Don’t Call it a Comeback

Or do, if you wish. Either way, I’m happy to be back and among the productive. To tell the story of the last three years of my life would be a lesson in tedium, anxiety, and stress – the kind of caustic stuff that melts the creative impulse. I’m still not fully back on my feet, owing to a move to a new city and a new office, but almost as soon as we set foot on Missouri soil, the juices started flowing again. Memories flooded back; I remember what it felt like to create, to let my fingers dance over the keys and channel the words like some shaman. How nice it was to tap into the creative force underlying the universe, or whatever you want to call it.

In short, the last few years have sucked. We underwent what seemed to be a layoff (only to get my job back at the last moment), not one but two mergers, and an extended period of unease and uncertainty regarding relocation. Our – and I very much include my loving wife in this – lives seemed to be suspended in mid-air. At first I was able to write through this, push it aside and keep going, but as I watched friends exit at work and found myself increasingly isolated in an empty building, I had a hard time bringing my focus back to writing at the end of the day. All I wanted to do was go home and shut the world out, whether it be through reading, video games, or other pursuits.

In the end, a combination of factors brought the muse back to me. One, reading through Mark Frost’s A Secret History of Twin Peaks. It contains a lot of the conspiracy lore and mythos-building that drew me to writing my first few novels, and it reminded me of the promise of weaving my own reality within fiction. It also reminded me of the power of magick, and of seizing control of the reins of your life. It didn’t take long to start to feel the pull toward something new, a framework that helped me to put my chaotic thoughts into some semblance of order.

Then came, of course, the move. While he had relocation assistance and support, it’s hard to imagine a more “seize the day” act than packing up the car and moving across half the country to see if it will all work out.

I came to realize that I had become…well, passive is not the right word. We wanted to relocate from the moment either of the two mergers were announced. More that I had resigned myself to hunkering down and letting fate whip me where it would, so long as it ended with us out of the DC area (something that both of us very much wanted). And so I became less an author of my fate than a pawn at the hands of people with much larger agendas. At some point I lost sight of the fact that I had made this choice to wait and hand things over, and became depressed and resigned. That’s when my output dropped. I think I can pinpoint it to March or April of this year, somewhere in there, because there is a steady downward curve in my word count until July, when I barely wrote at all.

Now, though? I’m back, I think. I’m currently five pages short of finishing my “critique” of Came to Believe, at which point I’ll go back and make the suggested changes and try to hammer it out. Given the massive delays (we’re just about at year four of working on this thing and I want it out the door), I’m likely just going to self-publish it, but we’ll see how I feel when I get there. In the meantime, I’m plotting the antithesis of this story, a quick, pulpy horror novel that I think will be a blast to write.

In the meantime, I intend to check in with you guys more often. Thanks to those of you who are still with me. We’ll see where this ride goes next…

The Separation of Ego and Output

Happy Monday, all, if there is such a thing. Just a note that this post is a continuation of some of the thought processes that I’ve been playing out on this site over the past week-and-a-half. A way to mentally clear the gutters, so to speak, and wrap my brain around what I want to change in my career.

Last time I talked about writing versus “the writer” as a shorthand for a cluster of stereotypes. Also something about people clinging to the title as a means of defining themselves as part of a bigger purpose, something or other.

Deeper examination of these writer/person-who-writes issues revealed that they (mostly) stem from difficulties separating in one’s ego from one’s output. In some ways, in the early going, the “writer” or “author” persona created a suit of armor that could be deployed in connection to my work, and not the real me. I didn’t realize I did this because I had previously not thought this to be an issue for me. I come from the wilds of writing in Corporate America, where ego attachment to your work is a good way to find yourself jobless, and for good reason, tech writers need to be responsive and change quickly. It’s not in the job description, but it should be, and those who can’t hack that end up struggling for quite some time before deciding maybe the job isn’t for them. I’ve seen it time and again.

