Sunday, May 1, 2016

The Books That Sent Me Down This Path

1990

This week's topic in the soon-not-to-be-a-bordello anymore - new title and contest winner to be announced soon! - is the book(s) that got us started on our genre.

This is always a hugely difficult question for me to answer because it feels like squeezing decades of reading into less than a thousand words.

Probably because that's exactly what we're trying to do.

But I'm trying this topic's particular focus on which books really sent me towards my niche genre of fantasy romance. I've discovered an interesting trend through this reflection on my past.

1991
A bit of history first. I trace my decision to become a writer to November of 1991. This is easy for me to look up, because my epiphany hit in the middle of the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in New Orleans. (They have a convenient and nicely organized sidebar of past meetings that I check any time I need to confirm the exact date.) Actually, as epiphanies sometimes do, mine came in the form of a complete meltdown, in which I burst into tears in front of my PhD adviser and ran from the building.

At this point I discovered that pursuing my life's ambition should probably not make me that crazy. And that maybe what I really wanted out of life was something else entirely. To my vast surprise, it turned out that the "something else" was to be a writer.

1994
During that convention I was reading Anne Rice's The Witching Hour. I remember it vividly because my mom, who went with me to that convention, was reading it also. We even hunted down the house in the story and discovered Anne Rice actually lived there. I'd been a fan of Rice's since I received a copy of Interview with the Vampire in my Science Fiction Book Club shipment. This book, though, it wrapped me up, masticated my heart into tiny pieces and tucked them back inside me, totally changed. Yeah, I was already an emotional wreck - a lot happened to me that year, including meeting David, who turned out to be the love of my life - and that book was part of it.

It planted the seed of what I really wanted to write, without me even knowing it.

1995
Because I'd *always* loved to read anything paranormalish. From the time I picked up Anne McCaffrey's Dragonsong in 5th grade - not coincidentally the same year I read Interview with the Vampire - I consumed everything along those lines that I could find.

Two things, however, kept me from writing in that genre at first. Actually, I should say publishing. I did start writing this fantasy THING. It involved terrible fragments that went nowhere because I had zero craft or support in that direction. This is key, I think. My first publication was an essay, in 1997, and I came to write it because I took a class called Essays on Self and Place in 1996.

1998
Note how many years it took me from epiphany to publication.

1996
So, because I didn't know anyone who wrote genre, and there weren't visiting writer classes I could take in it, I didn't get focused on writing fantasy. Also, being in an academic environment, I thought I needed to write "important" things, not genre.

Alas.

But all during these years, that's what I was reading. It's interesting to review the books and series that pop into my head as formative - and then see the progression of dates. I've added them in as captions so you can see, too.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but I *did* become an exhaustive reader. I didn't read all of these exactly when they came out, but pretty damn close. I haunted my local Hastings Book Store (because the indie book stores didn't carry genre), which had a rack of these books. I picked up Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel's Dart based on the cover and started in on Anita Blake because a colleague and similar fan of romance/paranormal crossover recommended them. And we'd both glommed onto Diana Gabaldon's Outlander books.

2002
A couple of things happened in the early 2000s. "The turn of the century" I liked to call it, but nobody thought I was funny. My first collection of essays (Wyoming Trucks, True Love and the Weather Channel) came out in 2004, to critical acclaim and practically zero income.

2002
Also, I became very aware of my unadulterated addiction to a number of series. I spent vast amounts of money on my autobuy books - JD Robb's In Death books, Gabaldon, Carey, Laurell K Hamilton and a few others. A good friend who'd begun to manage one of the local indie bookstores - and who was savvy and unpretentious enough to recognize book buyers like me - fed my addiction. She knew when my next autobuy book was coming out before I did and would have it ordered and waiting for me.

2005
Of course I couldn't resist.

Then, one day, she handed me Twilight. I wasn't interested. She said, no, really - my editor friend in NYC said she just spent the weekend reading this book and was spellbound. My friend thought I should at least read it, because early indicators were that it would be big. Then she asked me why wasn't I writing this kind of book, as much as I loved them.

At least I didn't cry that time.

