Friday, November 17, 2017

Picking Your Battles without Being a Slave to Criticism



I get told a lot, “But if the story is good…”

“But if the story is good, people won’t care about the typos.”

“But if the story is good, I shouldn’t have to write a wonderful pitch.”

“But if the story is good, they shouldn’t obsess over the cover.”

“But if the story is good, they won’t question the flaws in my logic.”

“… the continuity errors.”

“… if my character is likable or not.”

“… the underdeveloped scenes.”

If the story is good, I shouldn’t have to work on it.

Sometimes I find the belief in destiny hold people back to unfortunate extremes. What is the story if not for the execution? A good story is not just concept, or a few pithy lines here or there. In fact, as an devoted reader of self-published works, I can say that it is far more aggravating when a wonderful idea is being marred by little, catchable flaws the author stands by with some misdirected sense of loyalty.

I’d argue, in fact, that an author can sell a novel with no real concept but wonderful execution far easier than someone can sell an idea with terrible writing.

If you’ve been to even one writer’s group, I’d wager you’ve seen someone be stubborn about a decision. And if you’ve read even one of my blog posts, I’d wager you’ve seen me be stubborn about a decision. I can’t count how many times I’ve locked down in a staring contest with someone who really, really wanted me to delete that adverb.

For once, I’m not being a hypocrite here. Well, not on this subject, anyway. I come here lecturing picking your battles, but I am not advocating blind obedience. Rather, I am saying, smartly choose what you want to fight about.

Sometimes that is something as little as an adverb. Sometimes people will bring the fight to you, and you won’t want to stand down just because it’s an inane discussion.

A woman who, I believe, merely skimmed my work without reading, noticed when I wasn’t notating a specific comment in my notebook. When receiving criticism, I always write things down to let the speaker know I’m taking them seriously, which gives them confidence, encourages them that I’m listening, and takes the burden off of my non-emotive face. Also, of course, it helps me to go through later. Over the course of her critique, however, this woman proved more and more arrogant while less and less experienced. She seemed closed-minded in many ways, and had a shockingly low reading-comprehension. (She was a very literal person, and, as I stated, I don’t think she actually read any of it.) So when she pointed out a word she didn’t like calling it redundant, I told her that it would make the meaning of the sentence the opposite of what I intended. She demanded to know why I wanted his question to be rhetorical, that it should be genuine, and then proceeded to suggest the most poorly worded, explanatory sentence because that would be better than an adverb.

I decided not to argue, putting my pen down and waiting for her to move on. Probably a minute of silence passed between us before she said, “It’s only one word.”

Yeah. And you’re wrong.

I made a mistake, however, in arguing with her. As much as I advocate against the idea of merely thanking someone you don’t agree with, there are times and people who you simply listen to: not because they’re an authority or you respect them, but because they don’t take criticism well themselves.

If someone you think highly of says something that you don’t agree with, asking questions and clarifying why you don’t agree is useful. I can’t tell you how many times disagreement came because I misunderstood (or they misspoke) what they meant. Rarely has the best criticism come from their initial statement, but the conversation that followed. The day I talked to the above woman, I had three other critiques that went extremely well, with respectful dialogues in which my critique partners were able to argue their ideas in ways that clarified and evolved to my understanding and vision.

The reason I argued my point was not to defend my choice, but because I was still of the mindset we were to have a healthy conversation. When she told me that the adverb was redundant, my initial reaction was confusion: Is it clear it’s not a real question without the “pointedly”? I told her what I was trying to do for the direct purpose of getting us on the same page.

In some ways, I was right to do so because had I, theoretically, just accepted the criticism, I would have taken her at her word and just deleted the word, altering the sentence to a completely different meaning than what I thought the audience was hearing. However, what I assumed she was saying had a complete disconnect with what I was seeing—because there was a disconnect.

In most cases, discussing the writer’s intention would enable the two of you to reevaluate the words from your new perspectives; the critic could reread and ask herself if she slipped up (yes, readers sometimes make a one-time mistake in haste), or why the author’s meaning wasn’t conveyed to her and the best way to do so, while the writer, now aware of this alternate interpretation, can step back and also figure why there was the miscommunication. The conversation is more informed, making it easier for both parties to come to a successful solution about if the problem really exists and how to solve it.

But in her case, it became a battle of the wills. She needed to be right, and I refused to placate her by lying about my agreement. I didn’t want to argue either. She had already convinced me she was a naïve rule-junkie, incapable of independent thought; having figured why she wanted me to do it and not agreeing with her reasons, there was no benefit to trying to prove her wrong. It’s just waste both our times. I genuinely can’t say if I was being moral by not fibbing to make things smoother or immature, and I won’t claim that either is the best option for you. I tell you this story because it is a prime example of picking your battles, but not fighting doesn’t necessarily mean obedience.

