Friday, December 29, 2017

The Summary that Unsold Me the Book

How do I say this? “I don’t really want to say this.” Writing a summary is the most difficult part of the job, and even the greatest writers complain that it’s not the same as writing a novel well. I don’t want to write this because I don’t think I can be funny about it, I don’t want to say this because I don’t want to embarrass anyone, I don’t want to say this because I don’t want to look like an asshat. But when I saw the cover to this book, I was immediately excited. I felt drawn in, I thought it was my thing, and I considered that maybe I could put aside the myriad of stories on my list to-be-read for something that might be exactly the kind of story I’ve been looking for.

I had high hopes because the cover, like all good covers, gave me an indication of tone, genre, and dedication that made me confident in the author. It made me feel.

Then I read the summary:

Title of Book, Book One of space fantasy series, Title of Series, is classic fantasy for the current YA generation ... romantic, dramatic adventure written in rich, lyrical prose ... and an inspired, refreshingly original romp through boundless imagination! 

This 560-page novel also comes with an additional 70 pages of bonus content including a 50-page art gallery. All fantasy enthusiasts are asked to prepare themselves for take off on the next pop culture paradigm shift after Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games!

Inspired by Caribbean cultures and landscapes, Title of Book is the debut novel of Barbadian author Author’s Name, woven from a deep magickal sensibility, a love of fantasy literature and folklore, and a romance with words and the worlds they can craft.

To clarify, I don’t think the summary is horrific. The problem isn’t my aghast at any poor writing, but that it doesn’t do anything it is supposed to do. It, for me, makes all the ineffective choices you can when writing a pitch.

For one thing, it begins meta.

Instead of diving us right into the plot or character, it discusses what the book “is.” It’s not an active, intellectually or emotionally charged sentence. It lacks feeling, and just begins with description. While I don’t believe “is” is a bad word to use in general, it makes for an unexciting start, which when you only have a few sentences can be a major waste of time.

“Generic is a book about two loves lost from each other.” “John is a high powered lawyer.” “This short story was written for the Inky Men of Utah writers’ group…”

This is one of those places that considering a strong verb might be useful. I won’t say “is” is always a poor choice, but it’s something to at least consider carefully because, as the very first sentence a reader will see, writing something emotionally charged rather than informative is often the better way to go.

Also, the meta-thinking—reminding us that it is a book—isn’t what either the authors or the readers want. The audience needs to be immersed from moment one, forgetting as soon as possible that these people aren’t really real. Yes, it’s just a summary, and no one gets immersed by summation, but if you can humanize your characters, you should do it as soon as you can. Spending all of this time to remind us the name of the book (which, do readers really care?) and the name of the series is taking the chance that your potential buyers will quit before they even got to the actual summary.

But because I was really interested, I did keep going, hoping to find the plot soon to see if I really did want to read it or not.

She tells us what we’re supposed to think.

She made the genre clear at least. Her repetition of “fantasy” in the first few sentences didn’t seem very thought out, but that doesn’t bother me on a whole, not until after I realized she had spent all this time being extremely specific about the genre but never the actual book. She made it very evident what kind of story it would be, at least, with “classic fantasy” featuring romance and adventure (all of which intrigued me). Her insistence, however, that her prose was lyrical made me skeptical. I often advocate for poetry in fiction, and like a good turn-a-phrase and seeing authors attempt for unique voices. I hate how we push simplicity, especially in young adult fiction. But, when someone actually starts writing out qualities of their book, it suggests more like that’s what they want it to be like and might very well mean that it’s just a series of words that are trying too hard to be clever or beautiful.

With a few exceptions, like “funny,” adjectives that sound like they belong better in a review than a summary turn me off. When synopsis suggest how amazing or brilliant the book is, I’m not likely to take that seriously. Show me the interesting parts, don’t expect me to trust they exist just because you said so.

While I am interested in the page count, the size being very important in my consideration, when she goes off into the “extras” before telling me anything about the story, I feel like she’s trying to entice me with gimmicks instead of emotion. If it’s a book I already know and love, hell yes I want the extras. I’ll sit there and read every boring blog from an author, look through every photo on their Instagram, hoping to get just a little more of the feeling their stories gave me. But when I don’t know you…

‘Comps’ work better through examples.

Her comparison to the Hunger Games might have meant more if, instead of suggesting it would be a big phenomenon like that, explained how it was similar. Are characters the same? Setting? The tension? The plot? Just because I like Buffy the Vampire Slayer doesn’t mean I’ll like every book on vampires, but I might like the contemporary fiction with sarcastic characters. She said “paradigm shift” so I’m not sure if that really means any lovers of Hunger Games will like it.

I want to know what it’s about.

Then, still having as of yet to actually summarize anything about what happens, she discusses herself. Not necessarily a bad move, but use the space for what is for. It’s organized that way for ease. You have an author’s bio on Amazon. Save your word count for what’s important; why do I want to read your book?

I don’t know. I have no reason to. I don’t even know what the character’s names are, for hellsake. I know it’s classic fantasy, but does that mean Tolkien? Narnia? The Ocean at the End of the Lane? A Midsummer Night’s Dream? I mean, I’d assume that it’s elves and dwarves in medieval-based England, but that’s just from what I believe “classic” fantasy would be, I don’t actually have any reason to think you and I are on the same page.


The book was thirteen dollars for an ebook. I believe that writers can charge whatever they want for their stories, and sometimes making your price more akin to traditional publishing and not one dollar can encourage readers to take you more seriously. But did she really think I was going to take a chance on a story that was that much money that I have no idea what it’s about?

