Who's afraid of a little feedback?
When I began this very public journey four years, I just knew I'd have a love/hate relationship with reader reviews. On the one hand, they're essential to providing social proof when buyers are considering whether to purchase my books. On the other hand, they are totally out of my control. Strangers from all over the world can post their unvarnished opinions.
Like many new writers, I feared the potential for rejection. After all the time I spend pouring myself into the work, would it be accepted? Better yet, would the large majority respond favorably? Or would their response suggest that I was off the mark about the quality of my writing and storytelling? (It's called Imposter Syndrome.)
I read every review. In fact, I run a quick check for new ones twice a day. After four years and fourteen original titles, I can rest easy. The percentages of 4- and 5-star reviews have far exceeded the others. Well, I should rest easy, but I don't.
The fact is, I've come to relish reading reviews - even the ugly ones (and there are a few). When I see someone leave an Amazon star without comment, I am left to wonder what they liked or disliked. I'd REALLY love to know.
What's fascinating is seeing the range that can occur when two people read the identical material. Take these two reviews for The Impossible Future box set that appeared two weeks apart:
(2 stars): "Hot mess very confusing...Glad it was a kindle unlimited and I did not buy."
(5 stars): "What an Awesome Read. I couldn't put it down. The brain power that conceived this set of books and all the twists and turns that it takes the reader on, is exceptional. The depth of the personalities of the characters is well laid out."
Ego now sufficiently pumped!
I find reviews, for better or worse, to be instructive. For instance, a common trend has emerged in the reviews for The Impossible Future books. Those who love it make note of the wild twists and turn, the pacing, and the characterization. Those who don't (the 2-star folks) consistently find it confusing, or "a hot mess." This tells me many readers like a story with concurrent storylines that jump back and forth, while others prefer a straight-line narrative.
No one is right or wrong. However, as I move closer to a new set of stories after finishing my current series (which has concurrent storylines), I might want to consider a tighter story with fewer characters who the reader stays close to at all times.
Going forward, I'd love for more readers to provide their honest, respectful opinions. It's part of a continuing education.
Whose story is it, anyway?
More than twenty years ago, I went into the movie theater holding my breath and hoping for the best. The film I was about to see? The Fellowship of the Ring, the first of a trilogy based on JRR Tolkien's masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings.
Now, those were the early days of rabid fandom online, mostly bantering back and forth on message boards. (Social media and YouTube had not yet been given birth.) Among the incredulous fans who were huffing and puffing, many complained that they heard Tom Bombadil would not appear in Fellowship, and even more seemed to twist their knickers over the inclusion of a - wait for it - WOMAN as a major character.
Arwen (played by Liv Tyler) was the daughter of Elrond, of course, and she made a mighty appearance when she arrived in the nick of time to save Frodo's life after he was stabbed by a Morgul blade. Her love story with Aragorn would play out through the three movies.
The kicker is that Arwen NEVER appears in Tolkien's story. Her romance with Aragorn is pushed off into the Appendices at the end of Return of the King.
Fortunately, I had a fantastic time and have rewatched all three films often. Arwen was a wonderful addition to the film ADAPTATION, and her story arc with Aragorn paid off beautifully by the end. However, I can't help but wonder what kind of firestorm we'd see today if that movie was made the same way.
A toxic group of fans - overwhelmingly white males who appear professionally outraged by anything not involving white maledom - constantly shit on anything they see in the major fantasy and science fiction franchises (LOTR, Star Wars, Marvel, etc.) that appears to elevate women and people of color to more than background roles. They go positively ballistic when they see blacks take on roles previously played by whites. When I say "played," I mean in comic strips, video games, fan fiction novels, and other media that the vast majority of the movie-going audience couldn't care a hoot about.
They've built quite a little cottage industry for themselves, especially on YouTube, where the White Male Outrage Machine (WMOM) runs 24/7, drawing in often-sizable views from their cadre of other outraged white guys. They scream, they accuse, they speak of "leftists" and "the message" being jammed down their throats.
Which brings me to the upcoming Amazon series Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. This series cost half a billion dollars per season (reportedly), with five 10-episode seasons planned. It was filmed in New Zealand, and it utilizes the Appendices from LOTR and some other Tolkien sources to build its story of the Second Age, thousands of years before LOTR. The trailers look beautiful.
