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Posts tagged ‘readers’

Pet Peeves and Good Advice

As writers, we have to balance a number of balls from the time an idea first forms to the post-publication promotion period. There’s the plotting of our story, the research that needs to be done, the actual writing of it. That’s followed by editing, promotion, finding the right cover, preparing for publication, publication, ore promotion. Then there’s the business end of making sure taxes are taken care of, supplies are bought, receipts are kept, etc. At each point along the way, it’s easy to take a misstep. Read more

Why Do You Read Books?

I had a conversation recently with a colleague about technical writing. One of my chemistry professors had told me that I should pursue technical writing, rather than chemistry as a career. My colleague, who was manager in all but name of a chemistry laboratory for the last year, pointed out that it’s a good thing I didn’t take that advice. The best technical writers, he said (and I agreed) have some experience in what they are writing about. It’s not that you can’t be a technical writer and not have done the tests, or run the instruments. It’s that if you have no hands-on in the field, you are only going to be able to have a shallow understanding of what you’re writing about. Read more

On reading and listening and books in general

It’s no secret that most, if not all, of the bloggers here at MGC believe that story is king when it comes to writing. We do our best to write stories that will pull our readers in and send them soaring to new places and times. We want our characters to be real people, not simply be there to fill out some artificial checklist someone in an ivory corporate tower said we had to follow. We aren’t anti-message by a long shot. We just think the message should be woven into the story and not be so blatant that it hits the reader of the head over and over and over again. We have encouraged you to try new genres and, I hope, we’ve introduced you to new authors over the years. Read more

It’s not zero sums

This is a blast from the past, but it’s still applicable even if the central tantrum has been long forgotten. I’m afraid I’ve been sick, and am thus a girl of very little brain this morning in search of hunny… And perhaps tea to put it in.

Hear, O fellow authors, and consider this. Writing is not a competition. There is not a scarcity of readers, and although there has been for lo, these many years an artificial scarcity of of reading material, that drought is coming to an end with the Age of Indie. So why do we hear fearsome cries from certain throats, proclaiming that those who are elders in the field should step aside and let them in?

The young person who has been most noticed for this recently (although it is not a new lament), has apologized. “Shepherd apologised for upsetting writers and readers alike, explaining that she had “only ever meant to raise the issue of how hard it is for new writers to get noticed and how publishing is much more of a zero sum game than people often think” However, it remains that she thinks publishing is a zero sum game.

I had to look that up. I’d heard it before, of course, and from context knew more or less what it meant, but for the writing of this article, I needed to research, to make certain that what I was saying was accurate. So, here: “The theory of von Neumann and Morgenstern is most complete for the class of games called two-person zero-sum games, i.e. games with only two players in which one player wins what the other player loses.” However, this is palpably inaccurate when it comes to writing. There are far more than two players involved, and the success of one writer does not predicate the loss of another.

By the success of JK Rowling, there are more readers, rather, for us the authorial sort to lure into reading of our books. What we must do to win is not to shove aside those who have succeeded, demanding our turn in the game, but to write engaging books readers will not only read themselves, but recommend enthusiastically to others. You will note I have removed the publisher from this equation. At one time, there was a bottleneck, for the publisher can only afford to publish so many titles, and to promote so many (a fraction of those they do publish) authors. That bottleneck is breaking open, and as independent authors our reach is spreading. My books, published by the very small imprint that they are, can be ordered from any bookstore, and when I look online, they are available at least in webstores of the largest book retailers.

In order to win this game we play, it’s not the other writers we need to defeat, it is ourselves. For fear of rejection, for laziness in not wanting to promote and market one’s own book, for lack of confidence in getting the best cover and editing we can, we shoot ourselves in the foot, and do not succeed. I venture to say that the Shepherd person has not succeeded because of Rowling’s success, but her own shortcomings. Like a child in a game, she has pitched aside the board, and now pouts petulantly, blaming her loss not on her own lack of skill, but her opponent.

The readers are out there, I say again. Writers, if you can offer them a good product in the form of a story with meat on its bones, with engaging characters, well-constructed plot, and emotional appeal, you will win. If your story is not selling, or selling too slowly for your tastes, inspect the product you are offering, and ask yourself questions.