But it was a second epiphany. I dug out those horrible fragments and began to play with them. It took several more years - and a lot of learning the craft of both writing novels and learning genre - but here I am, with my books right in there.

Pretty cool!

Saturday, April 30, 2016

On Reviews

Jake the Cat ignoring me this morning because I was not properly attentive!
I don't review. I mention books from time to time, especially in my various columns and posts art USA Today Happily Ever After and Amazing Stories Magazine (Archive of  USAT and AM posts), and I think it's a fairly safe assumption that if I take the time to interview an author or mention the book, I enjoyed it.

I don't read reviews either, unless a reader tweets me or notifies me they've written one they want me to see. If someone calls a review to my attention, then I go look at it. I very much appreciate the time that readers and book bloggers put into writing reviews, to help other readers decide if the books are something they'll enjoy or not! And I know I need reviews to help Amazon in its algorithmic ponderings of the book in question.

I just can't read them.

I learned this lesson about myself in the early, wild days of eBay when feedback on buyers and sellers wasn't capsulized in nice anonymous stars about price, timeliness, communications and etc. In the old OLD days, people could and did write some outrageous things, much like a one star book review from a troll (not just an unhappy reader who has good reasons for why the book disappointed them - that can certainly happen even with the best book). We didn't get many bad reviews because we were highly conscientious sellers but every once in a while the customer would be unhappy. And wow, those words would wound me every time. I was doing my best, I was a widowed mother of two with a day job, trying to make the mortgage payment, didn't they realize they were taking food from my children's mouths if they left bad feedback....yup. I took it all onboard and I'd argue, in passionate e mails, to get the feedback removed or softened, or make the buyer happy. Good thing I learned NOT to do this on eBay so I'd be prepared for being an author LOL!

I finally made my daughters read all our Seller feedback first and only tell me if I had a specific thing I needed to know. Did the item arrive broken  and a refund really was needed? Fine. I'd deal with it.

So that's my tale, folks.

In a non-review, I read an ARC of  Jeffe's next release The Pages of the Mind (Uncharted Realms) and could not put it down. I LOVED it. Interview will be forthcoming when the book  comes out in June.


Friday, April 29, 2016

The One Star Review

 
Moon set on the western edge of the continent.
 
 
Reviews. Am I wrong in thinking there's so much weird psychology wrapped up in them? I mean, sure. 95% of reviews aren't meant for the author at all. They're meant for other readers, a fact I appreciate. All hail ANYONE who spends the time and energy to read a book and the write a review. That's the greatest gift a reader can give an author, I think - it's time and life energy spent on your book. Doesn't even matter whether the review is good or bad. It's still a chunk of another human being's life being dedicated to your work. So please, if you review books (mine or anyone else's) thank you. I owe you chocolate.
 
The other 5% of reviews, though, that's where things get strange and where the agendas become far more transparent than I suspect the reviewer wants. You know how it is. Writer slogs for years trying to learn her craft and get published. Because then all her problems will be solved! Finally, the call comes. The first precious book goes out the door into the wide world. Someone reads it. Then someone else. Reviews start coming in. And they're okay! Until - hey! ONE STAR?? WTH? Your heart lands in your shoes as you read. 
 
Interesting story: It happened to Enemy Within. A reviewer on Amazon left a one star review saying he didn't understand why anyone liked the book, there was nothing new in it. (Even more interesting - I just went to find the review to quote it and it's gone. Huh.) Why did that review in particular stick with me? Was it because it was the first critical review of the book? Not hardly. If I want to play my critical review trump card, I note that no one less than Angela James wrote a very constructive, if critical review of the book. No this one star review stayed with me because the reviewer's agenda was plain in his dismissive tone. He's a frustrated writer. He had an idea that was similar-ish, but his was SO MUCH BETTER - the only problem was that he hasn't written it. He may never write it. It's much easier to take pot shots at the work someone else did than to do your own and face that the reality will never live up to the idea.
 
