N is for Nope

Hello, and welcome to the April A-Z Blogging Challenge! Over the first 26 days of April, we will explore aspects of writing and marketing books – authors, feel free to weigh in, and readers, feel free to observe and ask questions!

-M

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You know, one of the finest pieces of the indie (or self-pub) author community is the general willingness of authors to pass along advice to newcomers. This is usually couched in terms like, “don’t do what I did,” and today I am going to be a part of that proud tradition. Don’t do what I did. Learn to say no: to other authors, to readers, to editors, to agents, to publishers, and above all to yourself.

I said yes to almost everything when I started out: interviewing other authors, running social media accounts everywhere, hosting giveaways, and assigning myself writing targets anywhere in the range of inadvisable to utterly insane. No matter how over-scheduled I was, I would tell myself that it was only a little bit more effort. I was paying my dues. I was helping other people out, and what sort of sad person couldn’t take an hour to help out another author? What sort of person couldn’t get another book done within the month? (An over-scheduled person, and a normal person, respectively. That’s who.)

My burnout took two and a half years to arrive. In the Walker Art Center sculpture garden near my house, there is a series of granite benches with little truisms carved into them. One of them says, “There is a period when it is clear that you have gone wrong but you continue. Sometimes there is a luxurious amount of time before anything bad happens,” and my burnout was a lot like that. It went on for long enough, with me promising myself that I’d stop for a rest after the next book, the next interview, the next clever advertising push, and still somehow not burning out, that I managed to believe it wouldn’t ever happen.

The thing to remember here is that everyone watching could see what was happening. In lucid moments, even I could see it. But just as an author’s brain is capable of both believing their book is the greatest book ever written, and the worst book ever written, so we are capable of believing that we are approaching burnout, but we are also not approaching burnout and everything is fine. It’s a Schrodinger’s author thing.

All the more alluring is the siren call of art-ly misery, the longstanding myth that True Art comes from depression and alcoholism. Pardon my language, dear readers, but bullshit. True Art in the form of writing comes from writing, writing, more writing, editing, rewriting, honing, and writing some more. Like any craft, it becomes art by dedication, passion, and discipline. Though you will undoubtedly go to dark emotional places while writing, your art no more requires your misery than any other part of your life. You’d never think cooking a good dinner required unending emotional pain, would you? No. But when we’re tired, over-scheduled (because being busy is a virtue, you know), and courting situational depression, there’s that little voice telling us that this is how things should be.

Learning to say no is a solution that takes a lot of guts. We’re authors, so we’re mainly introverts. We may write epic space battles, but in reality a lot of us have trouble getting the courage to call for pizza. And what’s more, we generally like being helpful. “Oh, sure, I’ll just whip up a book that contains every painful lesson I’ve learned in this industry, it’ll take a few days, tops. Hopefully I’ll still be able to finish my manuscript in three weeks like I planned, though.” We know it’s conflict avoidant, but most of us still don’t have it in us to say no.

So say it to yourself first. Yeah, Stephen King got up at 4AM to write. Yeah, you could do another blog post. Yeah, you could spend some more time interacting on twitter. Yeah, you could get that book out in 9 weeks instead of 12. But maybe try saying no next time. Pause to think before telling yourself, “of course I can do that!” It takes a lot of willpower to say no to yourself, and a lot of practice, but if you can learn to stick up for your health when talking to you, you’re golden!

On Quality

Every once in a while, quietly, an author wonders why some other book, some book that is not nearly as good as their book, is doing so much better than their book is doing. Why do readers pore over the pages of that book, the author wonders. Why are there so many fans on facebook, why do readers line up thousands-strong for book signings or – envy of envies – movies?

This is normal, this desire to measure ourselves against our peers. Humans do this constantly. It may not always be healthy, but it’s certainly normal. Healthy, well-rounded adults experience these feelings from time to time. And it may really trouble them. All normal, all within the bounds of healthy behavior.

