Categories
Authoring Writing Advice

A Grumble on Suspenders & Belts

Subtitle: a mini-rant on redundancy. 

 Lately I’ve seen a lot of writing-related posts consigning repetitive description to the Bad Writing Dung Heap. Here’s my contrarian take on the topic: redundancy isn’t A Bad Thing.

Picture someone wearing tights, a peasant skirt, a kicky overskirt plus a belt and scarves. (Assume underwear.) This might look awful or spectacular depending on the viewer’s personal tastes, but no one would call it “redundant dressing.” Any one or two items on the list would cover all necessary parts,  but the selections together make a larger fashion statement.

The same principle applies to writing. No, really. It does. If someone’s story seems sluggish and cluttered, the writer might be doing a lousy job of saying what they mean. It might also be a bad match between my taste and the creator’s aims. Descriptive repetition and exuberant adjective use are not always villains.

Critiquing, workshopping, and developmental editing can all buff the rough spots off writing. The processes are all based on the same premise: making a story better equals increasing its appeal to more readers by applying proven presentation standards. That’s the justification for polishing out everything that does not “serve the story.”

Here’s the challenge: smooth isn’t always better, and better isn’t always right. Some writing is downright grotesque. Some stories are so full of wordy bumps that I can’t see a glint of the precious core within. Bad writing is ugly. Polishing off extraneous bits can reveal inner beauty.

Problem is, great writing can be ugly too, or seem so on first read. Think of all the brilliant writers (and musicians, artists, etc.)  who have the same backstory. They fought tooth and nail for the integrity of their work. Endured rejection after rejection. Pushed back against criticism after criticism delivered with all the best intentions. All the True Originals had to hold firm against a world that insisted their things needed changing, smoothing, and polishing until the originality was gone.

Here’s my reading litmus test for “is it me, or is it bad?”  If find myself thinking, “That was a rough read, but it improved as I went along,” I must conclude there was nothing wrong with the writing in the first place.  NOTHING.  The way it was written was a new experience. My brain had to work to learn a different story process. Once I got used to it, I stopped noticing.

I’m a critical reviewer who often reads clumsy, awkward, painfully hard-to-read writing.  I express my opinions.  If I’m critiquing a work before publication, I feel I have an obligation to point out lumps that don’t appeal to me. But the emphasis must always be on that qualifier. To me. I do not have the right to say, “The author needs to change the way they do this too much or that not enough.”  

(disclaimer: “this & that” refer to matters of structure, phrasing, dialogue, and so forth. Flaws like multiple spelling errors per chapter, basic grammar and punctuation mistakes,  factual inaccuracies…that’s a whole different ball of worms.)

The never-ending declarations of “This is bad, and I know what I’m talking about” get under my skin because we writers should know better. We know the creator alone decides if their work is broken or the product of a broken mold because we are creators.  No one had to express their ideas the way someone else likes to read them. It’s a simple principle.  In practice, as some people gain experience they become invested in their way being the best way. And so I read remarks like, “Well, sure, you can do it that way, I suppose, if you want,” All of them carry the powerful implication that only a fool would want to do the thing.

A lot of immensely popular, critically acclaimed writing leaves me cold. It sounds choppy and harsh in my head, and the predictable variations on the same old archetypes bore me. I like my prose to stand center stage with frills on, where it belts out an aria or two and does little dances. I like to build stories like Neuschwanstein Castle, all kitschy and mashed up. So that’s what I do.

Reading my books is like visiting The House On The Rock on a rainy Saturday in August. They’re crowded with weird distractions and full of unpleasant strangers who interact without introduction, and the signs never take you where you expect. The stories can be exhilarating or baffling, but they are never easy reads nor conventional ones. NO, I don’t think I’m brilliant. I don’t have the ego to believe myself A True Original. But I reserve the right to say, This weird prose? It is beautiful to me.

And that is why I am  careful about assigning value judgments to the creative choices of others. And why I rant about the phenomenon every so often. Like this.

Thanks for reading.

Categories
Writing Advice

My First Ads: what worked & what didn’t.

Authors need readers. If I wanted to get philosophical I would say readership defines the difference between writing and authoring, but that’s another post. This one addresses a more practical issue: being seen.  The publishing world is full of people crying their wares. Call it marketing, self-promotion, advertising, outreach, networking, or whatever; success is all about getting a book into the hands of readers.  People blog about creative, free ways to market books the time, but paid advertising exists for a reason: when done right it gets a book noticed better than anything but word of mouth. (nothing beats that in the long run. Nothing.)