I read the other day about someone who got in an argument with a potential agent over the title of his book. I found the title to be generic, forgettable, and a little meaningless. I couldn’t exactly understand why he loved it so much, or why it was something he had fought for. He said he’d change it if a publisher wanted him to, but he liked it better than any of the others, and instructed his audience to keep a title if they like it.

He also mentioned how this particular agent had given him a criticism on his blog about looking hard to work with as well. I’ve seen agents make statements about the unwillingness to change titles specifically being a sign that you are awful to work with. I had to wonder if this particular blogger picked his battles and had reasons for keeping it other than he liked it and he didn’t see a reason to change it.

As I say, if I strictly followed writing rules I wouldn’t like my writing at all. If I never listened to them, I wouldn’t like my writing as much. Pushing myself to meet seemingly shallow or irrelevant requirements have made me reexamine the potential of my manuscripts, and via being critical yet willing, my greatest writing came from caring about others’ opinions.

You don’t have to obey people until you have a good reason otherwise. And authors are made to be heard, not seen. Sitting silently while being talked at isn’t exactly effective means to understand your work. Yet, just because you like something doesn’t mean it can’t be better. We all know a writer who can be foolishly stubborn; if you want to be different, you have to consider what fights are valuable and which ones are simply reactionary.


Fight the good fight, but do it smartly.



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Monday, November 13, 2017

Why Hybrid Publishers are Bad for Authors



Facebook is a well of made-up information. I don’t condemn it, exactly. It’s impossible to spend our lives verifying everything. Sometimes unconscious anecdotes hold more truth than our logical minds can understand, and if you want to be a functioning adult, you have to be capable of acting on impulse, which means drawing conclusions without the hard, cold facts.

However, Facebook is not to be trusted. I once read a stream of comments about whether or not to use “past” or “passed” in a sentence, and the speakers were split right down the middle. There is a correct answer here, folks, and 50% of them were absolutely certain about the wrong one.

There’s a lot of misinformation on self-publishing. The process is difficult; you can do everything right and still come out with nothing. But what’s scary is how often people prey on the new and hopeful, and how easy it is to end up being taken for a ride… even by completely well-meaning individuals.

While the aspiring artist has always been a target for scams—a lot of people seeking immediate reward and banking on destiny tend to make unthoughout decisions—the average writer has to be extra cautious today because he can up in a bad situation even though people meant no harm.

With the advent of ebooks and accessible printing options, anyone can easily become a publisher via self-publishing. All you have to do is come up with a name. I could easily have your book published within the week if I wanted to; e-format, paperback, hardcover, you name it. And I could even be remotely decent at it, considering the hours I’ve spent doodling covers instead of writing.

But why would someone want to go through my publisher? I have no experience in selling books, no name recognition, no connections in the literary world. If I was going to invest financially in your novel, we might have a deal, but a lot of these start-up publishers don’t spend money.

Instead, they offer a self-publishing, traditional publishing hybrid that always yields in bad results for the writer.

Self-publishing is not the right path for some, yet the better option for others. It takes a certain personality type to be successful, and it’s not for the faint of heart. Many people would do better in a traditional setting where they can be advised by experienced professionals, having their weaker points and inexperience supplemented by another person’s hard work and opinion, and, of course, get money they don’t personally have to back their beloved project. There are others who are loyal to an idea that doesn’t fit the current literary atmosphere, they prioritize creative control, they have an eye for good business, or simply don’t play well with others, and would be better suited as an independent author.

It’s not anyone else’s job to tell you which path you should take, and in fact, any reason you choose your direction is a good one. It’s your book.

But while you don’t need to explain yourself, it’s important to not choose an option lightly. While self-publishing is less stigmatized, authors still need to be careful about going public with their books because past decisions can affect future ones.

Hybrid publishers are companies who want to claim the label of publisher without any of the financial risk. In actuality, the only difference between traditional publication and self-publication is who’s footing the bill.

While looking at publishing, it’s important to understand what a publisher does. Things change at a rapid rate nowadays, but typically publication works like this:

Author applies to agents who have an understanding of the market, contracts, and personal connections within publishing companies. If an agent likes an author’s manuscript, she signs on that book, helps the author with some revisions, and attempts to sell it to acquisitions editors. While the ideal is for the agent and author to work long term with each other, most publishing contracts are book-by-book, and it is actually a red flag if a contract discusses future manuscripts. Both parties have the right to end their relationship at any time, and the author/agent have may not wish to work together on the next book (though it is important to remember that publishing is a small world and screwing someone over is likely to get backfire.) Sometimes a publisher might contract an entire series, but that’s not common. Because the agent has more experience knowing what specifically editors are looking for, knowing what is a reasonable sized advance, and recognizing bad deals, she protects the author from making a naïve mistake that may ultimately screw him over. Some publishers don’t require agents to submit to them, but these are usually smaller companies who aren’t inundated with so much “slush” they can’t keep up. The agent takes around a 15% commission and does not get paid prior to selling the manuscript. They will never ask you for a fee.