What is not normal or productive is when these musings spill out into the public sphere as fully-formed thoughts, as musings we have turned back on everyone else. Readers only like crap these days. Or: Everyone’s looking for an easy read. Or: No one gets my book. Or: Publishers aren’t willing to take a risk. You want more? I have more. I’ve heard a lot. Heck, I’ve thought some of it.

And you know where this leads? It leads to one of the single most unproductive discussions that any set of artists has ever had about the state of art in the world, namely: why are such awful works getting all the attention?

On the face of it, it makes sense. Author A has only one work, and that work is riddled with typos and poor characterization, and Author A is now a millionaire and you are working at Starbucks even though you have a book that is properly-formatted, (almost entirely) typo-free, with a stunning plot and characterization, just the right amount of quirk. All in all, your work is a masterpiece. You think it makes sense to ask if perhaps you should turn out typo-ridden crap so that you can at least have a shot at proving that money can’t buy happiness.

Here’s where I must ask you, and ask you honestly, three questions:

  1. Where, exactly, does this bitter wondering get you?
  2. Can you think of any better, surer way to get success as an author than to keep producing really good books?
  3. Why do we entertain the notion that readers don’t have a grasp on what makes a good book?

On point the first, I will say only this: spending time wondering why a “bad” book is doing better than yours is about as productive as spending your workout time not working out, but instead wondering how Jim seems to subsist on french fries and still maintain his svelte figure. That is to say, it is not as productive at all. Go write a good book. Or write a book of typo-riddled crap. Pick one, be honest with yourself about your goals, and shoot for the moon.

On the second point, throw everything you want at me about clever marketing and million-dollar advertising budgets, I have yet to see a single more effective and successful path to success than continuing to show up with good books for people to read. Provide me statistics that contradict this and I will (a) believe you; and (b) be really goddamned impressed.

Lastly, there is this thought, which is (again) very natural to have within the confines of one’s skull, which is that no one “gets” your work. Someone called your book “a good read” and you wanted it to tear them open emotionally. This has happened to me. And I love you all, and I feel your pain, but please listen to me when I say this: your readers are not wrong. Think, think, of the books you have loved and raved about to your family and friends, only to have them say, “eh.” Think of all the books they have told you will turn your world inside out, only for you to think, “eh.” Think of it! You will get readers who have read your genre inside and out, you will get readers who have never cracked open a book of its type before. Every single one of them will see the book a little bit differently, and they. Are. Not. Wrong.* Your book was not finished the moment you wrote it – it is finished when someone reads it and thinks about it, and I am sorry to say that at least some people will hate it. This is unavoidable. It is also natural and even healthy to feel crushed when someone reads your work and doesn’t like it (although I recommend finding some way not to be crushed, because that gets exhausting). What is wrong is to take this (very natural) thought and, instead of dismissing it, actually say out loud that your readers don’t know what they’re talking about.

What I’m getting around to is this: make your books the best they can be. No book can please everyone, but every book has the potential to be its best self. It’s really useless to sit around wondering why other authors have so many more sales than you do, when you could be editing your manuscript or writing a new one. Solicit feedback. Take feedback. Edit ruthlessly and often. Listen to your readers and write better books in the future. Write because the stories are all bottled up inside you and you can’t stand another minute with them not on paper. Write because you love to write, and edit because you want your readers to have just as moving an experience as you did, and the truth is that the words don’t always come out right the first time.

Also, it’s no fun being cynical all the time. I was a teenager once, I’ve tried that.

Go write.

-M

* Please note that there is a way for readers to be wrong, which is to review the wrong book, a la, “this book is about the life and death of the Mongolian water beetle” when it is in fact a cozy murder mystery. This sort of wrong is extremely rare. Also, please note that, “this book is crap” does not constitute slander. An example of slander is, “this author punts baby hamsters in her spare time and is an illegal arms dealer.”

 

The Author’s Pledge

The authors pledge

Motivated by a combination of Don Maass’s “Writing the Breakout Novel” (a million thanks to Tammy Salyer for recommending it), recent and well-publicized kerfluffles in the community, and some recent reading about personal accountability and perfection, I present you with The Author’s Pledge – just in time for NaNoWriMo!

