I wrote a post where I passed on to new authors the advice that the best way to begin writing is not to go for a novel, but rather to write short stories. Although I still believe this is sound advice, my experience selling my book of short stories The Sun Zebra and that of other authors requires that I bring up an important caveat to this advice that I briefly mentioned before. There is a bias against short stories. This bias has existed for a long time in the traditional publishing industry where the preferred work, especially for new authors, is the novel. You would guess that in the self-publishing world that would not be the case, but this unfortunately is not true. Many blogs and websites that feature books do not even have a category for short stories, and a few even state that they don’t feature short stories. Others don’t state it outright but clarify that they will not feature works under 50,000 words or so (which also excludes novellas). Some of this bias may come from the misguided notion that short stories are for beginning writers, whereas “real writers” are the ones who write novels. This is of course hogwash. Even though some writers do consider short stories to be a stepping stone for greater work, many of the greatest writers of all time have regarded the short story as a bona fide art form of its own. Among these you find Edgar Allen Poe, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Updike, O. Henry, Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Washington Irving, H. P. Lovecraft, and many others. However, this notion still persists nowadays. The other reason for the bias is probably rooted in reader behavior. Readers may just feel better about becoming involved with a certain set of characters over the expanse of a longer work instead of having to repeat the process every 5,000 words or so as they would have to do with a diverse group of short stories. Readers also may crave the level of plot development and character definition that is only possible within the context of longer works. Therefore, as a new author, you will have a harder time selling short stories compared to novels. Also if the collection does not include a lot of stories you will probably sell them for a price below $2.99, which is the limit of the 70% royalty for Amazon (anything below that is 35% royalty). This will make it harder to recoup your investment on the book and on promotion. But even given the above caveat, I think that there is something that must be understood. Many stories are better told as short stories, or novellas, instead of as novels. I believe that if you find yourself asking “How can I add new characters, or more description, and other filler material to beef this story up to the 50,000 word mark of a novel?” you are going down the wrong track. Writing a novel is not like inflating a balloon. Unless you are a gifted writer or have tapped into a crowd of readers who don’t care, filler material is going to stick out like a sore thumb and your otherwise great short story or novella will be ruined by long, boring, senseless passages and/or superfluous characters. What do you think? Photo credit: Gflores / Foter / Public Domain Mark 1.0 ***If you like this blog you can have links to each week's posts delivered to your e-mail address. Please click here.
I have heard this argument repeated so many times that I feel I need to say something about it. The argument in question comes from two sides. The reader's version states something like "I have bought a self-published book and it was awful. Self-published books have low quality and are badly written. I will never buy a self-published book again!" The writer's version is something like "We self-published writers need to make our work as good as possible because otherwise readers will end up buying sloppily written or edited books that will give self-published writers a bad name. We owe it to ourselves, and to our readers."
I disagree with both.
Let me deal first with the reader. As far as I am concerned, readers are responsible for their purchases. If you purchase a bad product you have no one to blame but yourself. I often think of the analogy of a supermarket. It has products of high and low quality. You walk around with your cart and make shopping decisions based on the quality of the products and your budget. You pick up the items, read the labels, compare one with the other and then make your decision. Why should book buying be any different? So you bought a book and it was bad. Did you read the sample pages? Did you read the reviews? Did you click on the names of the reviewers and check out their other reviews? Did you visit the author's website and read their blog and some free samples? Or did you buy the book because the cover looked good or because it has a high rating on a handful of reviews? The way I see it, the reader HAS the responsibility to find out about the quality of the book they are considering buying. And if a reader buys a bad book I don't appreciate them not owning up to their mistake and chiding all self-published writers in the process.