The acquisitions editor is queried individually by the agent. The editor then brings her selection before the board and has to pitch the marketability of that book to get them to approve. They allot her the amount of money they are willing to spend on the project, and she, the agent, and the author negotiate terms.

The editor then spends time working with the author to revise and edit the manuscript. The manuscript may be passed on to a different (developmental) editor during this process, or may even be passed to several (technical editors or line editors). The amount of power the author has with these editors varies. The company will hire a graphic designer for the cover, to which most beginning writers have little word on, sometimes not even be allowed to see it prior to publication. The writer may or may not have say on the title.

After the book has reached its final stages, it is sent to a copyeditor for grammar, for spelling, capitalization, punctuation, typos, continuity of style, and clarity of thought. The copyeditor rarely has his name given to the author nowadays. The writer goes through the correction and marks what she would like to change and stay the same, then the book goes to be printed. At this point, if the author wants to make any drastic changes, he is charged for extra costs. This process is expected to cost a publisher $50,000-$100,000.

Big publishers will then send out “ARCs,” Advanced Reader Copies, to select individuals who they believe will benefit their marketing, such as well-established reviewers.

The amount of money that goes into a book’s marketing budget varies nowadays. Some smaller publishers do not budget any money for advertising at all and expect authors to promote themselves. Some small publishers offer little help, but give the writer a small amount of funds for advertising. Larger publishers are getting notoriously more and more frugal in their marketing of debut authors, and it’s becoming more up to us to make ourselves successful.

However, the most important aspect is that a publishing company pays for the editor, the designers, and the author. While Print On Demand (POD) only publishing is growing more and more prevalent, the publisher should also be fronting the cost to put physical copies in bookstores if they claim that is what they are going to do. A big reason it’s difficult for self-publishers to get their books into bookstores is that publishers have a buy back option, in which they will pay for any books the stores didn’t sell, which most writers can’t afford.

When it comes to self-publishing, the author takes on the responsibilities of the publisher. He funds the graphic designer, the editor, the proofreader, the cost of printing, and all other duties that he cannot do himself.

The good side is he has more control over who he’s working with, the final say in all aspects of the project.

In essence, money is power.

Following along, you can start to see why hybrid publishers might be the worst of both worlds for the author.

Hypothetically, it’s possible that you have a highly experienced team of publishers with knowledge who want to help out the little guy and cannot do so by taking on the full financial risk, but that’s not why these companies come into being.

Hybrids aren’t necessarily money grabbing schemes; sometimes they’re just people trying to take the terrifying business by the horns and put themselves into a position of power. They mean well, but they don’t have the leverage to start a company in the right way. It can be virtually free to produce a book nowadays, so if you can get a writer to pay your editors and find their own cover (which many of these new publishers will ask for), you can easily be a publisher without spending a dime yourself. Some people think the system is broken and want to change it, but don’t have the money to do so. This ideology is laudable, but problematic for the writer, especially because many of these “innovative” entrepreneurs don’t truly have an understanding about why the system works that way.

In honesty, there’s not much of a reason for credible, experienced editors to work for them. Editors are in high demand right now, and if you have a nice resume, it’s easy to find work within a company that pays you directly rather than being a middle man, and if you don’t want to work for someone, there’s plenty of writers to freelance for. These companies “hire” inexperienced editors and hand them a manuscript.

So, instead of getting an editor who has championed and fought for your manuscript as you would with a traditional publisher, and instead of hand selecting an editor you’ve vetted and budgeted for as you would in self-publishing, you have an “Editor-in-Chief” who takes on as much work as he can, making money off each one no matter the quality, and then hands it off to his underlings, often who he found on Facebook.

One of the best ways to recognize the validity of a publisher is to learn literary jargon. Many of these new publishers misuse words like, “royalties,” “editor-in-chief,” “blockbuster,” or “book proposal.” It’s difficult to know what you don’t know, but once you start understanding common terminology, you’ll be more quick to recognize bad deals or fake professionals.

What you can do right now is make a list of what you want from a publisher. There are downsides to traditional publishing, and while I am a huge advocate that it’s the best way to go for some people, there are many occasions in which an author would better off going the independent route. If a publisher wants you, but you’re not actually getting anything you want out of the contract, self-publishing might be better.

