge your own work, especially because you’re right in thinking that you might just be overly negative—or overly positive. But I have found that when a writer actually sits down, reads his work, and practices critical thinking, he can be very capable of finding problems and improving the work.

But it is a learned skill. The biggest issue is that most readers go off of an, “I’ll know it when I see it,” method of judging quality. In fact, if you start talking to non-writers about what makes good literature, you tend to get vague answers. It’s just a feeling, in most cases. People don’t sit there and determine the qualities of the story before passing judgment, they just know. When you start writing, you begin to ask questions that you’ve never even considered before. You can’t have that same, “I’ll know it when I see it,” for your own story because your first impression happened to a manifestation that no longer exists. You can’t judge it based on a feeling. You have to learn how to really analyze a work. It’s important to at least try to criticize your own writing before you hand it off to someone else.

I finished my manuscript yesterday. Two years in the making—a horrible duration for a first draft for me. I had been struggling in recent history to actually write, and though I did get a decent amount of editing done and partial manuscripts, I hadn’t actually finished anything in a while.

I also should have completed back in December, but I kept procrastinating. For some reason, I struggled with it. To be fair to me, it was about 25,000 words longer than I had originally planned, ending at 105,000. But that was still in my safe zone, and I’m just glad it’s not ridiculous. I have room to cut and add if necessary without going too far over or under.

I knew I had something with it ever since the first pages. I remember getting distracted from writing constantly. Generally, I open up a document and start reading the beginning until I get bored, and then go back to work. With this one, I would be on page seventy before I said, “Knock it off, idiot.” I’ve read through it many times, still entertained.

Around six months ago, after having abandoned the project, I opened it again to find some of the problems I had seen before—rushed transitions in between scenes—weren’t an issue for me anymore, and found some problems I hadn’t seen—choppy wording—were now there. Some of it could be attributed to changes I’d made, but in other places I knew I just felt very differently.

That’s the sort of moment in which feedback comes in handy, right?

True, except that feedback is personal. If someone naturally addresses your concerns, you’re lucky. In most cases, they’ll focus on what is most important to them. A non-writing reader is going to give you a vague reaction (that may or may not be solved in whole or in part by your concern), and a writer will give you a specific instruction, (that may or may not reference a problem that would also be solved in whole or in part by your concern.) You can ask if something is an issue, but that puts the idea in their head. Even if they had no problem with the pacing, once you say, “Did you think the pacing was rushed?” it could then make them feel like it was.

Or maybe they just didn’t mention it. Or maybe they just didn’t realize that was the issue, but now you said it…

My tactic is to make mild changes as I go along. I find that drastically attempting to fix a problem has always been inorganic and obvious, making more issues than it solved. I read through and make alterations on a point by point basis. It also gives me a good idea of how I really feel in general.

After finishing a manuscript, I give it a look over and make some notes and edits. After the second draft I then put it aside for about a month (or more.) But I find it useful to fix some things while I still remember what I wanted. And there’s some changes I already know I want to make. It also gives me something to mull over and digest. When I’m not sure of an alteration, I will let it sit for a time, and generally find the answer later. I’ve left the beginning alone.

Today, I opened up another manuscript. It’s around 60,000 words in, and I haven’t worked on it for a while. I usually write with the belief that the beginning won’t really be the beginning. I at first considered the introduction to this story explanatory and uninteresting. But as I read it now, I find myself feeling very differently. I realize that some of the curved balls I throw against expectation muddles the kind of world it reads as immediately—the protagonist, in a fantasy-based world, mentions how different women’s rights were 20 years ago—yet I don’t take issue to the opening monologue as much as I did when I first wrote and continued to read it. Prior, I was sure I wanted to change it. Now, not so much.

Biases change. At first I was biased against it because I know narrative monologues tend to be boring. I also often feel backstory is not the place to start. I wrote it to get a gauge of the world and have the ball rolling.

Now I feel it’s more interesting than I originally thought. But it could be because I don’t want to do the work to change it. It could also be that I understand the characters much better. I often say to people that if you like the beginning of your story when no one else does it’s probably because you know something they don’t. The details mean more to you. Which could very well be the case.

I hate this moment. For me, editing isn’t hard except when you’re not sure on what you want to do. Moments of indecision can become painful.

The beginning of the book is funny, and I read the first thirty pages easily. I suppose that means I’ll leave it as is right now. 

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Are You Deliberately Sabotaging Yourself?

There’s not a lot to say when someone claims, “I don’t care if my books sell.”