The argument from the writer's side, although it is a well-meaning call to excellence, falls short of understanding the reality of self-publishing. In self-publishing we are our own boss. We call the shots. The whole point of self-publishing is freedom: freedom from gatekeepers, and freedom to take our work directly to the reader. When you declare that there is freedom, there is someone out there who will use that freedom in ways you won't like. There are authors who put out sloppy books. In fact some do so as a formal strategy where they concentrate on quantity over quality. My approach is to make my book as good as possible within the confines of my personal situation. However, I don't feel I need to embrace a crusading banner and go around trying to encourage others to improve their books for the greater good for the simple reason that I am not a gatekeeper. It is my opinion that any pressure to try to make self-published authors conform to a mold sets a bar, and bars are the warp and woof of gatekeeping. The reason we are self-publishing is to avoid this. Of course there are some commonsense guidelines, and writers ignore them at their own risk. But what you do with your book is your own business. You don't HAVE to do anything and much less OWN IT to anyone. This is the way of the self-publishing frontier.
What do you think? (Photo credit: Vectorportal /CC BY-NC-ND)
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Employing the motto that “mamas always write,” several California moms got together and started a literary group called the Write On, Mamas! In the time they have been together they have done amazing things, and the group now has over 25 members who regularly attend the group’s monthly meetings. The Write On, Mamas! were recently honored to participate in Lit Crawl, which is a fantastic and hilarious literary pub crawl in the Mission in San Francisco, as the culmination of Lit Quake (which is the largest literary festival on the West coast). The Write On, Mamas! have now decided to publish a book. It is going to be an Anthology of how they all started writing and why they continue to write. There are really interesting stories, from one mom who writes about the abuses to women in Congo, to another who writes about when your kids have left home. They already have an agent who is interested in their project and a high profile editor who will help them with their book. But in order to publish this book, they need more help. The Write On, Mamas! have started an Indiegogo Campaign to raise funds for this project. They have already raised more than 30% of their goal of $15,000, but they need more help, and for as little as $25 you can get the first level of the different Perks they offer. The campaign ends on November 14, but even if you are not able to give any money, you can really help them by just going to their Indigogo campaign page and sharing their link on Facebook or Twitter or any other social media. The more traffic they drive to their Indiegogo page, the more prominently their campaign will be featured on Indiegogo’s pages. So please consider making a donation or at least liking, tweeting, or sharing on Google Plus the Write On, Mamas! Indiegogo page. Thank you for helping this great group of writing moms! ***If you like this blog you can have links to each week's posts delivered to your e-mail address. Please click here.
Recently I became embroiled in arguments on a couple of blogs regarding how much authors should pay to publish their books (I’m always getting in trouble). I mentioned that the cost of professional editing, formatting, and cover design, can be in excess of a thousand dollars, and then I went on to argue that not all self-published authors could justify paying for this, and that it is acceptable to publish without meeting these requirements. I got several replies to my argument. I was told that if I did not have my book handled by professional editors, formatters, and cover designers, I was asking readers to take a risk on poor writing just because I, the author, decided to penny pinch. I was told that my mindset is what hurts the reputation of Indie authors. I was told that polishing my work can only help retain my audience. I was told that if I am putting out a product that I am asking people to buy, it is my duty to make it perfect. Let me be clear about something. If you feel your book SHOULD be perfect then yes, by all means go out and spend whatever is needed to make it so. If you feel making your book as good as possible will give you an edge when your lucky break comes along a few years down the line, then likewise go ahead. I respect this; no problem. Everyone has their strategy. Let me tell you about mine. I reason that when you are considering making an investment you always have to gauge your chances of success. Why would you spend money if you are not likely to make a profit or even recover your investment? Books can be viewed as an investment, and they are a very high risk-investment. The majority of books will not sell well, this is a fact. I wanted to publish my short stories. But as new author I had never written a book, published it, or promoted it. I felt it would be unrealistic of me to assume that my book would be a success even a modest one. Thus it was clear to me that sinking 1,000 plus dollars into a book with five stories that I would sell for $0.99 or $1.99 was a very risky proposition. I decided that I would publish my first book The Sun Zebra for free. With the help of friends I got the editing, formatting, and the cover design done. I made mistakes along the way and corrected them. My book is not “perfect,” but readers have liked it. I am proud of this. I did it without spending a single dollar on publishing the book, and I even made a modest amount of money. Now that I know more about writing, publishing, and promotion, I reason that the risk associated with publishing my next book is less. Because of this I plan to invest the money that I gained from the Sun Zebra on my next book. I plan to keep on doing this (using the gains of one book to finance the next), and if my earnings keep increasing I will be able to pay more for editing, formatting, and cover design in the future. As I wrote above, this is just my strategy. I accept that there are many other equally valid ones, and I respect them. However, I cannot agree with the notion that every new author HAS to spend a large sum of money on professional editing, formatting and cover design services for their book, with the alternative presumably being not to publish at all. This in effect sets the bar so high that we are back again to a gatekeeper model, which is what we are trying to avoid by being independent authors to begin with. What do you think about this, and what is your strategy? ***If you like this blog you can have links to each week's posts delivered to your e-mail address. Please click here.