Do you want a print book in bookstores? Then you want a reputable publisher that bookstores feel safe stocking. Look to see if any of their authors stock books in local shops (many will share links on their websites to those stores out of support, or simply to brag about the fact they’re actually there).

Do you want accessibility to readers? You might find that it’s difficult to research these authors online. This may mean that they’re fake, their publishers don’t have a good website, or that they don’t coach authors on how to promote themselves. None of these are good signs.

Do you want financial investment? Let’s be honest, the biggest reason for traditional publication is to have someone else take the monetary risks. If you’re paying, that’s a huge strike against why you’d want to work with them.

Do you want a knowledgeable and experienced team to help you with your career? The credentials of those involved should be upfront. If they have an amazing team, they’re going to advertise it, especially if they’re small. If the company is mostly faceless, not sharing their book acquisitions, success stories, or staff, it’s because they don’t have something to brag about. Publishers will always talk about best sellers, awards, and stellar staff members on their website if they have any. If they don’t, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re bad at what they do, but remember that the whole point of getting roped in with someone else is they can do something you can’t.

Are you squeamish about hiring people? I know I am. Something highly appealing about the traditional publication process is that you’re less likely to get left in the lurch last minute. These people have worked with each other before and face greater ramifications for not coming through. If that’s the case, it’s okay to ask about the company’s hiring process and who these people are. If they are hesitant to communicate with you, you shouldn’t be working with them artistically.

Do you want respectability? A lot of people idolize traditional publication over self-publication because of the “look” we might get if we said we were self-published. And it’s not without merit. The look is real, and I, an avid reader of indie books, know all too well just how poor a self-published work can be, so it truly doesn’t mean the same to say you were picked out of a slush pile as it is to say you put your writing online. While it might be nice to announce you were picked up by a small press, the people who don’t know much about publishers won’t know if someone’s self-published, while the ones who do are likely to treat it the same as self-publishing. If all you’re getting out of something is name recognition, make sure it’s actually a recognizable name.

When it comes down to it, it’s simply about valuing your contributions and not allowing fear or impatience to make decisions for you. It’s not just about finding a place that will have you, it’s about finding the right place.



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Friday, November 10, 2017

Author Question: Why Can the Greats Do What they Want?

“When I write poetry, I am criticized when my writing is open to various interpretation. It’s seen as too abstract or vague or unclear. Yet there are poems considered great that are telegraphic, short, vague, complex.”

So askth the confused college student, and so sayth I.

Back when I was getting my degree, I first came across this struggle. I wanted to impress my teachers, find freedom in expressing my creativity through skills, and honestly write something that I could be proud of, something “good.”

But what is a “good play?” I began to wonder.

Part of the problem was the hypocrisy of the department. At the time, I suppose, I had been convinced by academia’s assertion that there are good books—books of quality, literary acclaim—and bad books—amateurish commercial pulps and the like. This doesn’t really sound like me (I was an argumentative little bastard who wasn’t so convinced by what I was told), but when I went off to my university, I had hoped to honestly increase my ability and attempted to accept the “truths” that I had been fighting.

Yet like most people, my younger self wasn’t entirely wrong in what she was thinking, and she soon came to find that the common denominator through good works and bad works didn’t exist. My professors constantly changed their minds and arguments to suit reputations, to look smart, or to just confirm what they already wanted to believe. It took me some time and a lot of heartache to realize the truth many wiser people had been telling me all along: Subjectivity is a real thing.

So my answer to this confused student is first and foremost to remember that your existing reputation affects the impact of your work. Sometimes the difference between a good book and a great book is merely the binding. The faith that someone will have in a published author they pick up in a bookstore will change their emotional investment from what it would be while looking over a manuscript.

Before wondering why the greats can get away with something that you’re criticized for, it’s important to always keep in mind that the shallow differences are huge factors in people’s reactions to something, which is exactly why shallowness annoys the living daylights out of most of us.

Unfortunately, there’s more to it than that.

It’s possible that he has the wrong sorts of readers. I don’t like vague, open writing. I struggle to relate or connect to it. If I don’t think there’s an answer, I don’t waste time puzzling it out. If I wanted to make up what something was about, I’d just write my own piece. Progression and genuine perspective is pretty important to me when it comes to the enjoyment and impact received from something, so these Rorschach tests just don’t do it for me period. From that point, it’s hard for me to say why those who are really into Artaud or Beckett or Ionesco like them so much, and therefore difficult for me to pinpoint what makes them successful and not other writers.

But both of these things are giving more credence than what is completely honest. If I were to trust my perspective, if I were to say exactly how I felt, it would be that if your writing looks like you believed whatever thoughts you happen to spit up are a work of genius that everyone will automatically appreciate, I’m going to write you off as an inexperienced hack.