The oft-discussed post demanding “I want an end to the default of binary gender in science fiction stories.” is an excellent example of another writer who feels that it is failing in a field do to discrimination against itself. In this case, not by another writer, although certainly it seems to feel it is hard-done by those who view its views as odd. No, it wants more stories with its viewpoint in them. Lovely, dear. Go write them. If they sell, wonderful! If not, do not go around moaning that you are being discriminated against because you are an it/she/alienbeing. Again, that is not how the game is played. Appeal to the readers, and you have won. Make them yawn, or repel them, and you lose.

When I started mulling this post over in my head, waiting for it to gel and be ready, someone mentioned the calls for Stephen King to retire. I went to look as part of my research, and found that rather than calling for him to step aside and let other writers in, the cry seemed to be that his writing had gone downhill, and he should stop. Interestingly, this doesn’t seem to have made a dent in Mr. King’s presence, as this took place over a decade ago, and I believe (I don’t personally read him, but as a librarian was very aware of how much shelf space he occupied, and how many requests we had for his books) that he has another book coming out this year. You see, no matter what the critics think, it is the readers who matter. They are the ones who buy the books, and that is what wins the game.

Readers win, with good books they want to read, and authors win, with sales. Publishers who care about giving the readers what they want (coffBaencoff) win, and publishers who care only about pushing their agenda (see blog address for ‘it’ above) lose. Zero sum? No, more like exponential growth, and I don’t see a limiting factor, yet… Want to feel like you are winning? write more!

Incens(or)ed

There was an amusing bit of fallout after my post last week. You would think that calling for recommendations of books for a pair of young ladies would hardly be controversial, yes? I mean, I don’t know about you, but there are few things I like more than a chance to talk about books I have known and loved since I was a girl. I was just comparing notes last night on social media with a friend about how nice it is to go wayback into memories and read authors like Grace Livingston Hill, LM Montgomery, Georgette Heyer, and others for sweetness and happiness in what seems to be an ever-more bitter world.

But I digress a little. I had occasion, after an angry accusation was made, to look up what the word censorship meant. I thought I knew what it meant, after all, but I wanted to be sure, because what it was being used about wasn’t what I’d have defined as censorship…

Censorship is the suppression of speech, public communication, or other information that may be considered objectionable, harmful, sensitive, politically incorrect or inconvenient as determined by governments, media outlets, authorities or other groups or institutions.

So why was I being accused of being a censor by an incensed reader? because I and others were including warnings about books containing graphic and potentially inappropriate content, in a discussion about books for preteen children. So parents who want to know what is in their children’s books are guilty, according to this person, of censorship. It’s not the first time I’ve been accused of censoring content for my children’s sakes. When I wrote about the prevalence of what can only be called victim worship, or torture porn, in YA books, I was blasted for my stance against the graphic portrayal of abuse. I responded to that with science, laying out the fact that children need tools to cope, yes, but glorifying pain (and suicide, as in the recent Netflix hit 13 Reasons) is not a good thing for those who are trying to crawl out of the abyss. So why do I take this unpopular stance?

Perhaps because as a culture we now embrace pop stars who writhe all but naked on the stage, books that advocate ephebephilia and incest, but reject values, morals, and chivalry? I am not a perfect person, but I do believe that there should be personal responsibility in this world, a duty to protect the children, and the honor to stand up to bullies in any form or age.

I’m a mother who now has three teens and one almost-teen under her roof. Do I say ‘you can’t read that!’ and yank a book out of their bewildered hands? (and how do you confuse hands… oh, never mind) Am I truly a censor, using this blog as my ‘group or other institution’ to suppress information?

Not.

Actually, I think I can successfully argue that rather than censoring those books, I am doing the opposite. I am adding information to them, not blacking the ‘bad bits’ out. It’s no different than the rating systems we use for films and video games. Something meant for mature consumption is possibly acceptable for some who are younger, but that’s something their parents need to make a decision on. Not I, and certainly not the incen(sor)ed reader who was indignant that we were talking smack about books she read as a young girl and didn’t see any harm at all in.

I’ll tell a little story on my girls, here. When my Otaku Princess (who now adores anime and anything DC Comics-related) was a small girl-child with silky copper penny hair, she was absolutely terrified of a G-rated cartoon. It gave her nightmares every time her siblings watched it (we owned it on VHS, to date it) and she would run crying from the room when the gnomes appeared in this made-for-TV animation of Ozma of Oz. On the other hand, my Jr. Mad Scientist was taken to see Batman: The Dark Knight when she was only six years old by a doting great-grandfather who undoubtedly thought he was taking the tiny nut-brown girl to an Adam West show, all Bop! Bam! Biff! and he never even looked to see it was rated R. She didn’t bat an eye at that level of gore and horror.