Will it hold up as a great story? Who knows? I'm going in with hope and fingers crossed, but I have confidence. I want a great story. It can adjust some of Tolkien's history, and I'll be fine with that because IT'S AN ADAPTATION.
Unfortunately, the WMOM has been trashing it for months. It's doomed, they say. The producers hate Tolkien, they say. What's their evidence? A black woman will be playing a female dwarf. A black man with short hair will be playing an elf in a forbidden romance. The WMOM and their fellow toxicants troll the trailers and down-vote them to create the illusion that the world is anti-Rings of Power, and nobody wants to see this.
As if these stories belonged to them, and the producers stole their original work.
It's pathetic but also a sign of the times. I'm sure they'll all be watching the premiere on Sept. 2 so they can trash it - even if they realize, "Oh, this is pretty damn good." They'll never admit it. Why? Positive reports will hurt their views. Their reputations will take a hit. Sad little people.
I hope the series is a triumph.
Writing to the voice within
Where do I get my ideas?
A vivid imagination? Check. Literary influences? Check. Favorite films or TV shows? Kinda, sorta. History and world events? Impossible to ignore them. Every fiction writer taps into all these areas, but no doubt to differing degrees.
Then there’s the biggest wildcard: Your own life experience. What was your childhood like? What type of education did you receive? Who were your mentors? What kind of folks do you hang around with? How jaded, optimistic, or cynical has life made you? Are you happy with your life, or have you become a professional complainer?
I could go on, of course. The bottom line is that most writers (let’s call them the really good ones) draw from a wellspring deep within, a voice that refuses to go away no matter how much you might want to suppress it.
That voice tells me to write the types of stories that will be entertaining and thought-provoking to me as a reader. I would never try to recapture the lightning found in the great classics I’ve read or watched on the big screen, but I can tap into elements that inspired me.
There are many writers in this business who say an author should “write to market,” which means to examine trends (i.e. formula) and follow that road in order to have success (defined as huge sales). OK, so that’s not a terrible strategy and definitely works for some. The idea is readers want familiarity. Even if the material is mediocre or redundant, readers will go back to what they know but struggle with stories which step away from the “formula.”
This is undoubtedly true for many readers, just as with moviegoers (how many Marvel movies does a human need, anyway?).
Not me. Can’t do it. Won’t do it.
I think there’s far too much “formula” being dumped on bookshelves. Series fiction is huge now - the best way to earn a loyal new audience on Amazon, for instance. I’ve learned that lesson and am writing a series, but I hope few people can look at mine and say, “Oh, those books are just like x, y, and z.”
Spaceship battles are fun … until the three-hundredth time. Alien invasions are fun … until the four-hundredth time. (Full disclosure: I’ve written a couple of brief spaceship battles and one alien invasion.)
My preference is to take a story with a big canvas and some mind-blowing ideas then toss a few ordinary folks or misfits into the center of it and see how their lives play out. Sagas, they’re called. I like a good blend of adventure, mystery, suspense, violence, humor, romantic tension, and tortured souls blended with some whizbangery, and characters struggling to navigate their way through the whole sordid mess.
I’m comfortable with what I write and how I go about it, but I’m by no means satisfied. I long ago stopped feeling inferior as a writer or putting myself on a tier above others. Frankly, the readers have to judge the work. As long as I’m having fun crafting these stories and building a satisfied audience, I’m good to go.
Just don't expect the same ol' stuff.
The uncluttered mind produces
I retired from teaching last June, setting aside at least five years to make this writing business a success. Now, before you start lending your personal definition to 'success,' I will say it is this: I don't go broke.
That's it. A simple requirement. Make enough money to maintain my standard of living. If affluence arrives, super cool! If not? Eh. Who cares? I'm sitting down at the computer by 7:30 a.m. most days and telling stories for a living. How wonderful is that?
The greatest benefit to not playing double-duty (i.e. teaching full-time while squeezing in the writing at nights and on weekends) is simple: My mind is uncluttered. The pressure is off. And my writing? Better than ever. I can churn out quality material in two months that used to take five or six. The reality is that teaching is a 24/7 job. You can be off the clock, even caught up in grading and lesson planning, but the job never leaves you. It's always hovering in the back of your mind. It can be that all-consuming.