The Author’s Pledge

I, [author name], pledge that I will support the writing and reading community, both by emphasizing quality in all aspects of my own work, and by supporting writers, readers, and industry professionals. This means that…

  • I will be vocal in my support of a reader’s right to dislike any book, in my support of authors whose books and personal characters have been unfairly targeted, and in my opposition to the concept of banning books
  • I will not leap to conclusions in internet kerfluffles. Instead I will weigh the evidence and if necessary make a carefully-worded statement
  • I will remember why I love books, and why books are important to society. Because of this, I will thank the authors whose work has challenged me, inspired me, and gotten me through really tough times in my life – and if I am lucky enough to have fans who tell me the same things about my books, I will make time to listen to them and thank them for reading
  • I will pay it forward by sharing my hard-won knowledge with other authors, without fear that their books will surpass my own
  • I will remember that authors are not in direct competition with each other, and I will promote deserving work without fear for my own sales
  • I will remember that we are all here because we love books, and I will therefore judge other authors and publishing professionals by the quality of their work, by their comportment as an individual, and by nothing else
  • I will remember that just because my name is on the cover, the book was not produced by me alone, because no book is. I will acknowledge and thank everyone whose work has gone into my books: my editors, copy-editors, formatters, cover artists, agents, publicists, lawyers, friends who got me coffee and listened while I sobbed about my work, fans, beta readers, book bloggers, and anyone else whose effort has contributed to the final product
  • I will understand that writing is an art I can always hone but never master, and I will strive to make my work better by writing, reading, and accepting criticism
  • Before I send a book to my editor, beta reader, or agent, I will not accept a single word, phrase, paragraph, or plot point that is “good enough.” So help me, I will beat my head against that piece until it as perfect as I can make it on my own
  • I will edit my work with increasing ruthlessness every book, and I will also admit that I alone cannot be responsible for editing my own work. Then I will seek editing help*
  • I will put my readers first by emphasizing quality in all things: writing, editing, cover art, formatting, and any other facet of book publishing that may exist in the future. If I cannot complete a task on my own, I will find someone who can, because that is what my readers deserve
  • I will take final responsibility for the work that comes out under my name

May your NaNoWriMo (or November, if every month is NaNoWriMo for you) be fruitful and illuminating!

-M

* Seriously, people, I cannot stress this enough. DO NOT make the mistakes I have made. Get editing help. This is a piece of hard-won knowledge that I hope you spread as much as possible.

 

When Advice Doesn’t Work

Quick! Stop reading writing advice!

…actually, wait. You know how every single author out there seems to have a quote that says, “keep writing”? Yeah, you can take that advice. That one is gold.

Now, as to the rest of it? That advice, you can toss or keep as you see fit. When listening to writing advice, do not be blinded by the fact that the speaker is a successful author. The fact is, there are as many ways to write as their are writers. I know you’re nodding along right now, but you probably do not actually believe me, so I am going to illustrate this point with martial arts, instead.

A little-known fact on the intertubes: I am a second-degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do. As such, one of the major responsibilities is to teach other students how to do various kicks, punches, and blocks correctly. On the one hand, there is indubitably a correct way to execute these movements, in terms of body placement. On the other hand, every single person who does Tae Kwon Do tells their body how to do this set of things in a different way, and some of these ways are highly esoteric. It ranges from, “I need to get my foot there,” to, “I am imagining a string attached to my foot, yanking hard,” all the way through to, “I am picturing the rush of water through a mountain stream.”

And so, when teaching, the best thing a black belt can do is offer their own advice to someone who is struggling, and then say, “and if this doesn’t work for you, go ask around – all of the black belts will teach a little bit differently!” No two black belts will tell you how to execute a move in the same way, and by the time you reach black belt, you will have a philosophy built up around the way you practice. Your philosophy may even have changed a few times; part of it is learning to persevere and achieve, being open to experimentation in how to get from A to B.

