Wednesday, 3 October 2012
I often think of my writing journey as an expedition through the mountains – and not just the local kind either; the ones you can drive up and take a seat on a bench to admire the sunset over the city, no; I’m talking Rockies here. Precipitous terrain. And what better than animal guides to lead the way?
And when I started out that venture, an intensely passionate young wolf, treading ahead without observing the lay of the land, I met with a sheer cliff-face, scoffing, demanding I turn around, tail between my legs.
Like many, I started writing without having the slightest clue, simply penning from the heart because the gift is inherent. But, as I soon found out, that was incredibly naïve; much more than just that required.
An otter, quirky, unorthodox, my passion intrinsic, but what did I know of the mountain at all, the intimacy of its spiritual essence, its magnitude of pride & honour commanding to be scaled?
I unapologetically broke every rule that I didn’t know existed. Never knowing when to stop writing, until 600,000 words later. And with zero editing, I proudly printed off my amazing book and hired a forklift truck to take it up the post office to send it off to a publisher without even having queried them first. Ye-s, not long before I’d become the next J K Rowling. Ha!
A raven, highly enthusiastic, perched atop lofty peaks, my name whistling between. Ye-s, I’d soar that mountainous terrain. But I plummet instead, spiralling and splattering.
And then I discovered an amateur writing site, where immediately I felt intimidated; people’s ability putting my efforts to shame; using words like ‘exposition’ and ‘verisimilitude’ that I didn’t even understand, let alone have a clue as to how to apply them to my work.
A lame goose now, limping treacherous, infinite lands where I encounter many an obstacle; scaling icy plateaus that slip me down deceptive paths into mouths of predators.
Obviously I’d a great deal to learn, and so I dove right in, surprisingly being quite well received for a novice. ‘Encouraging.” And I soaked up reviews on not only my, but everyone else’s work, embraced constructive criticism while seeing others becoming highly defensive, not willing to learn (and who still can be; the same folks not moved on any; their writing unchanged, still amateur after all these years).
And now I swim a mountain torrent; a salmon, electric, focused, intuitive and wholly creative. Upstream, to pinnacles low, but the vista hazy, a mist lingering a precipice that still I might plunge.
I learned how and how not to interact with online society; the written word not always perceived as intended – especially amid different culture; easily lost in translation – and becoming annoyed at the sugar-coating being sprinkled liberally, artificial sweetening that, despite what they say, still begets rot. And then I found my clique; invited to a writers’ critique group where people stirred cups of libretto without taking sugar at all.
I build a dam upon those that would battle my wit to cross the river, for I am beaver, hear me… well… thump… really. Cunning. My mental acuity, razor sharp, but compassionate, generous, helpful and loyal too.
In this more ‘serious’ writers’ group, I discovered the importance of presentation in ways that maybe I hadn’t really thought of: similar size paragraphs; a mixture of long and short sentences; avoiding passive voice; learning how to use semicolons properly; the importance of consistent tense; avoiding the word ‘was’; how to show and not tell, and much, much more – invaluable stuff for a newbie.
Pragmatic, methodical, reaching higher plateaus where, as a bear, I enter a den and prance out a deer, discover my humour, a natural intelligence that, when combined, will write me well.
And then, going onto my first writing course, I pleasantly found that it’d all prepared me; I wasn’t clueless; actually had an inkling of much that I was to be taught in class. But still, a great deal to learn: the formulaic and technical aspects; how to create ‘FBI profiles’ for primary and secondary characters; what they should and shouldn’t be doing, and finally realising that one needed to develop an intimate relationship with anything before effectively dumping its rulebook ass.
And earned, those wings, I have, soaring now, eagle-eyed, holier-than-thou, over a mountain pass, a road to nowhere on which I spy people driving, blinkered, believing they can bypass monumental obstacles with the greatest of ease.
The point is I believe something like joining a writing site is necessary for any writer. An ‘apprenticeship’ if you like. But I wonder in this age of indie publishing if they’re being forsaken; new writers going straight for the jugular; publishing their stories without any kind of training at all, and perhaps wondering why they can’t even give their books away?
And some might just be; the writing site that I’m (still) technically a member of has all but crumbled; been stagnant for months; not updated by its administrators. And that’s a shame, for some kind of basic training just makes ‘sheer’ sense. Doesn’t it? Not even Sir Edmund Hillary decided to scale Everest without having some know how.
