Monday, July 31, 2017

Five Things a Self-Publisher Needs

As an avid reader of indie books, I often follow self-published authors asking questions about what they need. So, as your biggest fan, I'm going to be honest and say these are things that, yes, I would like you to have.

1. A website.

Even with Facebook as a pretty viable option, websites are a cleaner, more accessible means to allow readers to look through your works. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve visited an author’s page to have no idea what she’d written. She had no website, no advertisements, and statuses filled with gushing about other books. I knew she was a published writer through experience, but she made it hell of a time figuring out what books were hers.

2. A print option.

Ebooks took off. They’re outselling prints and you don’t need some snooty bookstore owner looking down his nose while you humiliate yourself in attempts to get him to buy it. You don’t need a print version to be successful, I just highly recommend having one.

Why? Well, for one thing, what author hasn’t fantasized about having his novel on his bookshelf? For another, I like them. I much prefer to read print books for a lot reasons, most importantly that looking at artificial light too gives me a headache, and I genuinely feel my comprehension is better. Plus, I like visualizing progress.

But also it’s not that difficult to offer a print-on-demand version. Sure, it’ll need to be formatted differently than Kindle, but it’s actually really easy to do. I’ve done it myself for the One in the Hole literary journal I edited for local authors. You could easily hire someone for cheap to do it (doesn’t take long if you’re remotely good with Word and have an eye for detail) and then, after that, it only costs you something if you buy a copy.

And most print-on-demand sites are pretty cheap for authors to buy their own novel. I mean, you’re probably not going to be making bank—your cost of production per book will be higher than what publishers can do, and you really can’t/shouldn’t sell it for more than market value less you look like an idiot—but you actually will be marking more per book each time you sell it than an e-version. More importantly, it helps spread word of mouth. People take the hardcopy more seriously, more likely to read a freebie than forget about it. I give a lot of my read books away to libraries and friends, spreading the word.

At the very least, it couldn’t hurt.

3. Yes, an editor.

I’m including this on here because it does get asked a lot, about as much as it gets pushed down indies’ throats. You absolutely need to have another pair of eyes go through to question your assumptions. There are definitely incorrect assumptions every person has, never even thinking to question.

For, instance hen I first started writing I thought the saying was “little lone” not “let alone.” We all have something like this—misused words, incorrect spelling, or misheard phrases, facts that we’d only gained through hearsay.

Plus, outside that you might be confusing ‘passed’ and ‘past’ without even realizing it, that it never hurts to have someone go over the little details, there are some more abstract things that are normal in your life but totally foreign to even your neighbor. Even, or especially, the subjective elements of your book need to be viewed by another party to be told, “Um… I think you might have grown up in a cult.”

On a positive note, editors also help you to understand your unique insights and your strengths better than anyone else and help you to take productive risks.

It’s important to remember no one can automatically recognize the difference between genius and insanity and, by self-publishing, you’re in a nuthouse. I love ‘m, but the vast majority of indie books are severely half-assed. You can’t demand people recognize that yours isn’t while simultaneously preaching “grammar shouldn’t matter if the story’s good!” Don’t expect people to understand that you’re speaking in poetry and not gibberish without showing some investment in clearly communicating. Excessive only errors occur because a writer is inexperienced, lazy, or arrogant and there’s enough alternative options that readers don’t need to risk burning themselves on a writer who doesn’t care enough about cleaning up his art form.

4. An official copyright from the U.S. copyright office (or your country’s counterpart).

Indie publishers rarely have the money to battle people legally, so protect yourself with at least the bare minimum. Self-publishers are huge targets; there are many scams about stealing someone else’s work, either for profit or to actually just get it taken down.

All writing is copyrighted, but you have to prove ownership. An official copyright can streamline issues, especially through the bureaucracy of Amazon.

5. A logo.


You know, I think it’s weird too and had I not gotten one, I wouldn’t have ever thought of it. But because I do have one, it comes in handy. A LOT.

Getting a professional looking, 2x2 inch image that you love will come in handy when you realize the graphic appeal of a project is missing. Making a new web header? Need a profile picture for Facebook? Someone asked you for a link they can share with the world?

It doesn’t need to be logo looking, just some sort of pretty picture that puts the final touch on something.
It’s extremely nice to have an image that you can just grab whenever you need one.

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Friday, July 28, 2017

Excess Words aren’t Always Fluff

I stupidly downloaded the newest version of Microsoft Word, and to say that I am literally going to murder the English grad they got to work on the grammar isn’t just to piss him off.

In a fit of rage, I spent the entire morning trying to figure out how to get it to stop trying to put commas into the middle of sentences and leave my passive voice alone. The second I opened it up it correct me on the use of adverbs or something of the like, and it turned out to be a trigger for some of the worse critiques I’ve gotten. Arguing with a computer about the merits of diversity in writing is almost as pointless as arguing with a frustrated writer, so instead I turned back to my echo chamber that is my blog.

For two years I spent my days deleting “excess” words from an oversized manuscript. The first 40,000 or so words were more about scenes and events, reorganizing and trimming them into a fine, precise plot. I will say that doing that strengthened the piece far more than the second half. The 30,000 or so “just”s and “began to”s definitely had their effect, and they taught me a great deal about my writing, mood, and the power of each individual choice.

But as I’ve said many times before, while some occasions deleting the excess words strengthened it and on other occasions it worsened it, in most cases, it merely changed it.

Everything you do, you had a reason. It may not have been a good reason—my most common motivator behind stylistic choices is stalling—but there was a reason, and to ignore that will simply have you hacking up your manuscript into a robotic, homogenized piece of drivel.

Some time ago, I read about a woman who, just before her book went to print, she changed the sentence, “He tried to stand and she shoved him down,” to “He stood halfway and she shoved him back.” Why? Because “tried to” is one of those No-No phrases.

Is he stood halfway better than he tried to? I’d argue no; in fact, it sounds a little more awkward to me if I was forced to critique it, but I believe that both/neither of these sentences differ that much in “quality,” but they do differ in image.