Good. Then there’s no problem. Let’s go get lunch.

It can be a bag of mixed emotions when you see a fellow writer unhappy. In some cases, it’s just empathy; you are hit with their frustration and helplessness, a subtle undertone of grief, all the same while trying to focus on your own problems or joys. There's not really anything you can do, even if you want to. In others, it’s compounded by the desire to smack them over the head and say, “Quit being stubborn, dumbass!”

People claim, “I don’t care if my book sells,” “I’m not writing for the money,” “I write for myself,” “I only write for the love of the craft.” It’s a sentiment that could be true, and fantastic if it is. But so, so rarely is it the unadulterated reality, and in some cases it’s just an outright lie. You are very distraught, you have been complaining about no one wanting your book, and now you’re sitting there writing off everyone’s suggestions because you don’t care? You do care. And the best way to solve your problem is by first admitting you care.

Why would someone do that? Why would someone go out of their way, completely unsolicited, to announce a lie like that?

In most cases, I assume people aren’t outright fibbing, and my first impression was that it was partially true, and/or the author was trying to find reasons why he really is meant to do be a writer via his pure intentions: “I may not be selling many books, but that’s because I’m not a sellout.”

This attitude is frustrating because every motivation convincing a writer to get published will be benefited by learning how to gain readers. Even if you're not about sales or figures, you got published to be read. The definition of “sellout” often changes to suit the argument. While it’s vital to stay true to your morality, there are many occasions in which authors cite artistic integrity about things that aren’t creatively beneficial, possibly completely meaningless.

Yes, a bad cover does not indicate bad content, necessarily, and yes, people shouldn’t use such arbitrary and uncorrelated methods to determine the quality of the book. But not only do they, moreover, what do you care? By allowing yourself to have a bad cover you are dissuading people from giving you a chance, and it’s not like you’re making an artistic statement, not like you think that terrible cover improves your novel. (With some exceptions, granted.) Refusing to do what sells because it’s not the book you want to create is one thing. Refusing to do what sells because you “shouldn’t have to” is very much another.

If your story is meaningful and important, if you want to get the word out there and all you have to do is make a professional cover, why wouldn’t you? Because it’s a lot of work?

The other day a gentlemen friended me with his new author page. Not long after, he posted a question about how much Createspace costs. I told him what I knew, stating, essentially, that Createspace takes a percentage for ebooks, and mentioning that percentage is higher for a 99 cent book. (I didn’t know the exact amounts, or where the price point changed.)

He went off on a rampage, trashing self-published authors, claiming that his book did not take two weeks to write, that he was going to charge $25 dollars. He said, “If it sells, it sells.”

He proceeded to state in other comments he would not be giving his book away—he spent far too much time on it—emphasizing how his manuscript was perfectly edited by an older school teacher who loved to read and only found thirteen errors in the entire thing. He told everyone who would listen that no one wanted his books, agents and editors wouldn’t touch them, wouldn’t get back to him, while simultaneously writing off every self-published book out there for being garbage that couldn’t get published. He announced that it would be a bestseller if he could get into the right hands. Every time someone made a suggestion, it started the cycle over, him stating frankly, “I will not do that,” and launching back into his tirade about how much his editor loved his book, how publishers only want celebrities, how he worked harder on his manuscript than anyone else.

Again came in the wave of mixed feelings.

There is a part of me that wants him to succeed, that wishes for him to not deal with some of the frustration he could easily avoid. Just knowing what he’s in for, having reasonable expectations, are key to not taking it so hard. I don’t want to see him go through the pain he’s bound for. It’s going to happen no matter what, but he can at least soften the blow. Self-publishers, I believe, are more prone to discouragement in earlier stages. When you are aiming for traditional publication, you can find excuses, get use to rejection, and use that to improve your chances. You can say, “Well, it was just this agent,” or “But when it gets into the hands of the public…” or “Then if I just change this and try again…” And hope that things will be different when you’re actually published. As a self-published author, you bring your book right out to the public to find… crickets. It can be disheartening to see how many indie authors are completely shocked to find out that the gatekeepers weren’t their biggest obstacle to the bestsellers’ list. And, somewhat irritating.

