So…

The world is a scary place. In the last week, I’ve read two accounts of bat-shit crazy authors going after reviewers. In both cases, privacy was violated by writers who physically pursued their readers. Because I’ve had the misfortune to receive hate mail, threats (both physical and legal), and four separate visitors directed here from “Jen Warren … Address,” searches, I have to take these things kind of seriously – which is why I’ve made some changes to The Veritable Fount.

The For Reference category, for example, no longer exists in any form. If I ever rejected your book, the evidence is gone. I don’t like backing down from a fight, but every time someone excuses the actions of psychos by citing the terrible behavior of readers, I feel a little more uneasy about what I’ve tried to do here.

Let me explain…

With these events, there has been much discussion, and I’m seeing a lot of comments like, “That author was way out of line. That review would piss anyone off, but the author shouldn’t have stabbed them.” So, if readers weren’t such assholes, then authors wouldn’t be propelled into violence? That’s what that comment says to me.

Many of the people sending this message out would deny it, when accused. They aren’t saying it was okay. They’re just noting that it was that super mean review that made the author hire a PI to track them down. They’re just giving us the back story. That’s all.

Look, there is no excuse for this behavior. No one deserves to be stalked and harassed. No “history” between any two people justifies violence. Unfortunately, I don’t see a lot of solutions toward preventing it The internet is a very public place. I learned over the weekend just how easy it is to physically locate someone, and my honesty on this blog – my opinions and suggestions – make me a target.

I’m not comfortable with that, given the current climate of victim-blaming. I doubt many others are, either. A great number of reviewers write reviews for their friends, because they enjoy it, because they want to share discussions on books they love, and a great review can begin a great conversation.

For the authors out there publicly reacting to the events of the last week, I’d like to offer you a suggestion: don’t even mention the victim’s review. Just as a woman’s outfit does not justify rape, a reader’s words do not justify stalking. Your audience – your customers, fans, readers – are watching. We want to protect ourselves from similar attacks. If you sympathize with a criminal, or even vaguely insinuate that a victim “started it,”  you will forever go on our DO NOT READ lists.

Talk About Timing…

So, yesterday I published a post all about how I had a hard time biting my tongue and leaving alone the review of a rather excellent book that was (IMHO) unfairly criticized by another reader. Today, I discovered the story of Kathleen Hale…trad-pubbed writer who went nuts after a bad review. I’m so tempted to remove my previous post, but I won’t for the following reason:

I never said it was right to respond to a negative review. In fact, I chastised myself for even wanting to. Readers can be jerks, yes, but we are entitled to our opinions. No one – not author or reader – should attack us for it. They sure as hell shouldn’t stalk us for it. If I write a review of The Long Walk citing “too much sex,” or “too many female characters,” that makes me an idiot. It doesn’t give Stephen King the right to track down my address and show up at my door.

There are reasons I don’t FB or Tweet or visit any social network site aside from Goodreads. I want a little distance from the psychos out there. I want to be able to talk about books, and authors, and characters without fear. Standard concerns involve indie authors, assumed to be running wild, ready to attack any reader for less than 5 stars, but Ms. Hale is not in indie. She’s a traditionally published author someone should have hired a keeper for.

Sound harsh? This woman STALKED a reader both online and IN PERSON. She showed up at the front door of her house!Any sympathy I had for this writer (and I DID sympathize with her, at first) was completely gone the moment I read that. I stopped caring about the reader’s questionable behavior. The only thing that mattered was the image I can’t get out of my head of every author I’ve ever given a negative review to peeking in through my windows.

Liars will lie, and bullies will bully. It isn’t fair, and it sucks. I won’t argue that wrongs were committed on both sides. They were. But only one of these people took an ugly fight from the internet to the streets…and that’s what Ms. Hale will be remembered for.

Okay, Authors, I Get It…

I write a lot about professionalism in regards to author behavior. I’ve always thought that any person putting themselves into the spotlight needed a thick skin. It was their duty to rise above, to hold their tongues, to maintain an air of unflappability. Too many authors are much too quick to upbraid a reader, or castigate a reviewer, over issues like “not appreciating the story,” or “nitpicking.” Although I’m not going to tell you how obnoxious those criticisms are (again), nor will I encourage bad behavior among authors, I wanted to share a recent experience of mine that opened my eyes, and finally made me understand why so many of you have a hard time keeping silent.