It’s about her reaction time. One is instantaneous, the other is delayed.

Does it matter? Probably not. But that’s the thing about little choices; they’re like pennies. You throw in one penny every time you make a good choice, they start to add up. Take one out every time you make a bad one, it’s not going to kill your book, but doing it too many times will have an effect on the overall result.

In deleting over a third of a manuscript, my style in writing change drastically. I am extremely happy with the results and have taken a lot of what I learned during that time to apply elsewhere, but there is magic in my previous writing, color and personality that is lost in the succinctness. The characters argue more, the world is darker, the action tenser.

Isn’t that a good thing? In many ways, yes, but the lightheartedness, the silliness, personability, the whimsy that I aspire to in most books was as all gone. It worked for this one manuscript, but it’s not something that I would want in all of mine—and especially not all novels in general.

So let’s talk about what purpose excess words serve.

They offer up variation.

One short sentence is good. Two helps with tension. Three makes a pattern. Four they start to get a little monotonous. If all of your sentences are simple and perfunctory, you’re going to have less control over the atmosphere and risk boring your audience. As Gary Provost said far better than me:

“I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals–sounds that say listen to this, it is important.”

They control mood.

The duration of the sentence influences the duration of the moment. Why say, “Reaching out a hand, she plucked the orb from its branch,” when you can just say, “She plucked the orb from its branch”? Because sometimes it’s better to emphasize the slowness of the motion through description. You can show the audience caution instead of outright stating that she’s being cautious.

Telling the story from a character’s point of view tends to yield in more emotional investment from the reader. If he saw the movement of her reaching first, then having the reader see her reaching out her hand, focusing on that gesture instead of the orb itself, will help put them in the same mindset as the narrator.

It’s just one tool of many.

The problem with a lot of writing rules is that they can’t all be applied at once (especially the ones that contradict each other.) Try writing a chapter in which you have to use small words, no unusual terminology, no adjectives or adverbs, you show and don’t tell, and you use short sentences without it coming off as flat, mechanical, or juvenile.

“Slowly, she plucked the orb from its branch.”

“She cautiously plucked the orb from its branch.”

“She plucked the delicate orb from its branch.”

Longer sentences:
“Reaching out, she plucked the orb from its branch between two fingers.”

Specific verbs:
“She prehended the orb from its branch.”

Purple prose:
“As if catching a ball of light, she traced her fingers along the skin of the orb before lifting.”

Or perfunctory prose:
“She picked the orb from its branch.”

Truth is, they’re all options. You might decide the speed in which she picks it up isn’t important, or that you like your ‘purple prose’ far better. You might decide to mix and match. The point is, you not only have the right to decide for yourself, but what is right for one sentence may not be correct for the next, and whatever you chose last will influence what you choose after. They’re all tools to convey something specific, you just need to be clear if they’re doing what you want them to be and know that you have a whole slew of choices in your arsenal; it’s foolish to limit yourself just because your English teacher said so.

Natural cadence sometimes requires redundancy.

If you want to cut down on your wordcount, my first suggestion would be to go to prepositional phrases. They can be the most useless clarifiers on the face of the planet, but be careful, because many sentences sound weird without them.

I thought about it.

I trudged through the snow.

I tossed the trash out.

In context, often the preposition can be figured out without a second thought, and yet it will jar people out of the story because it sounds so odd. Not only that, but some things genuinely don’t mean the same to the native speaker: being unable to make a decision isn’t always the same as being unable to decide.

Cadence is strongly influenced by the number of words in a sentence, especially the ones that don’t seem to mean anything.

Most importantly, they help with emphasis.

As Provost said, having a long sentence will tell you something is important. It also works in reverse. Having a lot of long sentences and suddenly a short one will attract attention to it.

But the real thing any writer needs to keep in mind is how readers see words in text differently than we hear them spoken.

The oral speaker dictates importance and meaning through tone, but the reader constructs how something is being said simultaneously with what it means.

There are seven different interpretations behind the sentence: I never said she stole my money.

I never said she stole my money.
I never said she stole my money.
I never said she stole my money.
I never said she stole my money.
I never said she stole my money.
I never said she stole my money.
I never said she stole my money.

If you’re being accused of being a dense writer, this is the most common reason even over big words; the readers are struggling to know what words to emphasize and thus struggle to get the meaning.

We have a tentative hierarchy of assumption when it comes to meaning.

First is negatives: I am not stupid and I will never love you.
Second is adjectives: I ride a pink pony.
Third is verbs: I walk down the street.
Fourth is the object of the sentence: I know you.
Fifth is the object of a preposition: I fought mice in the kitchen.
Sixth is the adverb: I quickly laughed it off.
Seventh is the subject: I am happy.

Basically, if you have a sentence like, “I never said she stole my money,” the assumed point of it will be about the “never” and the first verb, i.e. “I never said that.”

There are many ways to toy with the assumed point, however. Part of it is merely by context:

“Wait… I thought she took your wallet!”

“I never said she stole my money.”

Some of it is by italics:

“I never said she stole my money.”

But there are a lot of tools at your disposal.

“My money wasn’t stolen.” Passive sentence, but more clear and makes the sentence about the money. In fact, the best way to drawing more emphasis on the noun (the money) is by making a weaker verb (was stolen).

“I never fucking said she stole my money!” By adding an adjective, it makes it clear where the emphasis goes.

The strength of the word is important to consider and can strongly influence the attention, no matter the part of speech.

“I really never said she stole my money,” works just as well as “fucking,” to cement the meaning behind the sentence, but “really,” being a weaker word, doesn’t detract from the verb and (its negative) while “fucking” somewhat changes the point (and definitely the mood.)

Weak verbs and strong verbs are often the most powerful weapons in your arsenal. This is why people have a thing against adverbs; adverbs don’t naturally draw attention to themselves, so if you put a weak verb with an adverb, the attention gets drawn to the noun, and if the noun’s not that interesting—which it often isn’t—it makes for a boring sentence: “He walked down the street quickly.”

