Apr 032014

Jordan Dane

Paraphrasing the question submitted to TKZ anonymously: What do you think of “online bullies” who post mean-spirited book reviews to discredit the author when they don’t even read the novel.
If someone has clearly not read a novel yet writes a review, why should I pay attention to that at all? (I’ve spent too much time already talking about this, so I will move on to my thoughts on reviews, in general.)
Recently I heard an actor talk about paying attention to reviews and how it could affect his performance—whether the reviews were good or bad. I find words of wisdom and encouragement in the creative arts–like filmmakers, actors, musicians—because they know what it takes to create something from nothing with passion. So when I heard this actor speak, I could relate his words to my own thoughts. He believed reviews, whether good or bad, detracted from the work in the moment or for the next performance. If a reviewer believed the actor’s performance was emotional and touching in a particular scene, those words would stay in the actor’s head the next time he did his job, when maybe the scene (on page) didn’t call for the same emotion. Negative reviews can act in the same way and cultivate self-doubt (which none of us need).
In applying what he said to writing, a good review can sway an author to manipulate the writing to “fit” what the reviewer wrote about the work. It could affect every book in the future in the same manner. Bad reviews can make an author overly sensitive to whatever harsh criticism was written, whether deserved or not. The author could overcompensate and alter their growth. Chasing after reviews, whether good or bad, can detract from a writer’s instincts on storytelling. They can make an author doubt the story telling talent that got them published in the first place.
I also heard it said, long ago in my energy industry career, that if you don’t value (or know anything about) the credibility of the person giving their opinion of your work, why should you care what they think or say? Easier said than done for some, but I’ve embraced this sentiment.

As an author, I tend to value Publishers Weekly to give me a sense of a book, but it doesn’t stop me from buying it if the book gets a marginal PW review. If the story interests me, I make my own decision. Any reading experience is subjective for everyone. Because I understand how difficult it is to tell a story on page, I am much more appreciative of an author’s style or voice or plot structure. I love reading many types of books and I try to find “gem takeaways” in an author’s writing, rather than me bristling for the opportunity to reject their work and show how brilliant I can be at “snark.”
As a new author, I paid attention to reviews. I don’t anymore and haven’t for a long time. It’s my choice and it’s freed my time so I can spend more hours on writing and honing my craft.  Like the actor I mentioned, I don’t want to be swayed by opinions whether the reviews are good or bad. It’s human nature to sift through many good reviews, but become totally obsessed over a negative one. Snarky reviewers are the worst. They tend to “believe their own hype” and love having the reputation for overly harsh reviews they think are clever. Their reviews tend not to be about recommending good books or encouraging literacy, they become about how unkind the review can be in degrading the work. Fortunately not all reviewers are like this. Most are not.
If someone wants to be critical of a writer’s work, I issue a challenge. Write your own book. Cut open a vein and bleed on the page with an honest story and deal with the critics (or note) afterwards. Authors must be willing to tell their stories, without fear. There will always be negative opinions, but my focus has been on my own growth and striving to tell my stories, my way. I want to be the best Jordan Dane I can be and I keep writing.
As for sites where readers congregate (like Goodreads, Fresh Fiction, Just Romantic Suspense, Amazon, B&N, and many other review sites), I appreciate their value for readers to talk about books. That’s great. Goodreads, Fresh Fiction, and Just Romantic Suspense in particular are reader communities that promote literacy and they encourage reading (in general) by giving followers a place to focus their interest in books. A lovely thing.
I have a profile presence on some of these sites. I RSS feed my blog posts to my author profile, respond to comments, and do giveaways to raise awareness of my projects. Other than that, I don’t sift through reviews, whether they are good or bad. It’s a detractor of time I could spend writing. There will always be one-star reviews, even on noteworthy critically acclaimed books.
For discussion:
Readers: How much attention do you pay toward reviews? Do reviews sway you to buy or avoid a novel? Have you ever read really bad reviews on a book you liked? If so, did it change how you look at reviews?
Writers: How do you deal with reviews (good or bad) on your work?

Feb 062013

By David Corbett

One the great pleasures of publicity tours—yes, Virginia, there are pleasures to publicity tours—is teaming up with other authors for a panel.

Panels provide one of the great exceptions to the Less is More principle. Two minds are indeed better than one, as are—depending on the minds at issue—three and four or even five, though I think that’s the limit for a decent panel. After that, it’s a chorus line. Or a scrum.

There’s always a balance that needs to be struck between the joy of spontaneity and giving the panelists enough of an idea what the topic is that they can prepare a few interesting ideas and lines—and a couple good jokes.

This is particularly on my mind as I prepare for two panels I’ll be doing in the span of one week:

First, a panel with A.M. Homes, Megan Abbott, and Duane Swierczynski at the Barnes & Noble at 86th and Lexington on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, 7 PM on Monday, February 11th; and

Second, a panel with Ellen Sussman at the San Francisco Writers Conference on Sunday, February 17th.