I follow the blogs of over a dozen authors I love. For the most part, they have little to say in regards to their work. Their posts cover everything else: food, travel, humor, celebrities, movies, etc. One of them, however, wrote last week about negative reviews. (I’d link to her blog here, but she has since removed the post.) Basically, she said that she never had a problem with critical feedback, unless it was inaccurate – and that was almost impossible to ignore.

Honestly, I thought she was being too sensitive. What does it matter, what one person says? It’s ONE opinion. Let it go! Then I did a little digging, and began to understand. This author – let’s call her Mathilda – published a stand alone romance two years ago. I read it about six months ago, which is why I could testify to the fact that it was professionally edited and formatted with a solid plot, and engaging characters. I’m a picky reader, but found no fault with her product. Someone else did, though, and I was curious to know what stylistic issue they’d had – because they couldn’t possibly have had technical criticism…

But they did.

Mathilda’s reviewer cited concerns with language, a nonexistent problem from a reader who clearly didn’t grasp the differences between European and American English. He vaguely mentioned punctuation issues I’m still convinced aren’t there, then finished with a critique of “cringe-worthy eroticism” in a novel that didn’t contain even one sex scene. Reading this review, I found myself scratching my head, frowning, and muttering WTF? at my computer screen.

Had he somehow gotten a really crappy version of a book I adored? Mathilda assured me that he hadn’t. In the years since she’s published, she has never updated her files. Could he have simply reviewed the wrong book? No, he had too many character’s names right, and a passage he quoted for incorrect spelling was taken right from the book. I was left to assume that this person was perhaps on drugs. Or drunk. Or both. In my typically ambivalent fashion, I told Mathilda to let it go. One idiot’s opinion didn’t matter.

Except, of course, that his review generated nine comments along the lines of, “Thanks for the warning,” and “You just saved me five bucks.” Those comments kind of, um, pissed me off. So much so that I was replying to them myself before I even realized that I was potentially worsening the situation. What do I always tell authors? “DO NOT respond to a negative review. DO NOT encourage your readers to attack a reviewer. Readers will ALWAYS assume YOU are behind it.” I was trapped by my own logic.

Mathilda, validated by my outrage, thanked me for wanting to defend her but asked that I leave the situation alone. This was far more difficult than I’d anticipated. Someone was LYING! They were scaring readers away based on inaccurate information! They were, I’m beginning to suspect, a person with an axe to grin. Even so, my attack would help no one. The whole situation was, of course, bullshit…but there’s no way I could criticize the reviewer without causing further damage. Settling for a simple comment that has since been ignored about Britishisms, I walked away…and started drafting this post.

Writers can be the most arrogant, ignorant people on Earth – but so can readers. For every crappy, unreadable book on Amazon, there’s a review utterly devoid of facts. I wish I had the solution, that I could come up with the answers to both problems. Unfortunately, I don’t. All I can do is sympathize with your plight, and offer my own honest reviews to encourage the consumption of the good, and provide a warning for the bad. It’s all any of us can do. If the masses are honest, perhaps our truths will lead the way.

Enough With The Series Books Already!!!

It’s been a while since I received any death threats, so I thought I’d go ahead and stir the pot today with a rant on the ever-increasing popularity of publishing a series of books. Everybody excited? Fantastic!

First, I’d like to say that there is nothing generally wrong with a three, five, or even eleven book series. Many have been done over the years by many a talented author. Hell, I’m passionately involved in an ongoing pentalogy (possibly made up word for a five book series) right now. HOWEVER…not every story deserves multiple installments.

Excellent case in point: the Jessica Darling series by Megan McAfferty (not a SPA). The first book was great. Ended in a cliffhanger, which I forgave because I could immediately get my hands on the second. That one was good, too. I got my happy ending (and a lot of crap I didn’t see the need for), but I couldn’t help thinking the two books could have been condensed into one stand-alone. Still, I read the third…and the fourth…and the fifth. By the end of the series, I wondered if there was truth to the accusation that writing a series is just a way for authors to make more money.

If we’re being honest, most of us will accept that this is at least sometimes the case. Not always, of course, but sometimes. Take a look at the Goodreads forums. Far, far too many books being advertised are the first, or the second, part of a series. Can they all be worthy of epic saga length? I don’t think so.

After my experience with McAfferty’s work, I was left with a somewhat cynical outlook. The constant arrival of new series from every unknown in the free world doesn’t help. I saw one advertised the other day in which there was absolutely no conflict in the blurb for the first book. You read that right. No conflict. How in the hell do you write one hundred thousand words without some kind of conflict? How do you write five or six hundred thousand words without conflict? I don’t know. I don’t even want to know.