The trick is figuring out a strategy provides good results for the dollars spent–and when I say good, I’m including not only immediate sales but also any exposure that results in long-term recognition.  Here’s my recent experience.

THE BAD

In July, I paid for ad placement with three outlets:
(1)  a one-day genre-level ad for Extraordinary in The Fussy Librarian to coincide with a free promotion for Extraordinary. $10
(2) a two day genre-level ad with Discount Books Daily (DBD) for the same promotion. $40
(3)  feature space on Underground Book Reviews for Controlled Descent. $15
 I also did preview alerts, and sale-day announcements through the usual social media outlets for the free promotion. (More on that later.)

Results: minimal to disappointing.  I can attribute all but one or two July sales of Controlled Descent to its coincidental selection as a monthly read for The Dragon’s Rocketship. (TDR ROCKS!)  I barely moved 400 copies of Extraordinary. That’s nothing compared to the 1400 free copies of Controlled Descent I moved in March without paid ads.

TL;DR analysis:
(1) Fussy Librarian is probably worth the minimal investment. The majority of Extraordinary’s downloads happened the day the FL ad went out, (second day of the promo)  and it is a niche-market title and a novelette, so my expectations might’ve been high.
(2) The Discount Books Daily ad did nothing for me.
(3) Ditto for Underground Book Reviews, although that was a cheaper learning experience.

The GOOD

For a sale of my romance novellas in August, I tried two new channels, one for each title.
(1)  I coughed up the $100 minimum for a pay-per-click (PPC) ad on Amazon for Turning the Work: it started the same day as the sale and continues through the end of the month.  I set a 7 cent bid to increase my ad’s chances of being selected since the average bid was 5.6 cents, and I selected Romance as the only category, because it’s SF/Romance, and I decided romance readers were more likely to buy.
*Important note: don’t be fooled into thinking I know what I’m doing.  I read a bunch of other blogs and followed the Amazon instructions. Basically, I threw it at the wall and hoped.
(2) Joining in the Round got a one-day genre-level ad in E-Reader News Today (ENT) the second day of the sale. $50

Results: blew my mind. Here’s a screenshot of a “net totals” spreadsheet I use because I cannot convert the KDP monthly reports into a useful mental picture. Go ahead. Feast your eyes on my commercial invisibility. Then focus on that bottom Month-to-Date line and compare it to the Year-to-Date above it.

The day before the ENT ad,  Turning the Work sold six copies. I did the usual on social media, and people were kind enough to share the posts. Six sales, plus none of the second book. Ouch. After the ENT ad: I sold 3 times the lifetime total for Joining in the Round and matched the year-to-date sales for Turning the Work. The pay-per-click ad continues to generate a trickle of sales. Click-cost to earnings ratio is 1:1, and the experts say that qualifies as an exceptional success. I even picked up a KU reader who reviewed Turning the Work, then proceeded to read Novices, and (I think) is now reading Controlled Descent.

Tl;DR Analysis:
(1) It’s likely worth the money to back any sale with an ad in ENT, especially if you hit one of the larger market categories.
(2) Amazon PPC ads are weird and tricky and probably won’t pay for themselves in the long run, but they give your title a lot of good exposure and may pay off depending on how you target them.
(3)  Romance sells. Okay, we all knew that already, but it’s still worth mentioning. Many indie works cross genre lines, and most romance readers also read other genres. If a book might appeal to the romance market, I’d suggest taking a stab at promoting it in that genre as well as any other.

I’ll test all these points with my plan for Flight Plan’s print-iversary next month. I’m holding another double Kindle sale.  Controlled Descent will get an Amazon PPC ad in the Thriller and Romance categories, and Flight Plan will get an ad in ENT aimed to both the Romance and SF markets. If I can swing the financing, I’ll do also do an ad for Controlled Descent in ENT too…as soon as I decide which categories to target.

THE UGLY

Promotion through social media is The Big Thing everyone talks about doing. Many authors swear by it, and many blog about their success with it. Posting ads on Twitter & Facebook through individual accounts and on a dedicated author page,  posting regularly to groups & communities that encourage it, creatig a social network of readers who come to parties and tout each others’ work throughout the online community…it’s a strategy. It costs nothing but time spent online.

I don’t like seeing ads. I hate parties, I am a horrible cheerleader…but social media is easy and free and it’s recommended by everyone, so I tried it for a year.