Now, I know what you’re thinking. You don’t want to give away the plot because then no one will be interested.

And that is why I have to say this.

It does not matter if they don’t know what happens when they don’t care what happens.

Tell us what your book is about. Yes, we want to be surprised, yes, if I knew I wanted to read your book, I wouldn’t want to know anything at all. But when it’s about making people care—and it is—it’s better to be predictable than to be too vague. Predictable stories sell all of the time. You know what’s going to happen, you know when in the plot it will happen, and you still invest. Why? Because we don’t just read for secrets and the unexpected. Nothing is better than to be delightfully surprised, tension is doubt as to outcome, and great manuscripts have twist endings, but the worst books are those that failed those things. Our most beloved stories don’t have to be original, they have fantastic characterization, perspectives, and epic settings. They have great stakes, high highs and low lows. You gain intellectual and emotional change. Most of these things, of course, are enhanced by not giving too much away. But your readers have to know something to care. Let’s face it, if they already knew they wanted to read it and didn’t want anything given away, they wouldn’t be looking at the summary in the first place.

So I’m not saying not to keep things under the vest. But authors must realize that most books sell because of the events inside them, because of the characters, because of the details of the settings. The story sells the story. Mystery only enhances it.

When writing a summary, don’t write a review. Don’t talk about how great it is or what it is, inform the audience of what happens or might happen, who the characters are, where they are, what humor or tension they can expect. Give us an idea of the protagonist, the place, the tone of voice, and make sure that if you are going to keep secrets, the audience even knows the secret exists. We can’t obsess over who the murderer is when we don’t even know a killing has transpired.

The balance of mystery and information in a summary is the keystone to its hook, we all know this. But, if you can’t decide, keep in mind that the events of your story shouldn’t be satisfied by just a summation.

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Monday, December 25, 2017

2017 Christmas Letter

In January 2017, I had just moved to NYC a few months prior, and had really just begun to settle in to my new apartment. I didn't have a job yet, wasn't entirely over the feelings of failure and worthlessness after my last relationship, and hadn't really written much of anything in the last year or so while working tirelessly to save up for the move, being incredibly stressed about several big life changes, and not really being close to where I wanted at the age 27.

In the months to come, I found a rhythm. I loved New York for its no-nonsense attitude, the people there were passionate and easy to talk to. There were a few unpleasant moments with the expected individuals, but overall, for a time, I thought that it might be a good place for me. It was exciting with high energy and many options when it came to who you talked to.

It wasn't until I had an annoying day at work sometime in may where I facetiously joked to myself, "I'm gonna quit!" that I realized my desire to return home.

My roommate, an older woman who had a near panic attack when I moved the mini fridge left in my room a foot to the right, always made me feel like a guest. I realize she was checking my light bulbs when I was gone, as well as just poking around to make sure things were the way she wanted them. I left the door open while away, and the tiny closet-sized room didn't leave much to hide, so the invasiveness wasn't necessary. At the moment I began to want the freedom of Wyoming, I started to realize how much I walked on eggshells when she was around, flinching every time she went into the bathroom in case I didn't clean out the hairs in the tub well enough.

I hated not having a car. I hated being dependent on the subway system. I had gone there to have things accessible to me - so I could just run out and grab something in the middle of a project. But things were always far, regardless of how few blocks they were, and leaving would take hours of my day for one item. If I could even find it. And many things New Yorkers just ordered online; you couldn't find them in stores.

I realized, being able to successfully live in one of the most expensive cities in the world on a part-time job at minimum wage, I could easily put myself up back in Wyoming, live with a more flexible budget and really try to give myself time for my real work.

I returned home to feel a huge wash of relief on me. I took my old job back at the airport, making a good amount of money and my bosses feeling very flexible in when I work, giving me room to travel and set things up the next year.

Writing has gone alright this year, but it could be better. I've long gotten out of the habit, and I feel some desire had left me for a time. Submitting to agents can feel futile. For many, it took up to nine months to get back to me, and prior I felt like I had been sending it out to the void, my work being sucked up into a black hole to be impacted into nothing. It's sort of like playing a difficult video game in which after struggling through, you realize you messed up way back in the beginning and have to start over. Or worse, it's not a screw up, just bad luck. It's out of your control. And still, go through all the motions again with no more guarantee of results. Beta-readers and critique partners weren't excited about what I was doing, and the advice could be convoluted, painful, and inaccurately biased.

The last few months, after a pretty good year, I've slipped with the comic, the Stories of the Wyrd, publishing submissions... Well, a lot of things. With sickness, travel, work, the theatre, I feel the need to reorganize my priorities because I gave up on some long term projects for a while.

Good news is that I did do most of last year's resolutions. I traveled to Ireland, did a trip across America visiting Niagra Falls and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I went to Seattle to see a friend, and have plans to go to Iceland this April. I didn't submit to as many agents as I wanted, but I did get my book out there more than I have before. I'm not sure I read 12 novels this year, but I did read a lot, including several books 800-1,400 pages. I've toyed with my website, which I assume will always be ongoing, but it is different and hopefully more accessible than it was before. And lastly, I very much did complete the three-year-old to-do list that I'd been working on for ages.

After some hiccups of 2015 and '16, 2017 really encouraged me to go after what I wanted, and therefore helped me figure out what it was I didn't want. My view of my future has changed a lot in the last couple of years, but admitting to myself what really mattered - free time to create - helped me make better choices for myself, and not worry so much about my credibility. A stressor that was never going to be completely solved.

