books with Athena

books with Athena

Sunday, January 27, 2013

DANGER: Writer at work...Where do Bestselling Authors Create their Masterpieces?

Oh, come on, you fantasized about the glamour, didn't you? When you first harbored those secret desires to be a writer, you pictured yourself in a little villa in the south of France, maybe? A woodsy cabin by a New England lake? At least an oh-so-romantically seedy flat in a major metropolitan area? 

And there were the afternoons in Paris cafes. Jetting off to tropical climes to do a little deep sea fishing or big game hunting. Or maybe you'd get to solve crimes like TV's Jessica Fletcher or Richard Castle.

Thing is—have you ever seen those TV and film novelists actually writing books? Of course not. For the same reason they don't have TV shows about watching paint dry.

As Ruth Harris shows us this week, a lot of real writers' lives are pretty boring. And living with us can be kind of a pain. But she's found a few who have some exciting tales to tell...

DANGER: Writer at Work
by Ruth Harris

Anyone who has ever lived with a writer knows it ain’t easy.

Moody? Check.

Preoccupied? Check.

Cranky, quirky, obsessive, prone to long silences and short bursts of typing? Ditto.

And those are only the subclinical descriptions.

We kill people, make them miserable, give them impossible challenges, break their hearts, subject them to rainy days and stormy nights, vicious enemies, terrible wardrobe choices and soul-shriveling bad hair days not to mention fires, floods, avalanches and tornadoes. We do nothing but cause trouble and then pile on more. We’re dangerous for sure.

But what goes on behind the scenes? Are our own lives as dramatic and crisis-ridden as our characters? Do we live on the wild side? Do we battle zombies and assassins? Are our love lives as passionate as the characters we write about? I asked a few writers to confess their quirks, their routines, their oddball habits.

Some of us (Michael and me definitely included) are—there’s no other way to put it—b-for-boring. We stick to a regular routine, sit at our computers and beaver away. We’re soooo boring we’re not even competitive about it although Vanessa Kelly, bestselling author of Regency romance, claims she and her DH, Randy—they write romantic suspense as VKSykes—are THE most boring writers on the planet.

“We both write in our offices on our computers, and I sometimes write on my Alpha Smart. The only thing I’ll sometimes do is take notes or write when we’re driving in the car somewhere – Randy is doing the driving! We will brainstorm together when we go for a walk, but that’s about it. All the quirkiness seems to go on in our heads!”

Anne R Allen says: “I’m at the keyboard at 8:30 every morning, seven days a week, with a big cup of English Breakfast tea with almond milk and Stevia. If I'm writing something with an urgent deadline, I ignore the Internet entirely. Sometimes I ignore the entire world. For long periods. I remember one time going outside after a long intense writing session and wondering what weird weather pattern was going on now--all the trees were blossoming, and here it was November. Then I realized no: my book was set in November. In the real world, it was April.”

Mark Chisnell, thriller writer extraordinaire, is much more adventuresome. He races yachts and climbed halfway up Mount Everest in sneakers(!). “I work normal hours and I have a grown-up office with a desk, book shelves, filing cabinets but I wasn't always so organized. I wrote and rewrote my first novel,THE DEFECTOR, in a multitude of strange places, but the early draft was done in the South of France. It sounds idyllic and very Graham Greene, but I had gone down there to work for a magazine that went bust. So I was trapped in a rental agreement I couldn't escape, with no job and very little money in the bank.

"I wrote the novel to make the best use of a very bad situation, but circumstances had a lot in common with the freezing garret of legend. There was no desk in the room, so I improvised by using a chest of drawers—awkward as there was no gap for the knees. It was winter and the building was designed for summer residence, with thick brickwork to keep it cool, and no heating; every hour or so I would have to go outside to warm up enough to keep my fingers mobile and typing. I remember that the only time I was truly warm in that place was in the bath. I finished the novel just as I escaped the lease and fled back to England.”

DDScott, bestselling rom-com author and founder of WG2E, doesn’t fool around with English Breakfast tea: “I do luuuvvv to write in cocktail lounges while I'm enjoying Happy Hour. I actually fill my cocktail napkins with tons of ideas then take 'em home and slip 'em into a special box just for that very thing. Then, when I need an off-the-wall, over-the-top idea, I know just where to look. :-) Martinis and other such fabulous glasses full of liquid courage make for killer muse therapy!!!”

Some, like Claude Nougat, founder of a Goodreads group devoted to Baby Boomer fiction, even break the law. “I had a light bulb placed over the bath tub, thus going against every law in Italy (apparently it's unsafe to place a bulb there!!) because I used to love to read in the tub! I did try to take notes while I was in my bathtub but I had no pen and had to get out, dripping wet and cold, to get it. I slipped on the mat coming back into the tub. I slid into the (by now tepid) water but managed to splash some water drops on the paper, making half of it unusable. I tried to write but having forgotten to take along a slate or something hard, I couldn't do it. Just a couple of miserable squiggles. So I had to hold it up against the wall to try and write. More water seeped into the paper, leaving me no place to write anything beyond three or four words.

“By then, exasperated, I got out having thoroughly forgotten what I wanted to write. Yes, I hate bathtubs!”

