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Thank an Author?

I’ve seen a resurgence of posts saying some variation of: “The best way to thank an author is to write a review!” I’ll admit I’ve even (re)posted these from time to time.

Here’s the thing, though: I don’t think readers are looking to “thank” authors.

I’m not saying readers are ungrateful. I just don’t think couching it in terms of gratitude is useful. An author does his or her job by writing what hopefully is a good book. A reader then purchases that book. To many readers, that’s the end of the transaction. Readers figure that when they buy our books, we’ve made our money. They’ve done their part. And then we go and ask for additional work from them and tell them they should be grateful we’ve done our jobs and entertained them.

You don’t see posts saying, “The best way to thank an actor is to write a review!” Or, “The best way to thank a band is to write a review!” Why do we do this for authors then? Do we really think it will motivate readers? In my experience it doesn’t.

I would very much appreciate more reviews. But I’ll equally admit that, after closing a book, my first thought is seldom if ever, “Gee, I wish I could thank that author!” In fact, it’s human nature to be more likely to write a review complaining about something bad than one praising something good. We expect good; we feel entitled to it, particularly after spending our money. When something isn’t good, we’re angry and want others to know it.

(I do write reviews, btw. I post them on my spooklights blog and on Goodreads. If I were a better person, I’d also post them on Amazon. For some reason I can’t seem to ever remember to do that. So I guess I shouldn’t complain when others don’t do it for me either.)

The big question is: How do we motivate readers to leave reviews? We can try explaining the importance of those reviews—that without them, authors can’t afford to keep writing and publishing books. So if you like an author’s work and want more, show your support by reviewing. I don’t know if that would work, but I do believe people like to believe they’re helping, that they’re contributing to a worthwhile cause.

Then again, even without reviews, there will always be authors writing and publishing. So readers aren’t going to lack for books if a few under-reviewed authors fall out of the machinery.

Asking for applause is a tad gauche. And that’s what reviews are: textual applause. (Or boos, if the reviews are bad.) How can authors instill the habit of reviewing in readers? We all know to clap after a live performance; sometimes we even give a standing ovation. But theatre has been around for centuries, and when watching something live, we can see the hard work going into the show. How can we help readers appreciate the same for writing?

I don’t pretend to have answers. I just think it’s worth posing the question. In order to get more reviews, we need to examine the culture around writing and publishing and reading—we need to figure out how to add that final step of reviewing to the chain so that it becomes a regular part of the cycle. And to do that, we need to understand how people read and what motivates them. If and when they review, why? Only when we have a clearer picture can we hope to make better progress . . . and get more reviews.

Luck & the Ladder

This morning, author Chuck Wendig posted a really nice Twitter thread about maximizing your luck as an author. Here’s the first tweet:

If you click on it, you can then read the entire thread.

Chuck (if I may be so informal) makes a lot of good points. Writing isn’t a meritocracy. You can work really hard and still not succeed. In a society that has shown us again and again in movies, television, and yes, books, that hard work always pays off, this can be a bitter pill to swallow.

Luck plays a pretty significant role in success . . . of any kind, really, but we’ll stick to writing for now. But as Chuck also notes, you can maximize your chances. Write a really good book, or better yet, write several.

Now, I’ll admit I always bristle just a little when an already successful person tries to pat me on the head and give me advice. I suppose they think it’s helpful, but it’s a little too diffuse to be truly useful. “Go write some more” isn’t some great kernel of knowledge. Still, I know Chuck and his ilk mean well when they hand down their opinions and musings like gods spitting peanut shells from their thrones in the clouds. So I try to take it in the spirit it’s intended.

One piece of advice he gives, however, is to write more. And besides the fact that pretty much everyone gives that advice, it only serves to kick people like me—slow, deliberate crafters of tales—in the gut. I write 1-2 books a year. I know I should write more and faster, but I simply cannot. It’s not for lack of trying, but you might as well tell a fish to climb a tree. It isn’t going to happen.

Does that make me a bad writer? It’s an honest question; I have no idea.