Have a Merry Christmas and happy holidays everybody. The next year is coming, and we'll make it a bash!

-Cheers, Charley

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Friday, December 22, 2017

Why Your Opinion on Your Writing Affects Mine

There is something in the air that encourages humility and insecurity. I’m going to assume it has something to do with the holidays, though it’s more likely it’s just coincidence. Either way, I have been exposed to more people’s self-deprecation than I have in a while, and it made me analyze the way I think of them.

They posted their poetry. “It’s not very good, I know, but it remains true.”

I wasn’t thinking it was bad… until you said that.

They talk about their books. “I am so embarrassed about my book I’ve published, but you can buy it here.”

Probably not going to happen now.

They admit their fears and poor sales in their statuses. “TITLE isn’t selling well and people are lying to me about reading it!”

They post the negative reviews they receive, and though they rarely have that bad of reactions, they clearly care.

Are these bad things? Isn’t being vulnerable what connects us together? Isn’t being humble good and arrogant bad?

Do I mean to suggest that you shouldn’t talk about your failings to your public? Did I make a mistake in doing so myself?

Well, possibly, but my point isn’t so much as to not do it. It isn’t about to do it either. It is about the complexities of connecting with your audience, being honest with them and yourself, and exposing the difficulties of being a writer while at the same time “faking it until you make it.” In essence, when do you keep your problems to yourself? Because no matter how human you are, when I get the vibe you don’t like your writing, it strongly influences not only my willingness to take a chance on it, it makes me judge your work more harshly. But being human is also what makes people interested in what you have to say.

I obviously can’t say what is right for you, and I have no intention on doing so, especially because I am still struggling to determine what is just a discussion on the trials of writing and what looks petty for myself. I wrote about my worst book ever because I was surprised by its existence. It had returned me to problems I had long solved, ones that I hadn’t had to deal with in a while. It reminded me the possible outcomes of doing things like not outlining. I shared the experience out of wanting to tell my readers what I was working on, what I was going through. But what does it say to an eye that doesn’t know me?

Sometime back there was a young writer who posted a comment about why you should respond to reviews, despite that everyone had told him otherwise. He suggested that it made him seem “cool and professional,” and posted the comment for people to read and tell him their opinions. I lurked instead of submitting my opinion, knowing he really didn’t want to hear criticism on criticism, but he confirmed for me my belief that replying to a review online will never end well.

The criticism had several points, but mostly complained about the self-published writer’s arrogance. In his response, he thanked her for her remarks and told her that he would use her criticism to improve on his writing in the future.

His opinion that this made him look good actually didn’t. While I would have been somewhat skeptical of the review, his suggestion that he would do something about it said to me that he agreed with her. If, say, I had read his book and didn’t find it to be arrogant, I would be irritated. I’ve seen authors pander to their naysayers and throw their fans under the bus, and it not only comes off as insecurity, but ruins the storyline for those who already love it. Too many romance writers will take their charming jackass and magically change his personality or tell us that it was all an act all in hopes to satisfy those who found him unlikable and sexist. But those already burned aren’t placated, and those of us who enjoyed in the first place are now annoyed, our main interest in the book altered irrevocably.

His speedy agreement to improve his writing made me question his past desire to do so. Either it was superficially pandering, a promise he never intended on fulfilling which is disrespectful, or he did agree to her assessment, but why so quickly? His desire to respond to the review suggests a lack of experience in receiving criticism—he was obviously hurt and wanted the catharsis of replying. There was no other reason to do it. Most people will never know if you respond or not, and the honest truth is they don’t care. Unless they want to fight you, it’s not like they feel accomplished or grateful for your “Thank yous.” In fact, they don’t want to know that you’re lurking around reading everything. Don’t you have anything better to do?

If he had received criticism prior, they’d either talked about his arrogance, or they didn’t. If he had already been told he was arrogant, why didn’t he change it before? What was so special about this woman’s criticism that made him convinced now? It was unlikely that she had said something—by her criticism and his comment—that had finally broken the wall and forced him to fix it, which suggests the ‘he’s lying’ theory, or that he hasn’t been told any of this before. If he had gotten a lot of feedback and this was new, then I can’t imagine he’d take it so easily. When you’ve been critiqued a whole slew of times and someone comes up with something out of left field, it takes much longer to adjust to it. It is more likely that he hadn’t received much feedback on his work at all, and so his comments suggest, at best, inexperience over confidence.

When an author says that their writing is bad, I tend to take them at face value and assume it is. And that’s the best case scenario. It’s worse if I think you’re lying to seem humble or even if you just don’t have the taste to realize how not bad it is—which doesn’t bode well for the quality of your book in the end. How can you write well when you can’t tell what good writing is?

Of course we all have our biases against our own work, and it’s not uncommon for us to hate something simply because we made it. But while I don’t expect an author to always like what he’s done and sometimes we need to give our work to others before we can see the merit, it’s far more important for me as a reader to trust the writer knows what he’s doing; if he doesn’t think he does, why would I?

Be careful about announcing your insecurities publicly, whether that be to fans or critique partners. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you tell me that your book isn’t selling well, I’m not going to buy it, even though I know damn well that the reasons probably have less to do with quality and more to do with poor marketing. Yet I have so many options to read from, the chance that it is a good book with bad word-of-mouth isn’t high enough to make it worthwhile.

I have caught myself reading a poem or a piece of fiction online with no real opinion on it to only assume that it really is bad because the writer ended it by saying so. It also makes me question why they decided to share something with me that they didn’t think was to high standards.

