C h a z z W r i t e s . c o m

The publishing revolution already happened.

Proving Dead Moms Wrong: Writing a book is among the least cynical things you can do.

The term “hack”, as discussed in this space recently, usually refers to someone, typically writing to tight deadlines, who is churning out words with no love for his or her work. I don’t think that applies any writer I’ve ever met, no matter the project. Every writer is optimistic as they begin a new book. We tell our spouses and girlfriends and boyfriends and basset hounds, “This will be the one that will really wow ‘em. If you leave me now, you’ll miss out on all the glory, my accolades and a mention on the Acknowledgments page, so you better stick around.”

Here’s why “hack” is a poor term:

In This Plague of Days, I write about a zombie apocalypse. Maybe that sounds silly to you, but I fell in love with the characters and there are genuine emotional, serious and thoughtful moments. It’s complex and it’s not what you expect. Just as I attempted to do with my hardboiled hit man in Bigger Than Jesus, I played outside the expected conventions. I tried to do something different with the genre.

But here’s the thing: That doesn’t make me unique.

Every writer I know is reaching to the best of their ability to write something awesome, different and engaging, no matter what they’re writing. We try to write the best tweets we can, for Thor’s sake! Certainly we’re aiming for at least that clever when constructing a narrative beyond 140 characters. 

We’re all looking for a special turn of phrase or a new twist on an old cliché no matter what we’re writing. We’re searching for ways to entice and delight readers. We love language. We tell stories. I’ll leave it to readers to decide the degree to which we succeed, of course. However, when a reviewer dismisses any writer out of hand, based on their choice of subject, as a “hack”? I reserve the right to dismiss that review. I don’t think the term elucidates anything. A book takes too much work and time for us to aim low.

Say it with me and feel it: “Writing a book is among the least cynical things you can do.”

As a person who, more than once, has been dubbed “Mr. Cynical”, I speak with expertise. We may fall short, but we’re all shooting for the outer moons of Andromeda and to prove our dead moms wrong. Even if the reader thinks they’ve read it all before. Especially when that niggling voice of doubt in our heads tells us, “Some people are really going to underestimate what I can do with this material. I’m going to melt their eyeballs with my fair-bitchin’ prose.”

I suggest we all take each book on its own merits instead of painting with push brooms (and read the sample before you buy to avoid disappointed expectations.) Please don’t say this or that writer is a hack. That’s insulting and too easy, for starters. Besides, like plague viruses, authors evolve, too. Maybe you dismissed Stephen King’s Pet Sematery, but if from that judgment you dismiss all of his work, including The Long Walk, you haven’t read The Long Walk.

It is fair to say a particular plot device is hackneyed, but don’t generalize about all our work. Every author I know, me included, gets better with each new book. Disastrous experience beats the weakness out of us.

What other terms should we be careful about using? To the jargonator!

1. “Commercial”: Does that mean you liked it but felt you shouldn’t? (This is the worst, most disingenuous reaction, last spotted on The Slate Culture Gabfest. That’s right! I’m calling you out, Metcalfe. You’re so meta-snarky, you might be David Plotz.)

Does commercial really mean mass market paperback? With the advent of ebooks, that seems a dated reference.

By commercial fiction, do you mean it tells a ripping story that’s less based on character? Hm.  All writers want to make readers care about their characters, so that seems a tad empty.

By commercial, does the critic mean the author wants to sell a lot of books? “How base and singular! No person of character wants that! Are you not of independent means, Monsieur Writer Peasant?”

2. “Muscular” prose: The author is a minimalist, idolizes Hemingway and probably does not possess a MFA from the last thirty years. An obvious attempt to damn with faint praise.

3. “Workmanlike”: Same as #2, but with even fewer syllables in word choice. The critic thinks they’re getting away with being snooty, but we can read the code and the classism isn’t that subtle. Both #2 and #3 are really authorial choices, not burdens to grow past.

4. “Literary”: This means less plot and more exploration of inner worlds when not used as a euphemism for “pretentious.” Certainly this indicates that you’ll leave the book out on the coffee table to prove to the in-laws or tonight’s date that you’re deeper than you seem.