I am honored to receive the Versatile Blogger Award from Jeri Walker-Bickett (thank you Jeri!) who passed it on to me. I am now supposed to reveal 7 things about myself and then pass the award to other deserving bloggers. Here I go: 1) I was born in Cuba one year before Fidel Castro overthrew the Batista dictatorship, and went on to establish a dictatorship of his own. My parents finally decided to leave the country when I returned one day from elementary school singing the Internationale. 2) As you can figure out from #1, my first language is Spanish. This is probably why I write and read English slower than the average person. 3) I have a Ph.D. in biochemistry. 4) Each of the last 3 generations of my immediate family has ended up resettling to a different country for one reason or another. 5) I myself have lived in a total of 5 countries throughout my life: Cuba, Venezuela, Ecuador, Mexico, and the United States. 6) I played chess in my youth (that is what nerds did at the time) reaching first class player status. 7) The first time I lived surrounded by snow was here in the U.S. I arrived in New York State during winter to pursue graduate studies. I had a cold, and that day there was a fire alarm at 2 AM. We had to leave the student residence, and outside it was snowing. There I was coughing under this strange, cold, fluffy, white stuff falling from the sky while the Americans around me where dancing and yelling, “Party, party, party!” All in all an interesting cultural experience. I am passing this award on to other bloggers. If they accept the award they are supposed to publish a post on their blogs with the “Versatile Blogger Award” picture, where they reveal 7 things about themselves and then pass the award on to other deserving bloggers of their choice. The bloggers I have chosen are:Adriene (Sweepy Jean) posts her amazing poetry on her blog and examines multiple facets of life and society.Barbara Alfaro is the author of the books "Mirror Talk"and "First Kiss." She blogs about writing, theater, and poetry. Barbara is so expressive and writes so well that many of her posts are works of art themselves. Christine Macdonald is a survivor. She survived a disfiguring skin disease, working as a nude exotic dancer, drug addiction, cancer, and other trials that taught her many life lessons. She blogs about these and other related issues while working on her memoir.Lia London deals in her blog mostly with writing, but she reaches deep within the act of writing to the underlying reasons and their interconnectness to many things. She is the author of the book: "Circle of Law." Jennie Rosenbaum paints superb nude artworks and blogs about it. She also addresses censorship and other issues related to nudity in our societies. I have interviewed Jennie on my blog. Molly Greene writes insightful and helpful posts in her blog about social media and writing. Her debut novel “Mark of the Loon” was published recently on Amazon. Robert David McNeil is the author of the top rated Science Fiction novel on Amazon “Iona Portal.” He blogs about writing, social media, the e-book revolution, and his ongoing adventure. Sunny Lockwood in her blog Onword, is (as she puts it) mining life's golden moments from California's Mother Lode. Her posts are a delightful blend that ranges from the personal to the communal within the context of her California neck of the woods and the writing life. She is the author of the books “Living the Velvet Revolution” and "Shades of Love."