Frankly, with fellow panelists like that, I could sit there and drool and come off semi-smart. (Well, okay, maybe not drool.)

Ellen is a San Francisco writer I met through Murderati alum Cornelia Read at a reading for Dirty Words: An Encyclopedia of Sex, which Ellen edited. (Ellen’s entry on Happy Endings appears immediately before Cornelia’s on Hard-ons.)

In The Art of Character I use a scene from Ellen’s novel French Lessons to illustrate how to use clothing—in this case, a pregnant, jilted, miserable teacher’s fascination with a pair of turquoise pumps in a Paris boutique—as an objective correlative for the character’s inner life.

Ellen and I are doing a panel titled MY CHARACTER ATE MY PLOT! Creating characters that drive your story. It seems to be a bit of a mash-up of a workshop I proposed on how to balance story and character demands and an impromptu panel. Whatever. Ellen and I will have a gas.

The New York panel really has me intrigued. I’ve been reading A.M. Homes’s May We Be Forgiven and I’m mesmerized. Later this month I’ll be posting for the Books by the Bed column on the website for We Wanted to be Writers (the group memoir about the Iowa Writers’ Workshop). One of the books I mention is May We Be Forgiven, and this is what I say:

As deft a balancing act between heartbreaking realism and wicked black humor as I’ve read outside the works of Pete Dexter. An opening scene with a gutted Thanksgiving turkey, fingers dripping with meat juices, lips coated in same, and then an illicit kiss between the protagonist and his taller, smarter, more successful brother’s wife—and it just takes off from there. Uncanny pacing for a so-called literary novel—violent and smart and did I mention funny?

Many of you probably already know Duane Swierczynski, though you probably can’t pronounce his name. (It’s okay, no one can. Or spell it for that matter.) I also included his The Blonde in my Books by the Bed posting:

The reading equivalent of listening to Eddy Angel channel Link Wray. Gutsy and quick on its feet, with so many deft strokes and oddball observations and switchback plot turns, not to mention (lest we forget) the eponymous blonde who, of course, is not who she seems—a patch of red in a private spot gives her away. More to the point, she’ll die if someone isn’t within ten feet of her. Literally. Beat that, Salman Rushdie!

And Megan Abbott, after writing and winning an Edgar for creative re-interpretations of fifties noir (with an emphasis on the women characters so often trivialized in that genre) has broken out with two novels set in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, her childhood hometown: The End of Everything and Dare Me.

I mean, I’ll have to concentrate very, very hard if I want to screw up this panel.

Like my panel with Ellen, this one also will gravitate toward character, and Megan and Duane both want to talk about the difficulties of characterization in the compressed formats of graphic novels and film, and A.M. wants to talk about the challenges of writing about someone fundamentally different than oneself.

I also want to ask Megan about what characterization challenges she’s faced in switching from noir pastiches to more realistic novels, and generally just invite everybody to jump in and say whatever comes to mind. (Like I’ll be able to stop them…)

If you live in New York and feel inclined, join us at 7 PM at the B&N UES at 86th & Lex.

Or if you’re ready for the whole smorgasbord of writing panels and editor consultations and agent pitches, check out the San Francisco Writers Conference—and join Ellen and me on Sunday morning (at the ungodly hour of 9 AM).

How we suffer for our art.

BTW: One final nod to Blatant Sell-Promotion (that’s a deliberate typo): If you or someone you know is interested in the craft of characterization, and would like an inspiring, in-depth and yet practical guide, please check out The Art of Character. Follow the link to find out more, including where you can buy a copy. Or read a brand new excerpt here.

* * * * *

So, Murderateros, what’s the best panel you’ve ever been on or seen?

What was the worst?

What made the one great and the other not so great?

* * * * *

Jukebox Hero of the Week: Valentine’s Day will have come and gone by the time my next post goes up, so in premature celebration (ahem), I offer this Brubeck chestnut used to brilliant effect in the film Silver Linings Playbook. It beautifully sets the mood for a crucial scene, when Pat goes to Tiffany’s house Halloween night for their first (this-is-not-a) date. It’s spare and haunting but playful, with its 7/4 time creating an off-balance tension. Perfect.


Mar 112012

James Scott Bell

father was a mudder. He loves the slop.
Cosmo Kramer, Seinfeld

future of the book industry got a little murkier this week. The Department of Justice, no
less, thickened the soup with its announced
to go after five of the “Big Six” publishers — plus Apple
— on charges of collusion. The alleged nefariousness dates back to the
wholesale versus agency controversy at Amazon.
Amazon was
setting e-book prices lower than the big publishers desired. The pubs were
afraid consumers would get used to lower prices, thus cutting into their
margins. Also, there was major concern about undercutting a big cash cow for traditional
publishing: hardcover frontlist titles. And, of course, they all worried about the future of brick-and-mortar stores as Amazon gobbled up more of the distribution pie. 