When you write, you will be judged, but you will be far better to let them to their own devices than attempt to put your opinion in, especially if your opinion isn’t doing you any favors.

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Monday, December 18, 2017

Knowing Your Audience isn’t About Marketing

Sometime back I read a blog post by an indie author complaining about the bigotry of traditional publishers against the novella. He began by stating, “Size doesn’t matter, and if you think it does, then this article isn’t for you.”

So… who’s it for then? Those who already agree with you?

It wasn’t a well-written complaint. Some of his points made sense, but he made claims that seemed na├»ve—“I’ve never met a person who didn’t like novellas!”—and contradictory—“People don’t pick books by size. I personally like stories that only take me an hour to read.”

Rants aren’t as bad as we make them. Anger can discredit someone, easily making you appear emotional and foolishly arrogant, but they can also be fun, exciting, and empowering. There’s nothing wrong with a well worded rant, and it can even be sexy, charismatic. But you should be aware if you’re trying to make the choir laugh, trying to persuade a hostile audience, or just give information to the overwhelmed. How you broach that same topic will be different, as will your gauge of success.

Most blogs by new authors ignore who their audience is likely to be; they write for the impressionable minds of those new and eager to learn when, in most cases, their readers are the intermediate or even experienced folks who enjoy discussing writing and dig past On Writing and The Elements of Style to find the opinions of those less mainstream.

Who are you writing for? Because arguing with the choir and making off putting jokes at the expense your readers are easy mistakes to avoid if you simply consider who’s reading and your intent in posting.

It tells you how to talk to people.

There’s quite a few—at least half—of amateurs (and experts) who don’t like to be told what to do. Bossing them around with “Don’t do this,” and “Please don’t do that,” are likely to alienate them. I also think we have an obligation to check our work when advising people new to the business as well. I find most commonly repeated advice problematic and counterproductive; if your dialogue is terrible, punctuation and dialogue tags are the last thing you should be thinking about.

While offering advice, it’s useful to consider who you’re speaking to. There are some people, like me, who will take even small and seemingly superficial complaints seriously as long as they feel genuine, but get resistant at condescension and bossiness. If you seem like you don’t realize lots of people have a different opinion than you then you’ve lost a little bit of credibility with me. Partially out of practicality because it’s not uncommon that my feedbackers all drastically disagree with each other, and the people who believe their opinion is everyone’s are worse at showing me their perspective, more likely to take offense at questions.

But there are others who consider kindness, diplomacy, and respect as an act of weakness or submission, and advice without aggression and assertiveness will also lose credibility for them. Everyone’s filters for truth is different, but critiques always go better if you attempt to be persuasive and consider the human in front of you.

Knowing your audience is the same thing, except that it involves the many instead of the one. When I tell people to consider who they’re writing for, many of them balk pretty aggressively. At first I didn’t understand why until I realized that “know your audience” reads to some as “restrict yourself to a certain demographic for business purposes.”

Having a certain audience in mind doesn’t necessarily mean pandering to them, just understanding them.

Having a clear idea of the kind of the person reading just factors in how you tackle information. If you’re dealing with a fresh-minded writer with no prior experience in the writing world, how you advise them to restrict their adverbs is going to be different than when dealing with someone who has already heard it and already has a stubborn opinion. One will be more explanatory than argumentative, (Here’s the benefits) the other will be more personal than informative (Here’s situations it has worked for me).

You can say it’s not your job to be convincing, you just are there to deliver the information and if they want to be an asshat about it, that’s their own ambition, but I perceive that as a lazy and counterproductive stance to have. If you honestly want to help them and all it takes is a brief reflection on how you speak to them, what’s the downside? If the blogger doesn’t want to help them, then it seems like they’re just trying to get off on a power trip.

Plus there’s selfish motives to work on your persuasion. Just by stepping back and putting yourself in your readers’ shoes, you’ll find that making successful decisions is easier and you will gain more respect and authority from your peers.

Yes, you can get yourself pigeonholed.

Sometimes your audience is restrictive. If you start to be successful as a science-fiction writer, you might find that your loyal fans throw a hissy fit at your new historical romance. When you know you’re going to do something that your audience doesn’t like, should you not do it?

Unfortunately, there is no right answer. Sometimes you should do what you want despite the backlash. Sometimes you shouldn’t. Sometimes you can find a way to have your cake and eat it too. But it’s useful to not blind yourself to your audience’s potential reaction merely because you don’t want to hear it or don’t agree with it. Even if you do decide to ignore their wishes, you’ll be prepared for the reaction and handle it better.

Knowing your audience is understanding that no book has ever been recognized as genius by everyone. Shakespeare, James Joyce, Hemmingway, Charles Dickens, Kerouac, and even J.K. Rowling all have their haters. It’s understanding that writing well isn’t binary. It’s understanding that the obvious complaint is not always the issue, and finding the subtle reasons something doesn’t work requires a consistent measuring stick.  

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Friday, December 15, 2017

It’ll Be Different When…

It’s the worst lie anyone can tell you. Not because they don’t believe it, and not because it’s malicious, but because they do believe it and expect you to trust them without any action backing them up.

This excuse the most common lie I hear working in a collaborative setting. It’s the most common betrayal my friends and coworkers and peers and even those I’ve hired tell me. They always have their reasons it will be different, and it never is.

If you’re not working hard because it’s not an “important project,” you won’t start working hard just because it is.