Chuck also points out that writing to market rather than writing what you want to write is probably not the best choice. And he talks about helping other writers by talking about them and their work, introducing them to agents and editors, building community . . . But I’ve written in the past about how a bunch of new writers can’t really help each other much. They need established authors, editors, agents to reach down the ladder and pull them up a bit. And yet it seems like once someone gets a few rungs up the ladder, their interest in helping those below wanes. There are a few reasons for this. Some people, once they’ve made it over the hurdle, feel like others should have to do it themselves. I did it and no one helped me, so why should I help anyone?

Others feel like it’s a zero-sum game. They think if they help anyone else, they’ll lose their chance at making it all the way to the top. They’re afraid helping others will pull them back down a rung. They’re afraid of losing the tenuous position they’ve worked so hard to establish. They begin defending their territory rather than opening the borders.

And some are just frightened and overwhelmed by the cries for help. I imagine it looks a bit like a scene from a zombie movie. Say there’s a mass of people trying to make it to the ladder that leads to safety. They’re swarming around the bottom of this ladder, desperate. And if you make it partway up, and you look down into this mass of humanity, it looks pretty scary. You wouldn’t even know where to begin to help any of them. If you reach down, they’ll hungrily grab at you, may even rip your arm off. As it is, they make break the ladder before you can get to the top. So maybe this feeds into the previous observation, that need to defend your space lest you be dragged back down.

Then again, maybe you build more ladders. Maybe you throw some ropes over that wall so lots of people can climb.

Actions, amIright? I know we’re writers, but sometimes we still have to do instead of relying on our words.

It’s one thing to post a long Twitter thread cheering people on. That’s nice and all, but even if the thread is true and reasonable and posted with the best possible intentions, it’s no ladder.

It’s fair of you to ask at this point, “Okay, so what do you do to help other authors?” Well, I’m not all that successful yet, but I still try to help those coming after me, or even my peers. I give workshops on the writing and publishing process. I let fellow authors know of opportunities I think they may be interested in. And I’m an editor, so I help my selected writing groups by giving feedback that I’d normally charge for. I do what I can, and hopefully one day I’ll be in a position to do more. If the zombies don’t get me, and so long as no one pulls up the ladder before I can get there.

IWSG: Pileup on the Writing Turnpike

It’s time again for the Insecure Writer’s Support Group! Posts go up the first Wednesday of each month. Read more posts and/or join in here.

I have a lot to be insecure about these days. 1. I need to finish Faebourne because it has a set pub date of August 7. (Also a gorgeous cover!) 2. After seeking advice, I’ve come to the conclusion that I need to shelve Hamlette and write an entirely different Shakespeare book (if I want to continue doing the Shakespeare thing, which I think I do, though I feel less sure than before). That’s really a tough one—I put all that time and energy into Hamlette and now it feels like a waste. 3. Changers 2? Maybe?

Question of the Month: When your writing life is a bit cloudy or filled with rain, what do you do to dig down and keep on writing?

Um, sometimes I don’t. That’s probably the wrong answer, but it’s the truth. I’ve never had anything good come out of trying to force it, though. Instead of fiction, I’ll write in my journal or something. Get the emotions out. I find that clarifying as an exercise. If I can figure out what’s really bothering me, I can then make a plan of action to start to feel better.

Brynnde Scores a PW Review

It seems like Brynnde is on an upswing. Yesterday it was featured on the Indie Beginning podcast (see yesterday’s post), and I also discovered Booklife/Publishers Weekly had reviewed it! Read the review here.

All of this makes me ever more determined to get Faebourne done and out into the hands of my readers. I hope you’ll embrace it as warmly as you have Brynnde.

A Random Pile of Thoughts

Well, 2018 is 25% finished. How have you done so far this year? How are you feeling? Looking at the goals I set at the start of the year, well . . . Um . . . I’ve had to rearrange a few things. Here’s what I originally set:

  1. Finish Changers 2. Deadline: 1 March
  2. Find an agent for Hamlette. Deadline: 1 May
  3. Lose 15 lbs. Deadline: 1 June
  4. Finish Faebourne. Deadline: 1 September

Changers 2 is not anywhere near finished. In fact, it’s been backburnered in favor of Faebourne, which now has a pub date of 7 August. So that’s been prioritized.