If you’re writing a series, or planning to write a series, please ask yourself the following questions:

1. Can your character’s struggle be overcome by a single solution? A single act? Are the obstacles you’ve put in place necessary or merely convenient?

2. Is there enough small conflict (tied to the main conflict) for multiple books?

3. While writing, are you searching for “filler” scenes?

4. Are you relying on big misunderstandings to heighten the tension or lengthen a book?

5. Would your story work without any of your scenes? (This is important. If the work could stand without them, they shouldn’t be there.)

6. Does each book further the plot in a significant, necessary way?

7. Why do you WANT to write a series? Because there is absolutely no way to condense it into a single novel, or because you CAN fill enough pages for several books?

Think about your answers. Not everyone has an epic inside them. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. Stretching a simple story into a seven hundred thousand word series, however, is a terrible thing.

Writing A Good Book

Every writer wants to leave a lasting impression. They want to create unforgettable characters, extraordinary worlds, with a storyline that drags the reader in and never lets go. They want, above all, to write a good book. The question is: what makes a book “good?” Every reader has their own preferences. What appeals to one will not appeal to all. The most important thing for any writer to consider is their target audience. Whether you’ve written an elegant work of literary fiction, or the hottest romance to hit the shelves since Fifty Shades, your readership should play an important role in the decisions you make when finishing and promoting your work. That said, there are – I believe – some basic elements that can help any novel achieve a measure of greatness.

  1. Cover. You knew this was coming, didn’t you? Yes, the all-important cover can make or break the potential of any story. If it looks thrown together by an amateur, readers WILL be afraid to open it up. A bad cover inspires no confidence in the quality of the work inside. Take a look at the covers of other books in your genre. What’s appealing to you? What’s cheesy? Writers should be the most avid of readers. Pay attention to the details that get your attention – namely color scheme, font, and image.
  2. Formatting. Some will argue that properly justified paragraphs, appropriate font selection, suitable line spacing, and traditional header/footer placement isn’t important – and it isn’t, for everyone. But can anyone honestly say that taking the time to perfect the look of your interior would harm an initial impression? The answer here is, “No!” Taking chances with your subject material, characters, and plot is fine. Taking chances with formatting robs you of readers who expect a book to look like a book – both inside and out. Professionalism is key.
  3. Dialogue. I’ve never considered any novel for keeper status if the dialogue wasn’t legit. Your characters are best understood through their actions, and the words that come out of their mouths. If they don’t sound like people, I can’t relate to them – and I need to relate to them. You might have the most exciting premise ever, but it’s the human element you add to your story that makes your readers care enough to keep turning the pages.
  4. Originality. This is terribly, terribly important. Your book should be your own unique creation. Don’t borrow another writer’s sense of humor to tap into their fan base. Don’t recycle an overused plot without reinventing the story. Don’t rely on stereotypes if you can’t find a way to individualize the character. If readers wanted the same story over and over again, we’d never purchase another book. We buy because we’re hoping for something NEW to captivate us!
  5. Voice. From those first few lines to the last page, we want to appreciate the individual tone of your work. We want your sense of humor, and your wit. Don’t get hung up on fifty-cent words and elegant phrasing. I’ve met writers who are charming, intelligent, and hilarious in real life, but somehow left all that out of their books. When that happens, I don’t buy them. I might subscribe to their blog, or follow their Twitter feed, but I’m not going to invest money in their product. On the other hand, when I feel a connection with the author – a real appreciation for their voice – I am extremely loyal. I’ll keep track of you, always on the lookout for new titles. I’ll tell my friends, and preorder your books, and fangirl all over the place.

Bottom line is this: readers want to read. More than that, we want to love the book. Don’t hide your story behind a sloppy cover. Don’t disguise it with poor formatting. The story itself is the most important aspect, but if we can’t find it – if you’ve made it too hard to recognize – you’re unnecessarily depriving us of our next great read.

(Originally written for IndieBrag)

So You Want To Be An Author?

I’ve got some hard truths for you. First, fifty thousand random words saved to a file on your computer does not equal a book. Second, selling this eclectic collection of nouns, verbs, and adjectives on Amazon does not make you an author. Got a problem with that? Stop reading this article right now.