No more. I have to say that one of the most pleasant surprises (and something I did worry about) is that I haven't burned out on writing or become bored with this routine. The reason most likely: I don't write stories that trod over familiar ground. I enjoy shaking up my characters and their worlds. And that, my friends, is delicious fun.
Putting my face out there
Oh, dear. I vowed to post one of these every month, and here I am back in the three-month cycle again.
Enough about my unreliability. The past three months I've added to my repertoire, so to speak, by creating and posting to my YouTube channel. I've discussed my journey as a writer, broken down nuggets from my books, read and reacted to other books, and compared books to film and TV.
It's been a blast. My videos don't have the glitz of soooo many others who make a living on YouTube, but that's OK. This isn't about money. It's about voice. I'm still learning to fine-tune mine for a different medium.
As I go forward, I doubt I'll add more than one or two videos a month, if that, but if I can talk and people will listen (hey, I received 260 views on my review of the first-season premiere of Foundation) then I'll continue. I won't be the poor fool in the middle of the desert who realizes no one will find him in time.
Check out the channel if you have a few minutes. Comment. I'd love to hear from you.
The unexpected moments
I stepped out onto the balcony a couple of nights ago to take a break from the work. The evening air is clean and crisp, and there's usually a nice breeze (I'm on the 7th floor, with no wind obstructions). I happened to look southwest and caught this stunning combination at sunset. The moon appears to be flying toward the horizon, with Venus caught in its contrail.
Simple moments like this, infused with stunning colors, is a reminder of the enormity of nature and the smallness of each of us. It is also a reminder to slow down and pay attention to the breathtaking moments that are easily overlooked amid a full work calendar weighted down with many responsibilities and deadlines.
That's it, folks. No more pontificating. Pause. Reflect. Now back to your life.
Ah, those wacky writers
It would be easy for me to raise my hackles, but I'll try to restrain myself.
So, I'm reading about these high school athletes who are working out endorsement deals for their name, image, and likeness that will bring them hundreds of thousands of dollars before they graduate. I read of the 10-year-old who has a silly YouTube channel and is monetizing it for millions. In the meantime, I pound away at the keyboard, hoping the next book can help build my brand, a few hundred dollars at a time.
I take a breath, put away my petty jealousy (GET OFF MY LAWN, YOU CRAZY KIDS!) and resume my work, which gives me enormous daily pleasure. The world is changing, I'm not going to be a YouTube star :( , and I'll be eligible for Medicare in a few years. Eh.
This does, however, segue into my main topic: Writer jealousy. Or as the syndrome is also known: He's really successful, he's too big for his britches, so I'm going to tear him down.
I recently read a quote from Stephen King, who made a blanket comment about writers who overindulged in plot. I'm not going go into the specifics of it, although I thought it to be valuable insight. What interested me was the response to this quote, which was posted in a Facebook group for independent writers. (Please note the target audience. These are not random civilians.)
While there was considerable debate about King's advice, I found a rather staggering number of these folks went after King himself as a writer and bemoaned how, in the words of one uninteresting soul, "Anyone can stand to read this guy's books. They're awful." Many others expressed a loathing that I suspect was more a product of his tremendous, decades-long success that guarantees each of his works hits the bestseller list.
Now, I'm not here to praise King or bury him. Personally, The Stand was one of the great reads of my childhood. What I find fascinating is when people of limited success relatively speaking go after someone in the same field who has had enormous success, acting as if he either doesn't deserve it or achieved it under sketchy circumstance. It's open season to debate the merits of another's work - we pay people money to do just that - but it seems counterproductive at best to slough off advice of an extremely successful achiever, when in fact the advice might be worth your time.
For instance, I'll say straight up I'm no fan of Nicholas Sparks. I find his work schmaltzy and manipulative, and the plots repetitive. However, the dude is independently wealthy and he found an audience for his work. More than twenty years ago, early in his career, he spoke at a writer's conference I attended. He spoke of his editing process and how he condensed one scene in particular down to its essence. Using his techniques to great extent will produce a short novel - a mid-afternoon snack as opposed to a five-course meal. However, the key point he was making about giving greater value to each sentence rather than droning on without end is something I have not forgotten.
This advice could have come from many writers (although certainly not George R.R. Martin, who goes the opposite way), but I try to take the advice to heart, not the writer. So as I continue to pound the keyboard in relative anonymity, I'll think about the advice and not get wrapped up in trying to tear down the messenger.