In addition to Claude, the law-breaker, DD, the lounge lizard, and Mark, the broke and freezing writer who had better experiences in the bathtub than Claude, Roy Street, who writes Daphne du Maurier-award winning romance, mystery/suspense and paranormal genres with his wife Alicia, also lives—and writes—dangerously.

“Alicia and I like to keep physically active while we write, taking frequent breaks for things like push-ups or jogging in place. Having been a pro dancer, Alicia keeps a portable barre in the study where she works.

“I prefer shadow boxing. When we were working on a novel that featured a boxer I decided to up the ante to deepen the ‘show-don’t-tell’ aspects. I asked my friend Aubrey, who was an ex-pro boxer, to come over and spar with me. Not only did he graciously oblige, but he knocked me out. Fortunately, it took only a handful of minutes for me to revive and, yes, return to my keyboard. Loaded with inspiration . . . and a sore jaw.”

So, Scriveners it's YOU TELL US time: What are your writing quirks? Have you ever broken the law, gotten knocked out, or frozen in the South of France? Or are you just…sorry, but I don’t know how else to say this…the b word like Vanessa, Randy, Anne and Ruth?


We have 5 Opportunity Alerts this week:

#1 Tech-Savvy Author Workshop: If you live on the Central Coast of California and you’re interested in learning about blogging, building platform and everything a 21st Century author needs to know, Anne will be teaching at a seminar called THE TECH SAVVY AUTHOR with Catherine Ryan Hyde, screenwriter and radio personality Dave Congalton and a whole crew of smart techie folks on March 2nd.

#2 Interested in having your short fiction recorded for a weekly podcast?There’s no pay, but it’s fantastic publicity if your story is accepted by SMOKE AND MIRRORS. They broadcast about three stories a week. Spooky, dark tales preferred. No previous publication necessary. They judge on the story alone.

#3 Cash prizes for flash fiction. The San Luis Obispo NIGHTWRITERSare holding their annual 500-word story contest. Anybody from anywhere in the world is welcome to enter. Prizes are $200, $150 and $75. This is a fantastic organization that boasts a number of bestselling authors among their members, including Jay Asher, Jeff Carlson, and moi. (Well, some sell better than others :-) ) Deadline is March 31st.

#4 $3500 Grand Prize for literary short fiction. NO entry fee. The deadline for the Chicago Tribune's Nelson Algren Contest for short fiction is February 1st.

#5 $2000 Grand Prize. NO entry fee. Call for Entries—The Flying Elephants Short Story Prize, sponsored by "Ashes & Snow" artist Gregory Colbert. ::: AndWeWereHungry, a new online literary magazine, seeks literary short stories for its debut issue fiction contest. THEME: "And We Were Hungry....," or "Hunger." For isn't it, to quote Ray Bradbury, hunger or "lack that gives us inspiration?"  Prize: One grand prize ($2000) + three finalists (each $1,000) + eight runner-ups. Deadline: March 31, 2013.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

5 Blogging Rules Authors Can Ignore…and 5 You Can’t


Do all aspiring authors need to blog?

The answer used to be: Only the ones who want to get published.

Now, agents and publishers are letting up on the requirement.

Recently, agent Rachelle Gardner changed her stance on blogs.“A few years ago, the standard wisdom was that authors, both fiction and non-fiction, should have blogs in order to gather an audience and build relationships with readers. Now, not so much. As social media and online marketing have evolved, my thoughts on blogging have changed. I think each author needs to carefully consider whether blogging is an appropriate vehicle for them.”

But she added that you need to be on social media somewhere. She says Goodreads, Facebook, Pinterest, LinkedIn, or Google +  can help you establish yourself if you find blogging too daunting.

But if you’re a Boomer like me, you may find those other platforms MORE daunting. For the non-tech-savvy, blogging is the easiest to master. It’s also the social media platform that gives you the most control.

This week social media guru diva Kristen Lamb devoted a whole week of blogposts to explaining the reasons why “blogs are probably THE BEST use of an author’s time when it comes to building an author platform using social media.”

But some writers start to blog too early in their careers and find it’s a time suck that keeps them from their primary writing goals.

So when should you start blogging? I don't think you have to worry about blogging if—

  • You’re at a stage where you need to put 100% of your writing time into learning your craft and getting that WIP onto the page.  
  • You’re a student who loves your creative writing class and hopes to be a writer someday, but you’re not sure what genre you’ll want to write or if you'll want to write novels, screenplays, poetry or whatever..
  • You’ve written a NaNo novel and a few short stories but you know you've got a lot to learn and you're not ready to start submitting things yet. 
  • You’ve been to a few writers conferences and you’re working madly on edits on your first novel and you’ve got this new idea you’re just dying to get on paper...

That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with blogging if you’re at any of those stages. For some of us, blogging is fun. Having fun with words is good at any stage of your writing career, as long as it doesn't keep you from your primary writing goals.

But don’t feel pressured to jump in yet. Blogging is a commitment. Don’t start if you don’t have the time or discipline to follow through.

When should you definitely think about a blog? When you’re sending out queries or getting ready to self-publish.