If you think it’s okay to blow someone off because “you’re not getting paid,” you won’t start being responsible even when you do.

If you don’t enjoy doing it because you “don’t like the project,” you’re not going to start enjoying it just because the project has changed.

They sound like viable excuses, and it’s easy to be fooled into being understanding or empathetic. But the real difference between now and “when” is that “when” isn’t now, it doesn’t have to start today, you don’t have to do the work immediately. You can wait until it’s important.

But you’ll find that even as these things change, even as you get paid more or the project becomes yours that laziness doesn’t go away. You’ve practiced for all of these years being unaccountable, you’re not even going to understand the subtle habits it takes to be successfully responsible. And there’s a decent chance that you will never get paid more or given more control because no one thinks you’re competent.

You claim, “That’s not fair. They haven’t given me a chance!”

I know how it feels. In fact, I’ve been there. Back when I first graduated college, a place that rewarded solely good first impressions, redemption never a possibility, I felt they weren’t giving me a chance to shine, to show what I really could do. As I turned to ‘more important’ projects, I struggled to be competent in areas I previously eschewed as irrelevant: professionalism, attention to details, showmanship.  I’d always thought it would be easy to clean something well or have good handwriting—areas that seemed so simple if I just took the time—and it turned out that there was a certain amount of undefinable skill that I’d never really practiced and couldn’t even fathom why I wasn’t successfully achieving it.

Don’t start a path expecting to easily escape when it gets rough.

I watched someone grow addicted to cocaine. At first he said, “I’m not buying it. If I ever buy it, then you know I’m in trouble.”

Then he started buying it.

“Well, I can’t just mooch off of people. But I’m not carrying any of it.”

Then he started carrying it.

“Just in my car. It’s not like I’m bringing inside the house.”

“It’s not like I’m stealing to get it.”

“At least I’m not selling it.”

It’ll be different when… I know I’ll be addicted when…

Your reputation follows you.

In my college there was a tech major who I asked if he wanted to help produce some of the plays I was working on. He pushed it back and pushed it back until he finally left me in the lurch, which was ridiculous because not only did I give him creative freedom, I didn’t actually require much from him. I would have been happy with the bare minimum or anything he was inspired to do.

So when, one day, I was working at a theatre in which the director needed a tech director for a production, and he asked me what I thought of the guy, I told him the truth, “He’s good, but flaky. If I were you, I’d give him one assignment early on and if he blows you off, get someone else.”

So the director followed my instructions, the guy did blow him off, and he was fired. He never even got the second chance. Maybe he would have had he not already done the same thing to me, and I believe that he might have come through at the end. But his behavior was stressful and unprofessional and he wasn’t putting his best foot forward.

Then the theatre in which we worked decided to hire a tech director full time. My fellow student had submitted a resume. The Artistic Director asked my past director, knowing they had worked together, about my fellow student, and the director said, “I don’t know. He’s really flaky.”

Prior to that they had been seriously considering him for the job. He never got an interview.

Fool me once…

My director on another play wanted to hire his friend, a musician, to be a part of the show we were producing. However, after the script had been written with spots for his music in place, the friend decided it was “too far of a drive.”

We got another one of the director’s friends. We asked him for a self-assigned deadline. He missed it, and claimed it was written, he just didn’t have the gas money. Give him another week. Then he said he needed to meet the cast. Then he said that he just couldn’t get the tune right. I told the director to fire his friend. He told him we were going to cut the music all together. I went out and found someone else, prefacing my request by saying, “You can tell a fake musician because they don’t meet deadlines.”

This was a paying gig.

Later on, Blow-Off #2 called and asked the director to work with him again. They did, and it went as you would expect. Upon another one of my productions, he called again and said, “Remember me? I wrote music for your play!”

“Well, I remember you not writing music for my play…”

Apparently he still badgers the director when they’re going to work together again.

Laziness is a trait, not a reaction.

I had a stage manager with a bad habit of being lazy. She stage managed as a volunteer and in many cases I just needed a button pusher and did most of her “job” myself. It didn’t bother me in itself, but I did make jokes. She always grinned and said, “It’ll be different when I’m getting paid.”

Then she got hired for another company.

“It will be different when I’m getting paid a decent wage.”

“I’ve seen you at your day job, my dear.”

Cheatees never prosper.

A friend of mine was cheated on. It didn’t count, of course, because they weren’t officially in a relationship. Then it didn’t count because they were on a break. It wasn’t cheating because it’s only online. He didn’t actually have full-blown sex with her. Finally, she ended it “once and for all.” When he begged her to come back months later, she told him that she would on a trial basis. He told her he loved her, he wanted to marry her, why didn’t she trust him? Didn’t she get he had changed and it was all in the past?

He left her for another woman. Because “she didn’t trust him.”

Mastery is in the details, and details are hard to master.

In high school, I created what I wanted to create. I didn’t care about standards or professionalism, and what came of it were strange and aesthetically intriguing ideas that were half assed and hastily slapped together. I didn’t edit my essays. I didn’t bother to follow the formulas. I never thought anything was important enough to really make “good,” it was always “good enough.”

And then, when I did want to make something wonderful, when I wanted to win a contest more than anything, when I wanted to astound people with my art and create a finished, polished product, I didn’t know how to do it. No matter how hard I tried, I didn’t even really understand what professional was.

Maya Angelo says when someone shows you who they truly are, believe them.

Judge people by their actions, not their promises, and when someone claims “It’ll be different when,” don’t believe them.