As for Hamlette, based on feedback from agents, my hopes for it have dimmed considerably. I’m now at the point where I need to decide whether to trunk it or self-publish.

But I’m pleased to say I’ve lost some weight! I now only have 10 lbs to lose.

Revised goals:

  1. Finish Faebourne. Deadline: 20 July
  2. Lose 10 lbs. Deadline: 1 June
  3. Finish Changers 2. Deadline: ???
  4. Decide what to do with Hamlette Deadline: ???

Today is Easter as well as April Fool’s Day. I’m not one for pranks. I don’t have the patience for that kind of thing; I guess I’m too serious-minded. It’s why I don’t watch movies with juvenile bathroom humor. I just don’t find that funny.

Still, the kids hunted eggs this morning. One of the plastic eggs had been eaten through by a squirrel, which makes me worry the squirrel went away with a stomach ache. Eating plastic like that can’t have been good for him. But bravo for the determination, little guy. (And he did take some of the candy out of the egg, too. So it wasn’t entirely for naught.)

We went to a Passover seder last night, too, at my in-laws. So there are just a lot of holidays stacked this weekend. And it’s spring break for my kids as well.

It occurred to me recently that my kids have somewhat posh hobbies. My daughter takes horseback riding lessons, and the boys do fencing. And this morning they were all out back doing archery. I suppose it’s all good until one of them decides they want to take up tennis.

Here is hoping you have a wonderful holiday, whichever you may celebrate, and a wonderful spring in general. And I hope any goals you set for 2018 are beginning to bear fruit—more than mine, anyway!

BTW, tune in to the Indie Beginning podcast tomorrow to hear some of Brynnde! And the following Monday, April 9, will feature yours truly!

Self-Exploitation

I was listening to a podcast today about upcoming movies for the year, and the podcasters went off on a tangent about a dad’s memoir about his son, and how this dad has also written powerful essays about things he and his son went through. (I’m being intentionally vague here. Why should I shill for this guy and his movie? Though I’m sure it would be easy enough to find out which one I mean.)

It’s natural, I think, to feel that prick of jealousy when some [other] author is being touted. And of course I can’t help thinking, Sure, and of course it’s a man and his son, because their stories are valued. But then I have to ask myself whether I’m willing to pillage my own history for the attention it might win me as an author. And the answer to that has always been: No.

The truth is, I don’t want to be known for some of the things that I would become known for if I did that. If I decided to write about some specific aspects of my past—things I prefer to keep quiet; things I would rather not rehash or relive—I would then walk around with a label on my forehead. And I don’t want that. I don’t want the first thing people think of me or associate with me to be XYZ. I’d rather be taken on my own merits, even if they are mediocre.

Also, if I start talking about them, everyone will want me to talk about them. And I already don’t want to talk about them.

This has been a conscious decision all my life, so I can’t really be annoyed when someone takes the other road. After all, it does take a kind of strength to share these personal things.

Sometimes I’m told that I owe it to society to share my past, that to do so would help others. But I’m not convinced of that, and I don’t think I bear that burden. I’ll share my stories in my own way, in fictitious ways. I will plant the truth like seeds in my make believe. That is enough for me. That is as close as I want to get to opening up my chest and exposing my heart.

And whether anyone else likes my stories, which are my garden, and whether anyone else notices the sprouts of what has been planted, well . . . That’s rather beside the point, I think. A good story stands on its own, regardless of its creator’s history. A beautiful garden is best viewed in the absence of the cultivator.

Guest Post: Kai Raine

My Stumbling Block in Writing: Forgetting Heteronormativity

Preface

About a month ago, I wrote a short literary story titled “Valence.”

“Valence” is about a character who has trouble discerning emotions: she can feel the strength, or valence, of an emotion—without necessarily being able to identify what said emotion is. It’s the story of how she falls in love with a man named Victor who doesn’t return those feelings, and they maintain a very close relationship before, during and after. My protagonist fails to notice when the love turns toxic and comes closer to loathing—and so it ends in tragedy.

The story is written in first person, entirely from my protagonist’s perspective. It jumps back and forth between her past with Victor, and her present, where she’s on the opposite end of the same thing, as a friend of hers named Victoria mistakes a toxicity in their relationship for romantic love.

