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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Writing Versus “The Writer”

Certain conceits waft around people who write. I see these a lot, and I’m sure you could name some, too: writers worship coffee. Writers are drunks. Writers are broken in some way. Writers see the world differently/have skewed points of view/are special snowflakes. These can be some of the more poisonous beliefs. Then you have the trappings that are shorthand for “writer”: the pen, ink, the typewriter, the bottle. They provide an easy set of symbols to reach for, and a temptation to use them as a quick sketch to define your personality. You know the ones. “Oh, I get all crazy about adverbs, that means I AM WRITER.” “Up until three AM editing, another sign I AM SURELY WRITER.”

And so on.

I need to start with these misconceptions because, as I wrote in my last post, I have very little interest in being “a writer”. Some folks questioned what that meant exactly, and that is your answer: a shorthand for a lifestyle that some people use to define themselves. I’m not interested in that lifestyle and I’m especially not interested in defining myself by it.

This all kind of came to a head last night when I watched the fantastic documentary Shut up and Play the Hits, about the band LCD Soundsystem’s farewell show at Madison Square Garden. For those unfamiliar with the film and/or the band, LCD Soundsystem had a rather large cult following, had done a few profitable tours, and basically stood on the cusp of breaking through as a major act when leader and founder James Murphy decided to call it quits. The movie examines his motives and what the repercussions would be for his life. It’s really fantastic as both a slice of life and a music movie, I highly recommend it, but one his biggest points is talking about the rock star lifestyle and while he never overtly states it, it sounds like his biggest struggle is separating who he is in his day-to-day life and this concept of “the rock star”.

This is highly relevant and for whatever reason, something that I struggle to do myself. In my previous life, for lack of a better term, I embraced the concept of the writer/author as a handful of those things above. In retrospect I never felt 100% comfortable with the idea, but it became easy to hand wave away as a price of trying to make it. I could throw on the cloak and be something that I might not necessarily be if it meant reaching a larger audience. I could easily discard some misgivings here or there.

It could not last, though. In the last few months of my “writer” persona, I found myself increasingly irritated with the stereotypes, in addition to some of the things that I saw indie writers justifying in the name of making it big. Underhanded dealings, review puffing, and a lack of commitment to quality. Nothing spoke more to my increasing alienation to the indie community than when I witnessed a successful indie romance writer counseling a new writer to simply release his rough draft in an effort to increase his volume and visibility, then release the proper draft to the readers later.

Perhaps I’m flawed here, but to me that’s nothing more than fraud that goes beyond a lack of dedication to your craft.

Pull Quote

I stopped visiting that writing forum shortly thereafter out of disgust and found myself and my values farther and farther away from how I saw the authors around me defining “writer”. Perhaps, I thought, the problem was mine. Maybe I didn’t have “what it takes” to get ahead in the industry. Time to reassess my position and figure out what I wanted from my career.

I’m well aware that part of this speaks to my own personality flaws. Not every indie author does these things, probably not even the majority. I’ve met some fantastic people in the community, people who stand up and do the right thing every single time. I admit I jumped to some poor conclusions about indie authors and no longer feel these things – you might sense some of that in my hesitation and difficult with even defining these terms. People will be people in any walk of life and my withdrawal had more to do with the fact that I had jumped in without really thinking about or planning out what I wanted from my career.

Call it a failure of imagination.

I still reject the term “writer” and the stereotypes, but am comfortable with saying that I am someone who writes, and that I want those stories to be bought, read, and yes, maybe even be eligible for some awards. The latter not for the cause of ego but my belief in the stories that come to me. They deserve better than what they’ve had so far. This all comes down to marketing, ultimately, and ways to do it and life with myself.

You can see how this somewhat relates to my indie-versus-traditional decision, which I’ll speak about in the near future. In the meantime, I’m happy to redefine my public persona as something more in line with my personal values. That’s still in flux, but evolving. More to come.

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Thinking Around the Corner: Five Reasons You Need a Critique Group

Yesterday I hosted the first meeting of my critique group at my house and had a blast. My wife and I enjoy entertaining, and had fun setting things up so that the folks in the group could have a good experience. I mean, how can you go wrong with a spread like this?

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I’ve been doing this critique group thing for a few months now and finally feel a bit qualified to speak about it, especially since I’m seeing very material improvements to City of the Dead thanks to these folks who are so generous with their time and brainpower. I see now just how important a critique group can be for a writer and that writer’s career. That in mind, I thought I’d talk about the reasons that YOU (well, you the writer, maybe not the reader) might want to consider a critique group in addition to your beta readers.

Book

5. Beta readers are fantastic, but they’re not always writers. This is more important than it might seem. I do have some beta readers who are writers, but it is far from the most important requirement; that would be having people from different walks of life/who read different genres. Getting the perspective of someone who reads mainstream literary fiction is more important during the beta reading phase than talking to someone who better understands the structural significance of some choices. This is where the critique group comes in. A critique group can not only tell you that a scene is not working but why that scene is not working, and suggest improvements. Continue reading

My First Critique Group Experience

Long-time Shaggin the Muse readers may know that I’ve been searching for a critique group for close to two years now – almost from the moment that I got back onto the writing gig. My main driving concern in seeking such a group is that, while I love my beta readers and editor, feedback from working writers is so important to adding extra layers to your story. Experienced writers (and readers) can find angles that you hadn’t considered and see weaknesses that you may not perceive due to your own closeness to the project. This is a very good thing, provided that you can handle the critiques, and if you can’t, well, why be a writer at all?