Results for me: mixed. I am not social. Communicating constantly? Participating in parties. reveals and giveaways? Posting about sales in every group multiple times? It’s like being skinned alive every day. I can now say, “Been there, done that, drank the Koolaid, spat it out.” The organizing and enthusiasm exhaust me, and the constant harping on positive energy brings out my inner contrarian misanthope. Then there’s the time-suck. I can throw bread crumbs into the raging currents of Twitter without getting pulled under, but Facebook is a deadly distraction. The social media strategy requires constant presence, which is antithetical to maintaining tight discipline.

 I love The Dragon’s Rocketship and some associated groups. but I think I’ve found sufficient tribe. I will post for my peoples there,  on my personal feed and my page. I will accept friend requests that come my way from mutual acquaintances and extend my tiny circle slowly and erratically.

As for the rest? Bottom line: I’d rather be writing.

Important Disclaimer: I make no claims to universal wisdom or knowledge of the One True Way.  This post represents my experience. My definition of success still falls well below the bar set for being considered a “professional” by my chosen genre’s trade organization. So. Grain of salt.

Categories
Book reviews

Review: A Time to Build by Rick Rossing

2.5 stars (For an explanation of my curmudgeonly rating and reviewing quirks, please refer to my reviewing guide.)

There are many things to love about this book. It has a great early Heinlein feel to it, and the positives are easy to list:

  • a classic coming-of-age “lost prince” narrative hook
  • a light touch with dialogue
  • enjoyable character interplay
  • a fabulous, intricately-designed, sweeping universe to explore
  • good pacing
  • plenty of history, plenty of twists and reveals
  • action!

Great ideas. Lots of attention to detail. Fun creatures and creations, humor to balance out tension…but so many assorted presentation issues that I had to push myself to finish.

It’s a rough gem, but the setting interfered with my appreciation of its beauty. Grammar quirks. Repetitive descriptions and dialogue tags. Tons of dialogue without any tags, in multi-person conversations between people whose voices were too similar to tell apart. (I didn’t like it when Asimov did it, and I didn’t like it here.)  Everyone was always standing up and looking around, sitting down and turning their heads, touching an arm and nodding. Everyone was always talking. Telling each other things that happened. Explaining the past. Discussing the plans. Recapping what happened.

All the things I listed are sins I am undoubtedly guilty of committing as an author. Perhaps I am blind to the shortcomings of my own children and over-sensitive to them in others. This is possible, but in any case, this book exceeded my tolerance.

Taken together the elements do make a storytelling style, a cohesive and perhaps even an intentional one, but the older I get, the less patience I have for it. I want more poetry in my prose. My other main issue is more personal. I grew up reading “boy books” because there were very few SFF titles with women in lead roles, so I have no problem identifying with male protagonists. I also have experience tolerating story lines in which women, children, mothers and girlfriends exist as props for the main character’s development. At least the women in this story have brains, brawn and other strengths and weaknesses. Like Heinlein’s women, and David Weber’s, they’re more than furniture. I’m glad of that, but they never felt real to me, not the way the men did. A shiny perfect prize is still only a prize, not a person.

Now that there are plenty of stories out in the world that have spaceships, dragons, adventure and women who are villainous or heroic, strong or week independent of their men, I’d rather spend my time in those worlds.

My advice?  Read the Look Inside. If nothing about the style bugs you, and you have a high tolerance for traditional gender role-play dressed up in “strong female character” clothing, then you have a rollicking fun read ahead of you, with sequels to follow. This isn’t technically YA fiction, but the themes of maturing and choosing to act heroically makes it feel young, and the light, fast-moving plot full of aliens and adventure is suitable for teens.

Link to purchase: A Time to Build.

It may be just your cup of tea. Please give it a look.

Categories
Authoring Writing Advice

Revisiting the Issue of Style (Writer’s Bane #167)

I want to rant about style. Yes,  I’ve done it before.  I’ll probably do it again. Count your blessings. I could be bitching about word counts. (No worries. I swore I would take a break from that one for a few months at least.)

My gripe today: the “acceptable usage” problem in genre writing. I make the distinction between literary and genre/commercial because the pressures are so very different. No one tells the James Joyces of the world  to stick to pithy adjectives and active verbs. No one tells the next William Faulkner to avoid long clauses  and complex paragraphs. Well, not no one. Editors issue rejections until one sees the brilliance in the author’s dense, convoluted, messy originality and publishes the work to critical acclaim. Some contrarian reviewers might remain unmoved, but most will rhapsodize.