I’ve heard black belts talk about the freedom of learning to work with their body and hone their muscles and flexibility, and other black belts talk about the fact that they’ve learned that their physical body is not important at all. Both of these groups have impeccable form and can do incredible things. In fact, were you to watch them do the same list of movement, you would think that they were doing the same thing. But the way they get there is completely – completely – different.

It is the same with writing. Some writers will sit and let the words pour from their fingertips, and edit later, while others agonize over each word in every sentence. Some writers do both of these, depending on the piece or their mood. Some writers let the characters guide the story, and some writers like to keep a very tight rein on their characters and plan the story out in advance. The way you get from blank page to manuscript will not be the same way that anyone else does it.

So the quote from Vonnegut that tells you that you should never, ever use semicolons? The quote from Stephen King that says that you should never even have wanted to use an outline? The quotes that tell you that your prose is either too full of adjectives, or doesn’t have enough of them? The advice that tells you that you must either read everything, or stick to the classics, lest low-class writing sneak into your mind and taint your precious writing skills? You can take it or leave it. Ask around until you find a writer whose advice speaks to you, and don’t worry that you are on the wrong track.

Keep writing. That is the holy grail of writing advice. Everything else is optional.

-M

Updates

Hello, Gentle Readers!

A brief note: my website was apparently targeted by a brute-force attack sometime yesterday. InMotion shut down access to the site, and the hackers do not appear to have been successful. Hopefully this will not happen again!

After the flurry of activity that was importing all current works into Scrivener, I have begun to wade into writing again. Heaven, Purity, and the Light & Shadow short story set are all seeing modest progress! This morning began early, sending my husband off to a business trip, and I have been writing as the sky got lighter. Now I am all ready for my first nap of the day…

As a note to other indie authors out there, I have just finished beta-reading a lovely short story by Scott Zachary, and I am once again free to be beta-reading or reviewing indie books! If you have questions as to what I read, head on over to my Contact page!

Hopefully, everyone’s weekend is going well!

-M

P.S. If you’ve read any great indie books lately, please think of leaving a review. Reviews, positive or negative, are invaluable to authors and readers alike! As always, if you have any feedback on my works, you can feel free either to leave a review or send me feedback directly!

Why Bad Reviews Matter (and What to Do When They Appear)

One hot topic that comes up on the author forums is how to cope with bad reviews? There have been a range of responses over the years, from the fine strategy of making no public comment, to the less fine strategy of exhorting one’s loyal fans to harass the reviewer (hint: don’t do that). Authors, who have have poured their heart and soul into their works, struggle to be okay with bad reviews. But the thing is, bad reviews actually aren’t as horrible as we generally feel.

Here are some reasons to let go of your fear when facing a bad review:

  1. Not every reader has the same taste. One reviewer may pan your work for exactly the same reasons that another reader gives it five stars. Therefore, a one-star review that says that a book has too many action sequences, or too much of a romantic sub-plot, or not enough magic, might be a review that actually entices another reader.
  2. Negative reviews show readers that real people are reading these books. A range of opinions is to be expected if enough people read your books, and people will be wary if they see a sea of five-star, glowing reviews, with nary a criticism in sight. No book is universally beloved, and readers know that. Leading into that …
  3. People are generally reasonable. If the average person reads a review that starts out, “I got one paragraph into this book and hated it,” that average person is smart enough to take the review with a grain of salt. Readers are not delicate flowers who must be shielded from the slightest hint of a whisper that our work is not perfectinstead, they are reasonable people with a wide range of opinions (see #1), who are perfectly capable of making a decision to buy our books, even in the face of vitriolic dislike from other readers.
  4. They reviews are right. Yes, ouch. On the one hand, many poor reviews have bizarre reasons (too many Es! I hate books that feature horses in any capacity! The author’s pen name reminds me of my least favorite cousin!), but a lot of brutal reviews highlight areas for improvement in your writing. A lot of people say that you should ignore reviews, but I’m actually of the opinion that you should swallow your pride and read the bad ones. You might discover a massive plot hole, a really bad typo, or a systematic issue in your writing that (when fixed) will make you a better author.
  5. You love writing. Wait, what? The reviews of my first book were … well, mostly, they weren’t. No one was interested in reviewing it. One person did review it, and they didn’t like it very much. And you know what? I kept writing, because I love writing. And the next books were better. Trust me when I say that I know how much this bad review hurts, and trust me, also, when I say that even if your book is being panned across the board, that in NO way means you should stop writing.