Every kid is different. But only you, the parents, know which kid is yours and what they are ready for. When you look at a book like Robin McKinley’s Deerskin, you want to know that it has graphic accounts of child abuse, incest, and miscarriage in it. You, the parent, can then determine if that’s a book to be read now, or one that should perhaps wait a few years until the developing mind that is in your care is prepared to grasp that not all bad things end in bad times, they can come out to survival and triumph. Personally, that book shook me to the core and I can’t re-read it. On the other hand, her other earlier stories (I’ve never been able to read her after Deerskin) were brilliant, and I have bought copies to give to my girls. Some censor, I.

Some times a book isn’t right for an age level. I had a book rejected from being added to a school library due to content concerns. I didn’t think once that I was being censored, or cry out “I’m being banned!” to all the media. There is a scene in my YA book The God’s Wolfling that portrays the heroes as they are captured by drug dealers when they stumble into someplace they shouldn’t have been. The elementary school in question explained that they couldn’t have any books in their library that portrayed ‘drug culture’ in any way. As I’d never intended that pair of books for juvenile (under 12 years) readers, I shrugged and went on with life. Have I, an author, been censored? Yes. Did it harm me? No. Would that scene (spoiler: the teen heroes make it out intact and the drug idiots pay dearly) have harmed some young impressionable mind? Well, probably not. But that’s not my call to make. The school has a responsibility to parents, and parents are the ones tasked with raising their children. Not, thank goodness, angry people on the internet.

I don’t think there are many children reading this blog. To be honest, I’d be surprised if that number was greater than one. There are rather a large number of parents and grandparents who read and write here. With all of those, I suspect that a primary goal is for us to raise readers. Not to restrict them, but to guide them and feed them good, tasty books, until they can be weaned and off to a diet of meaty books full of stories that will satisfy them, mystify them, and make them think more until their brains stretch out a size or three. And the best way to accomplish that is to talk about books which are beloved and find ones the children will read all up until they cry out for ‘more! more’! and that’s when you know you can come here, asking for ideas when you’re out, and we’ll tell you about the books we loved. Which includes a word of warning about things you might want to know so you aren’t up in the middle of the night with a case of reading indigestion and a crying child.

New Old

New lumps for old… or ‘they’re really not that into you’

There is some reference to yesterday’s post by Cedar – The Dog’s Breakfast – but this principally about what most readers actually want. This is important to us writers. It should be important to Award Committees and Con Coms too.

The funniest thing about this Star Wars tie in novel brouhaha has to be The Grauniad screaming ‘homophobia’ about the fans giving the book 1 or 2 star reviews. What’s funny is not the screeching ‘homophobia’ which Damian and friends do at 10 second intervals in between shrieks of ‘racist’, yowls of sexist and bellows of misogynist – but the fact that the vastly litewarwee pretentious Guardian is praising a Star Wars novel. That has to be a first. Worth a good laugh. Purely defending Chuck Wendig on literary merit, I’m sure. It’s like the No Award voting in the 2015 Hugos.

One of the mistakes people make –- particularly those in power, which in publishing at the moment is the far left of politics (which, like all things will change, and change again) — is the assumption “everyone is like me, and if they’re not, then they are not just different, (or indifferent) they’re WRONG, stupid, evil and should be re-educated, punished until they behave or stamped out.” It’s actually, if you come down to basic motivation, at the core of the Puppy/Puppy Kicker situation, with the Puppy Kickers saying “your taste is shit, is wrong, is worthless”* (of Jim Butcher? At least we have company in our taste), as opposed to the Puppies saying ‘we don’t like the books and stories you do – we’re happy for you to like them. Just don’t claim — in a reader popularity contest – that because you like it or message in it, it is the ‘best’.’ You see it in the “Nobody _I_ know voted for him!” (I laughed the other day to see in a Tony Abbott bashing about the limited number and type of migrant he said we should accept to Australia, just exactly those words, with just exactly the same implication. And the utter inability to accept that a different viewpoint might actually have more support — let alone the possibility that it might be better — than the writer’s personal one.)