You will need a website anyway. (Sending out a query when you don’t have a website is shooting yourself in the font. Many agents and editors reject on that item alone.) A blog is a website—while a Facebook, Google +, Twitter or Pinterest page is not. Nothing that requires membership counts. And a blog hosted by Blogger or Wordpress is free as well as being interactive—as opposed to a static website. So it counts as “social media.” It’s a two-bird stone.

I agree with Kristen Lamb. I think blogging provides the most effective long-term strategy for writers to get their names out there into the marketplace and interact with the public.Why?
  • You’re a writer. Blogging uses a skill you’ve already got: putting words together to make sentences. 
  • Other social media are subject to faddism and rapid changes. (Facebook has become much less effective now that you have to pay to reach more than a handful of readers. Other social media sites may follow suit.) 
  • Blogging is the social medium that gives YOU the most control over your brand.
But blogger-authors usually make one huge mistake: we follow rules established by other types of bloggers.

I made this mistake myself. Thing is: as an author, you are not blogging to monetize, so a lot of those rules don’t apply. You're blogging to make yourself an interactive home on the Web—a place for agents/fellow writers/fellow bloggers/publishers/editors/readers to find you and communicate with you. It's a place to establish your brand.

And your brand is YOU.

This means:

1) You don’t have to blog every day.

Or even every week. Or on a schedule. (Although a schedule will give you a better chance of building a readership.) But it’s all good. For more on this, read my post on The Slow Blog Manifesto.

2) You don’t have to keep to 300-500 words.

Make your post as long as it needs to be to cover the subject. If you go over 3000 words, you’ll probably lose some readers, but Porter Anderson writes more than that in every one of his posts at Writing on the Ether and he's one of the most respected bloggers in the business

3) You don’t want a cutsie title that masks your identity.

The number one reason for an author to have a blog is to get name recognition, so for heaven’s sake, PUT YOUR NAME ON THE BLOG. I know I hammer away at this, but still 70% of the writing blogs I visit don’t have the author's name in the header—and almost that many don’t have an “about me” bio page to give us any idea of who heck they are.

The reason you’re blogging is the opposite of anonymity. You want people to be able to put your name (or pen name) into a search engine find you. Don’t make them rummage in their memory banks trying to remember if your blog is called “Songs from the Zombiepocalypse”, “Lost Marbles” or “MommiePornCentral". A whole lot more people will find you if they can just Google "Your Name."

Every minute you spend blogging anonymously is a minute wasted. Let the public know who you are and where you are and why we should be reading your stuff instead of the other 10 billion blogs out there.

And ALWAYS put your contact information prominently on the blog. If you’re selling a product, it’s just plain dumb not to tell people where to find it.

4) You don’t have to blog about any one subject. Your product is YOU.

For a long time, I believed all the stuff about how you have to have a niche. So this is a niche blog. It's serving us well, but it hems us in. We may try branching out into other territory in the coming months. Notice the new "Opportunity Alerts" at the end of the post.

Remember people surf the Web looking for two things: information and entertainment. Your blog can spin a good yarn, make people laugh, provide information, or all three, as long as you are putting it all out in your own honest, unique voice. (But I generally advise against fictional yarns—see below.)

A great example of a highly successful blogger is Nina Badzin, who blogs about books, parenting, religion, career choices, and so much more. Her posts are engaging and charming and often get picked up by the Huffington Post. Why? She’s smart, funny, honest, and totally herself.

One caveat: one of the least interesting topics to readers is your writing process. Hardly any potential reader wants to know your daily word count or your rejection sorrows. Other writers may stop by to commiserate, and you do want to network with other authors, but don’t make your writer’s block or attempts to get published the main focus of your blog.

You’re a writer, so they want your well-written observations on things: your unique voice talking about the things you feel passionate about. The research you’re doing on medieval armor. Your theories on why raccoons are going to take over the planet. The hilarious adventures of an erotica writer/PTA president.

NOTE: If you’re not a published author writing for an established fan base, DO NOT post bits of your WIP hoping to get praise or critique. That’s because:
  • You’re blogging to GIVE entertainment and information, not GET praise or free editing.
  • If you’re not published, that book can never be sold, because you have given away “first rights.”
5) You don’t need a lot of images.

Don’t waste lots of time looking for the right photo (or risk getting sued for using copyrighted material.) If your blog is about travel, or fishing, or antiquing, yes, take lots of photos, but if the post is about books or ideas—don’t sweat it. You’re a WRITER. The blog is going to be a showcase for what you can do with the written word. We’ve never used images on this blog, and we’re doing pretty well.

If you do use images, make sure they are in the public domain. Try Wiki Commons or WANA Commons

But there are some blogging rules you'd be wise to heed:

1) Learn to write good headers. A “good” header does a number of things:
  • Asks a question or provides an answer. 
  • Attracts search engines. 
  • Makes a good Tweet (even if you aren’t on Twitter, you want somebody else to tweet it and spread the word.) 
  • Promises the reader something of value: information or entertainment 
Note: One-word and enigmatic titles may delight your muse, but minimalism won’t attract blog readers. Also stuff that’s unfocused, doesn’t inform, and nobody’s likely to Google.

Titles like “Scribbles”, “Alone,” or “Sad Thoughts” are not going to get you many hits. These are not words or phrases people are likely to search for, and they don't entice or offer anything. Look at the titles of our top ten blogposts for ideas on what works in a blog header. Numbered lists and questions work best.