Of course, these reviews will still hurt. You will still be tempted to tell the reviewer that they are wrong. If I might offer some suggestions, however …

  1.  Expect the bad reviews. Every book, no matter how good, has bad reviews. You will get them.
  2. Have someone to vent to in person. Not online, in person. You need a friend who will sit sagely through a rant about how wrong your reviewer is (or your tearful rant about how right they are), and then pour you another martini, or cup of tea, or whatever it is, and then tell you that you have an incandescent talent and you should go write more things. Because you do. And you should!
  3. Do not engage your reviewers … as this almost invariably goes poorly. The rule is, there is no classy way to tell a reviewer that they are wrong. The one exception to “don’t engage” is bullet point #4.
  4. …unless they mentioned typos and you are writing to ask them for any egregious ones they found. This is acceptable. Use discretion. Have a friend oversee the email before you send it. And thank both the friend and the reviewer for their time!
  5. Know what constitutes slander and harassment. Slander is not disliking the book, such as, “this book had no redeeming qualities and I hated it.” Slander is an attack on the author, such as, “I have determined that this author runs an illegal drug-running business and routinely murders kittens.” Harassment is not, “I do not recommend this book.” Harassment is, “here is the author’s address, I recommend that people go to their house and heckle them.” If people are slandering and harassing you, absolutely contact the host site about the review. If they just really, really hated the book? Let it go.
  6. Have a plan for when a bad review comes in. This plan is a collection of things that help relax you. Tea? Running? Baking? Meditation? Hanging out with friends? Just know what will help you calm down, and be ready to do that in case the bad review really throws you for a loop.

Authors, do you have anything to add? Any tips and tricks?

-M

Finding Your Other Thing

This week’s blog post is short and sweet, although a little punch-y! Let me just say in advance that this advice is hard-learned by yours truly, and those of you who have gotten the hang of this down should absolutely leave comments sharing their tips and tricks. -M

If any other authors out there are like me (and evidence suggests that there are at least a few), they are fairly introverted, A-type people given to prattling on about writing at the drop of a hat, getting up in the middle of the night to write, daydreaming about writing while not writing, and wandering around with their nose stuck in a book. We love books: writing them, reading them, smelling them, and crying on them when sad things happen. Furthermore, the outside world often seems unnecessarily loud, and – in any case – we feel better when we’re accomplishing things. Like writing books.

The thing is, as much as authors talk up writing and discuss the necessity of spending X much time writing and Y much time reading…in the grander scheme of things, you need more than that in  your life. Oh, I’m not saying that you won’t spend weeks (sometimes months) in a haze of sleep-work-writing-sleep-writing-sleep-work-reading… But when you view the larger picture, remember to have a slightly wider focus! That’s ridiculous, you say. There are hardly enough hours in a day to write, you say (let alone read). I have a job, you say. So how am I supposed to fit more in? Well, all I can say is: please try. Find your Other Thing(s).

You see, as an author, you are trying to describe, distill, drop your readers into an incredibly lifelike experience. You are doing very focused, consistent output of information, and that means that you need plenty of input to go with it, and you need some relaxation, some time when you’re either allowing your mind to drift to things-that-are-not-writing, or, if you have trouble getting out of writing mode, some time when you are actively distracting yourself.

Just like you’d be worried if one of your close friends started working 95 hours per week at their job, and showed up only occasionally to social events with shadowed eyes and the chihuahua-like disposition of the caffeine-addicted, so you must be vigilant to your own behavior. Make sure you’re seeing sunlight. Make sure you’re moving about on a regular basis. Cultivate interests from the serious to the ridiculous – whatever it is that feeds you as a person!