Unfortunately, critique groups seem to be incredibly rare and unstable – those that I have located seemed to last for only a short period before they fell apart for one reason or another, and I never got my foot through the door. I had actually been considering just starting my own group when I joined the Maryland Writers Association (MWA) and learned that they had a feature for sharing and finding critique groups.

Well, hell, why not, I thought. I’m already involving myself more in the Maryland writing community, so why not dig deeper into the ways that I can help other writers and solicit their help as well? I perused their listings, figuring that I would be willing to do some travel if it meant getting into a group. From there I stumbled across a listing that seemed pretty interesting and right up my alley: folks who were also working on more long-form fiction and wanted to help each other shape up their novels. Natural fit, I thought.

I contacted the group, and after some back-and-forth I joined on a trial basis. This might sound a little iffy, but this approach makes a whole lot of sense to me. Just think about it objectively – you need to know that prospective members have the right blend of personality and skill, that they’re amenable to suggestions, and that they make substantive suggestions. It also makes sense from a lone writer’s perspective; what if you feel that the group doesn’t understand your work and/or the personalities just aren’t right for you? This way, you don’t feel completely committed to the group until you’re comfortable that this is the right fit for you. Continue reading

Word Snobs, Mass Murderers, and Prestidigitation

Today I want to talk about…words. This entry is partially inspired and in response to R.S. Guthrie’s post last week about being a “word snob“. Let me note UP FRONT that I’m not downing what Rob is saying; in fact, I agree, and he puts it well in the comments:

I enjoy learning new words and eloquent language — when written by a master. If a novice uses a word too big for their writing, it’ll tear the piece apart quicker than you can SAY ” thesaurus”. And I do think as writers we should push ourselves. I always read above my skill level. How else do I become better myself?

So this post is not a shot at Rob in any way, shape, or form.

Now, that out of the way. I have recently read some reviews of intelligent novels wherein otherwise sane reviewers complain about writers using “big words” in their writing as a means of “showing off” and that they’re better than others. In particular, I’m thinking of the novel We Need to Talk About Kevin, a  heart-wrenching story about the mother of a mass murdering teenager.  After watching the movie, I checked out the book’s Goodreads page to see if it was worth worth my time. I saw a lot of five star reviews – a good sign for a mass market publication – but I also saw some one star reviews. As I usually do, I checked the one-star reviews first, as they’re far more instructive than the glowing reviews. I’ll talk about that in my post The One Star Review Method in the near future.

No less than three of the one-star reviews complained about what I said above: the writer was showing off how well she could use her thesaurus, and/or was showing off that she had a better vocabulary than everyone else. Continue reading

I Gave a Speech: A Brief History of Me

I recently joined Toastmasters, as they opened a chapter at work and encouraged us to join for a pretty decent discount. My ears perked up when I heard about it because I’ve been looking to sharpen my public speaking skills and just get used to the concept for when I finally get around to doing some readings. Our first meeting was last month, and I decided to participate but not speak. Once I had a sense of the format, I jumped right in, volunteering to speak. Yesterday I finally gave my first speech and thought I’d share it with you.

You can click here to listen to an audio version; the text of this speech is below. Apologies for any issues with the sound levels. I need to get that reverb under control.

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Good afternoon everybody. I’m excited to get the chance to speak to you and share some of my experiences outside of work, since I apparently come across as a quiet guy while I’m here. Don’t let appearances fool you, though! Ask my wife, family, and friends. They’ll let you know all about how much I can talk. I just have a pretty strong wall between my personal and professional life that probably needs to come down a bit, and this is my way of doing it. 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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What Makes an “Indie” Writer?

Okay, I admit, this entry is a bit later in the posting than I might have liked. I’ve been sitting on it since May 21st, when someone retweeted a comment from agent Sarah LaPolla. Other worthy topics kept coming up that required my attention; in particular, the posts about standards, and blah blah blah. Now I’m ready to climb up on the soapbox.

Let’s start with the tweet in question:

Indie writer = published w/ a small press who gave you a contract & had an editor & packager who wasn’t you or someone you hired separately.

I’ll own it: I saw some red when that came up in my feed. The whole thing smacked of the sort of dismissive attitude that does absolutely no-one in publishing any good, even those who work through the traditional system, though they don’t always realize that. Not having the greatest of days, I tapped out a scathing reply and hovered my finger over the trigger.

Nah, I thought, best to give yourself a second. No need to fly off the handle.

So I allowed myself a moment to calm down, and as I did so, I realized that she might be quoting a source, perhaps a writer. I didn’t agree, but I’d like to see the source  I asked her where it came from, and if this meant that writers like JA Konrath and/or John Locke were not “indie” – the idea seemed patently absurd, but what the hell, she might have been pulling it from somewhere.

Not so much. She sidestepped John Locke altogether, but replied about Konrath:

Both are used because people misuse “indie.” He’s self-pubbed & proud. Self-pubbers shouldn’t hide behind a mis-label.

Continue reading

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