Seeing Your Writing

Sorry, today I’m not doing my installment of how to do covers.  We’re traveling out of town come Thursday, not back till Monday, and it’s one of those events where there will be pictures, so I need to be decently dressed.  We start with this part of how writers see — or don’t see — themselves. I normally work alone in my tiny office, overlooking 400 acres of trees and nothing, so the only things that go by are wild turkeys and eagles, neither of which gives a hang about what I wear. I tend to dress by the engineer method: are all relevant portions covered?

Now, face with being in public with a bunch of strangers, in the aftermath of losing 40 some pounds, I’m having to hem, pull in, etc. a bunch of clothes. Which is part of the work for today.  Writing is kind of the same way.Okay, not quite. Not exactly. It is this way only in the sense that we spend so much time in our own minds that what seems natural to us might make other people go “Wait, what?” which is why we have first (and if really doubtful) second and third readers.

OTOH our first readers usually become that because they like our brand of crazy already, which means that what is preventing us from engaging with the public at large in bigger numbers might escape them, or even hit them as completely logical.

What is keeping you from engaging with the public at large? you ask. Glad you asked.

Writing is a balancing act between creating worlds/things that are interesting and that are interesting to the most people possible.  Mega bestsellers (Harry Potter excepted for various reasons) are usually “beach reads.”  Ie books that so perfectly hit things in which everyone is mildly interested, but nothing that raises alarms in anyone, that they can be read by people who are in a place where they have no work or other distractions.  I read a lot of them, in Portugal, because tourists used to abandon them in hotels so that they had more room for souvenirs coming back. They were fat, had a lot of action, were often spy thingies, and meant absolute-fracking-nothing.  You read them and it was pleasant (I read them because I wanted to read native English Speakers, for language) and then it was gone.  Nothing to remember.

That might not be your idea of great, but it is one way to sell mega millions of books. The next best way to become a bestseller (not as big as that one, but you’ll have fans for life, and your books will continue to sell even without massive push) is to still be acceptable to MOST people, but have just enough quirkiness to make it memorable, so people will come back to you because they liked that “flavor.”

There used to be a third way (there might be again, due to indie)until the Thor (?) power tools act killed back inventory in books. You wrote really quirky but very engagingly over a long time, and slowly gained more readers than you lost with each book.  It was how a lot of persistent midlisters found themselves, twenty years later, with a mega bestseller, suddenly, out of the blue.

Think of it as being a political candidate, if that helps.  If you’re running for mayor of your tiny mountain town, you can be anything you want — even a cat — and get elected, because people around relate to you (or your human) and are used to your quirks.  If you’re running for mayor of a major town, you have to be more careful of letting your freak flag fly, because you know many people will be put off by it.  You have to be more careful about what you do or say.

Most people who even run for president are generic and somewhat bland. They have to be, because anything said wrong will send people running the other way.  Yes, there are exceptions (like Harry Potter) but not many and that’s not the way to bet.

I was never going to attempt to be everyone’s idea of “major bestseller”because … well, because I can’t write generic to save my life. A third factor comes in “Does this book put me to sleep while actively typing?”

So there will be some amount of quirk always in my writing, and I suspect the only way for me to be a bestseller is the third path (maybe with indie, but I have to write a lot, as I doubt I have 20 years.)

But because my stuff tends to be a result of my very weird mind, and because I’m foreign-born to my main audience, I wondered if anything stuck out really badly.  I’ve wondered it for quite some time, because I know my novels turn dark when I’m depressed, and I know some people complained about darkness invading the Darkships world (It was there in the first book, actually. Just better disguised.)

Then there is genre weirdness, because I read EVERYTHING.  I do know for instance that my books aren’t romance nor even HAVE a ton of romance, because I do read that. So when people (mostly men) say what I’m actually writing is romance, I laugh. I also get a little puzzled. I have about as much romance as say Ringo and Weber’s Prince Roger.  I guess I need more explosions so the readers stop fixating on “there’s a love interest. Must be romance.”  Or maybe it’s a function of having a female name.  It’s fine. I’ll continue writing humans who have love interests (sometimes) and I can give anyone who thinks that makes the book a romance a reading list.  After they come back from running off into the night…

Anyway, the romance is not an element I intend to pull away, but my mysteries often have a touch of the strange and not quite natural, and my scifi is often, functionally, a noir mystery, and…

All this was brought to a head when a friend realized she has “cross-genre problems” (she thinks.  I don’t think so, and I love her stuff.)  I.e. she thinks she has too much horror in her science fiction (Lord, what would you call mine.)