While recognizing some bias, I’m not completely wrong. One of the reasons I found my college so exasperating was the fact that the professors would praise Ionesco up and down for one thing, and then tear a fellow student to shreds for the exact same action. I could argue the difference; it’s not as though I think Ionesco is a terrible writer, nor did I find my classmate to be a good one. It’s just that my professors’ arguments never made much sense. They lacked cohesion, and, more importantly applicability.

I don’t believe if Ionesco had been their student writing the exact same scripts, they would have seen him as a genius. The factors that went into that decision seemed far more external, less about the work or the artist and more about keeping up appearances.

Which meant that despite all of my efforts to understand what made a good play in their eyes, it wasn’t going to help me gain their respect. They respected who they wanted to.

My fellow students took this to heart as well, but attempted to gain approval through sheer mimicry. One of the things they picked up on was how the greats (especially in our Absurdist dominated department) left things up for interpretation, were vague, weird, and did things just for the sake of doing it. One of the top phrases I heard from my peers was, “It’s about whatever you want it to be about.”

The problem? I didn’t care enough to make it about anything. It just seemed like they were showing off impersonal nonsense. It seemed easy to write. It seemed superficially pretentious. Their productions weren’t entertaining mostly because there didn’t appear to be much to chew on intellectually. I could sit there and bullshit—the vagueness made it easy to grab random images and roll with it, but that was part of the problem. There wasn’t enough content for one argument to make more sense than another. They were right in that it could be about anything, and that’s what made it so boring.

Open writing, the kind that has multiple interpretations, can be interesting because there are wrong answers. You keep mulling over something because what you’ve come up with isn’t quite right. There seems to be more to it, so you dig deeper. If the first thought you have makes sense enough, you’re not going to keep thinking about it. This is especially true if the author admits they have no idea what they were trying to write.

Even though I’m not the biggest fan of poetry and the worst fan of ambiguity, this problem is important no matter what you write.

The greats will be doing something people tell you you’re not allowed to do, and you won’t know how to handle it.

My suggestion?

1. Make sure you that you know what you actually want to be doing.

If you don’t like something but you think it’s how books are supposed to be, or if it’s something you don’t enjoy or appreciate all that much but think that great authors get away with, it might save you some time and heartache to go a different direction.

But if it’s something you genuinely like when others do it, regardless of their time period or expertise, it’s valuable to try and figure out how to make it work for you.

2. Always factor in the level of respect between you and your critique partners.

If someone has a high opinion of you and they’re telling you it doesn’t work, take it seriously. It’s still subjective, but others might share their opinion and you might find that you at least partially agree. If, however, they look down on you or are competing with you, seek out more opinions from alternative sources and be comfortable with ignoring them if you think it might be a matter of, “You’re not good enough to do that.” People who feel empowered from the failure of others tend to pick on surface level differences instead of analyzing real issues.

3. Know their personal tastes.

You give me a vague and weird poem, I’m going to hate it. That doesn’t mean it’s bad. People genuinely don’t like the same things, and if you know they’re not a fan of the style you’re trying to create, don’t be surprised when they don’t like what you’ve done. It doesn’t mean their opinion is wrong, necessarily, but it’s wise to take a fish-out-of-water at face value, but press further when the person normally likes that kind of thing.

4. Remember that criticisms aren’t always about what they seem to be.

Just because someone says the issue is vagueness, it doesn’t always mean the problem is that you’re too vague. A lot of criticism focuses on the solution to the problem, or the symptoms of the real issue.

For some, it’s not that there’s room for interpretation as much as it seems like you half-assed it. An open ended poem could be good, but this one just reads like you scratched out something off the top of your head and then want others to do the work of finding meaning in it.

Discussion about the bare bones of the issue can be difficult. It’s harder to prove, more often based on perception and opinion, arguable, speculative, and even just plain judgmental. But it’s important because even if “this is half-assed” isn’t true, it’s still the main reason they didn’t like your work. Or worse, if it is the case, making your poem less vague may not actually solve the problem of it looking like there’s no heart.

5. You’ll never learn by not doing.

If it comes down to the issue that it’s not the reputation or their tastes, it’s you, the only means to fix it is through practice. It doesn’t make sense to try and learn how to do something by doing something completely different or avoiding trying. So if someone tells you you’re not good enough to write in a certain way, they’re really not trying to help you get better.

You want to write some successful open ended poetry? You do it by writing open ended poetry and figuring out why it is or isn’t successful. Certainly skills are transferrable through different styles, but overall, continue to strive for the voice that you enjoy, not for the one that’s easy or what people think you’re allowed to do. Focus on improving, not restricting yourself to what allegedly works.