The strongest word is street, which is a banal, everyday noun. And if that sentences isn’t that important to the paragraph, that might be exactly what you want. However, if the thing in the sentence is really important, using a weak verb-adverb combo can suggest that:

“There was an ugly chair.”

Unusual adjectives will snap a reader’s attention. “A mountainous chair rocked in the wind.” This is powerful, but one of the places you’ll get caught up in “trying too hard.”

What does this have to do with excess words? They are weak, ignorable words that enable the writer to control how people say things, what they pay attention to, and give invasive clues to what the author means.

I wasn’t the one who said she stole my money.
I never said that she was the one who stole my money.
I never actually said she stole my money.
I never said which idiot stole my money.
I never said she truly stole my money.
I never said the stolen money was mine.
It wasn’t money she stole from me.

“Was”s, “just”s, “that”s, “really”s, adverbs, passive-sentences—they have their purpose. Sometimes—often—they are overused attempts at stalling, and it is useful to challenge yourself to avoid them. But any writer worth his salt knows to be open to different techniques and doesn’t just slash at a new writer’s work without telling him why.

Microsoft Word used to be pretty good at making me second guess my grammar, keeping me up to date without getting lazy. This new program, however, sounds far too much like a frustrated writer who just got out of college and is attempting to prove himself. I don’t need “opinions” Microsoft, and that’s all these rules are. If you’re going to start critiquing my writing, you had better improve your algorithms, because I’m about to turn you off.

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Monday, July 24, 2017

Giving People Space in Your Head

“Do you think you’re good at taking criticism?”

It’s a question I hate answering because no matter what I say it’s going to sound like a load of B.S. “No I’m not,” sounds like I’m placating the masses, “Yes I am” sounds like I don’t realize how antagonistic I come across. And the truth, like most truths, isn’t a simplistic black and white. I am both great and terrible at taking feedback. Call me Schrodinger’s cat.

It depends on who I’m dealing with.

I like to talk about the feedback I get because I find my critical analysis is useful. I tend to internalize more than the average person, reflect and run through my thoughts during any experience, and develop logical coping/comprehension methods that I truly believe are useful to other authors.

Plus rants are funny.

Knowing how people see authors—these godlike beings atop their pedestals which no mere mortal even deserves to try and climb—I don’t believe that revealing my wounds or pettiness makes for a credible appearance, but at the same time, relatability and honesty are key elements in saying anything that anyone will give a shit about. Contrary to popular belief, I do think stating an opinion online is a good thing both career-wise and for society as a whole. But I also don’t think you should treat it like a soapbox and being too obtuse to the other sides of a story will alienate people, only drawing them in via the pleasure of attacking you.

So I talked about the criticisms that I struggled with either emotionally or intellectually because I think it’s one of the better things to speak of on a writing blog. But it does, I am aware, give me this image of being an overly sensitive asshole.

Alright, you got me. Just not always to the extent presumed from first impressions.

If you ask me if I’m good at taking criticism, I’d say that I’m good at respecting and being open to the opinions of others, never discarding advice lightly—especially if it disagrees with what I want to believe. I’m good at making people enjoy themselves during critiques. I’m good at parsing apart the information given. I’m good at getting people out of their shell, figuring out what they want to be doing, communicating my ideas, and making someone feel like they matter. Most people enjoy working with me, asking me to read their work one on one, wondering where I went when I leave a group, keeping in contact for years. Recently I ran into a woman who I’d met in a group some years back tell me that I had given her one of the most helpful critiques she’d gotten in her entire career.

Now then, if you’ve read my blogs you’ll also know that I don’t believe in the “thank you” philosophy of criticism. I believe in conversation, debate, and listening should be active, not one-sided. I believe in asking questions, presenting opposing ideas, and never letting someone try and bully you into obedience. It’s your book, you do what you want. I encourage people to question their assumptions and be honest with themselves, but at the end of the day, if they want to do something I don’t agree with, that’s their prerogative, same goes for me. If I don’t like it, I’m not going to do it, no matter how stupid you think I am.

I am also prideful as hell and if someone engages me in a pissing contest, I’m going to win. I'll stand my ground and verbally bulldoze over someone who angers me, though typically I control my temper pretty well. In a seething ball of resentment sort of way.

I’ve definitely seen people worried about how I might respond to something. A good friend of mine was helping me with my query letter over the internet and when I stopped responding, deep in thought about how to fix something, he quickly went out of his way to inform me that he was not trying to be a jerk about it, obviously afraid I had taken offense.

Which was a little odd from my view of myself. Not only had he never seen me dismissive before—I rarely allow myself to be—he was one of those people who I trust, who would have to go pretty far for me to be offended. And even still, I’ve often had people I don’t like say awful things to me and not been bothered the least bit by it. I rarely (uncommonly at least) leave criticism sessions upset, not even deep down. I don’t even think I had ever told him 'no' before. I will be firm about something I’m positive about, and it’s not as though I don’t understand how my arguing my point of view might make people weary about offending me. Typically though, I’m pretty understanding and even something that takes me by surprise or touches on my insecurities won’t bother me for long when I get where it’s coming from. I work on phrasing any argument in a thoughtful and encouraging way. For those reasons, I wouldn’t say that I have thin skin at all.

“But you just said you’re an oversensitive asshole.”

When I get upset, it consumes me. As a child I was a crybaby, as a teen I had a temper. As an adult, I control these emotions, and the lower hormones definitely had an effect, but have sometimes found them to eat away at me for unreasonable durations. I have cockroach hotel skin. It’s not about how easy it is for things to get to me, it’s that once you do get under my skin you’re staying there.

Getting under my skin, pissing me off beyond all belief, isn’t that common though. I interacted with a lot of people in the writing world you won’t hear about. I say there’s one in every group, there’s a comment in every draft, but by far most people are trying to be useful, even if their egos get in the way, and if you treat them with respect they’ll reciprocate. I like the vast majority of writers I work with and have fun talking with them even when we disagree.