Everything about his attitude was something I had experienced before. I’m just glad it was prior to Facebook and the new ease of self-publishing. I didn’t expose these feelings to everyone I knew. I also had my share of disappointments, my unrealistic expectations—still do at times—but again, they were not only private, but excusable. As in, I could excuse them. “It doesn’t mean anything because…”

I’ve seen countless people making the same comments, just these last few months. Authors who have epic dreams for their books, yet don’t do their homework. He claims, “If it sells, it sells,” but I know better than to believe that. He thinks all he needs to do is get his work out there and everyone will realize what a great writer he is. Except he doesn’t know what he’s doing. He hasn’t put any thought into it. It never occurred to him that an ebook might not go for the same price as a paperback. “I’ll have to look,” he said.

Really? You decided on a price before you even examined what the going rates were?

I remember when I first came to Australia, walked into a bookstore, and saw that the books were priced at $25. It made sense because their dollar is worth 1.7 of Americans’, most of them are imported, and entertainment items are much pricier here, but it was still shocking. I immediately checked to be sure he wasn’t from Australia. (I saw more of their posts now that we were up at the same times.) Nope, true-blue American.

He claimed that he had bought poetry books from a small press for $20. Twenty dollars is not 25, sir. I have paid 30 for a paperback too, but that was a book from an author I knew I liked and deliberately went to the store to get. I remember thinking, being that it was from a traditional publisher, it couldn’t have been a sign of naivety. Maybe gouging. Or maybe prices have gone up. They do that sometimes.

Not only is 25 a lot for a paperback in general, traditional publishers can get paid more because they have credibility. As a self-published author, you can also charge more for credibility, but that comes from having a lot of clean and beautiful works out with many reviews and lots of people talking about you. You know, having credibility. As a debut self-published author, charging that much, especially for an ebook, is suspicious at best.

Whenever someone complains about how poorly their books are selling, I go to their page and look. In many cases, the reason is obvious. One, I can’t find it. They don’t include links in obvious places, and when you type in their common pen name online you can’t be sure it’s them—if anything even comes up. Their one-word title doesn’t necessarily bring up what you want either.

Or it’s an obviously homemade cover. Or it’s a lot of typos in obvious places. Or it’s a vague summary. Or, the worst case scenario, it’s not a bad anything—good cover, well-written summary—it just doesn’t stand out. Sometimes it has the “What am I looking at?” syndrome in which there seems to be no consistency between cover, summary, and other information, like in the case of one book where I had no idea if it was fiction or non-fiction, and in one spot it said it was meant for 12-18 year olds, while nothing about the cover or synopsis indicated it was a young adult book.

Occasionally, it’s very much the price.

I usually don’t relay this information back to the author because, honestly, they don’t want to hear it. These are the sorts of things that, had they done their research, would have known it to be the obvious problem. Often, they do know, they just say, “Well, the reader shouldn’t care about that.”

In the situation of this particular man, it was his belief he didn’t care if it sold well enough. I just wanted to say, “Don’t be stupid. You know that’s not true.”

I sat back and analyzed his words. Why did he keep saying that? He had actually stated he knew he had a bestseller on his hands. So when you say you don't care if it sells...

And if he didn’t believe that his book was going to be immediately be recognized for its genius, did he really think that charging above the market price and refusing to give out free samples was going to help him? (He did, in later comments, change his mind about giving away some freebees, despite his absolute response to the original suggestion with, “I will not!”) Even if, let’s say, his book was fantastic and perfect, that doesn’t mean readers will know it before they read it. As a debut, self-published author all he has is a few sentenced-pitch and the sample pages. And if agents and editors were passing him up, clearly these things not so catching that a person will immediately say, “Yes, this is worth my time!”

You can grab a reader when you couldn't an agent. Often, due to numbers—the more people it’s expose to, the more someone’s bound to like it—but also the cost of investment. An agent who picks you up is very committed to your manuscript, where as a reader only commits the cost of the book and the amount of time it takes them to realize they hate it. An accumulation of a few days, if they read the whole thing. The agent has a sea of manuscripts to get through, most of which are exactly what they seem to be, and even if they do think that something was good, it doesn't mean they want to work on it.

I am more likely to take a chance on a two-dollar book that I’m not sure I’ll like than a five-dollar book. If you’re going to charge me more than ten dollars for an ebook, I have to have very good reasons to believe I’ll like it. In fact, the only time I have ever spent that much on a ebook was when a brand new sequel came out from a series I loved and I was really impatient. But I don’t buy ebooks as much, it should be noted.