2) Always include share buttons Those little "f" "t", "g +1" and other buttons that allow people to share your brilliant words to their Facebook, Twitter and Google+ accounts are the way you will build a following. Put them up there even if you personally don’t use that kind of social media.

3) Always post a bio and contact info—and your @twitterhandle, if you have one. Also include a way for people to follow the blog as a “follower” or by email and rss feed. (All this stuff is available in your "gadgets" menu on your dashboard if you use Blogger.)

4) Remember social media is SOCIAL. Be welcoming to your visitors and visit other blogs. Respond to comments. Make commenting as easy as possible. You can’t control all the Blogger/Wordpress hoop-jumping, but if you haven’t had a barrage of spam, you can turn off the “word verification” or “CAPTCHA”. That will triple your comments. (Especially from people with older eyes who can’t read those %&*! letters to save our lives.)

And don't neglect your neighbors. Nobody’s going to know you’re there if you stay home all the time. Get out and visit. Social media is about networking. Choose a few high profile blogs to visit regularly and notice whose comments interest you. Go to their blogs. Eventually you’ll make some friends. Who knows—it could be a potential collaborator, blog partner, or somebody who’ll recommend you to a publisher or agent. Or just a great friend who can support you through the tough times.

5) Learn to write 21st century prose. People skim on the Internet. You need short paragraphs, bullet points, lists, bolding, and lots of white space. Draw the reader's eye through the piece.

What about you, Scriveners? Do you have a blog yet? When did you start to blog? Can you think of any other “conventional blogger wisdom” that’s not true for author-bloggers? 

We have 5 Opportunity Alerts this week:

#1 Tech-Savvy Author Workshop: If you live on the Central Coast of California and you’re interested in learning more about blogging, building platform and everything a 21st Century author needs to know, I’ll be teaching at a seminar called THE TECH SAVVY AUTHOR with Catherine Ryan Hyde, screenwriter and radio personality Dave Congalton and a whole crew of smart techie folks on March 2nd.

#2 Interested in having your short fiction on a weekly podcast? There’s no pay, but it’s fantastic publicity if your story is accepted by SMOKE AND MIRRORS. They broadcast about three stories a week. Spooky, dark tales preferred. No previous publication necessary. They judge on the story alone.

#3 Cash prizes for flash fiction. The San Luis Obispo NIGHTWRITERS are holding their annual 500-word story contest. Anybody from anywhere in the world is welcome to enter. Prizes are $200, $150 and $75. This is a fantastic organization that boasts a number of bestselling authors among their members, including Jay Asher, Jeff Carlson, and moi. (Well, some sell better than others :-) ) Deadline is March 31st.

#4 Want to find out about the latest ebooks? TODAY'S E-READER BUZZ is a new way to read about the latest releases. When you subscribe, you could win a gift card or a copy of my new Camilla mystery, No Place Like Home. 

#5 A Blog for the Multi-Talented. An interactive blog for your photos and stories. Different themes each month. STORIED IMPRESSIONS. In intriguing new blog from Gretchen Fogelstrom. (although I've told her she needs to make her name bigger!)

Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Number One Mistake New Writers Make


Most complaints about authors by agents and editors as well as reviewers can be boiled down to the same offense. It's the major reason so many reviewers won't read self-published books by unknowns.

What is that mistake?

Rushing to publish too early.

Nobody wants to read a rough draft. Your story idea may be great, but wading through amateurish writing vs. reading professional work is the difference between grading a student paper and picking up your favorite author's book for a relaxing read.

Also—no matter how polished your writing—you're unlikely to get an agent or a readership unless you know something about the business of getting your work into the marketplace.

So if one of your New Year's resolutions is to get that NaNo book published, make sure you include the steps of writing a few more books and educating yourself about the business first.

Unprofessional gun-jumpers waste time for reviewers, readers, editors and agents. They can sabotage their careers by condemning themselves to the slushpile or no-sales hell—and risk branding themselves forever as mediocre writers. They can get themselves dismissed as ignorant whiners who can't take criticism and think writing a book is a magical get-rich-quick scheme.

How do I know this? Because I was a gun-jumper myself.

I totally relate to the huge pressure you've got to get this career on the road, NOW:

         You’ve got the external pressure:
  • From your mom, who thinks the fact you’ve written 80,000 words of anything is so noteworthy she’s already written up the press releases.
  • From your significant other, who wants to know when exactly his/her years of sharing you with that manuscript are going to start paying a few bills.
  • From your friends, who are getting kind of embarrassed for you, when you keep telling them you’re a writer but have nothing to show for it. You hear stuff like, "How long can it take to write a book anyway? My mom can type 55 words a minute!"
  • From your critique group, who are so tired of helping you revise that WIP …AGAIN, they’re screaming “Send it! Away! Immediately!”
  • From online indie publishing zealots who say "every minute you're not published, you're wasting money."