A group of scientists wanted to investigate whether they could find linguistic markers for dementia by evaluating the work of writers afflicted by this condition. To do this they studied the novels of three writers: Iris Murdoch, Agatha Christie, and P.D. James. Iris Murdoch, who was a notable British writer, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease after writing her last novel “Jackson’s Dilemma.” This novel disappointed many people who found it very different from her earlier work. It was only later that it was realized she wrote it at a time that the disease was disrupting her cognitive abilities. Agatha Christie, the best-selling novelist of all time, was suspected of senility and possibly Alzheimer’s disease towards the end of her life but she was never diagnosed. The English crime writer, P. D. James, was included in the analysis as a healthy control who aged normally. The scientists analyzed the complete text of 15-20 novels by each author evaluating lexical and syntactic markers with computer programs. Their analysis of the results is highly technical and involves a lot of nuances related to the methods they employed and the variability they encountered. I will just report here their major findings. They found trends in the works of Murdoch and Christie that indicated a major loss of vocabulary with a concomitant rise in repetition of fixed phrases and of content words within close distance. When they looked at the proportion of each word class over the entire length of the texts analyzed, they found a decrease in noun tokens that was compensated by an increase in the use of verb tokens. They also found a pronounced increase in the proportion of words identified in part-of-speech tagging as interjections and fillers. The work of the writer P.D. James in contrast displayed no significant changes in these parameters. Thus the authors of the research were able to differentiate the disease-related linguistic decline (Murdoch and Christie) from the effects of healthy aging (James). Some of the changes in the case of Murdoch were more abrupt in the last years of her life when she entered the early phase of Alzheimer’s disease, whereas the changes observed in the work of Agatha Christie were more gradual. The image people have of dementia is that which is mostly associated with individuals experiencing the advanced forms of these conditions. However this disease takes many years to develop and during the very early phases the symptoms that afflicted individuals experience are either non-existent or subtle. The interesting thing about this research is that the authors identified changes that were taking place when the impairment was not so great as to eliminate the ability to write, but were pervasive enough to affect it significantly. These findings also open the possibility to use the literary output of regular people (for example a blog or a diary) to perform linguistic analysis and identify long-term changes that could point to a developing cognitive impairment. ***If you like this blog you can have links to each week's posts delivered to your e-mail address. Please click here.
I have written before that in literary circles it is widely accepted that a good story can be told so badly (lousy writing) that the effect on the reader will be poor. But what is less discussed is that a story can be so good that it can overcome non-optimal writing. The truth is that if readers are enthralled by the story they are less likely to notice flaws in the writing. I even hear this from professional editors who sometimes have to force themselves to “disengage” from the story in order to perform their job. And there is a reason for this that is grounded in the very way our brains recognize words, which is based more on patterns and context than in the individual sequence of letters in the words. To see what I am talking about read the following paragraph of garbled words. The Sun Zbera is a coclletion of stroies aobut the advtneures in liivng of an uunsual litlte gril naemd Nlel, her moethr, Ronhda, and Nlel's ftaher who is the narrtaor of the stroies. The storeis dael wtih how the wrlod of audlts and its hrad reialites intsreects wtih the magacil caererfe wolrd of chdilren. To quickly recognize a word the brain requires only that the first or last letters (or couple of letters) be the same along with, a resemblance of the garbled world to the original one. This is why the average reader often doesn’t notice a few typos or spelling mistakes while reading a page turner of a story. But this natural wiring of the brain can be overridden. Editors and others with many years of training in spotting errors in the grammar and other aspects of stories can often train their brain to automatically detect these imperfections. If you are a writer, having your brain “trained” this way can be a blessing but it can also be a curse. Before I explain this let me state that I applaud the labor of editors and I am all for improving our writing. In fact I feel mortified when a reader points out a mistake that I overlooked. In this aspect I am a perfectionist. But even while I learn more about writing English, I willfully try to avoid developing this “analytical” mind for the writing craft. Why? Many self-published books on Amazon that have numerous five star reviews also have, as one would expect, a few one star reviews. When I check these one star reviews I invariably find some people that complain about the bad quality of the writing and bemoan the English illiteracy of those that give the books glowing reviews. I once read a one star review by someone who complained about finding five typos on a 500 page novel! This is the danger. When you override the natural wiring of your brain and turn it into an error spotting machine you may find yourself in a situation where the majority of the books written by your fellow human beings will not satisfy you. The smallest imperfection will cheat you out of the enjoyment of the story. The life-changing narratives that razzle and dazzle everyone else will turn into your slush pile, and you will spend the rest of your days grumbling about the "trash" people like to read. Very bad writing can spoil a story; we all agree on that. But the point of writing is not achieving perfect grammar, writing structure, and so forth. The epicenter of writing is the story, the adventure and beauty it represents and the effects it has on us. Our brains are wired to “extract” these items from the narrative for our pleasure and personal enrichment. Do not tamper with this process by setting the bar so high that you effectively kill your chance to enjoy the story. ***If you like this blog you can have links to each week's posts delivered to your e-mail address. Please click here.