The Cycle of Bewildering Feedback

I wrote a draft, edited it, and sent it out to beta readers, feeling pretty happy with the story. When the first beta reader said she liked it but was confused about the perspective shift between Victor and Victoria, I figured she simply hadn’t understood the story. It happens sometimes. I told her that the perspective was neither Victor’s nor Victoria’s, but a nameless third person, and went back to my manuscript to make a few minor edits.

To my surprise, she began to argue with me, insisting that the perspective did shift between characters. She could see that there was a third person there near the end, she said, but this was definitely a story about how Victoria and Victor had a convoluted relationship and Victoria killed Victor. Why was there a third person there? And why was the end so confusing? And did I know that I was using past tense sometimes and present tense at others?

I realized my mistake: because I jumped around in time, only one of the eight segments of the story referenced both Victoria and Victor near the end. Most of them had only a “me” and a Victoria, or a “me” and a Victor. I added a few more mentions of Victor in the Victoria segments, and felt satisfied that I’d solved the problem.

Yet my next few beta readers said the very same things as the first. They liked it, but were very confused by the sudden appearance of a mysterious third character near the end. One even mentioned that she was confused about why Victor occasionally seemed to refer to himself in the third person.

I resigned myself to giving my main character a name. I named her Chen (an androgynous Jewish name more often used for girls, pronounced “Ken”) and inserted her name in one strategic place. I added references to her background that would distinguish her from Victoria.

Imagine my frustration when my next reader was still confused.

I had to take a step back and take a long, hard look at the story. The story never made sense if it was from the perspectives of Victor and Victoria; it was even worse now, after all my edits. There were so many plot holes, so many inconsistencies if the story was interpreted that way. So why did people keep insisting on reading it that way?

The Source of the Problem—At Last

My greatest weakness in writing is knowing exactly how much to say in order for my meaning to be conveyed to the average reader. Too often I’ve written stories where beta readers are confused because they missed one line somewhere early on, and the information from that one line was crucial to their understanding of the whole story. This is to say nothing of the passages that I’ve written with one meaning in mind, only to learn later that they are most often read with a very different meaning that makes less sense in the context of the story overall. I’m much better at catching these and compensating for this than I used to be.

“Valence” proved that I’m very much still learning, because when I finally realized my mistake, it was astonishingly simple. Victor and Victoria were of opposite genders. If I’d made both of them men, or both of them women, this would never have been a problem. But because they’re of opposite genders, it simply doesn’t immediately register with most readers that there could be one person having these convoluted relationships with both of them at different points in time. The easiest, most natural reading for most people is that these two characters of opposite gender have a convoluted relationship with each other.

I inserted Chen’s name in prominent parts of conversation in the first scene with Victoria, and the first scene with Victor. I inserted headers over each part, dividing the story into 4 segments:

0. Before Victor
1. The Beginning of Victor and Me
2. The End of Victor and Me
3. After Victor

Surely now, finally, there could be no more confusion.

My first beta reader after this change was still confused, and I nearly despaired. I went so far as to linearize the storytelling to make it as clear as possible. But as I was doing this, I got feedback from a few more beta readers, overwhelmingly positive and with comments that made it clear that at last they had been able to follow the story.

I went back to the a-linear storytelling structure, reassured.

“Fray”: My Experimental Story

My difficulty with “Valence” is actually not the first time I’ve had this sort of problem with people’s interpretation of a work of mine. The difference is that last time it was entirely on purpose.

About five years ago, I wrote a short story that I called “Fray.” At the time, I used to regularly enter my story into consideration at Sixfold. (In case you are unaware: Sixfold is a literary journal without an editor choosing which stories make it. When you enter your story into consideration, you also commit to reading, rating and reviewing 6 stories each for 3 rounds: a total of 18 stories. If you miss the deadline to rate the stories you’re assigned for any of the rounds, your story is pulled out of the running. You rate the stories by ranking: you rank the 6 stories that you had to read from your favorite to your least favorite. You can also offer the author feedback if you like; something I always tried to do, as this was the reason why I liked submitting my work here.)