But all authors strive for literary flourishes at the very least. When we’re in composition mode, no premise sounds so tired that we can’t hit it at a different angle, make it great and spin it fresh. I know of no writer, no matter how tight the deadline or how little they are paid, who sets out to write crap. You might say it’s not to your taste. The author might even call it crap…later, after a few more books. But as we write? We’re all Hunter S. Thompson and Margaret Atwood and Kurt Vonnegut rolled up in Shakespearian dreams of legacy, love and respect.

We may fail, but we are artists.

Our hearts are in the right place.

Are you reading with an open mind?

Is your heart in the right place?

Have you dismissed something you haven’t read without even reading the sample?

Well, no, not you, of course, Gentle Reader of this Blog.

But, you know…them other jerks what don’t respect us none.

 

Filed under: book reviews, publishing, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Travesty: The Slate Culture Gabfest “bludgeoned” by books

Bad news

Some people have committed to never buying another book again. Their e-readers are stuffed full of all the free books they could load. They’ll probably never get to most of them. Downloads do not equate to reading. When they do give your book a chance, some nasties are predisposed to one-star reviews. They’ll give your books less of a chance than you dare hope. They’re far less invested in reading it because they’ve got way too much to read already. And “How dare you attempt to entertain me for free!”

It gets worse…

From several literate sources, I’ve heard intellectual folks complain about having a book recommended to them. On the Book Fight podcast (which I generally enjoy), the hosts — who honestly love literature! — talked about recommendation fatigue. Attempts to share the glory of a good story might be viewed with a cynical eye over there. Instead of an open hand of welcome for a recommendation, book boosters can expect to be seen as mindless parrots and promoters. Holy crapballs! These guys write and teach writing. Maybe they’re tired. One host yearned to have a job fixing cars instead of writing for a living. Somebody needs a vacation, or to remember how much hard labor can suck. This? From people who love literature?

But it gets much worse…

The Slate Culture Gabfest, a podcast you’d hope wouldn’t have room for cynicism, is not a safe space for books. You’d think people who talk about culture professionally wouldn’t be so disengaged and full of resentment when book recommendations come their way. One of the hosts even said they were less likely to read a book because someone suggested he should. I guess host Stephen “I hate everything but the counter-intuitive” Metcalf is past the giddy burble some of us feel as we read a book that genuinely excites us.

You know that feeling, right? When you consciously slow your reading to make the experience last longer? Remember those books that disappoint, not because they’re bad? Remember those books that, as you close them, it feels like the last roller coaster ride of the day is over and the amusement park’s closing up for the night?

Someone’s forgotten that wistful love. The three Slate podcasters felt “bludgeoned” because they got too many recommendations. (From here, that sounds like they’re complaining they get too many valentines.)

How’s their wariness and weariness working out for them? So far, they’ve successfully avoided A Visit from the Good Squad by Jennifer Egan, or any Barbara Kingsolver or any Alice Munro. This, from culture critics. Culture is their business, but I guess that’s no reason to get too bookish about it. Let’s nerd out over Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate, instead. Lord knows that poor director never had his proper shot at fame and fortune. I guess I won’t hold my breath for them to give Bigger Than Jesus a go.

Where does that leave authors who don’t get to meet Stephen Colbert on their fabulous press junket?

(Hat tip to Slate’s Emily Bazelon. I still love you, Emily.)

Stuck in the desert with a cactus in our ass is where that leaves us. You can pump your books on Triberr and Twitter and Facebook and pay for all the advertising you can afford, but some people who review books are overstimulated and it seems to have soured their milk. One of the Book Fight guys suggested that if you hardly ever recommend a book and then you finally do, he’d give that recommendation more weight. That paradigm doesn’t fit into most authors’ promotional campaigns very well, does it?

That last point struck me as particularly disagreeable this week when I ran across a brilliant author who does no promotion. I won’t embarrass him here (but I’ll promote him later). For the purposes of this post, I’ll simply say that being brilliant might get you readers in the long-term, but he isn’t getting the attention he deserves without promotion. A good marketer who writes will outpace a better writer who fails to market well.