On September 28, 2002 writer Joseph Epstein published an article in the New York Times entitled: “Think You Have a Book in You? Think Again.” In this article the author is critical of people that feel they have a book in them and want to write one. He argues that not only is writing a book very difficult, but that the majority of books written are not needed, wanted, or necessary, so why add to the “schlock pile?” He then writes that maybe people want to write a book so that in a certain way they can find significance and escape the oblivion that awaits us at the end of our lives. But he adds that the way most books die, writing a book will only make the oblivion more noticeable for would-be writers. The author also dismisses the notion that that we can all be good and creative when it comes to writing a book and that all of our stories or wisdom are interesting. He ends with a plea: “Save the typing, save the trees, save the high tax on your own vanity. Don't write that book, my advice is, don't even think about it. Keep it inside you, where it belongs.” Well, fast forward 10 years and what do we have? Now it is easier than ever to self-publish your own book. With POD services your book will only be printed every time someone orders it. If no one wants it, you will not have to stare at a pile of moldering books in your basement. And if you self-publish an e-book it can remain on the shelves forever. Your book will not have to die for lack of sales. You have the rest of your life to figure out how to sell it at your own pace. The only deadlines you will have to deal with are those that you impose on yourself. But apart from the technology I want to say the following. There are stories inside you waiting to be told. Even if we accept Mr. Epteins’s argument, which boils down to “most people are not good enough to write a book,” who cares? Yes, who cares if your book is only as good as the next? Do you always dine only in the best restaurants? Do you always wear only the most expensive clothes? Do you always watch only Oscar winning movies? Why should books be any different? What is wrong with average? You should write your book and then go out there and find your readers. And yes, it is almost certain that you won’t be the next J.K. Rowling or the next Stephenie Meyer. It is almost certain you won’t win a Pulitzer Prize. It is also almost certain that you won’t be able to quit your day job. But there are hundreds of millions of readers out there who can be reached through the internet. Therefore it is equally almost certain that there is someone somewhere who will be interested in your book. Your story is part of the legacy that you leave humanity, do not keep it inside you; put it “out there” where it belongs!
In season 2, episode 5 (The Euclid Alternative) of that great show “The Big Bang Theory,” Penny asks Sheldon why he didn’t get his driving license when he was 16 years old like anybody else. Sheldon, a theoretical physicist with 2 PhDs, replies that it was because he was busy “examining perturbative amplitudes in n=4 supersymmetric theories leading to a re-examination of the ultraviolet properties of multi-loop n=8 supergravity using modern twistor theory.” Of course the Big Bang Theory is just a sitcom, but the science depicted in the program is often quite accurate and also as cryptic as real science is too. Check for example actual tittles of research published recently in academic journals: -Vortex dynamics in two-dimensional Josephson junction arrays with asymmetrically bimodulated potential -Dopaminergic Polymorphisms Associated with Time-on-Task Declines and Fatigue in the Psychomotor Vigilance Test. - Heavy cluster knockout reaction (16)O((12)C,2(12)C)(4)He and the nature of the (12)C-(12)C interaction potential. -Countertransference feelings in one year of individual therapy: An evaluation of the factor structure in the Feeling Word Checklist-58 Regular folk are often bewildered by the apparent mumbo jumbo spoken by academics. Like in the Calvin and Hobbes cartoon depicted above some may even wonder if all those big words are nothing more than gobbledygook employed by people who just pretend to know what they are talking about and hide behind an “intimidating and impenetrable fog of writing.” To address this issue consider the following thought experiment. Imagine that your language is restricted to that employed by a tribe in a remote jungle that has had no contact with civilization. Now imagine trying to survive in our modern society using only this language. How are you going to express yourself and be understood when you deal with computers, microwave ovens, the internet, television, CDs, DVDs, cell phones, cars, airplanes, trains, robots, atomic bombs, or genes? Our degree of technological advance has led to the production or discovery of many entities that are just not part of the immediate reality that this tribal language describes. If you incorporated these words into the tribal language and used them in front of the members of the tribe they would think you are talking nonsense. That is the same situation with academics. This is not to say that some individual academics may not attempt to hide their ignorance behind a wall of jargon. But by and large all researchers in different fields eventually encounter entities that cannot be described by words existing in our regular language. This is why new words are created. In some areas these words eventually filter into the day to day reality of the common folk, but in other areas they make sense only to those who study the field. So no, it’s not mumbo jumbo, and some of these words may end up being part of the vocabulary of your children or your children’s children in the future. ***If you like this blog you can have links to each week's posts delivered to your e-mail address. Please click here.