So Steve Jobs comes along (allegedly) with
a plan to take major e-book business away from Amazon. With the iPad just
getting fired up, Jobs (allegedly)
went to the Big Six and proposed going into an e-book agency model agreement with them
(Random House didn’t join the circle then, so is not part of the DOJ lawsuit). In return, the publishers would agree to keep their books off Amazon if it sold them at a lower price. In effect the five big publishers, as one, told Amazon You give us the agency model or you don’t get our books. 
The players, IOW, were jockeying for position with the future in mind. This is what
big business does. It’s understandable and even desirable in a free market
economy so long as the businesses are not running afoul of anti-trust laws.
Amazon, not
happy with being forced into agency, decided to take on the publishing industry
directly by mimicking it. So they went out and hired industry
veteran Larry Kirshbaum
to head up the effort. Amazon subsequently made some
big name signings – Deepak Chopra and Barry Eisler, for example.
And now comes a dark cloud dumping rain — the United
States Gummint. The track is suddenly soaked and the mud is kicking up all over
Who is going
to be the best mudder? Who is going to be left behind?
That remains
to be seen. But right now it looks like agency pricing will be escorted off the track. If
publishers are forced back into wholesale, Amazon will be sitting even prettier
than it is now, prices will once again trend downward, and publishers’ margins
will shrink. There will be renewed howls of “predatory pricing,” but
the DOJ well knows that’s a much harder case to make. So Amazon goes back to
selling at loss-leader prices which, in turn, will trickle down to
brick-and-mortar stores where margins are razor thin anyway. More stores will
probably close. Your local Barnes & Noble, for instance. There is a whole
interlocking spiral here that is beyond the scope of this post.
My main
interest is in what this all means for writers. For the last couple of years
the self-publishing boom has been a net-gain for writers, especially those with
a track record. And a backlist. But even new writers who haven’t been able to
get inside the gates of the Forbidden City are seeing real money as
But in
gazing at the horizon in light of the DOJ’s action, some are saying that things don’t look so rosy. Here is what Mike Shatzkin, the Insightful One, has to say:
time, the biggest losers here will be the authors. The independent authors will
feel the pain first. Agency pricing creates a zone of pricing they can occupy
without much competition from branded merchandise. When the known authors are
only available at $9.99 and up, the fledgling at $0.99-$2.99 looks very
attractive and worth a try. Ending agency will have the “desired” effect of
bringing all ebook prices down. As the big book prices are reduced, the ability
of the unknowns to use price as a discovery tool will diminish as well. In the
short run, it will be the independent authors who will pay the biggest price of
in the long run, all authors will just get less. They will join the legion of
suppliers beholden to a retailer whose mission is to deliver the lowest
possible price to the consumer.

I am going to take issue with Mr. Shatzkin
on his characterization of writers as the “biggest losers” in all
this. Not so. This is simply another development in a long and ever changing
contest. Writers who produce, consistently and well, will always have a shot at the rewards of a race well run. 
We didn’t create the Big Six or Amazon. But
we will use them just like they use us. We will make strategic decisions, as
they do. It’s called doing business,
and writers are better positioned than ever to do it in creative ways.
So get on your horse, writer. Learn to ride
in the mud. Don’t trust your fate to anybody else. You are
responsible for your future, and you need to grab the reins and get into the thick
of it.
For example, if you pursue a traditional
contract, take a hand in negotiations. Learn what contract terms mean.
Negotiate a way to produce non-competing works on your own dime. Don’t just
blindly hand the reins of your very life and career to somebody else. Ever
Have courage. There is a lot of bumping
going on in the turns. Don’t be timid. Bump back. Hang tough in the saddle. If
somebody tries to hit you with his riding crop, take it from him.
While the overall effect may be greater
challenges vis-à-vis “discoverability,” so what? Facing and
overcoming obstacles has always been the lot of the writer. Nothing’s different
now. You must produce quality, and a lot of it, for
the rest of your life to have a writing career. You must add a long tail to your
horse. If you do, you have a chance to cross the finish line and get
pelted with flowers.
And why, as a writer, wouldn’t you do this
anyway? We write. Even if some of the big publishers fall off their horses, we
writers will still be in the race. Even if bookstore shelf space continues to
dry up, we writers will still be coming at you.
Because we are creating stories, which is what people want and
need in this crazy world. We are weaving dreams, getting under your skin, keeping you up at night, making you laugh and cry and maybe sometimes throw our books across the room. 
We are storytellers. 

And we are not going away no matter how hard it rains.