Monday, 27 October 2014

Why Engaging With the Haters is a Fight Everybody Loses

This week, an author by the name of Kathleen Hale wrote an article for The Guardian, describing her attempts to track down and confront 'Blythe Harris,' an alleged 'Goodreads Bully.' If you're an author or aspire to be one, it makes for disturbing reading.

Personally, I don't think either 'Blythe' or Kathleen emerged from the story as morally victorious. Yes, 'Blythe' certainly displayed all the hallmarks of a professional online troll - but the tactics Kathleen gradually descended to in her somewhat obsessive mission to unmask and confront her nemesis could justifiably have qualified as stalker behaviour by the end. (Not to mention put her in considerable danger - all she knew of this woman was that most of the personal details she'd posted about herself online were lies. What if she - or maybe even he - had turned violent in response to being finally confronted?)

It all started with a tweet, apparently. 'Blythe' offered suggestions to Hale about her next book, to which Hale responded pleasantly - and then subsequently discovered 'Blythe' had already left a blistering, one-star review about her latest book on Goodreads. It wasn't the only one-star review she'd received there, but Hale was particularly aggrieved by this one and so, ignoring the warnings about responding to negative reviews issued to those signed in as Authors on the Goodreads site, she commented back to 'Blythe.' And that, as they say, is when it all kicked off. 'Blythe' enlisted her friends to mount a campaign of hate on Hale and anyone who supported her, while Hale, on discovering that 'Blythe' was on the Badly Behaving Goodreaders list, Followed and Googled the woman to within an inch of her life, to the point where she actually visited her house and, when that failed to result in a face-to-face meeting, phoned her up at her workplace pretending to offer her a book reviewing gig.

A week earlier, the law was changed in the UK so that persistent trollers could be jailed for up to two years, which indirectly resulted in the suicide of a woman who was alleged to have trolled the parents of Madelaine McCann. Trolling has suddenly got a lot more serious, for all parties. But why do people do it in the first place? I'm no psychiatrist, but I have a theory or two.

Imagine your life is... well, not all that great at the moment, in these uncertain times of wobbly economies and our governments getting us into wars for reasons they're never quite clear about. Perhaps you're in a dead-end job you hate, with no chance of promotion or getting a better job because no-one appreciates your skills. Or perhaps you don't have a job at all, and you're finding that the longer you don't have one the harder it is to convince potential employers of your capabilities - whilst simultaneously dealing with the media ranting about the long-term unemployed not really wanting to work anyway, because they're happy to sit around on their backsides claiming welfare for the rest of their lives. More than anything, you've probably got to a stage where you feel like nothing you do or say matters or makes a difference in the world anymore; you're just an invisible drone that just gets walked all over and shouted down at every turn.

Now imagine you've found a magical place where all your thoughts and feelings can potentially be seen by the whole world, in an instant. You can speak the deepest, darkest thoughts of your mind and millions of people will see them. If people agree with them they'll say so, and you'll know you're not alone in thinking and feeling that way - you'll have new allies. And the people that don't agree... well, they can shout at you all they like, but they can't find you or know who you really are, because you're using a secret identity. In fact, you can even work it this way for yourself: anything you say that gets a good response is you, but anything that gets a bad response is actually your online alter-ego - an alternative personality you can slip in and out of like a comfy suit, but isn't the real you at all...

Unsurprisingly, this is going to go to the heads of some people. As long as you never meet the people you're horrible to face-to-face, it's all too easy to kid yourself that you're not doing any real damage, and anyone who gets upset by mere words on a screen should get a grip, grow a pair, etc., etc. Completely forgetting that, if you were to say those same words out loud to the face of the person you're directing them at, you could reasonably expect some nasty repercussions from pretty much anyone in earshot. What the internet has done is to remove the consequences of screwed-up social interactions, and as a result many people have got lazy and unlearned the fine art of treating others as they would wish to be treated. Sounds logical written here, but the problem is hard to solve in practice because human beings don't evolve at nearly the same pace as our technology. Our little fleshy brains are still trying to catch up - and by the time they've done that technology will have sprinted on further down the line anyway.