There are a select number of people who tell you I don’t take criticism well. These are the same people who I would say don’t take criticism well themselves.

Most writers are slightly sensitive to giving feedback, but they try to get over it:

I had a wonderful elementary school teacher who I still think is brilliant and, more importantly, fair. She doesn’t say shit just to make herself look smart or be better than you; she truly believes whatever she’s telling you will help. When she ended up in my writers group, she once told me that a sentence was awkward and, being that many people kept saying to me, “I love the way you write, but sometimes it’s jarring,” I really wanted to figure out what she meant. The sentence didn’t read as awkward to me—awkward says clunky in my mind, and it wasn’t—so I was trying to understand what her definition of the word was. “Are you saying you’re not imagining what I want you to be?” The more I asked, the more flustered she got. At the end of the meeting, she came up to me and asked, sweetly, if this book was my baby. Nah.

She thought I was disturbed by her statement in how much I dug into it, but that wasn’t what was happening. One person out of twenty, who I thought highly of, complained about a word that no one else had yet still fit into overall consensus. I really needed to understand. But I wasn’t actually that emotional about the one word. I could have cut the whole sentence without blinking, I just didn’t believe doing so was going to help in the grand scheme of things.

She saw my question asking as criticism on her opinions, and if you watched her experience in the writers group, her ideas did tend to get shot down quite frequently by louder, larger people. She always reacted “appropriately” to that criticism—as in not arguing back—but she was obviously very aware of how people didn’t take her seriously. When I pressed for her to explain her ideas, she interpreted it as criticism and shrank away, regardless of how gentle I tried to be.

Meanwhile, the people who I actually get into heated arguments with, those are people who are there with something to prove. My best example is the retired lawyer who used courtroom tactics to badger others into agreeing with him. He was large and shouty and pointed out obvious “flaws” in something without considering the context. No one ever gave him feedback out of fear, so I never saw how he reacted to it, but he certainly did not take someone disagreeing with them well. After he pointed out a contradiction that I believed (and have every reason to still believe) was obviously intentional, I asked in a kind voice, “He doesn’t know what she’s going to do. Do I need to make it clearer?” and he shut down, unable to talk to me.

Pretty much every new group I’ve gone to—a myriad of classes as well as just critiques—one male peer has waited until he could get me alone to tell me his opinion. In some cases, I’d say he was just flirting, and in one he was definitely just excited to talk about writing with someone who also cared, but there have been those who intentionally wanted to corner me in order to tell me off. Remember how I said I’m pretty pleasant to be around if I feel the other person is trying? Well, they don’t realize that I’m on my best behavior when in a group. Get me alone to demonstrate your superiority and the monster will rise.

Even then I didn’t cuss him out, just flatly informed him on my stance in how constructive critiques should go. Being that he actually wasn’t good at arguing with logical opinions, merely barking at people until they agreed, he backed down as quickly as he stepped up.

But there’s more to it than just arrogance, I think. The posts that make it to this page, the stories I tell time and time again, typically speaking, there’s an unresolved issue, or there was at one time.

The lawyer above approached me by saying, “I want you to know you’re really defensive.”

Am I? Because my gut reaction claimed that he was just hypercompetitive and doing a surface skim for anything he could complain about. But maybe that’s what a defensive person would say.

The issue was the discrepancy in our views. For one, it truly did seem inarguable that the contradiction was intentional—I would have had to be an idiot to make that mistake.

People who skim for errors and then jump all over whatever they find not only rile me up, but their critiques tend to misdirect from actual problems and confuse the issue. It comes off as hostile while still holding enough potential of truth that the writer might not be able to be sure she’s not an egotistical asshat.

I really only began to let go of the irritation I had for this man as more facts rolled in, i.e. I witnessed how he responded to others. His criticism was never in-depth, he vigorously sought approval, and after he had tried to walk all over me, he himself became a doormat in attempts to make reparations. This only served to anger me more—you were rude when you thought you could get away with it, but turned-tail when you couldn’t?!

Later on I knew I couldn’t trust him and that made him easy to forgive.

I was once struggling with letting go of my anger towards a man (a virtual stranger) who I met at a writers conference and who quickly developed serious boundary issues. I was angry because I knew I was interchangeable with any other woman, that if I had wanted to keep his interest, he would have refused to commit to me while he leered at every girl he saw, yet at the same time refused to understand the word no.

I was accused fault by some by 'engaging him in the first place,' allowing him to have my number when I knew he was attracted to me, for “smiling” at him—which is morbidly ironic because I was so deep in depression, stress, and social anxiety that I never smiled or laughed at anything. Ever. I had gone to the writers conference with the primary intention on being more friendly, outgoing, and meeting other writers to work with and come out with some jackass constantly asking me to go out with him, demanding why I wouldn’t, and telling me I ‘misunderstood’ when I gave a reason. He ignored being ignored, being blocked, and even found me in person with a giant grin on his face as if I was the love of his life despite the fact that he would forget about me the moment another girl literally gave him the time of day.

My cousin, a very religious person, empathized with me, having gone through the same sort of undesired attention. She told me something that never even occurred to me as an option. “I try to forgive him.”

Forgiveness seemed like a powerful tool, so why hadn’t it been something I had thought of?

Because forgiveness implies they did something wrong, and I’m not sure they had. Forgiving someone when I incited it or misinterpreted it seemed conceited and counterproductive. It wasn’t going to stop it from happening again.

I could forgive someone who was acting like a controlling butt and I could forgive someone who hadn’t meant to come off as a controlling butt, but I could not forgive someone until I understood what had really gone wrong.

And here’s the important part: eventually, I’ll probably figure out it.

I’ve rehashed over old criticism again and again, fascinated with what I was missing, being lectured by people, “He was just a jackass, let it go!” when two years later I’ll be in the middle of a (hysterical) story and all of the sudden and epiphany will hit me. That’s why he was so obsessive about that one word. That’s the key factor I didn’t catch!

I don’t particularly like my obsessiveness, but I do learn a lot from it.

