The Pros Know

I just listened to the audiobook Million Dollar Professionalism for the Writer Million-Dollar-Pro500
by Kevin J. Anderson and Rebecca Moesta. Again. And I’m feeling an urge to reach out to all the new, new-ish, and aspiring writers I know. I want to tell them to pick this book up, and read or listen. And then do it again.

The first time through, I was occupied with things such as driving, not burning dinner, you know the drill. The second time I listened? I took notes.

Moesta (author, editor, and publisher) and Anderson (author of over 50 bestsellers) give straight talk about the real world of writing professionally. The book is liberally sprinkled with anecdotes, generally personal stories from the authors, often painfully at their own expense. They demonstrate how things can go terribly wrong in writing, in publishing, in personal interactions with others in your profession. And they advise how to avoid these hazards yourself. Topics range from personal presentation to making connections in the publishing world, how to handle professional and fan interactions, talent versus persistence, and other potential assets or pitfalls to the newcomer.

While Anderson and Moesta state that this information is largely the material assembled for a course they’ve taught repeatedly, it doesn’t come across as a classroom presentation. In fact, it reminds me of nothing so much as an involved conversation with respected industry pros: colleagues sharing stories over dinner, lingering over desert, swapping tales and giving advice to the newcomers.

Narrator Charles Kahlenberg’s avuncular reading furthers this feeling, making the book easy to listen to and absorb. Disclaimer: I received a review copy of this audiobook. But nobody made me stop halfway through the first listen and send Wordfire Press and Kevin J. Anderson a congratulatory note on their choice of narrators. Kahlenberg’s reading is expressive, conversational even. Yet it doesn’t detract from the important material the book is sharing.

I was impressed by the subtle positive messages of encouragement the authors included. There’s a danger when seasoned pros give “advice.” I know, I’ve fallen prey in the past to glib warnings, pronouncements of criteria for success. Pronouncements that made possibilities seem so unattainable that they were discouraging, rather than helpful. But Anderson and Moesta don’t do that. Instead, there is an assumption that OF COURSE you’re a writer. Of course you belong at the table with them, listening to the stories. Here’s what you do when the opportunities become available, when the anthology calls, when the publisher says yes. When you’re a guest at the convention. And at the award ceremony.

This implied success is contagious! And it’s attributed where it belongs: to the writer being professional, to getting the work done, to loving their job but respecting it too.

Million Dollar Professionalism for the Writer: highly recommended for the new, new-ish, or aspiring writer, or other creative professional who might be looking to jumpstart their career. To read now, and revisit.

 

 

Foz Meadows Sees Your Tropes and Uses Them for Silage

IMG_6889I was reading this book during the aftermath of a horrific mass murder in our local high school. This quote is really sticking with me: Apathy breeds more evils than defeat. So, you know, keep fighting. I kind of want it on a t-shirt. Thanks, Foz, for helping me get through this rough time. 

Spoiler warning: I usually try to avoid spoilers in my reader responses. I can’t really do that here; this book is too complex and so you’re fairly warned.

I present for your consideration An Accident of Stars, Book I of the Manifold Worlds, the ambitious portal fantasy by Foz Meadows. (Note 1) I say ambitious because it’s almost as though Foz sat down with a LIST OF PORTAL FANTASY TROPES, and went down the list intentionally reversing or dismantling each one. (My Foz quotes here are not actual quotes. It’s my imagination of her process, every time I’d see her turning some other expectation on its head.) Here’s a few:

  • Protagonist from “real” world is a Chosen One in the new world. Special gifts or powers. I can imagine Foz: “Ohellnoez. Normal girl.”
  • Protagonist is an orphan. Foz: “Nope. Nice family. Supportive. Conveniently offstage, but everybody’s alive and caring.”
  • Protagonist has Special Problems. Foz: “Nope. Sexual harassment at school, all the girls face it, and some (implied) have it worse.”
  • Adults Don’t Understand/Won’t/Can’t Intervene…well, okay, that trope sticks around but it feels like it’s making a point that Yes This Is What The Real World Is Like for Teens; especially resonant with the #metoo movement.
  • We follow the Protagonist through their journey to the other world, experience the world with them, then follow them home. Foz: “Y’know, let’s have another viewpoint right away, before we even get through the portal. And then, a bunch more. But we’ll actually let the main character change and grow, instead of just being a boring narrator placeholding for the reader.”
  • Guys have a bunch of adventures. Foz: Let’s have most of the major characters be females. Even the nominal villain, let’s have the real interesting one be his wife. Let’s see her more often, too. And…the warriors are women. And the religious leaders. And the guys are kind of sidelined, and it’s really not fair, let’s make that really visible! (To be fair, the male characters are also interesting, and the older one has some nuance. The younger one is less developed. But there’s only so much you can do in the space of one novel.)

 

(I can practically smell the burning rage coming from some folks who are still jammed up into the idea of ButFictionHasToLookTheWayIExpectItTo.)

It goes on and on. Instead of a love triangle or epic hetero romance, there are complex relationships: friendships, polyamory, parent/child, complex families, siblings, subject/ruler, worshiper/priestess, etc. We see trans representation, aromantic representation, genderqueer, bi…a whole rainbow of gender and sexual orientation. BUT unlike a number of fantasy novels I’ve read recently, these relationships aren’t painted in graphic detail. This keeps things more YA friendly (and, honestly, a number of my older friends have told me they’re a bit overwhelmed with the volume of sex in some recent fantasy novels, so I’m happy to point them here.)

I really admire the way Foz tackles Big Social Issues around gender, race, identity, religion, sexuality head on. Representation is so vital! And Foz dives in head first, into the deep end. Let’s be very clear: this is a book I don’t think I’d have had the nerve to tackle writing. At least, not without having seen Foz do it first. And maybe not even then, because parts of it are so honest. There’s a vulnerability in that, and some writers just aren’t comfortable opening themselves that way. I am blown away by this author’s determination to Not Shy Away From Hard Subjects.

Sometimes it feels as there may be too many issues being grappled with here to fit easily within the structure of one story. As a result, we get more exposition chunks than we might otherwise; that can pull the reader out of the story flow. The framework is solid: newcomer has to learn the new ways. But there’s so much complexity, so much to fit within that framework, that it feels a little forced sometimes. This wouldn’t keep me from recommending the book, though…(cue moment of personal reflection)… Sometimes exposition feels weighty because we’re being exposed to something outside our usual understanding. For example, I’ve never been in a polyamorous relationship; this may have made the explanations for the complex marriage customs seem longer to me than they actually were. (Note 2) (If my TBR pile weren’t so big, I’d re-read, with my self-evaluation glasses on.)

Back to the book. I like the magic systems, with their built-in flaws that keep things interesting. The world is complex, with some well-developed scenes that made me feel that I was really seeing the place the characters were experiencing. The plot is intricate and as tightly interwoven as the braids that are a recurring image in the novel. The characters are diverse, multi-dimensional, well thought out with their own motivations and goals.

Between themes, characters, worldbuilding, and plot … I wonder if An Accident of Stars might have been better served by being TWO books. Each of these areas left me wanting a bit more development. I wanted to see more of the characters, more of their worlds, have a bit more space to breathe around the social questions. But I understand that pacing is important, so I’m going to trust that Foz and her editors made these choices for reasons. (And leaving them wanting more is not generally seen as a bad thing.)

I’ll definitely be picking up Book Two. This was a really solid, ambitious work for a first novel. Congratulations to Foz for a trope-bashing extravaganza! And, hey Foz? You know…keep fighting.

(Note 3)

 

(Note 1) Foz and her husband came to my attention recently due to egregious and unfounded attacks by some hacks with more time than skill, in writing OR online detective work. I pulled this book to the top of my TBR pile as a gesture of solidarity. Because it’s not a good idea to let the malicious voices be the dominant ones in a conversation just because they’re loud and annoying.