    And the internal pressure:
  • From your battered self-esteem: How many more years can you take those eye-rolls you get every time you tell somebody at a party you’re “pre-published,” and you’re only delivering pizzas until you make it as a writer?
  • From artistic insecurity: You won’t REALLY know you have talent unless you’re validated by having a published book, right?
  • From financial insecurity: It’s tough to pay off the loans for the MFA when the only paying writing gig you’ve had since you got the degree is updating the menu for your brother-in-law’s fish and chips place.
  • From your muse, who says: “This is pure brilliance. The world totally needs this book!”

We’ve heard them all. But I've finally learned the trick is learning to ignore them. We have to learn to listen instead for that small inner voice when it finally says:
  • “I’ve got a handful of polished books that will stand up to the snarkiest reviewer.”
  • “My ego is enough under control that I can refrain from responding to the most clueless review—and I’m willing to rewrite again for my editor or agent."
  • “I’m a professional. I know how the publishing industry works and I’m ready to turn out at least a book a year, promote it, and live my life on deadline.”
At the beginning of the e-publishing revolution, some of the biggest self-publishing gurus hammered us with all that stuff about how, "every day your book isn't published, you're losing money." I think the gurus intended to speak to traditionally-published mid-listers who had out-of-print backlists.

Unfortunately, it became a mantra for every beginning writer with a practice novel in their files. Whatever the reason for the advice, it's not wise to follow it any more.The "bubble" in which the random amateur's 99-cent self-pubbed ebook could make the big time has deflated.

These days, every time you edit, you're giving yourself a better chance at a long-term successful career. (Up to a point. Don't re-edit the same book for a decade—a mistake I made. Write new ones. You'll get better with each manuscript, I promise.)

I cringe when I read comments from beginners who consider themselves qualified to write a novel or memoir because they know how to write legal briefs or medical reports or academic papers. These are entirely different skills from writing narrative. Grammar skills are necessary for a novelist, of course, but they're not at the core of storytelling.

Learning to craft book-length narrative is a long, intense process. As I've written before, a writer needs to put in Malcolm Gladwell's "10,000 hours" in order to develop real proficiency.

We also need proficiency in the business we're trying to enter. These days, being an author means not only knowing how to write, but understanding the business of publishing.

I was reminded of this recently because my publisher wants to look at some of my older manuscripts. I dug out the many drafts of the book I'd worked on for way too many years. It wasn't quite as bad as I feared, although it's still not ready for editorial eyes. (An editor can only clean up something that's already there. We can't expect them to work miracles.)

I can now see my biggest problem was ambition that exceeded my skills. Most first novelists can't handle sweeping sagas that span fifty years like my magnum opus.

But to my embarrassment, I also found some truly awful query letters I sent out on that book. I'd been querying without having a clue about genre or where my book would fit in the marketplace. Or what kind of writer I was or wanted to be.

Now I'm grateful for all those rejection letters. Not only was my book not ready—I was not ready.

Recently I saw a comment thread on a writing forum started by a young writer who is now about at the stage in her writing that I was when I wrote those letters.

But she had already self-published her book—and just received her first review: a two-star. I read the review and the "peek inside" sample and saw the reviewer had actually been kind. He said he liked the premise but the author didn't seem to know what a novel was.

The heartbroken author wrote, "I don't know how there can be anything wrong: my sister liked it just fine." When advised to unpublish and hire an editor, she said she couldn't afford one.

I remember thinking like that.

But at the same time, I would never have thought of trying to get a job styling hair without getting trained as a beautician. Or working as a chef without a long apprenticeship. Or going on a professional golf tour if I couldn't afford golf lessons.

This is the hard truth: we have to become professionals before we enter the marketplace.

I hope this young author will take the kind advice other authors offered up. (One suggested she try CritiqueCircle.com—which I've heard great things about, too. It's not a substitute for an editor, but it's a start.)

If she doesn't, she could get a few more bad reviews, no sales, and decide to give up. But if she goes back and spends a little longer learning the basics, she might have a great writing career ahead of her.

There's something to be said for the old query system that made me slog away for years before I found a publisher.

Easy self-publishing doesn't mean the learning process has been shortened. Learning to write narrative takes way longer than most people realized.

Self-publishing guru Kristine Kathryn Rusch put this very nicely in a recent post.

 "Do you remember how much work you had to do to learn how to read a novel? It took you years to get to “big” books of more than 20 pages...It’s much easier to read a novel than it is to write one. Why do you think that writing a good one is possible on the very first try? If you want overnight success, this is not the profession for you. If you want a writing career, then learn it... It takes practice, practice, practice, learning, learning, learning, and patience, patience, patience.


And the wonderful Kristen Lamb also blogged about the subject this week. She points out that Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 hours equal pretty much the length of time it takes to write three books. (That's how many I'd written before I got my first publisher.)

 " ...all you indie/self-pub authors who put your first book up for sale and you haven’t sold enough copies to buy tacos? Keep writing. 10,000 hours. 3 books. Traditional authors? Three books. Rare is the exception."

This post isn't meant to discourage anybody. It's meant to urge you to learn to be the best writer you can be—so you can have that career you've always dreamed of—not one unpolished book languishing in agents' slushpiles or the Kindleverse, unwanted and unloved. You owe it to your book to do it right.

What about you, scriveners? Did you try to start your career too soon, the way I did? What advice do you have for eager new writers who are anxious to dive into the marketplace. 