You might end up redefining what “open ended” actually means to you, or realize that you don’t genuinely  appreciate those kinds of poems. Maybe you’ll understand what’s missing, or realize that you were completely misinterpreting their complaints (it’s happened to me pretty frequently.) But you’ll only learn these things by pushing what you want to do further, not avoiding it until your reputations allows for it.



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Monday, November 6, 2017

The Immortal Lifespan of Your Novel

“I wrote The Egg in an evening but it took years to write The Martian. Sometimes I'm a little sad that The Martian wasn't anywhere near as popular, but I guess it's a niche readership. Hard sci-fi isn't for everyone,” Andy Weir once told Reddit.

I’m usually a Susie-Come-Lately. My to-be reads are often books that have not only hit the height of popularity, but fallen from it. Often decades ago. Recently I’ve been finishing up with young adult books I’d been planning on reading since I was in the demographic—and finding my cynical adulthood problematic in my enjoyment of these things.

So imagine my surprise when I first learned that the writer of The Martian, successful sci-fi novel and movie, was the same guy who wrote “The Egg,” a short story so memorable that I recognized it years later despite having only glossed over it when it was making the rounds.

Andy Weir was one of the reasons (the second being Leigh Bardugo) that caused me to start posting Stories of the Wyrd and realizing how a good, free short story could sell a novel.

Today I found this quote on Andy Weir’s AMA (Ask Me Anything) on Reddit and it covers some interesting bases from all sides.

I’m the first to say that speed of writing has no consistent correlation to quality. Despite what people may say, a quickly written work could potentially be better than an arduous one because it was written quickly, with no censorship, a better sense of flow and continuity. Let’s not lie to ourselves, it can also be a tangent-filled mess while a piece that took a long time could be just as precise and meaningful as you’d want. I’m not advocating writing as fast as you can, but that you can’t judge a book by how fast it wanted to come out.

The second part is more obvious: “I’m a little said that The Martian wasn’t anywhere near as popular.”

He wrote this right after “The Egg” became an internet phenomenon, but before The Martian hit its stride.

If you don’t travel in sci-fi circles, The Martian is a sort of rags-to-riches story, being initially published online for free before he offered it up on Kindle for a buck. From there The Martian became a New York Times bestseller.  The Kindle version sold way more than the free, and an agent got in contact with Weir. Random House quickly bought up the rights, and four days after signing with them, Hollywood called.

Matt Damon starred, and the film was a financial success, making 630 million worldwide.

“I’m a little sad that The Martian wasn’t anywhere near as popular.”

Notice the past tense?

It’s not entirely wrong to consider a book’s debut its lifespan. Typically, the largest percentage of sales happen right at launch; if you’re going to hit the best sellers list, it’ll be early on. Self-publishers agree that having more book will make you more successful than trying to sell one.

But what makes us think a book is dead?

Despite having far more to go with The Dying Breed, a lot more to try, I have long been considering the book “unsuccessful.” Though it receives compliments on its craft and my credibility, and I personally like the book immensely, it has never gotten much enthusiasm, even compared to another, less polished novel I’m working on. I’ve commented on its genre, and how I first started it just before the peak of dystopian novels, finishing the edits once the dystopian thing has become more or less has-been. My plans entail shopping it out a little more, but ultimately I expect to put it aside in favor of more marketable/hooking novels, perhaps self-publishing at a later date. I’ve been distinctly considering going on an “American Tour” of writers conferences perhaps in 2019, and I doubt this will be the book I’m still shopping around.

So this quote hits me hard.

Despite all of the stories about great books not being well received, living in anonymity, or even being outright criticized early on, I’ve sort of developed the unconscious opinion that a book is received how it is received, period. If a novel is written in the forest and no one’s around to read it, can it be any good? Quality is measured by perspective, and I know better than anyone how we don’t always agree on what is great. So why is it that I’ve started to lump everyone together?

But I’ve been doing that a lot lately. I suppose it came from my years of giving people the benefit of the doubt and getting bitten. I’ve been struggling with stereotyping and generalizing, realizing that people really do follow the patterns laid out for them more than I ever thought. When I say that I would take advice from my younger self, not give it, a big part of that would be my yearning for my unflappable belief in diversity and confidence in my perspective.

I’ve sort of had this acceptance that I will continue to work in obscurity, putting things out there and seeing minimal change in reaction. I’m not entirely dismayed to think that. I don’t necessarily want fame and the attention that comes with it, but I do wish that I’d make enough money to survive, and that I could touch a good number of readers like many books have touched me. It’d be nice to make something iconic, something with a costume or name that most people would recognize if referenced. I want a good number of people to care, and I want to be financially free enough and creatively respected enough to do what I want without too much restriction.