For some reason, I never submitted a normal, simple story to Sixfold—not that I write many normal, simple short stories to begin with. But I always submitted the weirdest things I had, the most bizarre writings of mine that I was nonetheless ridiculously fond of. (If you’re interested in seeing what I mean, the stories “Maple Wood” and “Flight” are among ones I submitted to Sixfold.)

I don’t know what made me decide to deliberately screw with my readers.

I had this little short story called “Fray.” It was about a closeted bisexual man and his out-and-proud best friend. This protagonist has been dating a woman he doesn’t really care for, and at the start of the story their relationship falls apart. He takes comfort in his best friend and finally admits his dirty secret: he’s in love with him. The best friend, in a loving and committed relationship, is sympathetic but unreceptive. The main character accepts the heartbreak but finds that perhaps because of his new self-acceptance, his strained relationship with his family isn’t as difficult as it once was.

So here’s what I did: I took “Fray,” and I removed as many gender indicators as I realistically could.

The only person it was impossible to make un-gendered was the best friend. He was too central to the story—trying to avoid using pronouns for him would have been entirely unnatural. It was in first person, so the protagonist’s gender was already obscure. The girlfriend at the start and the best friend’s boyfriend were given gender-ambiguous names and never referred to using pronouns.

For the final touch, I added one solitary reference to the protagonist being a man: this line I placed at the end of the middle, where the relationship dynamics of all the characters are already clear.

Then I stuck it into the running at Sixfold and waited and watched.

To my amusement, one of my reviewers was outright frustrated. He couldn’t tell which characters were what gender, he said, and that was distracting and frustrating. Another reviewer left me a stream-of-consciousness review that showed me that he was frustrated through most of the story—until he hit the mention that the main character was male, at which point he had to go back to the beginning, apparently fascinated by the “gender-bending” and now concluding that they all must be gay men.

I smiled to myself. I thought, “How interesting,” and went on with my life. This story was discarded and forgotten until recently, when I decided to try submitting it to journals for real. (Fingers crossed that it gets published in the next few months!)

Conclusion

Even in this day and age, readers don’t see gay and bisexual characters unless your writing forces them to see it. Perhaps this is obvious to people who are not me, but it’s already surprised me more than once. It’s a recurring anthropological lesson that I keep on forgetting.

Most recently, a short story of mine where sexuality wasn’t even an issue (I thought) got a teasing comment from a reviewer. After the death of a woman, her widower marries a man—not a big event, just something that happens in the background—and a beta reader commented on how he hadn’t been open about his sexuality until that point. I snarked back at her, referencing the Kinsey scale. She apologized, saying she didn’t know why she found the character’s bisexuality jarring in that story, when she hadn’t had that problem in another story of mine.

The problem was simple. I hadn’t introduced this character as bisexual in the text at all. So when the character formerly exhibiting heteronormative behavior suddenly exhibits homosexual behavior, a reader doesn’t have to be homophobic to find it jarring.

There are many writers who forget to humanize a gay or transgender or colored character beyond personality traits that are somehow related to those things. I have read many such stories. I’m in the opposite camp: I keep forgetting that this is still not quite a societal norm, so I must ease my readers into it—or at least make sure that everything is explicitly stated.

Does this mean I’ve been doing something fundamentally wrong, that I’ve hit this one stumbling block multiple times from different angles? No, I don’t think so at all. In fact, I’m a little happy to discover that my brain apparently has been living in a world where heteronormativity is an oft-forgotten afterthought. However, as a writer, I feel that I must be able to convey my meaning to people whose minds don’t necessarily work the same way as mine. I might choose not to do this from time to time; but most of the time, I want a story to at least be comprehensible to the average reader. So I have a lot more learning to do.

About the Author

Kai Raine is a writer and cognitive scientist who believes in thinking outside the box and questioning assumptions. Kai reads and writes to experience lives and opinions and possibilities beyond her own. She has lived a relatively nomadic life, being born in the US, then growing up mostly in Japan, and spending most of her early adult life in Europe. She has a BA from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and MScs from the University of Trento and the University of Osnabrück. Kai is the author of the fantasy novel These Lies That Live Between Us. Visit her at http://www.kairaine.com/.