If the pay is not enough to do your best, don’t agree to the job. If the project is beneath you, tell them to find someone else. If you’re not interested or you don’t have the time or you have certain stipulations to your contract, make it clear in the very beginning. Do not wait until tomorrow to do your best, and do not break promises. If you can’t stand by your word, it doesn’t matter what the situation is, people can’t trust you.

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Monday, December 11, 2017

If You Don’t Understand the Publishing Process, Do NOT Publish

Impatience is a virtue.

Like most flaws and bad experiences, there are benefits to the negatives. College was the worst time of my life, but it taught me great strategies in dealing with passive-aggression and social politics. My hypersensitivity makes me emotional, but have an extremely high interpersonal intelligence. My fear makes exhausts and limits me, but it forces me to learn and understand patterns quickly.

Patient authors are likely to never publish at all. I personally have been writing for 15 years now and am actively submitting a manuscript to agents for the first time this year. In my writers groups, the ones who have map out a reasonable allotted set of months to finish never do. The ones who want to publish, “This year,” are those who get it done.

Impatience is the strongest motivator in finishing. It’ll inspire the writers to take risks, not over think things, and get their work out there. Actually submitting is the name of the game, and few people are ever going to be certain if their work really is ready.

So why wait to publish?

The criticisms of impatient authors are not without merit. Most self-published books have quality errors due to haste; not just typos, but rushed pacing, no real ending, non-atmospheric summation, and just sound like the writer was trying to get something out as fast as humanly possible. It’s not just the prolific authors who have a fanbase to appease—who often learn how to write quickly through practice—but many beginning writers intentionally and arbitrarily decide to write a low wordcount from the jump because it seems less daunting.

I don’t agree that the worst thing a writer can do is publish before she’s ready. I believe it is far, far worse to hang onto something out of fear. Never submit something you know is half-assed, but persistence and putting yourself out there are the foundations to success in any situation. In some cases, it’s better to take a chance and get rejected than not.

But, that being said, there are definitely ramifications to publishing far too soon, and the biggest one is when contracts are actually involved: in other words, the scam.

Some weeks ago, a woman excitedly posted a Facebook status about her book being picked up. Immediately, red flags were sprung. Something about the way she said it, “A publisher has picked up my book for their self-publishing package!”

“Picked up… self-publishing package”?

That’s not how self-publishing works.

I went to their website—a Facebook page, their website was a broken link—and it became immediately obvious that this was not a good deal. A scam? Maybe not, in that I believe scams have to be intentionally malicious. It seemed more like a small start-up of people who probably didn’t want to work with big publishers and thought they could do it themselves without really understanding how the process works.

But even if it wasn’t about stealing money, it was not a good deal by any stretch of the imagination. No ability to buy books online, cost of books was much greater than market value, authors paid for editing and brought in their own covers. They were looking for editors on Facebook. The one book they were promoting’s deadline was being pushed back for “editing reasons.”

In truth, anyone who calls themselves a “Hybrid Publisher” is offering a bad deal; the hybrid is always the worst of both worlds for the writer. The writer pays while losing creative control, and as of yet, no hybrid publisher has a good enough reputation to ease writers into getting in bookstores. Unless they can offer buy-back, they have a proven record of quality control, and they can offer the books at competitive prices, the self-publisher will have the same amount of difficulty getting her books in on her own.

I nervously messaged the author my concerns, not sure I was overstepping my boundaries. She was grateful for the heads up and, luckily, we parted ways on good terms.

Not long after, I came across a discussion on Two tech-based individuals decided to change the ways of publishing by creating an algorithm and a contest in order to maximize writers’ chances of success without having to deal with “gatekeepers.” There was a great deal of controversy because it involved putting your book up online, which loses you First English Language Rights, because they didn’t seem to be having a great deal of success getting their books out there, and because they just didn’t seem to know how the publishing process worked period.

But! One of their writers, Erin Swan, has been picked up by Tor, a publisher of some of the best speculative fiction writers in North America.

Problem is, publishing is evolving, and it’s possible that a company that doesn’t work like the others is really being innovative and might be the best for you. I remember some years ago being at a writers conference that disparaged self-publishing which then embraced it the following summer. I don’t particularly recommend Inkitt for a myriad of reasons, but is it a scam?

Which brings me to yesterday. A young woman posted an (almost illegible) rant about a publishing company taking her for a ride. No contact, leaving her in the dark, making her pay for editing and cover art, trading her editors, and now threatening to sue her over 200 dollars she owes them.

I’ve previously worked as a paralegal; my boss, a humanitarian and court-appointed criminal lawyer, charged the court 180 dollars AN HOUR. When she took on cases that weren’t being paid for by the government? More like 600. Here we had three young English majors in charge of a “publishing company” threatening to bring the author to court despite multiple breaches in contract by subverting deadlines over 200 dollars.

I’m normally not the type to get annoyed at the victim, but I was astounded with her naivety.

“It looked like a contract you would get from a lawyer too!” she insisted when I suggested that maybe their threats weren’t anything more than idle.

Don’t ever sign something if you don’t understand it.

The author had no idea what the job of the publishing house was supposed to be. She had no idea she would be charged over a thousand dollars when signing, and she had no idea that wasn’t typical.

Going to their website, there were red flags everywhere. Typos and spelling errors, a lack of focus in what they actually did, no online store, poorly crafted covers, only three books in their portfolio.

Sometimes it’s hard to know what you’re looking for. If you don’t have a strong understanding of proper syntax and punctuation, it’s difficult to recognize that someone else doesn’t either. If you don’t know much about how books reach stores, you don’t know when you’re being taken for a ride or if it’s pretty standard.