Am I better than average at taking criticism? Nah. I’m pretty weird about it.

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Friday, July 21, 2017

Difficulty Writing Female Characters Has Nothing to Do with ‘Understanding Them’

The man who said it best was a giant of a human being: tall, overweight, with a barking voice and an arrogance that could scare away even me.

He wasn’t a bad writer, to be clear. One of those types who created something ‘perfectly fine,’ but with no real personality behind his words, no real emotion, no real point. Characters, it should be said, was his weakest skill, falling flat with obvious meta-motivations behind their words. “Aren’t I being funny right now?”

Also, to be clear, I didn’t like him. We attended the same writers group and his criticism style oriented around his aggression. A retired lawyer, he would bully people into agreeing with him. No one ever gave him feedback for fear of being on the receiving end of his aggression.

His feedback itself tended to be closed-minded and competitive. He once told me that I had “contradicted myself”—simply that—when it was obviously intentional. So obvious, that when I tried to follow his train of thought, the only reasonable solutions for our drastically different views was either that he was looking for something easy to point out (a common tactic amongst bullies), or he thought I was the biggest moron on the face of the planet. Both equally possible.

More importantly, we had a kind hearted older woman, soft spoken, who told us she didn’t want to have a character arc prior to our reading. Weird, I know. What’s the benefit of that? Many of you might be thinking that’s kind of an arbitrary stipulation, and I get it. However, writers get to experiment, challenge themselves, and create their own visions. It’s extremely important for critique partners to remember that innovative people always face obstacles whenever they want to break away from the conventional path, so even though you don’t think “not having a character arc” is a good idea, it may very well be a change the literary world is starving for. You don’t want to be the idiot who haughtily told George Orwell, “Animal books don’t sell.”

Respect your own opinion and advocate for it, but when someone wants to try something different, it’s important to discuss it, not scare them into getting back in line with how you think things should be.

The gentlemen shouted, “WHY?!” causing her to physically cringe back and she stammered her reasons.

At a later date, I was taking a class that he also happened to be in. We had had an altercation prior when he followed me out of the group and waited to get me alone so he could criticize me and my “behavior” in private. I, uncharacteristically cool, explained to him proper conduct in that sort of setting—despite being one-third his age, I had a great deal more experience as a writer—and sternly told him off. He slunk off and was oh so nice for the remainder of our experiences.

In the middle of the class, my dear gentlemen interrupted the (male) teacher to announce to everyone, letting them know the ways of the world, “Men can’t write for women because we aren’t them!”

The statement, since then, has taken on a personal agitation for me. He wasn’t the first to say it, nor the last. It’s also not just men who believe it, women saying both that men can’t write for women or that women can’t write for men, though I personally haven’t heard that as much. But after that point in time, I can see his mouth around those words regardless of who speaks it.

I’ve seen women get up in arms about men saying, “I don’t understand women!” and men be baffled by the amount of offense taken. There’s more to it than just an association with a jackass, of course. When you are getting sexually harassed—as in pursued by a man who won’t take no for an answer—it can feel like you’re doing everything to make your disinterest (or even hatred) known, and he just can’t comprehend the rejection or how he’s affecting you. How you see him. How you feel. Women find their emotions belittled and invalidated by male suitors frequently, and it’s not uncommon for a guy to play stupid then later admit he knew what he was doing when it’s finally time to apologize/he thinks owing up will get you to trust him again. It’s not uncommon for men to say, “Women are so complicated!” and then refuse to listen.

There’s also something dehumanizing about it. “Oh, I can’t empathize with women. I can’t put myself into their shoes or understand their actions.” Really? It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see how having a complete strange publicly and loudly announce his sexual attraction to you as you walk down the street might be embarrassing instead of flattering.

I recently came to terms with my desire to understand and be understood. A great deal of my social anxiety was actually a fear of confrontation—I always said I didn’t care if people liked me or not, but I needed to know if they did. That didn’t make much sense to people, myself included, until I realized that it was my desire to predict what was going to set someone off that made me hesitant afraid of strangers. Sure, I want to make people happy (it’s why I became a writer), and sure I want people to like me enough to leave me alone (so that I can become a writer), but mostly, I just don’t want to say something and unwittingly end up in a screaming match. If conflict’s going to happen, I want to be prepared for it.

I also wanted to be understood, and found myself most angry when people don’t give me the benefit of the doubt. In attempts to understand others, I lacked the ability to respond on impulse—needing to take my time to digest their intention—which made conversation stilted and awkward if I didn’t have previous experiences to supplement my comprehension on what they might mean.

When I started watching people who wielded themselves well in social situations, I realized that they didn’t care one-wit about being understood; they assumed that they were right and moved on with their day, not second guessing it. It worked great for other people as well, and spectators were more inclined to assume that the social butterfly did know what she was doing. In recent days, I find that this philosophy as benefited me. I make silly mistakes here and there, jump to the wrong conclusions like anyone, and am a truth seeker above all, questioning everything, wanting to be right by actually being right, and struggle to accept that sometimes there aren’t correct answers, that every decision has flaws and rewards. I don’t always know what I want and am flexible in helping make others happy—to the downfall of my past relationship in which I didn’t realize not actively pursuing my own happiness was the same as sacrificing it—but when I’m by myself I am fairly driven and focused on my goals. All I needed to do was to feel comfortable with a little more self-centeredness while in public. Which is not that easy to do, but NYC, the land of everyone minding their own business, I feel less pressured to understand their opinions and more freedom to focus on my own.

But to be told by someone that he can’t possibly understand me who I’ve felt doesn’t try to understand anyone is deeply insulting, and incredibly foolish on his part. The real insult is his assertion that he can write for a paraplegic retired spy with PTSD, but an everyday woman is beyond him.

And one of the real reasons we had butted heads is that we were so similar in personalities. I will insist on being an empathetic person; it’s my best quality. But I too have an ego. I too like people listening to me. I too don’t like to be questioned by a stubborn redhead one-third my age. Redheads are gremlins. I’d argue that I am far more self-aware than he is, but we had some striking similarities.