Several of Stephen King’s books were written prior to Carrie, published after his debut novel’s success. J.K. Rowling was rejected by 12 publishers until a child happened to read it. One-hundred-and-forty publishers rejected Chicken Soup for the Soul. Twenty-four literary agents turned down The Notebook… but the funniest part of that story was the very first response he got was an acceptance and he sat back thinking others would follow suit. They didn’t.

We can tell these stories time and time again, but it’s pretty easy to put yourself into a box, see what “kind of writer” you are, and call it a day. Same goes for your novels. “I’m a little sad to see it wasn’t successful.”


Things change. Life isn’t as predictable as it seems at times. You can’t judge a book by how long it took to write, you can’t judge it by first reactions. I’m not entirely sure what you can judge it by, but it helps to remember things aren’t set in stone.



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Friday, November 3, 2017

Life to the Author!



Raiden chews his nails. Libra does not.

It’s something I realized somewhere in the middle of hundreds of drafts. I caught the male protagonist biting his cuticles several times throughout the storyline, even in the drastically trimmed version where many scenes got completely removed—he did it enough that this bad little habit stayed.

If you know me, I chew my nails. Badly. I chew my nails and my hangnails and my cuticles and my skin, I bite at my lips and the insides of my mouth. When I was a child, I once even chewed half the cat’s whiskers off. She was okay with it.

It’s such an encompassing part of me that I am still shocked when people mention how disgusting it is. Then I think about it and I absolutely agree. Whenever my mom bites her nails, I bark at her to knock it off, but that’s because I hate the sucking sound she makes.

I quit for a time while I had braces, but picked it back up since, and tried to stop on numerous occasions before I picked up the violin and realized it was much better than having to cut them every day.

About a year ago, I read a novel in which a character bit his nails as an obvious attempt at characterization. There was something about it, though I can’t put my pun-intended finger on it, that fell as flat. None of her other characters bit their nails, and when he chose to do so, it was more demonstrative than a nervous tick.

I don’t bite my nails when I’m nervous. I bite them when I’m thinking. Which typically makes me nervous.

But that’s strangely true for a lot of neuroses. I’ll read about characters who struggle with food or suffer from agoraphobia, shyness or even paint, sew, or do any of the activities that I spent quite a bit of time thinking about, and there is definitely a sense of when a writer is discussing a tick or hobby that he actually does himself or when he just tries to force a character to.

What is more interesting to me, however, is that thought Libra shares some of my more fear-induced flaws, she never bites her nails even once. My best friend likes to make fun, knowing how much I hate when people ask, “Is a character you?” her saying point-blank, “Libra is just like you.”

I’m a brainwashed member of an apocalyptic cult?

But there’s some truth to it. Not all. I never pictured her as a version of me—not as a reflection of myself or a representation of who I want to be. I didn’t picture her that much at all compared to some of my other characters. I struggled to find who she was pretty consciously, but she developed her own mannerisms without a lot of input from my surface mind. She took a lot from my perspective on life, my goals, and my worries, but she is not me; she is not a nail biter.

“Death to the Author” is a phrase I only recently learned, despite that the blogger who introduced it to me it claiming it was the first thing you’re told in an English class.

I remember talking about the concept with my theatre professors in school: How much of the author’s life, or intention, matter when evaluating the work itself?

The conversation with them went nowhere, filled with inconsistencies and outright contradictions that served their desired conclusions. When my fellow student attempted to make an Absurdist piece about Rubrics cubes representing the homeless, it was bad because he was trying too hard to force a point. When an upperclassman spewed a stream of consciousness on a page, writing whatever gibberish that came out and calling it art and saying, “It’s about whatever you want it to be about!” it was bad because he didn’t actually have a point. But…

Antione Artaud wrote Jet of Blood to test the limits of the theatre; nonsensical and impossible visuals to see if it could be produced. We went through and depicted the “meaning” behind each decision—“The nurse’s exploding breasts are a metaphor for puberty!”—despite the professor himself claiming that it was just to see what theatre tech could do and the author being put in an insane asylum. Yet Brecht and Arthur Miller were famous for the intentional thought behind it.

When Beckett said that Godot was not God—“If it was, I would have said it was.”—his fans who had adamantly praised him for his precision in theme changed their tune. “Beckett doesn’t know what it’s about!”

I could go on, but the summation is I would hear the same person denouncing a work for one reason to praise another for that same exact factor. Whether or not the author’s opinion mattered seems to depend very much on whether or not the author’s opinion/reputation aligns with what the arguer already wants to believe. Does it serve his point? Then it matters.

Death to the Author—the idea that we judge the work on its own merits and not the author—is difficult to implement… and not always necessary.

Nearly every writer has some sort of rumor following him around. It’s impossible to tell the difference between fact and gossip too. We love our drama and if you can make up an interesting fact about someone, someone’s already done it.

