The Sunday Sermon

Dearly Beloved Readers who are also Writers,

Lots of authors seem to be passing on words of wisdom about how to write a good story, edit it, and sell it. In other words, holding out the faint but oh so enticing hope that YOU, yes, YOU could be the next J.K. if only you follow the advice. I thought I might as well add my two penn’orth.

You might have noticed that I have written quite a lot, and I continue to write, every day, poems and pieces of prose, as well as working on one or other of my umpteen WIP. The general opinion is that I write well. Not genius stuff, but solid stuff that gets good reviews. The other thing you probably haven’t noticed, because we tend not to notice what’s not there, is that I don’t promote except to announce a new release or free story, excerpt or poem drawn from the book.

The word of advice is simple—if you want to be successful, stop wasting your time writing and get on with promoting yourself. It’s incredibly difficult to get an agent if you haven’t written exactly what they happen to be looking for this week, and it’s incredibly easy to get a small publisher who will publish your work, drop it into the arena of the internet, and quietly back away from it.

But there’s still self-publishing, the great democratizer, that gives us all a stab at being famous. Just bear in mind that if you want to rise from the mud at the bottom of the seabed, you have to market as well as promote. You have to create a web presence and a public persona that readers can pretend they know. You have to get reviews from the places that will accept self-published books, which means none of the big magazines or literary reviews. You have to spend money on buying advertising, organizing promotions, attending cons and book signings (if a book store will have you and you buy a big stack of your own books to sell), and you have to toil for weeks knitting effigies of your mcs or sewing scapulars with their toenail clippings to give away as prizes.

Who has all this time? Do some people get more than the regulation 24 hours in the day? Do they employ servants? Whatever their dark secret, some people manage to do all of this and hold down a day job too.

Anyway, the advice is there. Don’t write, sell. It’s given freely from someone who hasn’t been able to crack it, but at least knows that she’s doing it all wrong. Like me, you might decide to throw common sense to the winds and just keep on writing. Good luck, whichever path you take.

I would prefer not to

I was discussing with an editor friend of mine the other day some of the infuriating comments I had received from publishers about a rejected manuscript. I have had a couple in a row now saying more or less the same thing—great story, great writing and we’d love to take it if only you could change a few things. The few things being essentially take out all the imagery, introduce snappy smart-ass dialogue instead of description, cut the number of important characters who the reader will get to know down to two, and get rid of all the passive voice. In other words, rewrite in such a way that my story resembles, in everything but irrelevant details, a hundred other stories that have made money for their publishers.

Keep the language and the concepts simple, they advise, because no reader likes having to think about the meaning of an image. Don’t describe because it’s boring, instead have the characters chatter incessantly about the snow, the rain, the scenery, the car crash etc. Get rid of all adverbs and all dialogue tags except for ‘said’.

Not only is this the tyranny of the mediocre, it’s also plain ignorant. Adverbs are perfectly good parts of speech. Like everything, they can be over-used. But they are not intrinsically evil. If I want to indicate that a character whispered a comment, I will say, “she whispered.” I will not say, “she said.” Or “she said in a whisper.” There is a perfectly good verb that condenses ‘to say in a whisper’ into one word: whisper.

Banning the passive voice is another directive that gets on my nerves as it is often through a misunderstanding of what the passive voice is. I was told, as an example, to change “George was reading the book” (passive) to “George read the book” (active). George was reading is past continuous not passive. It is no less active than any straight past tense and it doesn’t mean the same thing. The passive would be “The book was read by George.”

Take “George was reading the book when the doorbell rang.” Compare it with “George read the book when the doorbell rang.” Doesn’t make sense.

These blanket instructions are not intended to help make a particular manuscript better, just to turn all manuscripts into the same, homogenised product. The same is true of dialogue. It has to be clever, smart, snappy. Regardless of the situation. I’ve just been reading a novel that typifies what editors insist upon. It starts with a guy getting knocked down by a van. Because an opening has to be action-packed, right? Instead of the guy’s unspoken impressions as the van hits him, the reader is given an internal monologue of ‘humorous’ quips and observations. To my mind this is misplaced and unrealistic, and it’s not even funny. It’s life reduced to clichés, situations reduced to tropes, and characters flattened to cardboard cut-outs.