What do you mean you don’t understand me? You are me!

If you can’t understand why I react the way I do, then it’s due to your lack of self-reflection, not my irrationality.

Patrick Rothfuss and Stephen King are two successful writers who claim struggling with writing better female characters. In King’s case, I don’t believe I’ve ever heard he himself say that he couldn’t “write for them because he doesn’t understand him,” but that he was criticized for it nonetheless. And I get it. If you read Sue Snell from Carrie or Susan Norton from ‘Salem’s Lot, you can see why these flat, good-girl love interests might be rebuked. King, in fact, wrote his first published novel because of this criticism, trying to create an interesting female protagonist. And I think he was successful.

In Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind, the main character falls in love with Denna, as par the course, who’s great appeal was questioned by readers. She has a pretty watered-down personality, which later is turned into emotional walls. Rothfuss agrees the character wasn’t well developed because he wrote originally as a 20 year old boy and didn’t “understand women.”

But I don’t find that to be true, his not understanding women. I will admit his side-character of Fela is an awful portrayal of a beautiful woman, far more so than Denna. Fela was an idolized version of a damsel in distress who, even throughout the sequel, never had an internal dialogue. But, there were elements of truth. He described her reasons for falling in love accurately, and it wasn’t as though her actions were problematic. They just weren’t human because they lacked flaws. She had few goals, was not emotionally impacted by pretty dramatic events to her, and didn’t exactly serve a purpose in the story save to show Kvothe as a hero. She had no opinion on herself. Does she think she’s beautiful? Does that make her happy? Lament it?

HOWEVER, Denna seemed real, just uninteresting. The question was more about the protagonist’s obsession with her. It wasn’t as though Rohfuss was bad at understanding her or conveying her in a real way, it just seemed like she gained the protagonist’s devotion for no discernable reason.

More importantly, he had characters like Devi, who was severely flawed, driven, talented, and interesting. His own favorite character was Ari, someone whose brain had cracked and lived hidden in abandon parts of the city. They, among other females, were examples that he could identify with women. I think he writes women well. He just doesn’t seem to understand male love or female self-identity.

Stephen King’s most iconic characters are women. Carrie, Annie Wilkes, Mother Abagail… Christine. King is more of a plot guy, and a lot of his characters, especially protagonists, aren’t notorious by themselves, but if you were to ask someone to list out their favorites, you know a few women who’d get named.

In fact, in my experience, people don’t struggle to write female villains, and we struggle to write good love interests period. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been reading a romance novel and screamed at the male lover, “GET A LIFE!” in frustration. Love interests often fall flat. Why do we like who we like? Who the hell knows?

Why do people love Harley Quinn since her incarnation in the Batman universe? Comic books have tried for years to make female counterparts, but Quinn’s relationship with the Joker was the only one that worked?

Why? Because it was screwed up. Because wasn’t forced to be healthy, to be a role-model for all the readers. Because Joker wasn’t forced to change himself when the relationship began because she was so willing to be whatever he wanted. And that flaw of hers? That was real. That was human. It is sad and scary, but fascinating and understandable.

Harley Quinn made decisions that may women can relate to, despite us not supposed to. It touched on fears. The comic books and television show did not romanticize her relationship with the Joker, and yet many of the readers did. For a time, a lot of people claimed they wanted a love like Joker and Harley’s. Do you know how people ask how women could stay in an abusive relationship? Harley’s devotion is insane, nonsensible, but convincing. It is true to her, and a lot of people understand it.

Harley Quinn was invented by two men. Her origin story was written by a man.

Is she a representation for feminism? That’s not the point here. It’s that men can write a female character that works, that they can get inside her head.

So why doesn’t Supergirl take off? I know, I know. She has her own T.V. show! And it’s awful.  She has been struggling to find a place for years, and while I’m certain there’s people who like her fine, I don’t think anyone has been obsessed with her.

It’s all to the same point. It’s not that it’s hard for men to understand women, but it’s hard to understand someone you idolize. It’s hard to empathize with a person rejecting you. It’s hard to understand how others see you. It’s hard to understand how others see themselves. It’s hard to put a finger on what makes us fall in love. It’s hard to create a healthy yet interesting to watch relationship. It’s hard to sexualize a character once you’ve watched her taking a dump (preverbally or literally).

Women are labeled as emotional or irrational, have a history of having their opinions trivialized, and so reasonably struggle to make our feelings known. This is not to claim that men don’t suffer too, but to help understand why, for some, “I can’t write for a woman because I don’t understand them,” is so personal.

You’re not always going to understand other people. You won’t always know why they didn’t like you, or why you got into that fight. You won’t always know what someone goes through, especially if their physical appearance causes others to react differently to them in everyday situations. But, as a writer, it doesn’t mean that you should limit yourself to only you and your experiences. It’s going to lead to a bunch of characters that sound the same, it’s going to restrict your story to your small view of the world, and yes, it will make your readers think, “So someone like me doesn’t belong here?”

If you struggle to write women well, it doesn’t necessarily have to do with an inability to empathize. For one thing, women are idolized by both genders, and have for centuries been expected to be the voice of morality. Now with the growth of feminism, there is even more pressure to make a “healthy role model,” even if that doesn’t make sense for the story. You can find yourself a part of a witch hunt just because you portrayed a woman as a genuine reflection of your perspective, or because she’s flawed in a way that doesn’t promote improvement. Or simply doesn’t promote whatever ideology the critic has.

There’s also times where it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s not that you don’t understand them, but you’re so anxious about portraying them “correctly” it becomes mechanical and difficult. As a female author with a given male name, I can attest to the differences of criticism on my female’s and male’s portrayal.

I hear writers blame their flat females on their naivety about the going ons of woman’s mind, but that excuse is cause of the problem, a whole slew of problems, not just a fact of life. If you want to understand someone that naturally bewilders you, the first step is to not accept it. Choose to try and understand. It not only will open a world of options for you, but you may helping to create a better world for those “weirdos” around you.