Oh yes, and those 600k words I mentioned? Hardest thing I ever did was to edit that story time and time again as my writing ability evolved. Today though, I credit it for me putting into practice everything I ever learned. Yes, an invaluable tool, although I really wouldn’t recommend doing it that way at all; save yourself the trouble; learn how to write properly from the outset. It’s all grown up now, divided into two books @ 200k each, and I’ve very proud of my first born, even if it’s teen years were terrible.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, there’s a rather belligerent little Sherpa waiting….
(Originally published as a guest post on Indies Unlimited)
Tuesday, 2 October 2012
No writer wants a bad review, but I think overly exuberant reviews, when they come from people they know, can be just as damaging.
The writing of reviews, it seems, these days, almost demands perhaps as much skill as the author of the book itself, many different kinds, genres in themselves if you like; those that are genuine usually entirely evident, but those that've been written by close acquaintances, sticking out like sore thumbs; not fooling anyone. And outside of sock puppeteers, who are just downright losers, such reviews are almost equally annoying, not to mention detrimental to the success of that book regardless of how well intended they are. Can turn a potential reader away.
For instance, below is usually the kind of thing written by family or friends (perhaps a bit over the top by example, but you get the gist) or those people that you struck up a rapport with on your writing journey; other writers still in the early stages of their own journey maybe, but people who don't realise yet that the rest of us with more experience have become increasingly savvy about such things. And all trying to help, yes, but usually even the greatest works don't come with such glowing recommendation as some of the reviews we can see have attached to them, and so they can actually have the exact opposite effect - especially when we read the sample of the work they pertain to, for I don't know about the rest of the population, but a writer can usually tell from the first few words of anything as to whether it was written by someone who's taken the time to learn at least something of their craft or not, but certainly a discerning reader will soon be able to tell bad from good too, regardless of what the reviews say.
"This was the best book in the history of the world, I highly recommend that you put down whatever you are reading now because, nothing, and I mean NOTHING will ever match up to this masterpiece by this exciting new author who has broken new ground and kept me so enthralled by this storyline that I neglected my kids and took a few days off work to finish it. My life will never be the same again; I just wanted to dive into that world, for I truly felt I'd become a part of it. I have never read anything quite as good as this in my entire life. Off now to buy every other title by my son/daughter/bestie/dad/mum/cleaner/hairdresser/myself.
If I could give more than five stars, I would."
Personally, not many people in my real life have read my own books, and I prefer it like that, because they don't have to like my books because of our relationship, that's just ridiculous, but in general, while we all know that, no one ever says they don't, not usually anyway, everybody so sugar-sweet, scared to offend, they'll usually say they do. But if they have read my work, they can have a tendency to ask me what I want them to say in their review. Sweet sentiment, but entirely annoying; I would hope that they enjoyed it enough to formulate their own opinion.
"Whatever it was it made you feel." Is usually what I say, and they look at me more funnily than normal, even, I imagine, over email; wondering why I'm passing up the opportunity to manipulate a potential five star review - but then they're not in my writing world; they don't know the obvious nature of these things. "Unless of course you hated it, and then I'd really prefer you didn't publicise an opinion." - which, seemingly goes against my point about honesty in reviews, but is just being honest, for no writer actually wants to see a bad review, no review at all being better imho.
I've never really had a bad review, my couple of three stars still very good comments, just weren't to both those people's tastes in that particular book's entirety, and I know that's because, whether you like my stories or not, I do strive to present the best possible work according to where I am in my writer's journey, have studied the art, I do slave over my words, a bit obsessive compulsive with them actually, and so for the most part, your 'bad review' could only be so maybe because of a matter of taste - but then we would hope that you'd be able to decide that from the very beginning, from the synopsis and the sample, and that you'd move on to a work more suited.
I get it though; those close to us want to show their support, and giving an honest review with anything less than five stars could potentially cause an atmosphere between us - as far as they're concerned - it's just not what you do when you know the writer personally; your duty to show support regardless, as most do with most anything else in life. And so the old cliché about not mixing business with pleasure has never been truer in my opinion, than the personal friends of an author when reviewing their books.
I have even gone as far as asking my online writer associates to be less than exuberant in their reviews, have stressed the need for them to be honest, as over enthusiastic reviews are obvious - as we're all coming to know in the world of indie publishing. I've even had some writers change theirs from something akin to the example above, suggesting to them what they might focus on, but only if they agree, and by example, I try to review their work completely honestly too, no sugar coating, concentrating on what I thought was good about it only, contacting them personally if there was something about the story I thought was completely lacking to the point that I felt I could only give a bad review if I were to be sincere, usually choosing not to give one at all. And so, if they can't take that level of honesty which is only intended to help, they have no place in my circle of writer friends. But then, I think they all know that about me by now, as do the people in my 'real' life.