I must begin this post by stating I am a hard core Harry Potter fan. How strong a fan am I? Well, if you come up to me and tell me you don't like Harry Potter I will look at you with a pitiful expression and reply, "I'm sorry, but you know, there are support groups out there that can help people like you."
As it turns out there are quite a few people in need of these support groups judging from the many one star reviews that the Harry Potter books have accumulated at Amazon. Consider the numbers:
Sorcerer's Stone: 81
Chamber of Secrets: 33
Prisoner of Azkaban: 37
Goblet of Fire: 77
Order of the Phoenix: 161
Half-Blood Prince: 161
Deathly Hallows: 97
Of course these one star reviews are but a mere "blip" if you compare them to the combined thousands of 5 and 4 star reviews. But I was curious about why these people gave these great books one star reviews. The majority stated they didn't "like" the books for various reasons.
Now, all kidding aside, I can understand someone not "liking" a great book. I can respect that. I have not liked some great books. For example, although I liked the Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Hobbit, I did not like Tolkien's "Silmarillion". For me it was very slow and boring, but I still recognize it's a great book in its plot and scope.
However, the one star reviews that puzzled me were those that claimed that the books are not great because they are poorly written. These people wrote that the Potter series suffered from mediocre, careless writing, poor editing, bad grammar (e.g. run on sentences and overuse of adverbs), dreadful prose, shallow characters, and bland descriptions. Someone wrote: "The adults who like these books are the ones who didn't pay attention in English class." And these comments from readers are no different from those I had read that came from certain literary critics.
So let me get to the crux of this post. Even if we assume the Harry Potter books are not well written, I want to ask: what is the function of good writing? Are people supposed to learn to write well to better communicate with their readers or are people supposed to write well just because they should blindly follow a set of rules? My opinion is that it is the former that is important. Let me put it this way:
Effect on the reader = story + how you tell it
In other words, the "effect" the story has on the reader is due to the combination of the actual tale itself and how well you tell it (grammar and writing technique). In the literary community it is accepted that a good story can be told so badly (lousy writing) that the effect on the reader will be poor. But what is seldom discussed is that the story can be so good that it can overcome non-optimal writing.
I want to venture that there is a sizeable group of persnickety people out there who have become so enamored with the formal rules of writing that they have lost the ability to appreciate a good story, and this is sad. If the price I have to pay to become an excellent writer is to not be able to appreciate books like the Harry Potter series, then I don't want to become an excellent writer, period, as simple as that.
Be that as it may, I do think that these books are awesome and I agree with Stephen King who predicted that Harry Potter is destined to join the likes of Alice, Frodo, Dorothy and Huck Finn in the pantheon of the great characters of all time. And if you don't agree with that, well, I can provide you with a list of support groups that can help you.
Humph! ***If you like this blog you can have links to each week's posts delivered to your e-mail address. Please click here.