It seems like if a critical review is constructive and calls out issues that bothered the reader, then it's an honest opinion. The snarky one or two line reviews that don't actually give you any specifics - those set off my psychology senses (100% unqualified as they are) I think it's Julia Cameron who, in her ARTIST'S WAY books points out that the most vitriolic critics are creatives who aren't creating. I do my best to keep that in mind when some nitwit drops a snide, unhelpful line of bitterness into the flow of actual reviews.
 
Would I get 'author behaving badly' demerits if I pinged that reviewer with a note saying 'write yer damned book already?'   :D
 
 
 
PS: Don't forget to offer up suggestions for a name change! See Jeffe's post on the matter. You do NOT want me naming this blog. Just saying.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Perils of the Writer: Reading Your Reviews

I have some writer friends who tell me they never read their reviews.
I honestly have no idea how you can do that.
Collage 2Like, I can keep myself from interacting with the reviewers.  I know that a review is not an invitation for a dialogue.  Even when, for example, a dialogue breaks out from a review.  More than once I've seen a review that pointed out something the reviewer found a negative (which: their opinion, fair enough), and then a reader grabbed onto that negative and extrapolated it to an extreme.  For a sense of the sort of thing I'm talking about (but not an actual example):
Reviewer: I did sometimes feel frustrated because the protagonist made some dumb choices, even though they were choices that were true to the character.
Comment: Ugh! I can't stand books with IDIOT PROTAGONISTS.  WILL NOT READ.
While this is not a real example, it's not an exaggeration of what I've seen.  It feels like watching a game of broken telephone-- someone interprets a thing one way, and then someone else interprets their interpretation even further in that direction, so now you're seeing this ill-formed, uninformed opinion of your work, and you want to try to course correct it...
But really all you can do is twist your hands to try to psychically move the bowling ball away from the gutter.  You sent the book out there already, and opinions are going to form, regardless of what you want.  Regardless of what you intended the takeaway from your book to be, people are going to take their own thing.  They're going to read the same thing and come out with very different feelings.  Thorn and Murder have both been praised for rich, elaborate worldbuilding and criticized for thin, hollow worldbuilding.  Neither reviewer is more "right" than the other (though I could tell you which one I agree with more).  I've seen reviews that make me feel that the reviewer was being sloppy in their reading, or that they inserted some of their own biases-- but that also makes me wonder if I was sloppy in my writing, or started with my own presumptions.
The main thing for me is, I always read them, and I always look to see what I can learn and what I can use in order to improve my craft.  Because what's the point of doing this if we're not striving to get better as we go?

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Reviews

Reviews are not something I do. "Grading" my peers seems disingenuous and dangerous, aside from the fact that I don't get to read nearly as much as I once did. That said, I make recommendations to folks who ask and I support my writing pals by linking to their stuff on Facebook when they are promoting something. I have also given a few blurbs when approached to do so.

My reviews have been mostly good, but there are some bad ones out there. I understand that this is the law of averages, and as my subject matter is such that some folks will object to it, I don't mind. Really. Reviews don't make or break my day. It's the constant contact from folks who've just discovered the series and want more--that makes my day. There isn't much that can break my day, and certainly not someone's opinion of my books. That just isn't me.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

I Love Book Reviewers, But I Will Not Be One

I love reviewers. I truly appreciate the time and effort they take to write the review, to educate, inform, and instigate conversations. Like Jeffe, I really love book reviewers who write the insightful "why I loved/hated this book" reviews. As a reader, book summaries or cliff notes of the novel just annoy me. Oh, and spoilers? Grrrrr.

But.

I will not leave reviews for books. I will review shoes, paints, clothing, rugs, service providers, dog foods, shampoos, kitchen gadgets, etc. I will not review books. I will not publicly comment on the works of other artists in my field. Regardless of genre. I have made one exception. I will not make another. This makes my Goodreads page very dull, 'cause it's all about me, me, me. SorryNotSorry.

In my experience, there are three general categories of authors who do review books:

The Hat-Tip: There are plenty of authors who actively review the good, the bad, the ugly. There are authors who will only review a book they feel deserves five stars and heaps of praise. There are authors who will only review books 30+ years old or books far outside their genre. These authors ask for nothing in return for the review; they do it for the love of reading and being active in the readers' communities.

