Fiction Writing and Other Oddities

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Reviews Stink

There is no doubt, authors have a love-hate relationship with reviews. Unless you're mega-successful and no longer read reviews, they will slowly, but surely, drive you insane.

Just got the first review for my newly released Regency romantic mystery, The Bricklayer's Helper.

Loves Romances and More Review

It wasn't exactly a stinker, but it was one of those damned with faint praise type reviews. It was enough to make me dread getting any more reviews. For some reason, this book was especially close to my heart (romantic comedy-esque though it is) and since it's been a while since my previous book, I Bid One American, was released, I've grown a little thin-skinned.

Now most authors deal with this with a variety of coping mechanisms including:

  • No one pays attentions to reviews
  • Any publicity is good publicity
  • It's just one person's opinion
  • Reviews are so subjective

You name the strategy and someone is using it to avoid going postal, or worse, slitting their own wrists—which is clearly non-productive since it's really, really hard to type with all that blood gushing over the keyboard.

I try to cope by using it as a learning experience in the, uh, vein of "what could I do differently in my next book to make it even better?" That usually doesn't work too well, but at least it sounds constructive.

Because I know that readers do pay attention to reviews, no matter what we say about it. Although I suspect my use of reviews to find stuff to read may be odd at best, I can't assume others are oblivious to the number of hearts, stars, or happy faces next to a book's title.

While I never bother to sort for only those books that have the best reviews (I have almost never liked books that got top marks from all other readers) I do make book selections in a process that goes like this:

  • Cover: That's the first thing that catches my eye. Does it have an interesting cover? I tend to like humorous ones or scary ones. Or things like a lovely English landscape for mysteries.
  • Blurb:
    Does it entice me with one of my favorite themes or setups? I can't resist books that include any of the following…
    • An old mystery that needs to be solved
    • A haunted house
    • A masquerade/hidden identity
    • Humor, especially wittiness
    • Murder (I'm a huge fan of murder mysteries) most English
  • Reviews: I don't care about the number of stars (or whatever) so much as what the reviewers say. I've got no problem with heroines who are "too stupid to live" so I ignore those comments. Who among us hasn't done incredibly stupid things in real life? Give me even a feeble reason for the heroine to go into the decrepit, haunted house, and I'm good with it. I'm pretty easy when it comes to plot holes, too. As long as it holds my interest and at least makes some sense, it's okay with me.

    No, what I'm looking for are mentions of things I know I can't stand: a lot of meaningless and overly descriptive sex scenes; lack of an actual plot; any indication that the story gets second fiddle to fitting in one more explicit love scene; flowery "sensual" language; politics (I'm so sick of Big Government/Big Company bad guys I could puke); use of present tense for more than a few, brief sections (versus the more traditional third person/past tense or first person/past tense). Stuff like that.

    So basically, what I'm looking for as a reader is anything other readers might have mentioned that will clue me in about stuff in the book that might drive me bonkers.

And that's why reviews are meaningful to me and can really make me wince. I keep wondering what ookie thing mentioned is going to turn off a prospective reader. Or if the reviewer has spotted the fact that I can't write my way out of rain puddle.

But in the end, that very thing that turns off one reader may be what decides another to buy the book. So maybe some authors are right when they say: any publicity is good publicity. Forget the angst and just be glad someone bothered to read it, and more importantly, publish their review.

I certainly hope so.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Writing Careers

Creative Careers

I love writing and plan to have a long, rewarding career as an author. But one of the hardest things to understand and accommodate with a creative career versus almost any other field is the lack of a well defined ladder.

In most fields, you can work your way to the top of the career ladder. As you gain knowledge, expertise, and experience, you climb the rungs, painful rung by painful rung. With luck and perseverance, you can get to the top. "Putting the time in" often gaurantees you'll at least continue to have a job, if not get promotions.

Creative careers, on the other hand, are quite different. While you do gain expertise as you write, you can’t really “work your way up” in the traditional sense of “putting your time in.” Each manuscript stands alone. Each book must sell itself, and you can’t assume your experience and years invested will guarantee a sale.

I’ll never forget an email I read a while back. An author had published several e-books with smaller companies and after a few years, got a contract with one of the smaller New York publishing houses. She thought she “had it made at last to the big time in NY” and could use that as a stepping stone to publication with a large, well-known publishing house. She was disappointed to find that getting her “toe in the door” of the smaller New York house did not guarantee that she would now be able to find an agent and an open door to a “big house”.

What she didn’t realize was that there is no “career path” in the traditional sense. To a large degree, if you are a new author or mid-list author who has not broken into the New York Times Bestsellers list, yet, every single manuscript stands on its own merits. And let's say you have "made it" to a big-time NY publisher and you’ve got a multi-book contract, well, each book of that contract is still treated independently. Each manuscript has to be as good as, or better, than the previous.

You can never relax and assume you’ve finally “learned your job”. You can never rest on your laurels.

In a sense, each manuscript you submit is precisely like your first manuscript. It has to be the best work you’ve ever produced, and it has to have that mysterious “something” that makes people want to buy and read it.

Every submission is a first submission.

The only thing that really changes is the submission process. Once you get an agent and reach that “certain level,” you can bypass the “over the transom” submission process. You can submit an outline, perhaps, or a proposal before you write the book. Which is more of a benefit than it sounds, because it means you can avoid spending a year writing a manuscript that no one subsequently wants because even the basic concept stinks. If the concept is "pre-approved" then you know going into it that an editor is at least interested in the story. If you then write the best book you can, you have a higher probability of selling it.