Blog News: I see that we've reached 1300 followers! I remember when I thought if I could just get 50 followers, I'd feel like a success. Everything is relative, isn't it? Welcome new followers!

Update: On 1/13/13, this blog got 1300 hits as well as reaching 1300 followers. Any idea what that means in numerology terms? Kind of awesome, anyway. 

Next month: we'll have a guest post from bestselling indie phenom Mark Edwards, who with his writing partner Louise Voss rocketed to self-pub stardom and landed a major deal with HarperCollins. Mr. Edwards attributes their success equally to a compelling story and a compelling book description. He's going to tell us how we can learn to write professional copy to sell our own books.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Online Book Reviews: Games People Play


Last year I wrote a post about the importance of writing Amazon reviews that caused something of a poop-storm in the bookish corners of Cyberia. Although most readers—especially in my own Boomer demographic—were grateful for the post, a furious minority exploded in fits of high dudgeon.

I even got death threats from a handful of self-appointed Amazon vigilantes and anonymous enforcement-persons. I suppose this post may, too--and I may lose all my Amazon reviews as "punishment"--but I think the subject is important enough to take the risk.

At first, I was baffled by the enraged responses. As an avid reader, former bookseller, and newly-republished author, I only wanted to urge readers—especially older folks who aren’t so Web savvy—to take the time to write reviews because of the power they give us to speak to the marketplace.

At that point, Boomers were an ignored segment of the reading population. Now Boomer Lit is an up-and-coming genre—I think in part thanks to the voice that social media and online reviews gives us.

But I admit to extreme naiveté. I knew nothing of the rampant gaming of online book reviews or the bizarre culture of Amazon reviewing.

I still back every word I said: readers who write honest reviews are helping the reading community and enabling authors to write more of the kind of books their fans will like. Older people shouldn’t fear writing reviews, although it may seem daunting at first. (And we do need to be aware that “a gold star” isn’t an endorsement. You need four or five to say “I loved it,” if you did.)

In fact, it’s far more important for real customers to make their voices heard than I realized when I wrote that post thirteen months ago. But I feel readers need to branch out and post reviews on other sites beside Amazon. The Amazon review system seems to be irrevocably broken.

Since I wrote that post, a number of abuses of online reviews have come to light.

• Many Amazon reviews have been generated by paid review mills. Even big name authors have been using them.

• Other reviews have come from “sock puppets.” A handful of authors—again, many famous, traditionally published ones—have been writing rave reviews of their own books and scathing reviews of their “rivals” under assumed names. (More on the idea of “rival” authors below. I don’t believe most authors think in those terms, although R.J. Ellory obviously did.)

• A few authors have been playing a mutual “back-scratching” game where authors “review” each other without reading the books. I even heard of one writer who extorted good reviews from his colleagues by leaving a 5-star review on an author’s book, then demanding reciprocation—threatening to turn the 5-star to a one-star if the back-scratch isn’t forthcoming.

• Flash mobs of vigilantes have been using nasty Amazon “reviews” as a way of punishing perceived transgressions by authors, even if the transgression has nothing to do with the author’s books. When a misunderstanding about a book-lending site ended in a lot of complaints to Amazon last summer, vigilantes then attacked the Amazon pages of the complainers with scores of one-star reviews. Not exactly helpful to customers and seriously disrespectful to everybody in the book business.

• People who hate Amazon as a company are taking out their wrath on authors with one-star anti-Amazon "reviews" (which seriously drag down a book’s Amazon rankings and take money out of the author's pocket.) Other bizarre one-stars seem to be proliferating. More on that this week at the Writers Guide to E-Publishing. (The comments are especially interesting.)

I should add it’s not just Amazon that is having review problems.

• Goodreads suffered an attack of bullying via review that resulted in the formation of a posse of author-vigilantes who retaliated with even more bulling. That resulted on one big old dogpile of Mean Girls.

• Barnes and Noble isn’t immune either. Last August, authors found online gamers were sending messages to each other using nonsense phrases in reviews. (But to their credit, the gamers usually gave high star-ranks to their messages.)

Here’s an example from the B & N buy page of fantasy author M. Edward McNalley, all posted on August 16, 2012

(5 stars) Review title: Mistyclaw

Wat the click is happening?

(5 stars) Review title: Firepaw

He keeps charging prey always making a sonic boom. Sorry. Cant help it. Ill stop. 

(4 stars) Review title: Mistystar

Um… I don't know, really?

Right. Dept. of WTF.

Barnes and Noble must have quietly cracked down on the cat-people since no more strange reviews have appeared after a flurry last summer. B & N has left the gamers’ reviews intact if the authors don’t complain, but the "reviews" don’t seem to be hurting anybody, although they may leave customers a tad confused.

Goodreads seems to have solved its bullying problem, too--or at least the brouhaha has quieted down. (This is good because Kobo plans to link to Goodreads reviews.)

Amazon, on the other hand, has responded with a draconian review purge that might have been engineered by King Herod of the Nativity story. Mr. Bezos and co. seem to have taken bad advice from people who know nothing about the publishing industry.

Some authors have seen every one of their reviews removed: legitimate reviews that were not paid for or solicited in any way.