For instance: I have running, home brewing, gardening, and video gaming. Each of these Other Things gives something back to me: perseverance, discipline, attention to detail, relaxation, ridiculousness, sensory input that I can describe later. And because those things feed me as a person, they feed my writing. Remember, it is not laziness to spend your free time doing something other than writing. You’re a very driven person, and you want to succeed. I empathize!

But, seriously. Have you considered going outside and wandering around the neighborhood with an iced-tea? (Or a hot tea, if you’re in a winter-y climate right about now.) Don’t worry. You can write about that walk when you get back. I promise.

Darkness

As summer begins in earnest, I find myself utterly captivated by the plants growing in our garden. There is daily progress, from the barest hint of green shoots to the unfurling of leaves, and the tiny blossoms on our pepper plants. I go out and stare at them sometimes, and I get to feel as if I am not wasting my time – it’s a captivation, an entrancement, and I try to find words for it so that someday, I can share it through the lens of a character.

At the same time, I write. I write Science Fiction, which I have always found to be a fairly null genre term, being so very broad (then again, I suppose that Fantasy is much the same). The next piece is shaping up to be very short. I don’t want to say too much about it, for fear of spoiling it entirely. It involves dragging thoughts out of the subconscious and holding them up to sunlight, and that is a terrifying process.

Of course, there is the usual business of life: getting up in the mornings and putting on reasonable clothing, making meals, cleaning the house. My husband and I are training for Tough Mudder together, and I promise to post suitably-impressive pictures of thousands of people covered in mud.

As a side note, I am still open for reading and reviewing indie books for July!

-M

Sharing

Most of the writers I know are introverts, people who would rather spend the night at home trying to thrash one sentence into the correct format rather than go out to a club (and not just because they would have to put on pants to go out). This makes sense on the one hand (inside! writing! alone!), but not when one considers the fact that writers routinely put little pieces of their soul out in front of the world on a routine basis. It’s as if writers create some bizarre average: instead of sharing minor details of their lives with acquaintances at bars, they share their innermost thoughts with complete strangers. And then wait for approval. This probably explains why writers seem to go around being anxious most of the time.

(This is a great time to recommend Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, which presents the sometimes-overwhelming neuroses of authors, and humans in general, in one of the most sympathetic lights possible. Also, it is hysterically funny. I hunch over my desk on my lunch breaks, snorting quietly into my curry.)

This brings me to my main point, however: what does an author share online? Does she share the absolute chaos of the writing process, or does that ruin the mystique of the finished product? Will her readers be enchanted that she does backyard gardening, or will they decide that she is a boring person? In short, the terrible fear is: will something I say ruin the impact of my books?

Readers, writers, what is your thought?

-M

 

The Piece You’re Afraid to Write

I am afraid to write one of my stories. It has been in the works for years, collating and shifting in my head, characters coming to life and fading into the background as others arrive. It is truly impossible to describe what this piece means to me – it is my mirror, held up to the world, both as truthful as I can make it, and a strange mix of pragmatism and hope. If I do my job correctly, you will see through my eyes, you will love these characters as completely as I do, you will be as devastated as I am.

If, if, if. I am terrified that it is not going to work. I am afraid beyond measure that people will stare at the words, blankly, and wonder why they meant so much to me.

So, today, I am afraid. I have downloaded the drabbles and outlines I have written over the years, and – wrapped in a blanket against this unseasonable chill – I am beginning to arrange the pieces, beginning to write. I have no way to know what will come of it.

That feels like an odd note on which to end a post, so I will share two things with you:

First, the backyard garden I built with my husband on Saturday! We have blisters and cuts all over our hands, and the tomato plants look a bit surly to have been taken out of their planters and put out in the cold rain, but we are very, very hopeful. As Ron Finley said, “Gardening is the most therapeutic and defiant act you can do….Plus, you get strawberries.”

moira garden

Second, a question for all of you: I assume we all have a few by now, but who was the first character whose death made you absolutely bawl? Movies, books, videogames, any form of media. (And, everyone – general spoiler alert!)

Have a lovely Monday, all!

-M