It’s quite understandable – we are the center of our own universe. Unless you’re bright enough to work out otherwise, people tend to assume they’re the norm (or at least, they should be). Especially if your social circle share your point of view, and you share theirs, it’s easy to believe there are very few people who disagree with you (and they’re wrong, stupid, evil and should be re-educated, punished until they behave or stamped out.) It is not made any clearer for the folk deluding themselves, by suppression of dissent. There’s a sort of mythical ostrich-head-in-the-sand belief that if you stop dissent, silence opposition, label what there is as bad etc… it goes away. Actually, it’s more like sewing closed a wound which still has foreign bodies in it. You’re making the problem worse, long term, for a short term appearance of ‘better’.

Where this really, truly comes unstuck is, for example, in our field, writing. Readers will rarely come out and say something which is un-PC, or for which they will be attacked. Seriously, let’s say the black or gay or feminist character in your book gets up the nose of the reader. Very few of the readers will put their name to slating your book for that reason (Wendig may be right, that might be behind some of the 1 star reviews that don’t even mention homosexuality). But they will vote with their purchasing power, because that is safely anonymous. One of the messages being studiously ignored by Traditional Publishing is falling sales numbers. If they’re forced to admit it exists, they claim it is ‘other factors’ like TV or the internet. But, despite those other factors SOME authors continue to grow their audiences.

You could be writing your book to make a statement about your pet cause. You could be writing it for catharsis about your experiences as a homosexual hooker, or as a soldier (RBV is my ‘catharsis’ book. The pictures are links)

– but there is no reason to expect the arbitrary reader to buy it for that reason. Yes, if they believe in your pet cause, or also find the story cathartic, it might work for that reader. If that is a big enough audience, it can be a success, financially. Otherwise it needs to be more than that (Which is why I tried to make RBV funny, fast-moving, and with layers of other things.)

To be a financial popular success, that keeps readers who aren’t enjoying a sermon about their rightness, or have no interest in the issues of being a hooker, or being a soldier, it has to generate that care, be enough beside that to make them enjoy it, to make them come back again, to make the genre flourish. When a book which doesn’t have that appeal is promoted and pushed for the sake of its ‘issue’, it isn’t just a failure to itself, it fails all of us. It hurts all of us. A book that transcends that is wonderful. It’s also very, very rare.

Mostly success – in terms of returning customers, in terms of a growing audience, is achieved by giving your audiences character they can accept, identify with, and believe in. This doesn’t always mean the truth. If you want to give them something that they don’t find palatable or probable you have to do a good job of selling it. When I wrote PYRAMID SCHEME I’d spent a whole 10 days in the US. I was born, bred and raised in South Africa. I knew a few male Americans – The JLB Smith Institute was the Southern Hemisphere’s best-rated Ichthyology center at the time I was there, which meant we got folk from all over the world – four Americans among them — all unequivocally male. There was a Canadian woman, but I gather that’s a different country (yes. It’s a joke. I make them). It was a relatively small research institute and three of those guys were good friends of mine, people I spent a lot of time with. I imagined I knew a bit about how Americans thought and what they knew. What I forgot is that these were expats in my country.

So when I got a generally good review for Pyramid Scheme…

the reviewer slated me for the female South African Zoologist I wrote into it. She was just too American, with American female attitudes and outlook. Not a ‘real’ South African, I was… um… puzzled (yeah, that’s a better, more polite way of putting it than gob-smacked, laughing like a hyena). I actually wrote to the critic explaining this – politely, not a la Chuck Wendig, which was really stupid of me. You can’t explain.

I was at fault. I didn’t know my audience (mostly American) well enough to know their pre-conceptions about how ‘different’ people were in South Africa. Now… well, I’d explain better. People are remarkably similar, even if they come from a different country, but share a similar background. Middle-class South Africa, is very like middle class America in very many ways. There are differences, but obviously not the size of the difference that reader expected.

Now the same applies to a straight guy who doesn’t have a lot to do with gay people, or white reader who barely knows any black guys, outside of TV, or vice versa, of course. They’ve got their ideas, which are possibly wildly wrong. But here’s the thing: unless that character shows traits they care about, identify with and can believe plausible in that character (just as my critic though my South African Zoologist too American to be real)… no matter how important you consider that minority or the point you’re making about them, it’s worthless if your reader doesn’t care that deeply about them, can’t believe in them.