The Tainted: There are authors who will review in exchange for a review. This is a great temptation, especially when trying to trigger the magical algorithms to increase the visibility of a book. This is very common in the authorverse; so much so, that it's an unspoken expectation among certain circles. I withdrew from those circles...then reached for the bleach and a wire brush.

The Terrible: There are authors who use reviews as a portal to refer potential readers over to their books. There are authors who eviscerate anyone they perceive to be competition. There are authors who engage in reviewer wars--for books they have written and for books written by others.

I will not leave reviews for books. It's a respect thing in which I endeavor to treat my peers equally; regardless of their ability to entertain with a story. At the end of the year, when we Word-Whores list our Top Reads, that's closest I'll get to a review.  Even then I have to be careful, because...opinions, I have them. Often in caustic abundance. For all that it is easy to elevate with praise, it is equally easy to condemn by omission.

I'll stick to writing the books. I leave the reviews to the readers, gods bless 'em.


Monday, April 25, 2016

Through a Review Darkly

In a perfect world I would have found the article I wrote several years ago about this subject and posted it here. It was witty in the extreme and filled with examples both good and bad of reviews.

Instead, here we are with me pushing several deadlines.

So today I'll hit the highlights.

1) A review is as good as the reviewer. Most reviewers online can and will tell you why they like or do not like something. A lot of times their reasoning is, well, odd. I have, somewhere on Amazon, a one star review on Bloodstained Oz which was co-written with Christopher Golden. It wasn't that the reviewer didn't like the book. The tale received one star because the book was a signed, limited edition and at that time the alleged reviewer could not afford a copy. That, folks, is not a review in the real world. It's an online argument about pricing.

I have had many reviews that sang my praises and at least as many that suggested I try another area. Ultimately, as individual statements, one flatters and one condemns. Neither will be the end of me or send me intitial sales that defy imagination. I'm okay with that.

2) A GOOD review will actually be done by someone who has actually read the book. I've been astonished a few times to read reviews that had absolutely NOTHING to do with the books in question. They ranted about the author. They explained that having read a DIFFERENT book by the author,  the reviewer decided the next book must either be amazing or the worst thing ever written. I have, again, somewhere on Amazon, had a review that said the reviewer heard that my last book wasn't very good, so, one star review.

3) I keep mentioning Amazon because ENOUGH reviews on Amazon actually affects how Amazon presents an author. Allegedly, if a book receives more than 50 reviews (which can range from rants about your face all the way to deeply thought out reviews from people who border  on scholarly) Amazon starts pushing you books harder. They are mentioned in Amazon emails, newsletters and other publications. Amazon, for the record, is genuinely a large portion of any book's potential sales. For  better or worse, the world is changing and has moved into a different sales platform for books.

4) Any review can potentially help you. I used to live in Atlanta and it was a sure bet hat if the pompous windbags who did reviews of movies and books for the Atlanta Journal and Constitution hated a book or movie, I would give it a try. I mean that. I quite literally never agreed with them on a single review that I ran across. It might be there are a few where I would have agreed if I had ever seen them, but they were my metric when I was on the fence about a movie or story. Just because a review is negative, it doesn't mean the review is bad.

5) Bad reviews hurt. Grow a thick skin. You've now reached the stage where you are selling stories? Someone is going to hate them. has nothing to do with you and everything to do with someone else's opinion. I have never once run across a review that cut me top the point where I bled out, or a review that sent me into heavenly shivers of delight. Ever. Some have come close in both cases, but I recovered.

6) 8 days from now my next book, THE SILENT ARMY comes out in the US. It came out last month in the UK. So far there have been three reviews, all favorable. I'm still bracing myself for the negatives. They are, in my humble opinion, as inevitable as the tide. I will disappoint someone. YOU will disappoint someone. The sun will continue to rise in all events. It will also set each night.

7) In my humble opinion the only true purpose of a review aside from sales is as a litmus test of sorts: If five reviewers out of ten say something is wrong, you might consider looking into it. if one in ten does, you can safely ignore it.

In the near future I will have a map of Fellein, the world where my Seven Forges novels are set, completed by an artist I know. Why? Because people kept asking for one. I'm taking the hint.