(Note 2) It’s a good thing to read books that represent people who don’t look, act, love, believe just as you do. It strengthens our understanding, increases our ability to identify with other humans. It makes us better people. And if it makes us uncomfortable? Well, sometimes we need to be uncomfortable.

(Note 3) I read an early print version of this book. I understand that later versions have had the formatting errors corrected. 

Fragment

image

Tea and a Tale on a Tuesday: Fragment by Craig Russell

Bertie (R.A.) MacAvoy sent me a book to read, without telling me much of anything about it, or why I should read it.

But I trust her. So I read it: Fragment, by Canadian writer Craig Russell.

Well, I meant to read just a chapter or two. But I ended up reading the whole thing, compulsively. It’s a slender volume. The story, however, is a big one.

Sometimes what’s scary about a thriller is its plausibility. One of the things speculative fiction writers do best is tell the truth sideways.  And there’s a lot of truth here. Craig Russell’s near future ecological and political world are a little too easy to imagine as reality. It was a compelling, but uncomfortable read: I found myself reading faster as the story progressed, hoping there might be some way to avert disaster. Maybe something in the way of hope, that might be carried past the pages of the book and into the outer world. The hubris and political manipulation in Fragment: yes, there are real-world analogs. Seeing the potential outcome as spelled out in this novel? Dread inducing. But I couldn’t look away.

As a key part of the novel, Russell has created  a particularly compelling, and unexpected, major character. No spoilers here … but I’d have liked to see the book return to this character’s unique viewpoint more often.

This book would make a challenging summer movie. It might be difficult to get made in the current political situation. But there are some important messages here. And the visuals would be mesmerizing.

Creeptastic

image

Original artwork copyright Nancy Palmer. Pentel pocket brush pen and crayon.

CREEPTASTIC: Sleazy comes in many different guises

Way back when I was a struggling car-less teen college student, living on half a can of condensed soup per day, trying to figure out how to get a job in a commuter city with lousy public transportation, one of my Dad’s friends offered to give me a car … if I’d go to bed with him.

When I refused, he got very angry. I’d had no reason to suspect the man of malice before, and I’d opened my apartment door to him as though he were an old friend (which I did consider him at the time). We were in my apartment with the door closed; nobody was around who could have seen if his yelling and rage-filled gesticulations had turned to physical violence. He did eventually depart, leaving a much less trusting girl behind him. I had no idea if he would come back, and what he might try the next time.

 

Looking back, what angers me most about this encounter isn’t someone trying to make a transaction of sex. People do that, and I’m not judging. It’s that he tried to prey on a person in a very vulnerable life situation, and manipulate her into an illegal action that he knew wasn’t in line with her values, and that would have made her horribly vulnerable in many different ways.

 

I’m very much older and in a place of much greater power now, internally and in the eyes of the world. The memory of that creeptastic day doesn’t come to mind often. It did today, though. I happen to be in the slow, challenging process of promoting a self-published book. I am in the very fortunate position of not requiring sales to pay my rent, buy food, and so forth. However, I am keenly aware that this isn’t the case for every writer. And those writers are who were on my mind when I read this unsolicited e-mail that showed up in my in-box today. We’ll call the composer “Creeptastic.” Here are some excerpts. I’ve bolded a few of their lines, and my comments are in parentheses and italicized:

 

Hello,

I saw your ebook. From the synopsis it looks like a high quality ebook. ((Well, at least they got this part right)) If you are looking for some real promotion and exposure for your book, I have a few offers for you. My book promotion packages are extremely affordable and can be customized to your book.