But nothing is assured, and that is the most difficult lesson to learn.

The reality is: every book is a new book on a new day and you cannot trade on past sales to sell future works.

Scary, isn’t it?

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Money Pit – Swamp Edition

Anyone out there old enough to remember the movie "The Money Pit" will remember that this crazy couple bought a house slightly in need of repair and subsequently spent thousands of dollars fixing it up. Yeah, well, they were a lot smarter than we were—at least they didn't live in the middle of a swamp where you can't even get contractors to spend oodles of money on. No. It took someone of our intelligence to buy an old log home at the edge of a swamp. Turns out the original owners built it with their own two hands and a few college students, none of whom apparently knew what a right angle is, or even a ruler. There isn't a straight wall in the place. But the 20 acres it sits on are gorgeous, if you like swamps, and we were dumb enough to fall for the scenery.

Anyway, a few weeks ago, we found a gusher in my bathroom. Of course there are no shutoff valves anywhere in the house. But we capped the gusher and pulled up the toilet to find the source. And discovered the floor had rotted out behind the lovely 1970's psychedelic vinyl flooring. And the toilet's plumbing was hanging "loose and free" beneath the floor. Wonderful. You wouldn't want to force plumbing to stay in one place, now, would you?

Over July 4th, my hubby managed to replace the rotted floorboards and we bought some new vinyl flooring tiles—the ones that can handle wet environments. Then, this weekend, I finally got around to working on the floor. My husband indicated that he thought I would do a better job for some obscure reason. Like physical dexterity. Or maybe just general gullibility. But on the surface, it seemed easy enough, in theory.

I should have remembered that none of the walls meet at right angles or run in anything resembling a straight line. Everything is skewed, not to mention that the floor—once we took up the old vinyl—doesn't actually meet the walls in all places. Well. So we bought this floor leveler and some other gunk to fill holes. My husband did offer to fix the 1 ½" gap between where the floor ended and the wall began, by scooping some of the gunk into the gap. This gap, by the way, starts at one end as a 1 ½" gap and winds up as about a ¼" gap about 3 feet further along the wall.

"Where will that stuff run if the subflooring doesn't meet the wall, either?" I asked, watching him uneasily.

"Behind the wall in the downstairs bathroom." He replied, shoveling in the gooey gray mixture.

I went downstairs and shone a flashlight in the hole we broke into the wall to find out where the leak was coming from when we originally heard the gusher running through the walls.

Nope, no slurpy stuff running down the walls. Whew. That was lucky.

The washing machine dinged and I went into the laundry room on the other side of the wall to move the clothes to the dryer. A stream of gray goo was running down the wall, right into the pile of laundry sorted to be washed. And wait! That's not all! Part of the goo river ran over the curtains and window in the laundry room, too. By the time I got upstairs, my husband had figured out that the gunk wasn't filling the hole and had plugged it up to prevent all of the valuable stuff from running away.

After a break of washing the curtains and clothes with the hose in the yard, I returned to the house. My energetic hubby indicated he now needed to mow the lawn, so the bathroom was ready for me.

Gee. Thanks.

At least I found a use for my old manuscripts. I used the pages to cut out the patterns of all the crazy angles and circles to accommodate the plumbing fixtures and oddly skewed walls. I got most of the area around the toilet more-or-less done, although I noticed that the wall on that side had a skew of about 2 ½".

End of Saturday—too exhausted to cook dinner and discovering that old knees do not like kneeling all day. Hubby bought a pizza. I had a drink.

Day 2 – Sunday

Got up early and spent three hours ripping the last of the old vinyl out. Yes, while I freely admit one is supposed to rip out all the old before putting in the new. I didn't. I'm doing it all in sections. And it didn't make one iota of difference, except to exhaust me today, when I really hoped to finish. Hubby left for a business trip, confident and encouraging me to have it all done by the time he gets back in a week.

Don't let the door slam you on the ass, honey. Wouldn't want you to bruised and all.

One note to the manufacturer, while the new tiles are wonderful and relatively easy to put down, they come with pre-glued edges that overlap. Nice. But here's the problem: you didn't put paper that could be easily peeled off over the glue. No. That would have made it too easy. You had to leave the gluey edged unprotected so that it would be a total pain to try to ensure a piece would fit before actually gluing it to the neighboring piece. And so that when the cats and dogs came to investigate, all their fur and every particle of dirt in the house would collect on the edges….

And while today I smartened up and put on a pair of knee guards I use for gardening, I discovered that they were shedding black rubber everywhere. I hadn't noticed this in the garden since black rubber particles disintegrating over dirt isn't all that noticeable. But it is noticeable when all this black grit collects over the gluey edges of vinyl tiles.

But I'm over that. At least for today.

Suffice to say, I'm writing this blog because my hands are bruised, blistered and aching, as is every other part of me and just about the only thing I can do at the moment is type. And possibly drink, although I did that last night and I'm trying not to make a habit of it. The problem is, I still have about 5 tiles yet to put into place before I finish the bathroom, and each one has to be cut with skewed angles. One piece need to be 8 ½" wide at the bottom and 8" wide at the top. Not sure about lengthwise yet, because I was too tired to measure it.

This week I fully intend to get those final 5 tiles in place. It's not going to be perfect. It should match the rest of the house beautifully.

Then maybe I can get back to my real second job: writing fiction where no one tries to fix up their house with their own two hands. My characters get tortured, but not that much. I'm not that cruel.