So learn. Do your research. Understand the difference between self-publishing, traditional publishing, vanity presses, and scams. Understand what a small press is expected to do for you. Understand what an agent is. When interested in a publisher, find out more about it. Look at their website, Google search them. Be clear on what the expectations are, what it’s offering, and what you get out of the contract. Research options even if you know you aren’t interested in them because it will help you protect yourself in the long run.

If you have a manuscript, and you’re ready to publish, here’s the things you should consider…

What does an agent do, and do I need or want one?

Your experience with each agent will vary, but typically your agent will make suggestions to your manuscript for quality and marketability. After alterations have been made, she will then query editors she thinks will be interested. If your book is picked up, she will then negotiate the terms—her experience in the market will make her better equipped to recognize good and bad deals—and read through your contract to protect you.

Publishers who are inundated with manuscript submissions will work solely through agents to cut out some of the poor quality. Agents also, typically, have working relationships with editors and understand their interests as well as have a foot up due to familiarity.

If you are self-publishing, there are some agents who will take on your work as an advisory role and may be able to help with strategy and promotion, though that is a fairly uncommon choice, especially because there’s not a lot of money for the agent in that route, so it begs the question of their credibility.

If you are interested in working with the big publishers and/or as a career writer (in traditional avenues), working with an agent is just about a requirement and will protect you in the long run.

If you are self-publishing or interested in a small or localized printing—such as you have a memoir that would only interest a small area—you may consider forgoing the agent.

How much do agents charge?

An agent will NEVER charge a fee or any upfront costs. Any attempt to do so is a scam. Sometimes they may charge for reimbursement fees, but that will be spelled out in a contract. They make a percentage of the author’s sales, usually 15%. Publishers pay money to the agent, the agent deducts her commission and forwards it to the writer.

How do I terminate a contract with an agent?

Both parties should have the right to terminate a contract at any time. Prior to having made a sale, this can be as simple as sending an email, however some contracts do state the specific procedures. Some ask for a certain amount of notice or for it to be a physical letter. Also, it’s important to remember it’s a small world and not to burn bridges.

In the publishing industry, a lot of contracts are book-by-book, and that’s a good thing. Some are you work together until you decide otherwise, some have a time limit. The only real one to be cautious about is if the agent wants first rights to the next book, or all proceeding books.

What does a publisher do?

This also varies, and has changed a great deal over the last decade.

Typically, a publisher…
                -Financially finances the project, including editing, design, the author, and some of the marketing. (Yes, the publisher pays you.)
                -Has experienced, in-house professionals who have been vetted through years of work.
                -Has one or more editors work with the author to improve and polish the manuscript.
                -Creates a cover design, formats the interior.
                -Offers promotional strategy and budgeting (this has shrunk in the recent years.)
                -Pays printing costs.
                -Has connections with brick-and-mortar bookstores.
                -Is able to buy back unsold books from bookstores.

Some publishers are ebook only nowadays. Some are start-ups and you’re taking a chance on their reliability and experience. Some try for a “hybrid” of sorts, which is usually in the worst interest of the writer.

The important thing is to understand why you’re pursuing a publisher in the first place, if they actually offer what you’re seeking. Don’t let attention blind you just because you feel wanted. Is the contract what you’re actually after?

Small press or large press?

It’s not wise to tell an agent you’ll only accept offers from the Big 5, and many people don’t really have a choice; they get offers from who they get offers from. However, it is still portion of the decision making, and even if you’ll gladly go with whoever you can—or maybe especially—you should still understand the difference, predominantly…


Truth is, some small presses are nothing more than self-publishers promoting other’s books. The important thing to realize is that small presses have limitations, but they might still be valid options if they will do certain things for you. If you know they produce quality work (by checking out what they’ve made), with good editors and designers, it may be worth selling your first book through them for both financial and reputable reasons. Or it might you might decide that having a print version is most important to you and know to pass on the offer.

The problem with small presses is telling which options are valid and which ones are scams. With big publishers, you can check the name and history, know their works offhand, and easily require standard expectations. When dealing with a small, it’s extra important to do your homework. There are little things you can do like check their website for ease of sales, prices of book should be on par with the market, and real businesses will be filed with the government for tax purposes, which is viewable online.

Is self-publishing actually an option?

Self-publishing is hard. I would argue harder than the traditional route, but it also depends more on what you like to do and what you’re good at.

But yes, it’s an option. People have been successful with self-publishing, and a successful self-published book can be later picked up by a traditional publisher. However, if you are considering this route, you must understand why the self-publisher was successful, and what happens if your book flops.

There are still stigmas against badly selling indie books. It suggests some naivety and arrogance, plus you’re showing the results of what your capabilities. Poorly selling traditional books aren’t a good thing either, but it’s just not the same kind of black mark.

If you’re thinking about self-publishing, think long term. What are your goals, and how are you planning on going about them?

Self-publishing is not an easier way into traditional publishing. If your endgame is to be picked up by a trad. publisher, the easiest method is through persistence, education, and networking via the standard means.

The works that do best in self-publishing tend to be more commercial.

You will make more money off each sale, but you will have to sell your book for less. Even if you sell on par with trads, their costs are lower.

You won’t get (and don’t want) extra credit for being an indie. Your book still will need to be at the same level of quality. Writing with poor execution because your story “is good enough,” just ends up burning readers.

You can, theoretically, do it for free, but you need to be diversely talented, sociable, and dedicated.