Some of the ways I can help you are (ANY one of the following services you purchase will cost you 15 USD, discounts are available if you purchase more than one service at a time; also note that if you want more than what is offered here, remember that discounted upgrades are available for each and every service mentioned; SPECIAL OFFER: Buy (a), (b) (c), (d), (e) (f) and (h) for just 85 USD instead of 105 USD!):

a) I can post 1 honest, detailed, insightful and helpful review on your book. This review will highlight all the positive aspects of your book and enlighten your future readers regarding the real essence and worth of your book. The book review is written by an avid book reader and Native English speaker so you can be assured of quality. NOTE: You are NOT paying me for the review but for the amount of time I am investing in reading your book. (This is what first triggered the memory from my college years. Prostitution was illegal in that time and place, oh, but the guy wasn’t offering me money for sex. He was offering me an exchange of gifts. Wink, nudge, but news reports at the time suggested the law didn’t agree with his interpretation.) The rating may range from 3-5 stars. I don’t post negative reviews. For 49 USD, I can also write an editorial review for you.

Okay. So already, new writers may be feeling uneasiness. Creeptastic has anticipated this uneasiness by providing a loophole of sorts, in an attempt to get around the FTC’s rule against paying for reviews. You’re not supposed to be able to even receive a free copy of the book for review without disclosing the exchange. I sincerely doubt this specious argument would hold up in court.

 

I can promote your book on social media sites (Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Reddit, etc). You get 100% targeted traffic from book readers located in English speaking countries.

(So this is an actual legitimate service. Although I have absolutely zero faith in the quality of this promotion, given the rest of Creeptastic’s offerings.)

c) I can promote your book on 10 high quality websites EXCLUSIVELY devoted to promoting free kindle books – on Kindle free days. I can also promote your book if it is on Kindle countdown promotion (please note that it is up to each site’s owner to decide whether to list your book or not. If your book listing is approved, it will be shown ONLY during the promotion period). In addition, I can also offer you GUARANTEED free Kindle ebook downloads or book purchases (in other words, you can ask me to buy/download your ebook for as many times as you want, for a nominal fee). This in turn can boost your Amazon rankings even further! (This gaming of the system has actually worked on a large scale on a nationally known publication, by pumping sales one week. Books were returned the following week, and the book plummeted off the sales lists, but the author is now able to tout their “best-selling book” to promote their consultation and speaking business.)

d) I offer a review ‘up-voting’ and ‘down-voting’ service. For existing reviews on Amazon, you can ask for a maximum of 30 up-votes or 30 down-votes, or a combination of up-votes and down-votes which doesn’t exceed 30. This is quite helpful if there are some positive reviews you want to be up-voted, or some negative reviews you want to be down-voted. For an extra 15 USD, I can also defend your negative reviews on Amazon by posting upto 3 comments on them (you need to provide me with the comments).

(This kind of thing is why Amazon reviews are losing credibility.)

e) I can add 30 likes to your positive reviews on Goodreads. All likes come from unique accounts and multiple IPs.

(This is the most blatant admission of this I’ve ever seen. It’s a violation of Goodreads user policy; if reported, the “reviewers” will be banned. But it’s hard to stop this, because they just switch IPs.)

 

I removed a couple more of their services for brevity.

h) My BESTSELLER SO FAR: I will rate your book with as many stars you want on Goodreads, post 1 honest review, mark your book as ‘read’, become your fan and add your book to the listopia list of your choice.

 

(Some of the mysterious popularity of certain authors and titles on Goodreads and Amazon has now become much more clear to me.)

 

 

Email me at ((redacted by Nancy)) if you are interested. SERIOUS buyers only, please. I am too busy to respond to tire kickers  ((This is a common ploy of shady salespersons; they try to make you feel committed and that you’re in debt to the Creeptastic person for taking up their time,  so you’ll be less likely to decline a transaction…and labelling yourself a “tire kicker” or other perjorative.))

 ***end of excerpt***

I find this whole thing infuriating, for multiple reasons. Primarily because it makes an already difficult job harder, it subverts the intention of honest reviews, it exploits vulnerable writers, and it attempts to scam readers.