I believed it had toughened me up, and it had to some extent. I handle peer criticism well and am always looking to learn something new.  I won’t lie and say that a bad review here or there didn’t spin me into the pits of despair but that often reflected something that made me unhappy about my own work and insecurities about lessons that still needed to be learned. In the end, it made me a better – and harder – writer. All part of the growing process, or so I thought.

Unfortunately, we’re all familiar with the state of the Internet as a mirror of human nature. Sincere criticism of books can bleed over into attacks on an author’s person, the author retaliates, and the whole thing devolves into a microcosm of the high school environment. I’m referring, of course, to the author/reviewer wars that have been ongoing seemingly since time immemorial. They date back almost to the beginning of the relationship between the two, but it’s hard to deny that today’s flavor of the war has a nastier,  more personal nature  and an ability to hit someone where they live that would be unthinkable in the old confrontations between author and critic.

Even with these lowered barriers between author and critic, my own ego issue did not come down to Goodreads or a bad review . Mine came down to a handful of Internet trolls making personal attacks and acting like the grade-school bullies that they are. I didn’t rise to any of it, in fact, I’m quite sure they have no idea that I even saw their posts. Not that it matters. My ego might have been  toughened for attacks on my work, but I failed to prepare myself for that level of nastiness on a personal level.

This incident, combined with some of the other events that I witnessed and have referenced in previous posts, drove me out of the public eye as I struggled to come to terms with exactly what it means to put yourself out there. I mean, let’s face it, we live in a culture where anyone in the public eye is considered free game as a punching bag for someone else’s insecurities. Right or wrong, that’s how it is, and as much as I might wish that the world would act otherwise, it’s not going to change. At least, not during my lifetime.

All the lessons from Author 101 tell you how to handle the issue: be a professional, ignore it, carry on with what you’re doing. I did this, at least when it comes to writing novels. Put my head down and carried on. I know that well. On an emotional level, however, totally uncharted waters that needed to be processed behind the scenes. It has led to a different approach to public interaction, one that is hopefully wiser and more restrained.

I bring all this up because I feel that the indie publishing world on both sides, reviewer and author, are in a similar place in coming to terms with this dilemma: how to separate the ego from the content? How to co-exist when the old walls between the author and the reader have been demolished? I wish I knew. It would make this public outreach a lot easier. I can’t continue to ignore it, however, and have to get back on the horse if I intend to ride this thing out. We’ll see where it goes from here.

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Indie-Pendence Blog Hop Day 3: Talking about Corridors of the Dead, Room 3, and Indie Publishing

Welcome to Shaggin the Muse’s third entry for the Indie-Pendence Blog Hop Week. Our goal this week is to not only raise awareness of indie authors but also discuss things like the state of our industry, how we got to where we are (no matter what part of the path we might be on), and just what “indie” is, anyway.

But that’s not all! We’re also going to be giving away copies of loads of books for free. I’ve started to take a general stance against gimmicky giveaways – though I know some guest posts recently have featured them. I think that indie authors need to get back to their roots and give away the things that matter most: books. That’s why I was thrilled to learn that we were expected to give away books.

That said, let’s see what you stand to win this week:

-eBooks of the Corridors of the Dead (limit 5)
-eBooks of the Kayson Cycle (limit 5)
-eBooks of the Station (limit 5)
-Advance eBook of Room 3 when it releases (limit 2)
-eBooks of the Newfoundland Vampire (limit 3)
-eBooks of Marie Loughin’s Valknut the Binding (limit 5)

That’s 25 free books ready for folks to win. And all you have to do is comment. Once you’ve commented, you’ll go into the drawing spreadsheet. On Friday, I’ll draw your number from the hat (a random number generator), and notify you of what you’ve won. Your odds are really, really good, and I know the involved authors would love your comments on our posts. I’m hoping this will be fun for everybody and spur some discussion.