Back to the classics
Most people who know the science fiction genre well, when asked to rank the greatest (or perhaps, most important) works of all time, might be all over the place when it comes to many titles. However, I would think two would make everyone's top 10 list - and most in the top 5. I'm referring to Isaac Asimov's "Foundation" and Frank Herbert's "Dune." Simple, one-word titles that convey utterly nothing but represent monumental ideas and epic storytelling.
Later this year, new screen versions of each will arrive, and I'm excited to see how they pull off their interpretation of these works. Although "Dune" has been tried twice before - David Lynch's mixed-bag but elegant 1984 film starring Kyle MacLachan, and the mostly-empty bag 2000 miniseries on the Sci-Fi Channel - neither achieved universal acclaim or a massive fan following for a variety of reasons. For many, the book is simply too massive and its themes too deep to effectively capture on film. I don't buy that reasoning, as many critics used the same argument about "Lord of the Rings" before Peter Jackson turned it into a triumph.
"Foundation" is a remarkable work that spans many books, but also crosses generations - covering more than a thousand years, ultimately. Characters and plots, while building on the previous, change regularly. Perhaps that's why no one has tried to bring this story to film before now.
The trailers for both "Foundation" and "Dune" look spectacular, and I have a sense the producing teams are taking these works seriously, remaining as loyal to the text as practical. We'll see. Foundation debuts September 24 on AppleTV+, while Dune hits the theaters (I hope) on October 22. It's already been moved twice on the calendar.
In the meantime, I have begun reading the "Foundation" books and will re-read "Dune" later in the fall. I think it will be fascinating to analyze both works in these different contexts. I'll be reporting back here and also on my new YouTube channel, which I'm debuting next week. Until then, happy reading.
A new lease
What a day! What a day! What a day!
I'm sitting here listening to the soundtrack from the film Gravity while laying out my business goals for the remainder of 2021 - and eating stunningly scrumptious Banana Pudding ice cream by Bluebell. I'm realizing a few things: 1/ I have to pretend that tub of ice cream isn't really in the freezer, or I'll eat this stuff until I'm sick. 2/ Gravity was a tense, taut, and efficiently made sci-fi flick that I really need to see again. 3/ I haven't written a blog in three months. Again. Ugh.
Don't know what it is about me and blogs. I mean, I'm a writer. It's all about the written word for me. Yet I find myself dropping onto this page about every quarter.
Well, that's going to change. Has to. Why? Simple. I'm retired from teaching - and THIS is my business now. No, not blogging. It's full-on, balls-to-the-wall, storytelling until I'm dead or insane. It's a heck of a feeling.
Among other things, it means I need to have more fun with this blog. Therefore, I intend to show up here at least once a month. (That would be a sizable improvement.) There's much I can say. But what would you like to see? Feel free to add a comment here or send me a message through my Contact form.
Until next time: Check out Bluebell ice cream, if it's in your neck of the woods.
The art of the rebranding
Jeesh! I have been slacking off. Four months since my last blog. OK, so I'm embarrassed.
Look, it's not like I haven't been busy. Between starting up a new series, converting the old series into a box set, and working toward developing a brand for myself, this writing business can be quite a time-consuming gig. And then there's the matter of having my artist re-do all my Impossible Future covers because ... well ... book buyers are fickle. So am I.
I think 2021 has enormous possibilities (especially once we've crossed the biggest hurdles to ending this pandemic), and I want to position myself for new opportunities. Who wouldn't? Writing is insanely fun, but it's also one of the most difficult things a person can do - assuming you plan on doing it right.
The new series, Beyond the Impossible, should launch later in the spring. It's a nine-book series (well, I hope I can contain the whole story there). The cover for Book One is done, and I want a seamless look across multiple series. This "want" requires money. My artist is very happy with me. I've put about $1400 in her bank account the past couple of months. Fortunately, the federal government is handing me $1400 of stimulus, so I'll think of it as a refund. I also know I won't be so lucky again.
In the meantime, I have a new logo I'll be using as often as I can. I like it: Simple but dynamic. I hope you agree.
Until next time (I'm going to shoot for May at the latest), here's to everybody as we collectively rebrand for a post-pandemic world.