Bearing all of that in mind, is it really worth calling out someone who gives your work a nasty review?

Are they allowed to rip into all your hard work and call it a pile of stinking trash, using horrible grammar and spelling that would embarrass a five-year-old? Do they have the right to tell everyone outright lies about your book, saying they found it racist/sexist/anti-ginger-people when it clearly, absolutely is not? Are they entitled to say they think the author must be a brain-dead moron with no talent for writing whatsoever?

Erm... yes, they are. Sucks I know, but that's the way it is, unfortunately - because it's their opinion. And any time an author responds to a reviewer to tell them their opinion is somehow wrong... well, you'll never score any points for that, I'm afraid. Yes, that even applies if you think the reviewer got some facts wrong - "I honestly don't know how you can say my book is racist when it doesn't even have any ethnic minorities in it" - because again, that's an opinion the reviewer formed from reading your book. Most importantly, if the angry reviewer is the kind of person who's going to enlist all their friends to carpet-bomb you with bad reviews and generally try to kick your writing career in the 'nads if they decide they don't like you... do you really want to hand them ammo by engaging in dialogue with them? Even if you try to make it friendly and polite?

So stay out of it. Bite your tongue, step away from the 'net, walk away and eat cake (or whatever it is you do to make yourself feel better.) I'd like to say I'm speaking from an unblemished standpoint on this - but of course I'm not. I've had a couple of smackdown reviews of parody lyrics I've written online in the past - and yeah, I did respond to them. I was as polite and friendly as I could possibly have been (considering I was telling them I thought they'd misunderstood the motives behind my lyrics - and yes, I am facepalming as I type this) but even so, my response added absolutely nothing of value to the conversation, and if I could go back now and erase what I wrote I would, in a heartbeat.

Bad reviews hurt, I know. Bad, malicious and completely unfair reviews hurt like hell. But at the end of the day, once your book is published it's not your job to fight for it anymore. Your baby's all grown up now and it has to make its own way in the world, and you can't keep roaring up like a mother tiger every time someone rips into it. Let it go. And write the next one.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Why Writers Have To Be Their Own Simon Cowell

It's that time of year again - the emotional human cheese-grater that is The X-Factor is back! And yes, I have been following it, but much more for the window on homo sapient psychology than for the actual singing part.

I've heard the Speeches, delivered by wobbly-lipped wannabes accompanied by a backing track of suitably poignant music. With glistening eyes, they tell of how they've been gigging in pubs and clubs for years because singing is their whole life and that's why they've just got to win the X-Factor because if they don't that's it, it's ovah for them! Singing is all they know, so if the X-Factor dream ends for them today they simply can't just go back to the life they had before, which was... um, singing, wasn't it? Yeah, but that was just singing in pubs and clubs, so it doesn't even count, man..!

Yeah okay, I'm being cynical here. I'm also being cynical (probably) when I say that the programme is more about creating ratings-grabbing, reality-tv-stylee dramatics than actual recording artists (it's nice when that happens of course, but I refuse to believe the producers of the show spend much time agonising when it doesn't.) And I'm probably being most cynical of all when I say it's created a whole section of society that totally believes getting yourself on a telly talent show is a giant springboard to instant fame and fortune. Forget all those idiots slowly grafting their way up from the bottom for years and years but still aren't platinum-selling artists yet - that route's for losers, baby! Nah - get yourself on a talent show and you can bypass all that boring hard work rubbish and get straight to the good bit.

And, while we're on that cynical train, you could also argue that the self-publishing revolution enabled by Amazon, Smashwords and the like has generated a society with a similar mindset in the world of writing.