My turn to do this thing. If this is your first time visiting the site, I’ve been doing this indie thing since last October, when I self-published my Western Dark Fantasy short The Kayson Cycle as a dry run for November’s release of The Corridors of the Dead, the first book in my Among the Dead trilogy. I also recently published a novelette, The Station, that serves as a bridge between Corridors and its sequel, City of the Dead. I’m also nearing a release date on another novel, Room 3, which is something of a side story set in the same universe. All of these books are available to win this week, but I tell you about so that you understand I’ve been around the block a little bit with indie publishing in the last year.  I thought this would be a great opportunity to discuss some of my experiences and views (like I don’t do that enough already). Here goes…

The Original Idea for Room 3

I had just introduced my then-fiancee to one of my all-time favorite movies, Videodrome, and the whole thing had given me some serious writer envy. What a fascinating concept: a video broadcast that can alter a person’s perceptions to the point that not only do they question reality, but the viewer questions whether that character’s mind is influencing reality. I wanted to do something like that so badly, but I didn’t want to do an obvious rip on it. I let the idea stew for a little bit, asking myself what the concept would look like in the age of YouTube and Facebook. Soon came the idea of a couple of guys stumbling across an obscure blog written by a woman who has being held captive and made to perform bizarre experiments related to bending reality.

Continue reading

Critics and Authors Part 2: Not Even Once.

People ask you for criticism, but they only want praise. – W. Somerset Maugham, Of Human Bondage, Chapter 50.

Photo Courtesy DeltaMike @ Flickr

Now let’s get one thing straight: I don’t think the current battles between indie writers and critics/reviewers are anything particularly new. Critics and authors have been sniping at one another for a long, long time. You’d see dust-ups happen when a critic might hit a particularly sensitive nerve on an already-sensitive writer, and it was time to go off to the races. There were even some particularly well-documented long-running battles between critics and writers; Vladimir Nabokov and Edmund Wilson had a particularly famous falling-out over Wilson’s review of Eugene Onegin. Nabokov famously wrote that Wilson was a “commonsensical, artless, average reader with a natural vocabulary of, say six hundred basic words.”

So in some ways, what’s going on now is something of a time-honored tradition. I’ve mentioned it before: a great deal of the publishing world worships tradition. Some of it is almost knee-jerk for us at this point. The thing is, none of that makes it right. I hesitate to call out fellow indie authors by name, but here’s a broad view of some of the things that I’ve seen:

  • A writer who responded to criticism of her work by accusing the critics of pushing an anti-indie/anti-disabled person agenda, rather than simply not caring for her work. Any attempt to build a dialogue asserting the latter was met with personal attacks.
  • A group of writers selling negative critics as little more than bullies and pulling on the veil of persecution. Again, more personal attacks ensued from both sides.
  • A positive review was greeted with a negative comment about a sample chapter from said work; the author melted down on the commenter in a post with a positive review of her work.

Photo courtesy francisco_osorio @ flickr

There is a common theme here: a sense of persecution and overvigilance at negative reviews. I don’t think this is a coincidence and I’ll get to that in a bit, but first, let’s be fair to the authors above: some of these critics are mean-spirited and dedicated to tearing down books (not necessarily authors, though, there’s a key difference). There’s just no other way to put it. They serve as the trolls of the literary world. They just have to be, because any sane person who truly believes that 99% of books are garbage – and I’ve honestly noticed this percentage with a few – would have given up on the hobby altogether by this point. I won’t speculate on their reasons for doing it, but they’re absolutely out there.

But you know what? That negativity and hostility doesn’t make it okay to trash them. You don’t have to love them, embrace them, or even pay attention to them. In fact, the latter is probably the safest bet, as one of the oldest Internet rules is to never, ever feed a troll. This rule exists for a reason: any angry engagement with a troll only ends up making you look worse, especially since these reviewers are bashing the work, not the author. You likely never entered their mind, even if they are the most bitter of critics – it’s about a relation to the work itself.