Not days before this conversation I had seen a writer post a very upset status, irritating a lot of people by a sense of entitlement—you guys are supposed to be my friends, and aren’t buying my book! I went to his page and didn’t remember much about except that he was selling only an ebook option for 11 dollars. No reviews, no prior novels for sale. My internal reaction was to roll my eyes and write him off as an arrogant amateur. I’ve done this many times for authors. In one unique case, I was really interested in the book, but her summary was very vague, she had no reviews, and she was asking for $15 with no paperback option. I might have paid for it if I had a better idea of what it was going to be, but I had not enough to go off of for the risk. Several days later this debut author took it down for “major revamping” due to a comment by a friend. Overpricing usually means inexperience.

The gentlemen in question kept saying that 99 cent books were all written in two weeks and were typo ridden. This is one of the reasons to always support other authors. I was distinctly getting the vibe that he didn’t buy many books, and certainly not by self-published authors. He seemed so naïve of what the experience of a reader is. Price isn’t indicative of quality and the means of marketing for self-published books is often very different than how traditional publishers work. Lots of good books are sold for 99 cents and a lot of terrible ones are sold for much more.

A 99 cent book is a book that the author chose to sell for that much. A 25 dollar book is a book the author chose to sell for that much. Reasons behind those prices vary drastically, but there are lots of well-written books being sold that cheaply—either because of a marketing plan, or the author undervaluing themselves, or perhaps they don’t care about the money, just want to be read. It would be great if quality was a gauge of price, but it isn’t. I would argue that a more constant correlation is that overpriced books tend to be valued by the author’s naivety or ego, two things that often directly contribute to bad writing. In fact, a writer who thinks that he can sell a book much higher than market value might very well be the one who thinks he can get away with less editing than others. Like, perhaps, one edit by a woman who only has academic experience and only found 13 errors with no content changes.

I don’t believe he doesn’t read at all, or that he doesn’t buy books. I have no idea why he came to that specific value. Yet, his staunch refusal to even consider other options was so strong that if he hasn’t examined his purchasing trends, it had to be motivated by something.

I reasoned, he does care if his books sell or don’t, he is just saying he doesn’t to sooth his fear. Whenever I am feeling terrified at a possible result, I tell myself that it’s not a big deal, it doesn’t matter if I don’t get it. It can help.

But it doesn’t just stop there. Why is he charging so much? It’s not compatible with most books he’s being compared to, self-published or no. He keeps saying, “If it sells, it sells,” so he knows that the price might not make it sell. He’s charging so much not just because he thinks that destiny is on his side and he can get away with it, but because it will be a reason it didn’t sell. If he does find his books to be widely ignored, he can excuse it on the cheapness of the readers, those who are used to the “trashy crap written in two weeks.”

I’ve done it before. When I am feeling low but know I need to get my work out there, I submit only to highly competitive competitions and publications, ones that 3,000 people are going for ten spots. If I don’t get it, it doesn’t necessarily mean anything about me or my ability; it was just competitive.

This can be problematic. If I had picked more reasonable goals, the rejection would have hurt worse, yes, but is also more likely to have given me a publication: given me some readers, taken away the isolation, gained me some money, a writing credit, whatever. I deliberately avoided success that might not happen for success that probably won’t.

I don’t believe he conscientiously made this decision, but the more I think about it, the more it rings true. He is operating under the typical impression that he is the Chosen One, that it will all work out for him if he can just get a foot in. If that is true, then people will still buy no matter what the price. If they don’t, then maybe he wasn’t destined for greatness. But then he can just throw out the destiny card and still give himself an excuse: “It was because of the price, not the content…”

Unrealistic expectations come from lack of research, and sometimes that lack of research can be deliberate. He’s choosing to blind himself to his choices for fear of making the wrong one. He got a fair number of comments on his status, each of them offering up suggestions and things to consider. His response was always stubborn. “NO.” First sentence was always, “I will not do that,” even when it wasn’t a suggestion or an instruction, but an agreement.

Knowing your path and not letting other people dissuade you is one thing, but listening and considering those opinions—asking yourself why they’re giving them to you—is also an important part of figuring out what’s best. He didn’t want to hear the discussion, he didn’t want to reconsider his options, he just wanted to see his book out there.

I don’t believe this in itself is a bad thing. But I hate to see an author deliberately sabotaging himself. I hate when someone prioritizes placating his fear of failure with a lack of trying. Do your research, strive for success, and assume the effort will pay off in the end. And if he can’t do that, then he is no different than the self-publishers he hates.

My recommendation to any new writer considering self-publishing: plan on succeeding and don’t consider yourself the exception. Dream big, but do your homework, expect the expected, and make sure you aren’t trying to sabotage yourself.

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