So she sent three questions to her newsletter recipients and encouraged me to ask them (which means I asked them in my conference, as I have yet to find a newsletter service that works for me. Yes. I know I need to.)

So the three questions were this:

• What do you specifically love about what you find in my fiction, and why — and what genre(s) would you call the parts you like?
• What do you try to avoid in my fiction, and why — and what genre(s) would you call the parts you avoid?
• What ONE other writer do you read who gives you what you love most about my fiction without giving you what you try to avoid in my fiction? (With a link to your favorite book by that writer if you’re willing to recommend him or her.)

I put them in my conference on face book, and later pointed out that this was supposed to be like elements of genre, of course, not you know… “I don’t like your use of the word Bob.” Or “I think you have too many typos.”

The results were nothing I didn’t anticipate.  People mostly like my space opera and they mostly like my characters (though a lot of people like the refinishing mysteries too.)

I did tell people if they felt uncomfortable saying anything, to say it in private.  The things I got in private were “I don’t like this series as well as the others” and one off base for the question, but yeah, I know that, “I didn’t think this series was as tightly plotted as the others.”  That’s true. Not reading an author chronologically means you miss some little things.  This person had missed that this is the series where I learned plotting. Read the previous books and it’s almost not there.  So the series is a vast improvement, but not as good as the others.

Now, note, I didn’t ask for technique or writing criticism. I didn’t do that, because I’d never throw THAT question to the general public whose hangups I don’t know.  Not only because I’ve been in writers’ groups enough to know that someone’s opinion isn’t necessarily better than yours, that people have weird hangups — like someone who thought I was basing a character on him because he and the character had eyes HE THOUGHT were the same color (someone with blue eyes who thought he had green eyes, for inexplicable reasons) and no other resemblance, but he was mad, so he ripped the story to shreds; or the person who decided for inexplicable reasons that my story questioned his religion, and also would tear it to shreds. — so that they’re okay once you know and discount the hangups, but not as strangers.

The other reason I don’t ask such questions of utter strangers, is that I tend to believe whatever I’m told. My second published book was ruined by an agent deciding I had to rewrite it to his specifications. I was actually sort of aware his view of the “perfect book” was a thriller (I’d read his how to book)but I still believed it enough to do it, and it utterly killed that book, still my worst seller.

However in this case there was one person who not only decided that’s what I was asking, but also decided that one of my books was horrible and he gave up on it, for reasons entirely in his head. Note he didn’t name the book, just beat around the plot, in hopes, I think, no one else would contradict him, being too confused by his nonsense.  OR perhaps he’s as unable to think clearly as to interpret other people’s words, because, you know, in the end, his “critique” was so out there and so bizarre that even I couldn’t convince myself it was true. (Reminds me of those reviews — both good and bad, actually — on Amazon that cite plot points and characters that aren’t in your book and leave you awed at whatever is going on in this person’s mind, since the other stuff IS in your book.)

Anyway, it’s hard to see yourself as a writer. Do NOT take the advice of total strangers, no on craft — look, this is why you don’t read reviews. You have someone read them for you and tell you which ones you can read. I’m convinced the weird one of the Harry Potter books (second to last) was because she’d started reading reviews and wanted to make it “significant.”  Believing the wrong critiquer or reviewer can kill your writing.

If you must have critiques, have a writers’ group, and know their quirks, and even then don’t take seriously anything that THREE people, who haven’t discussed it before, don’t bring up independently.

But if you’re a writer, with an audience, try the three questions above and see where you place in the original/too original matrix.  Me, I am exactly where I expected to be “So quirky that the only way I’ll make it is a lot of books and word of mouth.”

That’s fine. I never wanted to write beach reads, anyway.



  1. “Believing the wrong critiquer or reviewer can kill your writing.”

    Or listening to the wrong people on social media.

    1. Or listening to almost any people on social media.

      I have this theory that FarceBook and Twitter are weapons deployed by evil aliens to soften up the Earth for demolition. Its cheaper for them if they get us to do most of the work.

      1. Nobody ever made anything great trying to satisfy random complainers.

    2. Something similar actually made me give up trying to be a writer — back in undergrad, I let a friend look at the first third of a work-in-progress, they tore it to shreds, and I gave it up in favor of less healthy pursuits like video games, dungeon-mastering, and law. A decade-and-a-half later, I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I’d just ignored them….

      1. We’d be reading entertaining stories about a sword-wielding, treasure-hunting lawyer.

        1. I’d read that – although part of me wonders if I didn’t already, with the old Magic Kingdom of Landover books. Might be fun to write, too, if I can find the time and will.