I am coming more and more round to the opinion that publishers, editors, agents are looking for a product not a book, a brand not an author. I try to step back from what I write, try to use the advice I’ve been given to make the story better. I can always see how to make it different, it’s the ‘better’ that is so subjective. Does ‘better’ have to mean easier to read, as in taking what was written for 16-18 year olds with an adult reading age and making it suitable for ten year olds who have to be cajoled away from their comic books with promises of similar action and wise cracks? If that’s making it better, then I’m afraid I don’t share the same fundamental ideas about what makes writing good. In fact, to me it looks suspiciously like an encouragement to dumb it down.

More good news

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been submitting poetry and short fiction, and it looks as though I am having a fair bit of success. I just received notification that this one was published today.

That makes two poems and two short stories accepted in the last nine days. Sod the novels; I’ll just keep writing shorts 🙂

I’m editing this to say I have just had a haiku accepted in another magazine. So make that three poems.

Spam, irritation, and the twitterverse

Talking about social media—because we were, weren’t we? Twitter’s a funny thing too. A few minutes ago I saw that a gentleman wearing full Saudi sheik gear was following me. I went to his profile and saw just scrolls and scrolls of arabic script so I didn’t follow back. I mean, why would I? He could be ranting off about anything and I wouldn’t be any the wiser. A minute later he’d gone. He’d given me about two minutes to decide to follow back or he wasn’t playing.

It made me think that I really don’t understand what makes twitter users tick. At first I just watched in consternation as the jumble of ads, spams, and incoherent, meaningless messages scrolled past. Then I discovered twitter poetry prompts and settled into a little backwater of the twitter stream full of little gems of poetic imagery. It’s fun, useful, and entertaining. I slip in a plug for my own books every couple of weeks but since I don’t believe it makes one iota of difference, it’s not something I do with any conviction or perseverance.

I follow back many of the people who follow me as long as they’re not selling anything or promoting hate or some religion or other. Often these followers come through the poetry connection. Others though seem to be simply working their way through the entire twitterverse starting with the letter A. What good does it do me in any way whatsoever to be followed by a Saudi sheik or a computer programmer in Seattle, or a lady who knits lace doilies in Hong Kong? Often their twitter feed is just a constant dribble of : Thanks for the follow. What intellectual stimulation is there to be got out of the kind of messages that are composed half of hashtags and half of single letters or contractions and numbers instead of words? Why do people follow twitters who don’t even use the same alphabet? How the hell do you know what they’re tweeting about?

So many questions. Any answers?

I wrote that a few days ago. That was before I reached the tipping point with spam demands. I know this strikes a chord with a lot of people. You accept a friend request or return a twitter follow and your inbox or DM box starts pinging away like crazy with messages like: Thanks for the follow, now follow me on FB/ follow this Amazon link and buy my book/ go to my profile and RT my book ads. Who do they think I am? A social service for wannabee best sellers? Do I really have nothing better to do with my time than spend it puffing up complete unknowns who won’t even say thank you? I’d have to be suffering from terminal boredom to do half what these people expect.

I’m quite prepared to admit that there is a way of using social media to get readers for my books. I just haven’t found it yet. I have though found lots of ways in which social media would drive potential readers away. So far away they would never come back. I have a theory that the advocates of using social media for saturation spamming have an evil ulterior motive. By encouraging other authors to jump into the spammers’ black hole, they clear the way for themselves to gain readers using the more subtle methods they aren’t letting on about.

As we all know by now, selling books isn’t about the quality of the writing, it’s about the way you put it over. There are quite a few popular expressions to describe the process—none of them very complimentary. As Susan Toy points out in her excellent article I have just taken the liberty of reblogging, if what you are looking for is readers not sales, the tactics are completely different. Then, you just have to write a great book, offer it to people, and thank them heartily if and when they enjoyed it and tell you so. That’s maybe how we authors should count our success.

End of rant.

Do you have the can-do factor?

Reading through Monday morning blog posts, my eye was caught by Clare O’Dea’s post about the narcissistic possibilities of blogging. At the end of the post she proposes a test to check your narcissus score. I know I’m not exactly oozing with ‘can-do’ but was still a bit shocked to find how close to the ocean floor I was crawling. Somewhere between the bit the Titanic’s resting on and the bottom of the Mariana Trench.

I don’t think I am falsely modest about my writing—I believe that it’s good. Not exceptional, not brilliant, but good. In fact it would be pretty strange to go to the trouble of publishing books that I considered to be a load of rubbish. If one of the 40 questions had been ‘Do you reckon you are a good writer?’ I could have answered in the affirmative. One brownie point to me. But there were 40 questions about behaviour, not self-esteem, and I score very low on all the—‘If you’ve got it, do you flaunt it?—type questions. Thinking, in a smug sort of way, well at least I know I’m good, doesn’t get you any marks at all.