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Monday, July 17, 2017

Asked: “Where Can I Safely Put My Writing for People to Give Me Feedback?”

After giving his manuscript to a friend, a writer received his book back with a nasty note reading, “I don’t have enough pens to edit this.” It massively demoralized him, made him afraid to get feedback, and he wanted to know where he could anonymously post his work for review.

Now, some of you may be thinking, "This is the wrong question!" As others told him, you don't want safe. Safe will get you no where! But I don't see it that way.

Funny thing is, I’ve never had someone tear my work to shreds. I’ve spoken before about critiques that bothered me, that I struggled with understanding, or in which drama ensued, but while I’ve gotten critiques that I found naïve, and ones that I found sort of callous, and definitely ones that embarrassed me, no one has ever said something that served no purpose other than crushing me, something where they announced some vague and clever insult that gave me no direction put made their judgement of my abilities, and their sense of superiority, clear.

I realized this, some weeks ago I was talking to a friend and fellow writer and she told me about a play she was rewriting after years of shelving it. When she first revealed it in a college class, people were nasty, in my opinion. “I don’t like it,” they said. “I just don’t like it at all.”

She wishes she had more of a physical presence to request more useful advice, but instead she just took it, and went away mostly demoralized, and didn’t touch the play for four years since.

Even though I’ve had hurtful experiences, and even though someone has tried to tell me some stupid things—“Star Wars doesn’t have any backstory in the first act!”—No one has ever said to my face anything remotely like, “I just don’t like it at all,” or “I don’t have enough ink.”


That brings me to the answer to the question in question: How people treat you has less to do with location or skill, and a hell of a lot to do with your attitude.

The conversation between my friend and I came up because I was getting agitated about trying to find someone who pushed me further without being closed-minded. People felt either too malleable, agreeing with whatever I said, or they were too opinionated, not listening to alternative goals, tastes, or options. Moreover, I was getting advice from some less experienced women I knew which was fairly naïve, but when I tried to explain that I had been doing this a long time (and therefore had already tried their obvious suggestions) each jumped all over me as if I was saying I was too good to stoop to actual work. In the past, I’ve had issues with people jumping to the unsubstantiated conclusion that I wouldn’t take criticism—long before I ever even introduced myself. It wasn’t my actual actions that made my reputation, it was something about my first impression that made people somewhat intimidated by me.

And therefore far more cautious about giving me feedback.

My advice to this young writer who wants to improve? Learn to speak softly and carry a big stick.

Be friendly, fun, and cavalier. You put out this positive vibe that makes people feel comfortable, that makes them enjoy throwing their ideas out there, arguing with you, and challenging the both of you. It’s no big deal. We’re not on a time frame. Let’s just be honest and communicative. Neither of us expect any one idea to be an end all.

The big stick is your confidence, the fact that even though you want them to have fun, you still have your opinions. You’re still selective. You still have standards specific to you, and you’re not going to accept any idea thrown your way. If they say something naive or poorly thought out, if  turn into an asshole, you’re going to let them know it.
You want people to think that if they say what they really believe in a way that is helpful, you will both have a good time. You also want them to fear having to defend a half-assed idea that they threw out there because obviously those thoughts off the top of their heads is far superior to the ones that you’ve spend months thinking about.

Criticism is a learned skill on both sides, and it’s wrong to think you have to take abuse. But safe places are usually created and shaped, not found.

Safe places must evolve over time because each person works differently and needs different things at different speeds. In fact, the dynamic between my critique partners and I vary drastically. I have one friend in which we spend most of the time swearing at each other. We’ve known each other for a while, she’s my biggest fan, and I know she respects me, so she doesn’t have to constantly say nice things. We can be more emotional without worrying about offending each other, and we don’t have to think as hard about if we’re being clear because the other person will just say, “What the hell are you talking about?” so we can just speak from the heart. Other times, I’m with people who are very professional and informative, which has benefits that being emotional and playful doesn’t. If they said something to me that my friend might, I’d actually be pretty damn offended. I have a different partner depending on each stage in the manuscript because our dynamic, history, and skills are more useful at one time than another.

Also, there’s a jackass in every group. Pretty much guaranteed, so you can’t pick the right location and avoid them. You just have to learn to navigate around them.

You want people to feel comfortable speaking their minds, but you don’t want them to think they can get away with tearing you down just because it’s empowering for them. For one thing, those types of critiques are less consistent with everyone else’s, even each other’s, because they’re highly biased about what the speaker WANTS to believe; they want you to suck, they want their knowledge and opinions to be useful. But also, in the case of the above, being demoralized is a problem. You should leave feeling inspired, with several active ideas about how to improve, not just like you suck in some vague, all encompassing manner.

You have less control online, but I would recommend when you find a place, start by reading and critiquing first before posting. You’ll get a general idea of the other people you’re working with and develop a rapport with them, making it harder for them to just spew out every half-baked thought that feels good to say.

Just have a good attitude. Laugh, be friendly, be encouraging, but be opinionated. Really think before you speak, but be willing to argue if you don’t see eye to eye to someone. Argument is a core part of processing, and you both learn more if you challenge each other’s opinions. For me, argument is more likely to lead to agreement because I understand what they mean better. People should believe that if they’re genuine and helpful, they’re going to have a good time, but if they are rude or asinine, they’ll be called out on their bullshit.

You make a good critique group, you don’t find one. Sometimes you do have to say, “This isn’t right for me,” but in most cases, you develop it over time. Walk in, act like the person you want to be around. Speak your mind, but with tact and compassion. When someone tries to start drama, keep your voice level, and be honest and clear about what is happening.

In the case of the friend who makes uninformative jokes at the writer's expense, I would probably say, “I felt like you were more interested in being clever than being helpful. I came to you because I valued your opinion and insight, but instead you gave me no respect, offered snarky comments instead of specific issues, and I found your vagueness and choice in phrasing ineffective and insulting. I’m pretty angry with you thinking this was the best way to talk to me about your opinions, and you lost a lot of credibility with me.”