An X-Factor style programme for writers would never work, of course. The Live Shows would be pretty boring, for a start:

"So, what are you going to write for us tonight, Hermione?" "I'm going to write Chapter Sixteen of my Zombie Romance Novel, Simon." "Okay then, off you go - good luck."
*Two hours later*
"Hermione, why did you stop to get a cup of tea in the last half-hour? You could've nailed that last paragraph, but you let yourself get distracted!" "I'm sorry Louis -  please give me another chance, I'll do better in the second draft, I promiiiise!"

Yep, definitely not gripping telly. So writers don't have an equivalent to the instant-springboard-to-stardom promised by reality tv shows. No - because that would just get in the way of the even-more-instant-springboard-to-stardom that upload-and-click-to-publish provides! Heck, compared to that, an X-Factor-style gig would practically slow the whole process down!

And so... y'know all those people you laugh at in the first-stage auditions of those talent shows? The ones who clearly rocked up with no plan, no rehearsals and no idea how utterly terrible they are compared to even the mildly talented people who at least tried to do their best on the day? The writer equivalents of them are pumping out self-pubbed books on an almost hourly basis. 'Novels' that are ten pages long, that have been nowhere near even Word's Spell- or Grammar-Check, never mind an editor, and that the authors are asking you to part with ninety-nine of your actual pence for the 'privilege' of 'reading.' (You can get two litres of milk for ninety-nine pence - and that'll take you a darn sight longer to get through than one of those 'novels.')

That's the downside of the upload-and-click-publish facility of course. Gazillions of people - the same kind of people who think all the pop bands they don't like are 'talentless' and "I can sing better than that" - are publishing their books because they can, without giving a nanosecond's thought as to whether they should. And there's no Simon Cowell around to give them a reality check.

I'm not saying those authors should stop publishing altogether. I appreciate that finding agents and getting traditionally published is devilishly hard these days, and self-publishing is the only way for many cracking good authors to get their work and the recognition they deserve out there. But to those other 'authors' out there - those of the ten-pages-of-badly-spelled-grammatically-mangled-nonsense-pretending-to-be-a-'novel' variety - I'm simply saying the following:

"For the love of all things writerly, make an effort and stop assuming that writing a book is as easy as taking a dump after a hefty portion of bean casserole. See, here's the thing. If it only takes you a week to finish cranking out your latest ten-page masterpiece, y'know what? You could probably afford to spend a little extra time on improving it. Making sure you've spelled everything right for starters, and that the grammar is right. Double-checking your story makes sense and that there are no giant plotholes is another thing you could try, along with making sure your characters don't suddenly change their names, ages or even genders halfway through for no discernible reason. Oh, and by the way - a ten-page book is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a 'novel.' Even a novella - which is the name given to a book considered 'too short' to be a novel - has an average wordcount of 30,000 words, which is about 75-90 pages depending on linespacing and font size used. So... ten pages, a novel? Nah.  Maybe call it a short story instead. Or a 'leaflet.' 'Cause I can walk into a doctor's surgery and get a ten-page leaflet about Managing My Asthma - that'll be grammatically correct and spelled right all the way through - and I won't even have to pay ninety-nine pence for that.

"But most of all - and this is probably the most radical suggestion, so apologies if it blows your mind at first - chew on the notion that the first and only version of the story you write generally isn't the one to just go ahead and publish. I know it looks okay to you, right after you type 'the End' and hit Save - but trust me and a million other writers, it really isn't. If you don't believe me, put your latest aside and don't go near it for a week, and then come back and read it again. I guarantee you'll see places you can make it better - and pick up on mistakes you didn't even know you'd made. Just try it, okay? What's the worst that could happen?