Transpose all that into marketing and promotional behaviour and you have, in a nutshell, why some of us writers sink without trace and others, who are not afraid to shout their talent from the rooftops, con(vince) readers they know what they’re talking about and sell thousands of copies.

A case in point. The Dark Citadel was in a best YA fantasy competition. It was beaten by a book that the judges, from their comments, seemed to think verged on perfection. Leaving aside how I feel about my own book’s merits, the winner’s was surprisingly bad—derivative, facile, and in places utterly silly. What struck me as typical of the can-do factor at work was how the author lapped up the praise and took it all in her stride, saying that some of the other books in the contest were pretty good so she was pleased though not surprised to have won, because of course her book was awesome and richly deserved to be awarded first place.

This woman has the ‘can-do’ factor in bucketsful. And in one way at least she deserves success, because she has written a book so many people want to read. It’s very similar to books they have already read and enjoyed, and the silliness comes from writing about a city and a country the author has never visited, but most of her readers won’t have either so who’s to know?

I know that many authors hate to be told that they should be pushing their book as a product, targeting a market and hitting their audience where they hang out with the kind of message that appeals to them specifically. We have a tendency to bristle and reply that selling books in not like selling potatoes or washing machines. We like to think that there is something intrinsically ‘worthy’ about a book that sets it on a higher plane than vulgar vegetables or white goods.

I have come round to the belief that the marketers are right. You can sell any old rubbish as long as you can convince people it’s the rubbish they want. Publicists (sorry) are not in the business of telling gospel truths, they are in the business of persuading people to buy product X in preference to product Y. Product X might be utter crap technically, but the publicist’s skill is in convincing the potential buyer to overlook that unfortunate fact and instead look at other advantages. They might be street cred, the colour of the laces, the woman draped across the bonnet, whatever.

Same with books, I’m afraid. The mass market is not made up of discerning literati—they form only a small percentage and they probably wouldn’t ever look at your book anyway if it’s genre fiction—but of people wanting accessible entertainment. That’s the market most of us are hoping to interest. It isn’t important that, unlike books, you can judge all washing machines using the same criteria. People still ignore the evidence and buy crap washing machines. Conversely, many people do judge a book the way they judge a washing machine, ticking off their own set of criteria.

Selling isn’t about hard facts; it’s about wrapping a product up in an attractive package. If you are lucky enough to have a good publisher, you have a head start in the kudos race and can afford to concentrate on your art. The rest of us have to go down the marketing route with our books or doom ourselves to failure.

I’ll stick to getting my thrills from making a modest few ripples in this big pool.


Anyone know how to become a blogstar?

There is a question about blogging that I have often asked and never got a satisfactory answer to. How do you get people to read your blog?
I have read blog posts that have been short, not particularly interesting or well-written and found scores of comments and sometimes hundreds of likes. I’ve written about that phenomenon before, and there are several possible reasons for it. What intrigues me though are the bloggers who post very infrequently, on not specially gripping subjects, have very few likes and virtually no comments, yet they claim, often with the figures to prove it, that they get thousands of views every day. How?
How do you get so many people to pass by your blog when you manifestly don’t write anything that inspires more than one person in a thousand to push the like button? I notice that some of them don’t even reply to the odd comment they do get.
I have heard that as a platform for someone like me, aspiring best-selling author, a blog is useful to create an image rather than to generate sales. I’m trying, I’m trying! I have a blog and a Face Book page, but so do about a billion other people. I’m working at my image, and as images go, it could be worse, but who cares?
An image is fine, but a thousand views a day would also be very nice thank you, even if only a handful translated into sales. So, how do I get them, all these viewers, visitors? By visiting a thousand blogs an evening to get a return visit?
What do other people feel about the thousand views a day bloggers? Are they the norm, or are they freakish? I’m not talking about celebrities, or literary agents, the kind of people who attract a following looking to pick up a few crumbs from the table, a useful tidbit of information, or just a bit of gossip. I’m talking about the ordinary blogger who blogs about gardening, or their pets, their writing, their holidays. Or the blogger who blogs about what they would like to do one day when they get round to it.
What have they got that I manifestly haven’t?
Have you got it?
Are you willing to let the rest of us in on the secret?