Image courtesy cogdogblog @ Flickr

That raises the question: is it ever right to respond to a critic? I don’t think so. Even if you’re insanely positive and syrupy, it can still be taken the wrong way, and the odds are just way too high that you fuel the troll and make yourself look bad. Personally, I only read reviews from peers whom I know and trust. The others do nothing but charge my emotions and I learn very little from them. Your peers are the ones you should be listening to! Readers bring their own sets of rules and biases to works that might be completely out of line with your own. As Morris Workman pointed out yesterday, John Locke himself shared some wisdom on the whole thing:

 I never got a one-star review on any book until I got in the top 100. This is because you never get a bad review from your target audience. If you get a bad review, it’s because someone outside your target audience has found your book and gave it a shot. It’s no reflection on them as a reader, and no reflection on you as a writer. –If, as an author, you don’t understand this, your writing will suffer, because you’ll be writing not to get bad reviews instead of writing to reward your target audience.

Now like I said, I think he’s mostly on the mark, but there are some reviewers out there with an agenda, no question. It doesn’t matter, though. Never, ever take the bait. Not even once.

I suspect a lot of the problems we’re experiencing now have to do with the line between critic, reader, and writer becoming almost non-existent. Once upon a time, things were easy: the critic looked at the story with an eye toward both art and the reader, the reader took both the critics’ word and his or her own taste into account, and the writer…well, wrote. Today, I’m not sure that any of those distinctions make any sense. With the lines blurred, we can lose sight of the formality that once kept things in a semblance of order. That’s why it’s incumbent upon someone in this system to step back and realize that those lines are necessary for a myriad of reasons. If the reviewer has already overstepped his or her bounds, it should be you that takes that step. If you’re really angry or sad, take that emotion to the page and put it where it belongs. Your career can only benefit.

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Awards! All these Awards, my goodness!

I’ve been meaning to share these for the last few days, but it was hard to shoehorn these in with the serious business of eBook standards. I decided to just devote a whole post to it – so here we go! Some awesome people have awarded me some…er..awards. Okay, they’re not actually awards in the true sense of the word. This one seems to have been created with the purpose of recognizing blogs that you enjoy as a sort of stamp of approval. I like that even better than the idea of a blog award. Here, just check it out:

The first award comes courtesy of the ever-classy, stylish Kim Koning. I thought I had already gotten this from someone, but it turns out that, no, this is a first! This is the “award” that I mentioned above, and while I obviously don’t think of it as an award in the truest sense, I love the original concept and always wanted to “win” one. On top of that, Kim is a great person, and so I’m very honored that she chose me. This thing has some rules that go along with it, so let’s see:

A: Thank my nominator and provide a link to their blog. Done!

B: List seven things that readers might find interesting about me. Ah, geez.

C: Nominate seven other bloggers. No sweat. Continue reading

A Lot of Words About the Indie Community

I’ve decided to go out on a limb today. Long-time readers could probably tell you that this blog once focused more on writing advice and the writing life, and has slowly changed into something else over time, featuring information geared more toward readers, as well as items of note related to my stories, such as ancient machinery. This was a conscious decision, and I want to talk about it a little today, as things are about to go back in that original direction, if just a little bit.

I once intended this blog to be a way to connect with writers. While I’ve found better ways to do that, I still enjoyed sharing some of the things that I learned as I crafted my stories. Once I decided that indie was the right approach for me, I began a relentless crusade for the indie approach and the difference it could make. Eventually, though, I lost interest, to the point that I considered going the traditional route just a month ago.

I’m here to talk some about what changed during that period, beginning sometime in late December and culminating in that near-miss with leaving the indie world. Continue reading

Crowd-Sourced Creation: Beta Reading and the Feedback Loop

Going to admit it right up front: I used to hate having others read my work before I had finished it. I told myself that each work had to reach a certain stage of completeness in order for a reader to appreciate it; I didn’t want to put my work out there when it couldn’t fully be understood.