          My interaction with writing (outside of legalese) these days is mostly being a bouncing wall, sounding board, and quick-pass editor for the writer in my life.

  2. “Does this book put me to sleep while actively typing?”

    That sort of happens to me on a fairly regular basis, though in my defense, my muse prefers to assault me from roughly midnight until I’m-so-tired-that-I-cannot-see-straight o’clock in the morning.

      1. Yes, I’m resisting, but only because I have to wake up early(ish) for work and know that if I start writing that late, I won’t get any sleep whatsoever vs. the few fleeting hours my muse will let me have when she finally gives up and quits poking me.

      2. I don’t tend to “drink” but sometimes I wonder if I should try it in order to reach that “stop resisting” phase and write… and then I wonder what I’d do and what sort of souse I’d become if it WORKED.

        1. During the college days of writing stuff, I’d drink a 5% alcohol vodka mixer drink. Just enough to mellow me (two bottles) and relax. I’d write a lot. (It was RPG-semi-fanfic so, easy.) These days though, my body gets sober in 2, 3 hours. *grumpy*

        2. I don’t recommend it. I had a story idea a couple of weeks ago after drinking a bit much. Of course I wrote it down – in cursive. It took me about an hour the next day to figure out what I had written.

          Not a bad story idea, although a bit derivative of Rendezvous with Rama. I might be able to shrink it to a short story if I start in the middle and kill the protagonist at the end.

    1. That can just mean being sour on the book at the moment. I circle around a selection of stories and often the ones that put me to sleep perk up after a week or more on the backburner.

  3. As for actually seeing my writing, the first time i did something for $rpgcompany I kept an ear to the ground for the actual ship dates and when it would be in local gaming and bookstores just so I could go look at it in the store. When I was working at $vfxcompany I would get up a little early just to see my name in the credits of the show i was working on, on TV. A little bit of egoboo goes a long way.

  4. When I’m writing something and its boring me, I generally go back to the part where it got stupid and start over. Me being bored is usually because I’m writing something those characters wouldn’t do, which is why it is coming out stupid.

    I did find the feedback from a couple of my readers valuable. The question I asked was: “At what point did you get bored and stop?”

    They convinced me it was worth continuing even if they found X issue in the story to be weird. The presence of X didn’t matter than much to them, compared to the fun action and lippy characters.

    Praise indeed. ~:D

  5. Been studying a work recently. Seriously does not work for me, and part of it is that the criminal justice elements were written from and for a perspective of a very different culture. I’ve been looking at how the same things might need to be adjusted to leave me very satisfied, and have realized that those might instead leave all unsatisfied except a narrow portion of Americans. I have a very enthusiastic specific perspective on criminal justice, which I think a majority of Americans does not share. On the other hand, at one point I heard that certain portions of Malaysian law were very much to my taste. Does that mean that Malaysians might be a potential part of my audience? Saudi law perhaps does not reflect the perspectives of a majority of that nation’s citizens/subjects, so perhaps I can’t make such an assumption.

  6. One thing I’m seeing is that, given my series-style, NaNoWriMo is not necessarily my friend. At speed, I seem to lapse into telling and a third person omniscient PoV. Normally, this is OK, except when the rest of a series has a very, very strong element of showing (third person limited PoV). And I didn’t see that I’d shifted. Oops.

    1. One of my editing stages is to search for and mark “telling” spots. Then I go back with the writer’s hat on and write them properly.

    2. Depends on how hard it is to revise them out. And whether it’s faster to do it right the first time.

      (Meanwhile, I’m sprucing up the novel that taught me to not rush the outline for NaNoWriMo.)

  7. I’m reading a series now (Hi, anagramly pseudonymous Jan) where I’m quickly skimming past the semi, but not entirely, gratuitous sex scenes. The rest of it is a great romp and those scenes don’t bother me enough to stop reading (and it’s definitely not a romance).

    I wonder if I’ll ever finish Space Force. The main thing keeping me going was sheer inertia. I was at book 45 or so when I caught up to the author. There are probably more, now, but I don’t feel any desire to go find out – let alone back up enough to remember what’s going on.

    For an exact opposite example, I’ll snatch any Wine of the Gods or Merchant and Empire book as soon as I find out about it.

    Ash is simply too dutiful/loyal for me. If I’d been in her situation, I would have cheered, if not helped, the government burning to the ground. It’s hard to get into those because the motivation is foreign.

    BTW: I’ll probably hit 200 books in my Mad Genius folder before summer; it’s getting close. Thanks!

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