It’s different in the ever-exploding genre world. The expectations for commercial writing to adhere to standard guidelines are much, much higher, and the pressure to conform is intense. The words GOOD and BAD are used without hesitation. Judgment is wielded like Death’s undiscriminating scythe everywhere a writer turns. Advice is dispensed with a generous hand. References and citations are tossed out like competing birds in a cockfight.

The overall message is: play by the rules, or you will never be taken seriously as a professional.  Follow the rules, or readers will not follow you. Think back to the last vividly-memorable first-book you read. Was the author’s second one as good? Did it change pacing, wording, style? I could fill a bookcase with books by authors whose subsequent works stopped being original and refreshing and began to conform to the norms.

Professional editors aren’t the only ones demanding that Standards Be upheld, nor experienced reviewers. Every avid reader feels their opinion is educated, many readers are also indie writers, and many indie writers wear an editor’s hat on occasion. The list of Do’s and Don’t keeps getting longer, and the community filters are too clogged to wash the dross away from the nuggets of true wisdom.

Here’s just a small sample of the standards that get waved around as fervently as any fan waves her flag at a World Cup Game.

  • Use action words. Vary sentence length, but not too much. Keep it short & pithy at all costs.
  • Keep the timeframe short too. Sense of urgency is all. Skip any scene that does not advance the plot with every word.
  • Show, don’t tell. But don’t show everything in detail.
  • Tag dialogue sparingly. Use said, rather than its synonyms. Avoid even using said, if you can.
  • Be sparing with adjectives. Avoid adverbs.
  • Identify all cliche terms and over-used phrases; excise them from your work. Beware of lazy metaphors and threadbare similes.

When did adverbs become evil? When did using “said” become a sign of bad writing, and its absence a a sign of the same flaw? When did writers become so certain that The Rules of Writing are chiseled in stylistic stone?  I’ll tell you when: it began when author-published works began to gain market share.

Advice is a big business, and preying on insecurity and inexperience is a business tactic as old as bargaining. Anyone who lays down the Immutable Truth or  paves The Guaranteed Path To Success is sure to generate site hits and gain plenty of attention. And ad revenue.

My favorite advice article headline will always be “10 Steps to Greater Originality.” Alas, that the site long ago withered into oblivion. (1994? 95?)  It still makes me giggle. Steps. To originality. As in, “Follow this exact plan, the same one that everyone else will be using, and you will be original.” If only writing catchy, stylish prose were that easy. If only. There is a magic to this art of writing, but that isn’t it.

The magic does not live in the rules. I’m tired of advice that scorns common phrases without exception. I’m sick of judges who sneer at grammar and poo-poo descriptions that have been around since the written word met the printing press.

Overused words, trite phrases, cliches, descriptive shortcuts…they have a place. They have a purpose. Stop avoiding them merely because they’re popular and some advice book says they’re bad. That which is sneer-worthy today may be the subject of graduate theses in a score of years. Look at romance novels. Look at how long it’s taken the literary world to take them seriously, in large part due to all the style conventions and compromises that were considered acceptable there, but not elsewhere.  

Storytellers are readers before they become writers. When new writers start to pour out their stories, they write what they read.  This is the birth of style. A surprising number of writers start out writing erotica. There are conventions unique to that community, ones that are rarely considered acceptable elsewhere. The first time I saw an erotica-descriptive trick used in a genre fiction novel I did a spit-take. I know where that author first gave words to the worlds of his imagination. 

That’s simply one case. There are more. Many storytelling forms have no problem with ritual, form, and phrasing. “Once upon a time,” anyone? The ideas that come up again and again are the ones that resonate with creator and consumer alike.

Yes, I know, there may be a good reason that an author should usually avoid the superfluous use of “suddenly.” (For example.) Or the overuse of usually, for that matter. I agree, but with caveats. There should be a reason to avoid breaking rules that goes deeper than “It’s a Bad Thing because reasons.”  It might not be bad in context.

Context. That’s the sticking point. Who decides the context? A reader? An editor? Nope.  Writing is all about getting the right words in the right place, and the only person who judge what that means is the creator. In the final analysis, the writer’s judgment is the only one that matters. 

Trust the advice of experts, but only so far, and no further. Be aware of the rules, but be ready to break them with merry abandon if you ever hope to create something unique and interesting.  It’s a tough to master, this trick of deciding when to comply and when to rebel, but it can be done. It takes many trials and many, many errors, but it’s the difference between trying to write, and writing. 

You only have to do this one thing, to be original and find your own style.