You may be deeply invested in the problems faced by 0.1% or 4% or 13% of the population. But a lot of people aren’t. It’s not necessarily true that they’re homophobic or racist if they don’t like your book. You can call them that, as Wendig has. It may get you some sympathy sales from people who share your views – and alienate a lot more people who don’t like being insulted. The truth, in many cases I suspect, is more mundane, and hurts a lot more. Ask anyone who really fancied so-and-so, put out their best lures, only to have a friend tell you ‘They’re really not that into you.’

That’s the reality of being a writer. Mine as much as Chuck Wendig’s. It’s not a captive audience. They don’t have to buy your books. They can just walk away, and they will. You have to please your target audience or you’re a waste of shelf-space. It’s not about you, or your pet cause, unless that is what your target audience wants.

It’s true at a genre scale, and specifically when you’re writing in someone else’s universe, one which has a loyal following.

They don’t want new. Or you, if you’re new and different.

No matter how often they tell you they want ‘new’, most of your audience don’t want ‘new’. If you’re going to give them ‘new’ you’re going to have to be utterly, absolutely brilliant. Most of us are not.

What the audience want is ‘new old’. You can push the boat a little bit, but the audience has expectations (just as my critic had about South African women). You can change those, but you have to do so gently and skillfully, until that change feels ‘just like old (but new)’. There is a small percentage of readers who want the new (something novel!) but seriously, if you’re following footsteps (and we all are) you will never be ‘as good’ for some readers – and if you go off at a tangent, they’ll mostly hate you.

That of course is a worse thing than them not being into you. There always are worse things – and most of them happen at sea (just speaking from experience here.) There are two (at least) levels of this. On file 770 – on the only time I have bothered to comment there — the charming crowd there were engaged in having fun kicking my terrible prose around and saying what an awful writer I was (It is true that they had a problem with what I was saying, but that was harder to attack, and saying what a useless writer I was, was a nice easy target.) Shrug. Blog posts are not something I get paid for. I am not a particularly brilliant writer, and my efforts go into my novels, which I don’t do in a hurry, which makes me money. I work hard at that, get it edited, take advice on that. I probably still stuff up, but it’s not for lack of effort. It is not so with blog posts or comments. Snowcrash – who sometimes comments here, made a comment back then about never bothering to buy my books because I was such a bad writer. I was supposed to be offended and hurt. I wasn’t.

Instead I thanked Snowcrash very much for that, and I meant it, absolutely. Because, as Chuck Wendig is going to discover, and I hope you will avoid discovering, someone who wanted “new old” or product A, expected “new old”, PAID for “new old”… and then got product B which wasn’t ‘new old’, or similar, but which was something they didn’t want, or expect or like is the worst possible outcome. Firstly, they’re not going to buy another, and secondly will associate, and blame that author for a lot more value than $17, let alone the pittance the author got. As an author you’d rather they hated you unread, than paid money and then hated you, especially if those people are a major part and influence on buyers who will buy your work, now and in future. Those people may be ‘suckaz’ as Wendig put it, but they’re going to piss all over your future – and that’s without you insulting them. Curiously, Chuck Wendig may just have become the Puppies biggest recruiter. All one has to say to the irritated Star Wars fan is: “Oh, him. Yes, he thinks we’re awful and wants to eliminate us from the awards process.”

The key thing is that that one group of people you don’t mess with are your major group of customers, whoever they are. If you’re Kameron Hurley, you don’t peeve radical feminists. If you’re Larry Correia you don’t peeve gun owners (neither of these are very likely. Both identify strongly with their set, and sell to them). If you’re writing in the universe of a popular franchise, you don’t peeve the normal customers of it. They may not be your personal core group, but they’re a huge group, and the franchise’s core.

There is no point in pleasing a group of POSSIBLE customers at the cost of that core group.

It’s like a butcher stopping selling meat to please possible vegan customers. (Which is not unlike the situation many of puppies found themselves with the puppy kickers. People like Snowcrash and friends had never bought my books, wouldn’t like my books if they did – and threatened not to read me? Oh, be still my beating heart!) It’s a very different kettle of fish, when it’s my regulars, my fans, my customers.

For them, I will have the new old that they want. Shifting things slowly, if at all, keeping them happy. If you want to make a success of this, I suggest you do too.

*Irene Gallo – ‘bad-to-reprehensible works on this year’s Hugo ballot.’. We can find hundreds more quotes, all boiling down to ‘your taste is shit, we know what is good for you.’