Conscientious reviewers who have never been paid for a review have had every one of their reviews removed and were told they could never review in Amazon-town again.

The accused are simply told they have “violated Amazon guidelines” with no further explanation. Amazon allows no appeals and threatens to ban any author for life who complains.

It seems Amazon is removing any review perceived to be written by somebody who has a “relationship” with the author. For me that meant the removal of a couple of reviews written by somebody with the last name of Allen. (It’s a good thing my cousin Woody didn’t write me that review he promised, LOL.)

At the time, I didn’t mind sacrificing a few reviews to the cause of cleaning things up. But recent blogposts and news stories suggest the Zon has been throwing out a lot more babies than bathwater with their new policies.

They have declared all authors to be each others' “competitors”—especially authors in the same genre. Competitors are banned from reviewing each others’ products.

This makes sense with toasters, trucks or toothpaste. But it’s silly when it comes to books.

There’s more on this in the UK’s Telegraph this week. They interview a number of well-known authors who have suffered in the purge.
  • Joanne Harris, bestselling author of Chocolat, said, "One thing authors are able to do is articulate about books. They tend to read about books and their opinions... are listened to."
  • Crime fiction author Mark Billingham said, “If they are targeting authors for no valid reason then that is a shame…The whole online review system is deeply flawed to me and has been for years…They need to tackle anonymous reviews as they cause all the trouble. They could easily ban those and all of this would go away.”
  • Thriller author Jeremy Duns said: "It seems unfair and bizarre to target authors like that. There needs to be change but not like this."
The reason they are so dismayed is that books have ALWAYS been reviewed by other authors.

If authors weren’t allowed to review, there would be no New York Times Book Review. No New York Review of Books. No Times Literary Supplement.

Can you imagine the San Francisco Chronicle asking some random tourist at Fisherman’s Wharf to review the latest Michael Chabon instead of hiring National Book Award finalist Jess Walter?

Or if the New York Review of Books had told John Updike he would be “unethical” to review Philip Roth?

Or if the New Yorker had banned Dorothy Parker from reviewing The House at Pooh Corner because they suspected she’d be “too nice” to A. A. Milne after meeting him at a cocktail party? (Her famous review under the byline "Constant Reader" said "Tonstant Weader fwowed up.")

This week I’ve heard that Amazon reviews are now being removed simply because the reviewer received the book as a gift—so if you got a book for Christmas, you might not want to review it on Amazon unless it was purchased somewhere else (and this is good for Amazon’s business…how?) They've declared it “unethical” to review any book you haven't personally paid for—especially if it came from an author or publisher.

Sorry, Zon, but this is just plain ignorant. Giving free review copies has been a standard practice in publishing since the industry began. I have no doubt Catullus's publisher gave Cicero a free scroll of the latest Lesbia poems in hopes Great Orator would rant about their licentiousness at Caesar's next orgy.

This is how the business of publishing has always worked.

And the ebook revolution has made it more important than ever to let authors review each other, because the line between "reader" and "author" has been blurred. Most readers dream of writing a book. A lot of them already are already at work. Easy self-publishing means a lot of them will be published. Is everybody who is working on a book banned from reviewing? If you ban every reviewer who has ever published or might do so in the future, you’re going to end up with a mighty small number of reviews.

In fact, the simple act of writing a review for an online site makes you a published writer, in the strictest sense. Perhaps Amazon should limit reviews to YouTube videos? Or compel reviewers to compose in wing-dings?

So how has Amazon got so off-base with their “guidelines”? 

Some people theorize they are motivated by complaints from some of the cliques that dominate the Amazon forums. This makes sense to me. Many of the high-dudgeoners who threatened me over my grandma post identified themselves as members of an elite group of Amazon denizens.

And yet they had no knowledge of the book business and seemed to consider all writers their enemies. Many expressed outrage at the idea that writers wanted to be paid or cared about having an income.

I decided to do a little research. I discovered the Amazon forums (as opposed to the Kindleboards) predate the ebook revolution and its members tend to be anti-ebook. In fact some members aren't much into books at all. Although Amazon began as a bookstore, the early forums were apparently dominated by reviewers of videogames and electronic products other than books. Nothing wrong with that. Games need reviews too.

But a pugnacious atmosphere of rigid "us/them" thinking, paranoia, and bullying has persisted in the forums. You don't want to visit unless you've developed some callouses on your eyeballs. Disrespectful, cruel behavior may be common in online games--I admit to complete ignorance there--but it seems wildly out of place in the book world.

Let me be clear that I'm talking about a handful of people. The majority of the top Amazon reviewers are intelligent, literate book lovers who genuinely care about readers. I've met some personally and found them exceptionally wise, charming, and honorable. They don't like the nasty, territorial nature of the forum culture either.

I was recently warned by a fearful top reviewer about the extent of bullying that goes on. I was told I should beware of hitting the “useful” button on more than one or two reviews by any one Amazon reviewer, because that reviewer might be accused of using me to get her/him into the coveted top 100 category--and we'd both be banned from Amazon forever.

That's right: My simple act of appreciation--and using Amazon as it was intended--could get that reviewer (and me) banned--over some competition most of us know nothing about.

This shadowy group has that much power.