 

Publishing a book, and promoting it yourself, are incredibly time-consuming. It can be frustrating. There are so many new books released every year, and getting yours to stand out from the crowd is a challenge. Time spent promoting the book takes away from time you’d rather spend writing. I know this very well, because the same is also true for the current model of artist-as-entrepreneur, musician-as-entrepreneur, and so on. Creative professionals would rather be creating, in general. Most of us are also uncomfortable self-promoting. And there are social conventions to follow, too: you’re supposed to self-promote, but at the same time over-promotion is both tacky and annoying. There are procedures that work to get your book known. Approaching bloggers, establishing a social media presence, reaching out to book groups, are all touted as means to spread the word of your creative work. Even writing a good book, so that people who read it are genuinely moved to create a review, is cited as a technique… but that too is easier said than done. The hard truth of self-publishing is that most writers are fortunate to sell copies numbering even into the three digits. It’s not an easy task.

 

Circumventing these paths to word-of-mouth exposure by buying false reports devalues the reviews a writer works so hard to gather. A casual reader looking for the next great story won’t necessarily be able to differentiate between a well-considered, thoughtful reading over a period of hours that results in a 4-star rating, and a different 4-star rating given to a poorly-written book that someone paid $15 to promote. How are readers supposed to trust recommendations if so many of them are marketing tools? A professional paid review service has its place, providing insight to people such as the librarians with limited budgets, space, and time, who must sort through all these kajillion books to choose purchases for their libraries. The commercial nature of those reviews is disclosed. But Creeptastic is offering something different: a deliberate intent to pretend to be uninvolved readers.

 

Writers without the patience and, frankly, privilege of being able to wait for word-of-mouth to spread could easily be taken in by offers like Creeptastic’s. If it wasn’t okay, they couldn’t offer it, right? Maybe this is how it’s done? It’s just a kind of advertisement, right? After all, this type of manipulation has sometimes been very successful in the past. And there is, after all, the rent to pay. Children and cats to be fed. My book’s wonderful; I know people would love it if I could just get them to read it… However, if this gaming of the system comes to light, the author may suffer serious consequences. The service vendor? Not so much, as they can just switch IP’s and websites and start again. The author’s name and reputation, however, may be tarnished beyond repair.

 

I’m also angered at how these ploys target the readers. I think people who buy books deserve to be respected. While perfectly lovely books may go unnoticed without promotion, and that is not optimal, purchased ratings are a blow against consumer confidence. It’s not right to mislead people into buying your product, regardless of whether that produce is a washing machine or the novel you’ve spent the last three years producing. There’s a difference between a promotion, such as giving away free books, and a scam, which includes such things as lying and saying that everyone adored those free books. Readers shouldn’t be cheated. Their money and, more importantly, precious time are being invested in your creation. Maybe they’ll like your book. Maybe they won’t. But I don’t believe that setting up a scam to take them in is the best way to build an audience.

 

There’s a darker side to this, too, and I’m surprised that fewer people haven’t harkened to it yet. When I read this e-mail to my husband (he of Italian descent), and told him that I thought that the next logical step was extortion, he agreed.

 

“It sounds like the Book Mafia,” he said. “Pay protection money so you don’t get bad reviews.” Or perhaps, I speculate, pay protection money so we won’t tell the FTC that you paid for the good reviews.

 

And then I wondered if this might not, in fact, be already in place, and we’re not hearing about it because people are paying? It’s not hard to imagine.

 

In any case, to bring this back to some humor, I did visit Creeptastic’s website. It has a tab for “Testimonials”. How funny, I thought, that someone offering to sell reviews would expect someone to trust a review left on their website? Do they not see the absurdity?

 

The funnier thing was that when I clicked on the Testimonials tab? There were no reviews. “Coming Soon.” Wow. You’re trying to sell false reviews … and you can’t even provide them for yourself? That says a lot about your product. Rather reminds me of the guy at the beginning of the story, with the car, telling me I should compromise myself so I could survive, telling me what a mistake I was making by turning him down, and refusing his car. “All it needs,” he said, as I locked the door behind him, “is a motor…”