Charles Dickens was a sexist asshole. Lewis Carroll was a pedophile. Edgar Allan Poe was a drug addict. Stephen King is going blind. Mark Twain was dead long before he died. Shakespeare was a woman. Everyone is secretly gay.

Even in the day of the internet the rumor mill is horrible and untrustworthy, and the sad truth is most of our worst deeds will never be proven or openly discussed. If you hate an author for an immoral act, you might find yourself without any reading material period.

And I don’t necessarily think a writer’s point needs to be taken into consideration by the reader. If she achieves meaning from a pile of gibberish then so be it. It can be hard to get excited or intellectually stimulated and we can appreciate each other by instinct rather than a logical exchange of intentional ideas.

On the other hand, I don’t think ruling out a person’s character is the better way to examine literature.

I’ve been in on one too many critique sessions where I am fully aware of how the writer’s inner life came into play.

The horny, lonely guy who writes too often and too long about how beautiful women are. The soon-to-be-father whose protagonist despises nurses and his pregnant wife. The 50 year old woman who longs for the novelty and innocence of teenage romance.

Patterns in religion, sex, relationships, goals, lifestyle, and, of course, opinions all very often can be directed straight back to the author’s own experiences.

This is different for everyone, a broad spectrum of life’s application occurring in literature. There are people who complain about not being able to write for other genders and races, people who write in settings similar to their hometown, and those of us who mentally digest the shit we’re going through via the written word. Meanwhile there are those who have very little of their real life, only flights of fancy and pretty images so finely patched together it’s impossible to tell the origin. Most of us fluctuate back and forth, growing our ability to interweave fact and fiction through practice.

But there are times in which we choose to ignore these trends when they are probably more telling than we’d like. My characters say things I don’t believe, do things I don’t agree with, and I’ll be the first to argue we should not confuse our characters with our writers. Yet, when you have a man who consistently writes characters that struggle with attraction to underaged women, who later marries a much younger woman—meet when she was underage—and is eventually accused of harassing underaged women, saying his work is “just fiction” denies a pretty obvious part of his inner-monologue.

Do we need to shun and despise artists who are latter suggested to be selfish and sadistic? Mentally ill or cruel? That’s up for debate.

Personally, I say there are reasons to separate the creation from its creator, that you can find meaning in something that was never intended to be there, that you can enjoy a work made by a monster. I also think that there are reasons to pay attention to the factors in an author’s life, especially when looking to improve yourself. People constantly advise reading great fiction to be a better writer, but you can’t just write like Hemingway and be surprised when you’re not successful. He had a complex journey in his career, a whole bunch of external factors that created the image and audience he had by the end of his life, far more than what he’d done stylistically. You’d be far better off finding your own influential Gertrude Stein to mentor you over cutting out all synonyms for ‘said.’

But I write this not to argue whether or not Death of the Author is a viable perspective to have in literature. I wish to claim the benefits of the opposite.

Back during my stay in Boston I went to the symphony. Don’t get me wrong; I’m still broke as hell. But my cousin received too tickets and knowing that I was learning the violin, asked me if I wanted to go. We had gone prior, and I mentioned to her, as we sat in the seats, that I most enjoyed the World Premiere of the last symphony we went to in which the composer came on stage and discussed with us his work.

Then, low and behold, once again we were met with a World Premiere called “The Conference of the Birds” by Lembit Breecher. The program described the story—three songs based on a 12th century poem—while Breecher himself gave a small introduction.

I loved the music, visual and different, wrought with emotions and almost literal bird sounds. The professional violinist next to me was less than impressed, claiming he didn’t understand most modern pieces. And I agreed. Had the composer himself not been there, I’m sure I would have felt much different.

The reason I buy self-published books isn’t altruism, nor is it high expectation. As I’ve said before, most indie books are half-baked, only finished in the most minimal, technical sense. I find some beautiful novels written by self-publishers and hope that no one believes I’m trashing the path as a whole, but it’s a lot of digging through hard and rocky earth, even outright shit, to find the diamonds—often only to satisfy yourself with diamonds in the rough. If I merely wanted to read a good book, I’d stay strictly to traditionally published novels via reviewers and friends who I trust because you have to take a chance on a lot of bad books if you want to find the great ones in the indie world.

But there’s something personal about a self-published book that is lost in the professionalism. Their means of promotion is self-revelation, personability, accessibility. There is this great connection between you, a strange sense of their work being a labor of love. It is untouched by bureaucratically minded corporations, not having been slid through formulas or groomed into something more homogenized for those of the masses who are unwilling to try new things.

Death to the Author dehumanizes a work. In some ways, it enables us to believe in the story, to enjoy something despite the inherent flaws of humanity attached to its creation. Life to the Author can enhance a connection, a natural conversation between writer an reader.



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