"I know what you guys are thinking (if you're still reading at this point.) "Ha, it's just another one of those jealous 'old-skool' writers getting all angry and defensive 'cause trailblazers like me are rewriting all the rulebooks and they can't deal with the competition!" Well yeah, you're right - we are getting angry and defensive. Here's why. Imagine you're a single person planning to have a night on the town, a good time, maybe even find yourself a hot date. Do you decide not to shower, and grab the grungiest clothes out of the laundry basket to wear - y'know, that top with the two-day-old pizza stain down the front and the pants with the baggy elastic that smell vaguely of wet dog? Do you eat a tin of cold beans and drink a bottle of cheap cola down in one before you go out, so that you can spend the whole of your night out being a human fart-tornado? No you don't. Because you know that will send any potential suitors running, screaming, in the direction of far far away. So you make an effort; you put your best gear on and make sure you present yourself in the best way possible.

"So now imagine this scenario. After you've made an effort, both hygienically and sartorially, and you step out on the town lookin' your best, everywhere you look you can only see pizza-stained, doggy-smelling-baggy-pantsed, fart-tornado people. No clean, tidy, non-farty people at all. "Where are all the nice people, the kind I'd want to meet?" you ask. "Oh, they don't come out here anymore," you are told. "They've got so fed up with only finding skanky, farty people that they've given up and just stay the heck away." "But that's not fair," you cry. "I'm not like that - I've made a proper effort! How am I supposed to meet the nice people if they won't even bother to look for people like me anymore?" And all you get in return is a big, fat shrug.

"That, in a nutshell, is why we're angry and defensive - because we worry about that scenario becoming real someday, but in the world of self-publishing. It scares us - and it should scare you authors of ten-page-non-edited-pretending-to-be-novels too. Because after The Public stop looking for our work anymore, they'll stop looking for yours too, because they'll stop looking completely. Yep, you lose out as well. So doesn't it pay to know how to make the stuff you publish the best quality it can possibly be? Even it means - horror of horrors! - it takes you longer to produce them?

"So take a little time to find out how to do that. Go to a bookstore or a library, look at the books there. See how thick they are, and how many pages they typically have - maybe even read some of them. Hell, read lots of them. Brush up on your spelling and grammar - or if you have problems with that stuff, find someone who'll help you with it. Read about writing; there are so many websites with writing advice, tips and whatnot that there's really no excuse not to take advantage of them. Talk to other writers - if not in person, via online forums. Let those other writers (not just best friends and loving family) read your work and offer you feedback on what you could improve before you publish it - and consider that feedback carefully. And finally, don't just publish the first version of everything you write. If you're as good as you already think you are - and you must think you're pretty damned good if you're happily slapping up your work and asking people to part with real, actual money for it - then waiting a while and polishing it up can only make it better. And that's a good thing for everyone - both writers and readers."

/End rant.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Genre Writing: Whose Rules Are They Anyway?

I'm at that stage in my current work-in-progress Redemption where the big-picture doubts are starting to creep in.

These aren't related to the actual mechanics of the story per se. The plot fits together, the characters do what they're designed to do and the story world is coherent enough that any consistency boo-boos that do appear can be ironed out with very little heartache. No, the doubts I'm referring to are the ones over which I have far less control - the ones my Inner Grinch gets a massive kick out of taunting me with. And his favourite one at the moment goes something along the lines of:

 "No-one will ever read this novel of yours, because it's not 'proper' sci-fi! You're doing it all wrong! The people who like proper sci-fi will hate it, and the people who might like it won't notice it because they won't be sci-fi fans and you've classed it as a sci-fi novel!"

So... am I an ignorant dumbass who mistakenly thinks Redemption is a sci-fi novel when it is in fact not? Well, let's see... it's set some thirty years in the future, in a city under the martial law of a rogue organisation that deposed the elected government following worldwide resource shortages. Almost all of the technology available can only be obtained by the rich and powerful, and anything else is retro junk that clever hackers and tinkerers have recycled and learned to jerry-rig into functionality. And the aforementioned rogue government have an army of super-enhanced soldiers to dispense 'justice' to rebellious citizens. Well, that sounds pretty sci-fi to me. But what does my Grinch mean by 'proper' sci-fi? I believe the clue to this question lies in my previous writing experiences...