Slate’s jaundiced eye toward any recommendation I could make suggests his brilliance will stay a secret. The gatekeepers to publishing have been sent into the forest to learn other trades and reinvent themselves, but there are still gatekeepers to publicity and attention. And they are sick of us, no matter how casually and sidelong our book recommendations.

How am I going to pull this post out of its dive into a dark, hard place?

This has been a test of the emergency broadcast system. If this were a real emergency, everybody would feel this way about book recommendations. However, there are still plenty of readers who are not fatigued and may even thank you for reviewing and sharing. They might love our books. I sure hope they love mine. When you get depressed about people who seem predisposed to ignoring our efforts (or even despise us, our silly dreams and possibly even our dogs) focus your energy elsewhere. Continue with the quixotic! Quixotic is the most noble category of quests.

Now please go write something the critics can’t possibly ignore.

Or go write something someone will dare to recommend to someone, with shamefaced humility,

in a passive way that somehow won’t erect some critics’ inborn defences against a kind suggestion.

(And don’t tell them what kind of day to have.)

Filed under: book marketing, Media, Publicity & Promotion, publishing, readers, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Bookstores: How sick are they?

Cover of "Glass Houses"

Cover of Glass Houses

Recently I’ve seen what I call “backlash” articles* about the health of bookstores. You’ve probably seen them, too. In the wake of the Borders chain closings, some media are hitting back with counter-programming (either out of nostalgia or as a way to stand out.)

Their message is simple:

“We love bookstores and they aren’t all dying. Look at this tiny independent where the defiant owners are making a brave stand.”

I love brave stands. I’m also fond of truth and this is an obvious case where the part is not the whole. It reminds me of all the people who object to the digital revolution with, “Look at all those e-books with all their different platforms. It’s a mess so it won’t survive.” I dislike stupid stands.

Perhaps the problem is confirmation bias. They’re looking for reasons why what will happen, is happening, won’t happen. Whatever bump in the road they find they take gleefully to be an insurmountable obstacle. Actually, multiple platforms for e-books are a sign of health (assuming competition is good in that it keeps prices down and choices up) and of growth (as in growing pains due to rapid, unexpected expansion.) The technology to make us all publishers is developing.

“Developing” implies transition from stupid to primitive to flawed to workable to better to a higher state (and eventually to a new tech.) Instant/indie publishing is not going to be perfect all at once. Nothing is, though not long ago I heard a Luddite say he wasn’t going to buy a computer until the tech wasn’t “perfected.” Hahahaha! He was calling from the corner of Unreasonable Expectations Boulevard and Are You High? Avenue.)

There is  a reductionist view with a subtext that categorizes anyone who predicts the demise of bookstores as a gloating goblin. I’m not gloating. I love bookstores. As (I’ve often pointed out, having milk delivered to the house was convenient, too.)

But I’m not saying bookstores will disappear completely. You’ll just pay more if you want the premium paper product. Heck, you already do that, but the price of old media will rise more. You can still buy turntables, for instance, but if you want to hear the scratches on Billy Joel‘s Glass Houses, you’re paying a very high price for a new needle to make that old pig spin.

Paper books are going to co-exist with e-books for some time…at least until consumers really get kicked in the teeth by manufacturing costs. Books get cheaper when produced in volume, but as digital sourcing rises, e-books don’t have to replace all paper books to make paper book production go from unattractive to cost-prohibitive.

There are too many variables and my brain is too small to say precisely when it will happen. I’m simply confident it will occur and one day, maybe even you will say, “Oh, look, darling! A bookstore! There isn’t a bookstore within 2 days’ drive of our house! Let’s go in and buy coffee and look at their tiny collection. How quaint!”

Yes, Virginia, 100 years from now there will still be paper books.

But you’ll be sewing and gluing the binding yourself.

*Chazz definition: A backlash article is an article written to assure the reader that the writer is the sane voice of wisdom when in fact they’re really just knee-jerk contrarians railing against all evidence. Like how the writers at Slate work from the premise, “We’ll hate on what everyone loves and make snide remarks at what everyone thought unassailable because we’re the sophisticated cool kids! Anything goes as long as it doesn’t agree with Salon.”

Filed under: Books, DIY, ebooks, Media, publishing, Rant, self-publishing, , , , , , , , , , ,

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