There’s a real difference between “writing,” and being an author. The first is nothing more than putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). The second is a title, at least to me. It means something more, and carries with it expectations regarding behavior, work, quality. If you want to attach the “author” tag to your name, you should think about what’s expected – and what professionalism means.

For your reference (because I know how much you all love my lists):

1. Authors do not automatically deserve sales or reviews just because they hit the publish button. If I decided to sell a compilation of drunken emails that I’ve written over the years, are you obligated to buy, review, and promote them for me? Uh – NO!

2. Authors do not expect freebies. Yes, there are times when a new artist or editor is willing to give their services away for little or nothing, and that’s awesome – but it’s not the norm, so it sure shouldn’t be expected. Writers want their books sold, for cash, because they’ve worked hard for (I’m assuming) a long time. Is your work worth so much more than a cover artist’s? What about the editor who spends thirty hours cleaning up your manuscript?

3. Authors are the bottom line of the work – and real authors don’t offer excuses for poor quality. They apologize to the person who shelled out five bucks (or whatever) and fix it. They don’t expect that reader to take on an unpaid editing job to “help them out.” Sorry, but that’s BS.

4. Authors are businessmen and women. They do not have public tantrums over criticism. They do not write blog posts about mean readers. They do not stalk customers. Seriously. Much as I love Stephen King, I’d have a real problem with him following me all over the internet.

5. Authors have thick skin. They are not defensive and argumentative. They accept that not everyone will love their book, and they are okay with that – because no one reader is the end of the road. We don’t have the power to unpublish your book, and our opinion will not bring about the end of the world.

If you are right now glaring at your computer screen, thinking about all the reasons I’m wrong, you are not an author. You are a person who writes things, and still has much to learn.

Excuses, Excuses…

I’ve spent a whole lot of time in the past year reading, reviewing, editing, and beta reading for authors. Though much of this has been pleasant, I regularly run into non-professional writers. You know the type – those who stop by your blog/site/group just long enough to skim the contact information for an address and shoot off a review request. They’re typically the ones who don’t follow directions, dictate terms, and blow up if the final evaluation isn’t favorable.

After a while, you get used to this behavior. I’m not saying you accept it, but you stop being surprised when it happens. You can almost tell from the query alone if the author is really looking for honest feedback, or merely in search of blind praise. The former will thank you for pointing out technical issues they missed, while the latter will offer one of a dozen excuses as to why your nit-picking is either inappropriate or mean.

Just this morning, I heard back from a writer I’d beta read for a couple weeks ago. Normally, I won’t take on a new author unless I’ve already fallen in love with their work. Beta reading is hard. I might be able to polish off a novel in five hours, but if I’m reading it for evaluation purposes, to provide feedback, that time can easily double – if not triple. Why devote that much energy to a project I’m not at all invested in? In this case, it was because the premise was just so damned good I was chomping at the bit to read it.

You probably already suspect the outcome here, don’t you? Well, let me confirm: this did not go well. The concept I so loved fell apart before the first half was over, defaulting to a literary mess of stereotypes, clichés, and a complete and total lack of editing. Because I still felt the story could be salvaged, I got out my red pen and spent nearly fifteen hours cleaning it up. What was my thanks? A one page letter full of accusations, insults, and excuses.

I took the insults in stride (sticks and stones and all that), and rolled my eyes over the absurd accusations (some were actually kind of funny), but the excuses were too much for me. Why? Because I’ve heard them all before – countless times, in countless situations – and I’m beginning to suspect some people truly believe they excuse a lack of quality.

For your reference, I’ve compiled a list of common excuses that will never justify substandard work.

  1. “I hired an editor!” That was a good move. Unfortunately, you got ripped off. I’m sorry, but the reader doesn’t care how much you spent on a proofread. We care about the final product that we paid for.
  2. “My twenty beta readers said it was perfect!” Well, if your goal is to only please those twenty people, congratulations. Some of us are more discerning.
  3. “This is how I want it to look.” I’m glad your book is up to your standards. That’s important. If you want to sell it to other people, though, you might want to follow standard, established formatting for novels.
  4. “I can’t afford a good cover artist.” Then buy a premade cover for $30. Some of them are surprisingly good. Don’t want to do that? Then don’t put your book up for sale on Amazon. If you’re unwilling to invest in your product, it’s unfair to expect readers to.
  5. “It’s the best I could do.” Few writers can produce quality on their own. You need editors, betas, proofreaders, cover artists, etc. You need help. Find it, use it, and your best is suddenly one hell of a lot better.