You see, Redemption is the first sci-fi novel I've ever completed (even to Draft One stage) - but it's not the first one I've ever tried to write. In the past, I began at least two other sci-fi novels and - being a naive and not-well-versed-in-the-etiquette noob at the time - posted a couple of chapters to writing critique forums to get some feedback. (I have since learned that it's best to have at the very least a completed draft one of the entire novel before I even consider posting chapters for critique.)

A lot of the feedback I got was very useful. Some people even liked what I'd written. But the ones who didn't, really, really didn't - and had two very distinct things in common. Thing One: they all hated the 'emotional stuff' in it, and Thing Two: those reviewers were all men.

I'm not coming over all angry feminist now; those are the plain, simple facts of the matter. Their universal complaint - and one they clearly felt very strongly about judging from their feedback - was that characters having any kind of internal emotional issues alongside the more practical, external conflicts of the story was not what proper science fiction was about. For example: in one of my stories I had a major character who was a scientist that had become a virtual recluse both in his home and work life, following the death of his little girl some five years ago in an accident he blamed himself for. It formed a huge part of his character arc and influenced his actions in relation to the plot - but that, apparently was the problem. As one of those critics put it (this isn't a direct quote, but as close as I can remember to what he said)

'Why put in all this emotional crap about him being tortured about his dead daughter? You're turning what should be a straight science fiction story into bloody chick lit! Stop trying to girlify the genre and you might actually write something genuine sci-fi fans would want to read.'

Now let me assure you, at no point did this scientist character ever pour out his feelings to his friends at a Boys Night In, where they all watched Bro movies and trimmed each other's facial hair. Nor did he record all his emotions in a private diary, along with the calories he'd consumed that day and whether or not he was having a Fat Day. In fact, the character never spoke about it to anyone else at all - the information was revealed to the reader gradually through his own internal dialogue and the odd remark from people who knew him well enough to know the history. So I was (and still am) a little baffled by the 'chick lit' comparison.

But the fact still remains, more than one person had echoed this sentiment - and that makes it a Thing, an ethic that at least some proportion of readers of the sci-fi genre subscribe to. Question is, how established is this ethic? Was I really violating deep-seated genre conventions, upheld by the Masters for generations? And did that really mean I had to completely change my whole writing style, or forever remain unpublishable?

If that's the case then I'm already in trouble, because Redemption is chock-full of characters with various 'emotional issues.' Not to the point of the whole thing reading like a Dear Deirdre problem page, but... well, dammit these characters have got to have some reason for doing the things they do, other than simply 'because, woooh - sci-fi plot!'

Of course every genre has conventions that, by their very nature, are what enable the publishers to define those genres in the first place. You can't put a novel in the Romance genre if the two main characters don't remotely fancy each other, and a Thriller where the only crime committed is Mrs Pendles forgetting to return her library books on time would certainly be considered a violation of the Trades Description Act. Those conventions exist for very good reasons.

But surely, within the more concrete rules of genre, there's some creative wiggle-room? Is it not possible to have a Comedy-Thriller? An Urban Fantasy Romance? Steampunk Vampires? An Emotional Science Fiction story?

Whatever the answer, it's not going to stop me writing Renegades - and writing it my way, the way this story needs to be told, not to fit some pre-defined template of What Sci-Fi Stories Should Look Like. If that renders it 'unpublishable,' or 'something true sci-fi fans would never read' - well, so be it. While I can and will always strive to improve the way I write and how I write it, nothing could ever change the why in everything I write. Because the why is me - it's who I am.

Can we bend the boundaries of genres? We won't find out unless we try. If enough of us are bold, I think we can do it. The publishing world is changing, with more opportunities for experimentation than ever before. The laboratory's open - let's get mixing potions!