The reality? Sheer terror. I was in no way ready to share my work with others. My fragile ego couldn’t take it. I couldn’t admit that to myself, but reality is reality. The thing is, I’m almost glad I couldn’t accept that. It may well have been for the best, given how long I had to go. This was the mid to late 90s, during the infancy of the Internet, so I didn’t know much about the concept of critique groups or beta readers or any of that stuff. I had never so much as met another fiction writer in real life, outside of creative writing classes, and even those had mostly been dabblers. My work underwent something of a review process through those classes, but I never got to share my longer work (what I considered to be my “real” work), so I never felt that I got the full benefit of the classes.

Cue a hermetic form of writing for many, many years. I completed several novels, but never felt any were good enough to show to others. I grew in my craft, true, but that happened in a bubble. A bubble that wouldn’t burst for many, many years. Continue reading

Go Home: When to Soldier On

As a regular on a certain forum (I don’t want to mention which one for fear of unduly hurting another author – you’ll understand why very soon), I recently stumbled across a thread at first devoted to mocking a specific indie author’s book, then expanding to bashing self-published books in general and targeting specific other authors. All of this contributed to some very confused feelings on my part. I admit with some shame to having participated in such threads about musicians and filmmakers before, but being on the other side this time made me realize just how much of it comes across as sour grapes, especially from certain writers in the thread that acted like they were above such writing.

So I learned a valuable lesson about being mean-spirited, and I’ll talk some about that some day, but my main focus lie more in the criticisms themselves. Sure, the book could have used some work. Sure, it’s the kind of thing that in the old days likely would have either been more polished or fallen by the wayside in the writer’s pursuit of something that would be picked up in the traditional publishing model. But here’s the thing: the woman has talent. Most of the issues that got nitpicked were issues that I think a lot of us end up struggling with in our formative years: liberal use of adverbs, flowery adjectives, not really thinking through some of the plot contrivances to the end, and some wonky sentence structure. In short, all things that can be taught or learned through trial and error. The biggest difference, of course, is that her shortcomings have gone on display for the whole world, rather than being stored in a trunk somewhere. Continue reading

They’re Out to Get Me: Reviewing Paul Dail’s Imaginings

Full disclosure: I am, of course, a big fan of Mr. Dail’s writings on his official website, and we’ve become friends over time. That said, I believe in honest reviews for novels, even those written by friends; they help the writer to better understand the strengths or weaknesses of a given work and what might be targeted to improve a future work. So let’s go ahead and get my only real gripe out of the way first: the ending could have been handled a bit better. Other reviewers have mentioned the repeating ending from two points of view, and I have to echo that sentiment, with a slight caveat. I appreciated the concept behind it, but my problem lie in showing the same events twice. That could have been shortened, and I would have been perfectly happy with the idea itself. As it was, I skipped a couple of paragraphs. Not even enough to ding a star, but worth mentioning.

As for the rest? Fantastic. Every character has an emotional landscape and motivations of his or her own. The involvement of an outer force nicely sidesteps any moments that might feel like the author moving characters along a pre-determined path. This ties into the tension of the story, as you’re sometimes not sure who is committing a certain atrocity. That’s a good thing, as its resolution is central to the plot and especially the climax.  Continue reading

In Review: The Four Essences of a Good Novel

First things first: the ever-awesome dynamo Shannon Mayer recently gave me a chance to pontificate interviewed me at her great site, Wringing Out Words. Interviews are a lot of fun because you get to discuss so many things that you wouldn’t otherwise bring up on the site. Scurry on over there and check it out.

Now, then. Maintaining a busy schedule has been wearing me down. As I told a friend yesterday, who knew starting a business was such hard work? But I mention this because I haven’t found myself with a whole lot of time to read. At least, not as much as I would like, and when I do read, I find it hard to take the author cap off. It’s probably why I started reviewing stories once I finish them. I’ve already posted one of these, and you can expect to see more if I think that the author could use a little boost.

Almost every book is a learning opportunity. These reviews help me to solidify the lessons that I’ve learned from that book. Of course, I could ramble on at length about a story, so I’ve had to distill my reviews down into examining four core essences; the things that are important to me in making a good book. So let’s take a look at these four essences. Continue reading