The reviewer's warning clicked on a brain-bulb for me: it would appear that the reviewing itself has become a game with the primary goal of "defeating" other reviewers. Authors and readers--and the entire publishing industry--are simply collateral damage.

Knowing this helps explain why I got death threats for urging grandmothers to write reviews and show appreciation for other reviewers. If Amazon has become a private online game, the players need to keep little old ladies from wandering onto their turf.

This knowledge also helped me understand the violent, irrational missives I got in response to my post. They might have made more sense if I’d known they came from people who spend more time playing Orcs and trolls in online games than schmoozing their favorite authors at booksignings.

Publishing's role-playing fringe of "fanboys, fantasists and basement dwellers, all leaking testosterone" makes for some hilarious comedy when Gary Trudeau satirizes it in the "Red Rascal" Doonesbury storyline.

But if these are the people who are rewriting the rules of our venerable profession, it's closer to tragedy.

This is an industry where people tend to be nice to each other. Some even think book people are too polite. In the non-Amazon world, most authors don’t consider other authors in their genres to be “rivals” at all. Successful authors write in genres they’ve been reading a long time, so they love to read and promote each other’s books. When the genre is doing well, all the authors do well. The rising tide elevates all boats.

Authors are much more likely to band together for events like Richard Castle's poker game, or the Rock Bottom Remainders than sabotage each others' sales. Most author-bloggers host and promote each other--especially authors in the same genre. Ruth Harris and I write for the same demographic and we not only promote each other, but we belong to a Goodreads group where Boomer Lit authors enthusiastically read and support the work of all Boomer Lit writers.

No author can write books fast enough that we could expect fans to read no books but our own. The whole idea is silly.

Not that we’re going to endorse every single book in our genre, because we want our fans to trust our judgment. That's why book review journals have traditionally hired authors to write their reviews.

And there's the simple fact that experienced authors know how to use language to convey ideas, so our reviews tend to be more informative than those of, say, that random tourist at Fisherman’s Wharf.

I know some people claim the banning of authors from Amazon reviewing is a good thing, because "authors have brought it on themselves" as if people who write are some sort of monolithic entity in which we're all privy to each other's actions. That kind of thinking would give everybody in Connecticut the death penalty because of the Newtown shootings.

It's all zooming fast into the realm of the absurd.

OK, so what can we do?

Joanne Harris calls for an overhaul to the Amazon review guidelines, particularly the "star system." As she said to the Telegraph, "To be honest I would just rather Amazon delete all their reviews as it has caused so much trouble.” She added, “It is a pity. Originally it was a good idea but…it has become inherently corrupt."

In spite of all this, I’m going to continue to urge you to write Amazon reviews (even if you have committed the terrible sin of writing a book or two of your own.) Some reviews are removed and some aren't-- based on those mysterious Amazon algorithms we mortals are not privy to. But I would add the caveat that you should ALWAYS post to several sites other than Amazon in case it gets removed.
  • Since Barnes and Noble seems to leave a review up forever, even if it’s nonsense from the mysterious Mistyclaw and her online cat-game friends, you can be pretty sure your review will be preserved there. Besides, Nook owners will thank you. 
  • If you’re a member of Goodreads, post your review there, too. Mostly it’s a nice community, if a little clunky to navigate. (I admit to difficulties finding my way around myself.)
  • If the author is self-or small press-published, there’s a good chance the book is on Smashwords, where reviews are easy to post and the atmosphere is friendly. Mark Coker is a smart man and author advocate so I think anything we do to support him makes the book industry a better place. 
  • If you’re in the UK, you can look for the book on the Waterstones site and paste in your review there. 
  • Canada’s Kobo is an international site where your reviews will have a world-wide impact. I admit I’m not sure how to post reviews there, but it’s worth checking out.
  • Read and support book review blogs. The dedicated book review bloggers who donate their time to read and write thoughtful reviews deserve our support and thanks. If you’re an author and would like to have a book review blogger consider your book, here’s a post on how to query them.
  • I urge some entrepreneur out there to set up a site for book reviews like the Rotten Tomatoes site for film reviews. Because RT was set up as a site solely for review curation and not sales, it is the go-to site for most of us. I've got it on my browser toolbar. Wouldn't it be fabulous to have a site for books that had both professional reviews and customer reviews? 
  • If you’re an author, take screenshots of your reviews and save them. If your reviews disappear, you can contact the reviewer and ask to have the review posted at one of the more author/reviewer-friendly retail sites. 
  • Consider taking your book-shopping dollars/pounds/euros to other sites. Amazon isn't going anywhere, but healthy competition is always good for the marketplace. And who knows: they may just take notice and decide they can catch more flies with honey than the acid that flows through the Amazon forums.
So what about you, scriveners? Have you had any reviews deleted—either reviews of your books or reviews you’ve written? Have you figured out how they could have been perceived as “violating” the guidelines of the Mighty Zon? Can you recommend book blogs we should follow in your genre? What other sites are good for finding honest reviews?

On a lighter note, remember authors are not banned from writing reviews of other products, and some obviously wildly talented authors have been writing hilarious reviews of the Hutzler banana slicer on Amazon this week. Thanks much to my pal Kristen Lamb for the heads-up.