It’s important to be able to speak like this, honestly, articulately, and confidently when being torn to shreds, because it carries a lot of weight for your mental health and your reputation. Plus, people need to learn that making “clever jokes” isn’t the same thing as being honest. It’s just being a dick.

In any case, when this happens, I would recommend accepting that she’s was being a self-serving jerk, and feel comfortable with what you need in a critique. It’s okay to not work well by being abjectly insulted. Think about what you need, think about how your attitude is standing in your way, and then analyze the next situation to see how you can shape it into what works best for you.

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Friday, July 14, 2017

Considering the Things I’ve Seen in Hate Mail…

Last year George R. R. Martin missed his New Year’s deadline, meaning that the sixth book would not be out before the next season of the television show. He’s upset, his fans are upset, but apparently his editors were pretty forgiving about it. Of course, they have the experience to know it’s not like anything can be done about it now.

In the same week as this announcement I came across a few harsh words said to less famous authors about their series. One author posted an angry response to her announcement of a short Christmas book instead of the next installment of her series.

If you read about the controversy of writing and publishing fast like many self-publishers do, a lot of fans discuss how they don’t want to wait several years for the next book, and how they prefer series to come out fast.

Someone asked Neil Gaiman about Martin’s missing of the deadline, and if Martin was deliberately avoiding discussing its progress. Do readers have the right to complain?

No, answers Gaiman. No, says Anne Rice. No says the myriad of authors on Facebook. “George R. R. Martin isn’t your bitch.” You can’t force an artist to create.

Personally, I’m a bit conflicted.

I do feel like I owe my readers something. It’s more complicated than just adhering to their demands and, in fact, a writer has to behave like a parent at times, knowing what their child needs versus what they want. It doesn’t mean that a writer should produce something he’s not happy with, and many readers should recognize that they don’t always know what is going on with a writer—his life or his process.

As many writers will tell you, sometimes you just can’t work on a book. Sometimes you need to take a break. In my case, it helps for me to keep up with the routine of writing every day even when I’m struggling to get a few words out on a page. Sometimes completing something else will inspire you to finish the first. And, even if you do work by a schedule, inspiration is still important—your best work always comes from what you were excited to do, what came freely to your mind. If you had waited on that other project, it often wouldn’t been as good as it once was.

But that doesn’t mean readers don’t have the right to ask.

In the case of the writer who received a very harsh note from an agitated fan, I don’t believe it was appropriate for the fan to state her grievances like that, but I also think it was poor form for the writer to post the comment for everyone to see, especially while leaving the name of the commenter up. I got this “blacklisting” vibe.

Unlike most hate mail, this person truly was a fan. She was excited and disappointed that the story was not out yet, and from her perspective, it seemed like, “Why the hell are you wasting time on this fluffy piece of meaningless holiday crap?” It’s a disrespectful, but understandable feeling.

Personally, I generally avoid self-published series until after they’re done. So many of them are never completed. It’s typical enough that the book is more of an incomplete slice and couldn’t function as a satisfying standalone, so it’s not worth the frustration. I see many authors put out their first in a serial then complain when no one buys it, threatening to never make the next one because no one cares. Well, I bought it, I read it, I care. It can be emotionally upsetting to want the sequel and have the writer procrastinate, especially when they might not finish all together.

The author didn’t have to let herself be talked to in that manner; she would have been fine ignoring her. But she could have understood where the fan was coming from and recognize that she is, in fact, a fan. A polite response probably would have elicited more snottiness (how can a person explain her without sounding like she’s making excuses?) yet that doesn’t mean that the commenter is an enemy. She’s just upset and voicing her feelings. I believe as writers we have to take the high road and remember that we’re putting people’s emotions in our hands, getting the bad with the good.

What readers should remember is that you don’t know what goes on behind the scenes, and should speculate on the superficial reasons why Martin missed his deadline when it’s probably a mixed bag of reasons. Martin was always a slow writer, and his books are large. Four years is actually his average to get an installment published. Many people cite his newfound fame as a reason—he’s now enjoying the limelight instead of writing. Possible, just as likely as it is those newfound responsibilities of fame that could factor in. And I know from personal experience, a change in routine can be highly disruptive to your productivity.

I absolutely agree with Gaiman on the point that Martin is not a machine and he is not contracted to his readers to write every moment of every day. He deserves a life too, and more to the point, he needs it. No one can write in a box. Even a fantasy author who seems to be making everything up is still taking from his own experiences. We hate Joffrey because we know people like him. We care about their problems because, even though it’s magical, dramatized, and wondrous, they are pains and concerns we deal with every day.

There is a lot to be said for giving a writer slack. It doesn’t do him any good to miss his own deadline. If he could write quality books of that size faster, he’d be the most to be benefit. Sending rude and angry messages might make him feel more pressure to dedicate himself, but it is a cruel and undesirable side of humanity. Hate mail would be better off if it didn’t exist at all, and I think everyone needs to make an effort to consider their words carefully before sending someone a disparaging letter to try and punish them for their perceived improper behavior.

But do you have a right to ask for updates? Yes, if you feel it is important. If you feel it will help. Do you think your favorite author might not be working on the book they should be? First remember that screwing around is a means to incubate ideas, that living makes ideas, and that how they work might not make sense to you but it doesn’t mean they’re not working. You only know a part of the story. Will telling them you want the next one make them work quicker? Possibly, but more likely it is a catharsis for your anger. Before sending out a letter in anger, always chose your words carefully, productively, and remember that writers really are just human and they probably feel bad as it is.

In the same vein that it can be disheartening to upset your fans, there is some merit to hearing what they have to say. Knowing that they do care about the next book, being asked for what they’d like to see more of on your blog, and just letting them vent out their issues. How fast an artist works is complicated and somewhat flexible, but it is still their process and not to be judged from an outsider’s point of view, especially if they love the resulting product.

Readers have the right to be upset and even voice their concerns, but we should reserve judgment and harsh comments just like in any other situation.

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