I sometimes have no interest in the genre they write in either, e.g. if its overly religious, and so I don't want to read it at all, and sometimes when I have felt obligated to reciprocate, I've just become completely annoyed with it, and so I tell them so. It doesn't mean it's bad, no, its just not for me, and in those cases, I just cannot bring myself to write a review - after all, as a completely honest person (of whom you should be entirely aware, apparently, for having stated that here about myself in the first place) saying there that 'I hate this kind of thing' might not go down too well, would cause a rift. And of course, it could be the best thing since sliced bread for those who do like to get all spiritual and shit, but I'm just not qualified, or at least not the best person to judge, because I would never have looked twice at that book normally if I'd never known the person who wrote it.
There are many other kinds of reviews too; those that simply provide a synopsis of the story; information already on the book's page, sometimes with spoilers, but not mentioning the cleverness, the characterisation, the eloquence and other stuff we as writers would prefer to see mentioned, recognition of the fact that what we worked really hard at trying to put across; the emotion we wanted to induce from a reader, all better than another recap of the story. And while some are completely innocently written almost as synopses, I can't help but think that some reviewers either do this thinking that they're helping, or maybe because they really have nothing good to say at all - and in which case it would be better not to comment. Or maybe, it's just that, as many say, they're not writers themselves, and therefore feel a bit intimidated, don't know what the hell to say, but feel they have to put down something out of respect because they do know you. But that's alright, even a couple of words, like, 'I really enjoyed this book' comes across more genuine than an over the top rave review - unless of course the book really does merit one, and that, I can't help but think, will come across too; the words will magically appear without you even trying; not as contrived as a review that'd been manufactured to try and say the same thing.
I have some such genuine comments on some of my own works and, that if I'd known those people personally, I might've asked them to bring it down a notch, but then, perhaps I'm analysing too much; think people will be suspicious of them because of what does go on, but perhaps I'm looking wa-y too hard and I tell myself that I do have to remember that some people really do enjoy people's books that much where they do become almost animated about it. And that is always highly appreciated.
It's often said that writers are good 'liars' because they spend their time creating stories, I know I am, but I only use my powers for good in giving reviews and in life, could never feel comfortable 'sock-puppeting', would feel ashamed of myself; kidding no one but me, despite my skill for being creative in that I could be entirely convincing that they'd been written by someone else; know how to change writing styles accordingly. But this kind of tactic just wouldn't sit well with the essence of who I am, would have the exact opposite effect on me in fact; I'd feel like a total loser, I'd know they weren't real, and so I guess I have a good sense of integrity, which is why I can sleep at night; no, no one can ever accuse me of such underhanded practice should I ever become that well known.
I can't help but think a good review is one that does rave a bit, does give four or five stars, but also, somewhere in-between the glowing recommendation maybe something else pointed out about it too (but, again, only if merited; don't go looking for it) not necessarily negative, per se, but simply an opinion, perhaps an element the reader would liked to have seen or didn't enjoy too much, or what they felt might've been better. Whatever, but a good balanced opinion, and most of all, a good honest review, for it is often this that readers judge a book by, and especially, other writers; I know I do.
Lastly, I do see this topic coming up all the time, as I do blogs and comments expressing a general intolerance of people who've never tried in any way to hone their craft, simply vomiting up a story and putting it up for sale because they can; most not realising that, like anything, writing is a trained skill, yes, even the best talent needs honed to be able to present a professional body of work. And so, I think it's only a matter of time before those people realise that they'll get absolutely nowhere with that kind of approach, together with creating false reviews, or by allowing their friends to write glowing references for them, which as I've said, speak for themselves, for ultimately they'll make absolutely no money - which is surely why they're doing it as opposed to the 'love' that a real writer has for the written word, the laborious part of it treasured, embraced, as it should be. And when they get fed up with trying, realise that the rest of us or onto them, then perhaps things really will settle down as they disappear, and we who try to do it all the honest way, the hard way, won't be grouped in and bogged down with all the bad apples that are currently in that barrow for sale. A candied apple might be attractive on the surface, but it needs to be succulent on the inside too.