Don’t bank on being the exception or the Chosen One Penguin is going to happen across and mentor. Make a game plan.

Don’t just trust what you read on the internet.

That includes this post. This is just an overview of what I have learned about the process through years of discussion, workshops, conferences, and reading, but I’m no expert. Things change, misinformation is past on, misunderstandings and Chinese Whispers occur. People outright lie on the internet. Post a question about any binary grammar rule on Facebook and see an acute split of opinions. One half with be adamantly supporting the wrong answer.

Think about your sources. Use your best knowledge and instinct. If something seems wrong, ask more questions. Keep your eyes and ears open. Don’t let anyone bully you just because you don’t inherently trust them. Be diplomatic, but cautious.

Find people who have done what you want and learn about their history.

Think about whose career you’d like to have. Next Stephen King? Read his autobiography, On Writing. Read his interviews. Read articles about him.

Inspired by the success of The Martian? Think about how much he charged, how much he spent, how he promoted, and his history as a writer.

Be careful about hand picking and choosing tactics. Too many writers shoot themselves in the foot by feeling entitled to certain luxuries without regard to context.

Before you publish, know what it means. 

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Friday, December 8, 2017

If the Solution Seems Simple, the Problem Isn’t

Well, probably.

The more I overhear writing criticism, the more I see problematic trends in how we respond to each other, how we answer questions, and why advice is often unhelpful.

Let’s be honest, how many times have we read a “how-to” guide online to have it do nothing for us? How often do we ask a writing question while truly anticipating leaving with a good answer? With better understanding? With an epiphany?

Part of it is the nature of the biz. It’s not uncommon for us to just be asking, “Is there any way that this can be made easy?” And the answer is no. Often we know that before we even speak.

But I also find that we are more likely to dismiss the questions as impossible without really analyzing them. Ask about writer’s block and you will be told it doesn’t exist. As how to make money as a writer and you will be told you shouldn’t be writing for that reason. Ask if you should do A or B and you will be told, “It’s your book. Do whatever you want!”

A personal peeve of mine is when someone states, completely rhetorically, “Why don’t you just…” as though whatever it is they are going to say is easy and obvious. Actually, it combines all of my irritation in one. I find criticism works best when the speaker acknowledges that there isn’t one way to do something, just that this choice will achieve… and then explains it.

Which is one of the reasons we don’t do that. We stick to vague and dismissive comments like, “it’s unnecessary,” and “why don’t you just…” and “QUESTION MARK?!” because the second we bring up reasons to make a change, it gives them room to argue. But that’s the point. Enabling them to discuss the pros and cons of any given situation helps them to better understand the benefit. Arguing, civilly discussing what you’re thinking, is a key ingredient to successfully processing new information.

Most criticism focuses short term. I once found myself in an argument with a large, aggressive lawyer after he belittled all the members of a writers’ group. I believe, to this day, he just wanted everyone to tell him he was right. The argument snapped off abruptly when I said, “Even if you are God’s gift to writing, you’re not always going to be around to tell everyone how to do it! Show us your thought process!”

Today an author was discussing how members of his workshop told him not to say, “He made a disgusted face,” but to describe it. His point was much more about the emphasis people put on showing over telling than the actual example, however someone asked him, “Why don’t you just say, ‘He scowled’?”

If you have ever written anything remotely long, you probably understand why these kinds of statements are short term and possibly overly simplified.

Do you know how many times you can use the words, “He scowled,” in just one book? Let alone over an entire career?

Then there’s the other problem of “scowl” being only one portion of conveying disgust. In certain contexts, an audience member might think that he was angry, confused, or even jealous. A big epiphany for me was when I heard the phrase, “Don’t use a twenty-five cent word when a one cent one would do,” and realized the emphasis is on “would do.” It doesn’t necessarily mean that the smallest word (or phrasing) to correctly convey something is actually a small word.

I suppose the bigger issue is this “fixing the trees without seeing the forest,” mentality. As a writer, you’re constantly stepping away from the project and then walking closer, all the while having people shout at you their perspectives and angles. A writer might be told something is “wrong,” and when he goes over to double check, he’s trying to understand where the critic was standing, what the critique meant by “wrong,” how to fix it, how the entire big picture looks when he makes a change, and if it needs fixing at all. It’s even possible that the flaws of the trees were what made the forest so beautiful. Meanwhile, someone else strolls along and sees the author fixated on this one piece of damage. He thinks, “Just cut it down!” not realizing of course that the writer is still going to have to deal with a multitude of other trees and comments, and he can’t just cut them all down, especially when their absence could negatively impact the entire wood.

You can’t just delete something every time someone complains about it, or you’d have nothing left.

When you see an author obsessing over a little thing, the most useful action is to acknowledge that obsession isn’t just foolishness. Sometimes rehashing a conflict in a critique is a means to understand it. Sometimes the problem and solution are much bigger and more complicated than strictly about that one specific word. Maybe that word is a symptom? Maybe that complaint comes up again and again? Maybe the writer’s perspective is conflicting with what the critic claims and he’s not sure if it’s ego, different tastes, or the critic being controlling?

Whenever someone comes to you with a problem, they’ve probably already thought of the simplest answer. For whatever reason, they rejected it, and even if their rationale was flawed, dismissing them flat out isn’t going to solve anything. Start by understanding where they’re coming from, figuring out why they care, what the actual details are, and then explain your own perspective and thought processes, make arguments for your case, and always remember that if they’re freaking out about something so seemingly small, it’s probably not about just that.

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