InboxWednesday – Sentence Length and Grammar

Good morning everyone, hope the Wednesday you’re facing down the barrel of isn’t too terrible.

Like we do every Wednesday, let’s reach into the inbox and pull out a question about writing or publishing. Remember, if you have a question and want it answered, write me an email. Even if I don’t answer your question on the blog, I will write you back and answer your question. I promise.

Today’s question comes from Pete, who asks:

John, you’ve talked before about how important it is to vary your sentences. I get that, but what about grammar. How do you make that work? How long is too long? How many long sentences can I get away with? Should my action scenes have fewer long sentences because they’re supposed to be quick? What do I do?

Okay Pete, you’ve asked a lot of great questions. I want to start though not at the top of the list, but in the middle, if you’ll let me.

Whenever I see “can I get away with” when we’re talking writing, I think about the idea of something being transgressive, like we’re sneaking a file inside a cake or we’re telling the substitute teacher that we’re encouraged not to pay attention – that there are established rules and we have to keep our rule-breaking a secret, so that someone else doesn’t find out what we’re up to.

But there isn’t a “someone else” here Pete, unless you mean that you’re afraid of the collective “other people” judge you for writing a thing they’re reading … or are you saying that if you write too many long sentences people will give up on your book, that they’ve already paid for, and you’ll lose their potential future sales on other books you read?

Okay, Pete, that’s a pretty ambitious fear. First it assumes you’re going to get published (which you totally should pursue), then it assumes you’re going to publish multiple things (which you totally should do), then it assumes that your developed audience (something you should have) will abandon you at the first sign of a long sentence. That last part doesn’t speak too highly of how you think about this audience – that they will turn on you just as soon as praise you, and that’s not really accurate. It’s not over sentence length that an author loses the reader, it’s a combination of factors … but that discussion comes later. Right now, that manuscript isn’t finished, so let’s steer back on course.

You don’t abandon grammar entirely. You don’t abandon the sentence’s job of delivering ideas into the reader’s head. You do however experiment with how the sentence does its job. A fragment, although a no-no in some grammar contexts, can accurately convey information. Really. (see what just happened there?) Whereas a long sentence, full of clauses that twist and turn, carrying the reader towards a seemingly tremendous end can be a revelation as a break from short, punchy, almost yelling-at-you text.

I can expand on these ideas further with a sports analogy if you’ll indulge me. In hockey, for instance, players try to score goals while the opposing team’s defenders and goalie try and stop them. The player on offense has many ways to attempt to score points, so long as they hit the puck with a stick, and the puck goes into the net. They can do this with a slapshot, a wrist shot, a quick tap-in, a deflection, even an errant pass that takes a lucky turn or bounce.

Likewise, as a writer, you have many tools at your disposal to deliver your ideas (get your puck in the net). You can use long sentences (slap shots), short sentences (wrist shots), fragments (tap-ins), a variety of clauses (deflections and bouncing pucks). You are not without options, and each of those options has its roots in the principles of good grammar.

Recall too that “good” is not synonymous with “perfect” (or so my therapist reminds me), so grammar doesn’t have to be flawless to be accurate, understandable or enjoyed. The maxim in writing is: When you understand the rule, you can break the rule.

This supposes though that you know the rule. And “know” in this context refers to the ability to demonstrate following it. Write some really strong sentences, throw in a fragment and see what happens. In this way, the rules become guidelines, templates, and assumptions available for your use to educe your own voice and idea.

Sentence length is one tool for developing ideas. How many you use is going to vary, but overuse slows momentum, as the reader will take longer to get through the sentence, particularly when the word choice or punctuation make the lines dense and difficult to parse.

A different problem bubbles up when the long sentence is dialogue, as it can seem very jarring and almost monologue-y to have someone speaking in great paragraphs during a scene where perhaps long conversation does not make sense (the building is blowing up all around her, yet she wants to discourse about the state of the produce cartel.)

But there are cases when long sentences are useful. Establishing scenes, laying out detailed descriptions, anywhere you can take similar information and spread it out as a setup for things to come, all are fertile for longer sentences.

Of course, this means we’ve all agreed on how long “long” is. And there’s no answer to that. If we agree that long sentences have multiple clauses, then we have to try and come to a consensus on how many clauses we’re talking about. And if we pick a number like 4, are we saying that sentences with 3 dependent clauses aren’t long? It’s a rabbit hole of overthinking.

And Pete, that’s the heart of this issue. Overthinking the delivery system of ideas in order to ensure “the best success” is a great way to end up with a very weak delivery system at all, because everything ends up critiqued and examined and questioned rather than trusted and tested. (This is the same sort of argument I make when we talk about editing while you work.)

Long sentences are not some rare power held by a few while the rest of the writing peasantry has to make due with word scraps to get their ideas out. It’s just another tool in the toolbox, use it as you think you need to. And if you think you’re not using it correctly, ask for help. In time you’ll figure out what works best for you, and it’ll be better than some pat answer, because it will be tailored to you, which is ideal.

Thanks for your question Pete, it was a good one.

See you all later this week for more blogging goodness. Happy writing.

 

 

Stop Aspiring, Start Doing

I’m an aspiring author.”

I hear those words a lot. I read them a lot in tweets and emails. And we’re going to talk about them this morning.

Good morning, welcome to Friday, good job getting through another week. Got any good weekend plans? I’ll be playing video games and editing manuscripts, which is a pretty good time. Oh, and I might treat myself to a steak.

Today we’re going to talk about aspiring, and why that word isn’t doing what you think it does. Because I don’t want you to be aspiring, I want you to be doing. Doing what? Doing whatever it is you do creatively.

So many people talk about aspiring, so let’s look at the definition first. Here:
Aspire1Aspire2Aspire3

Aspiring, from what I get in these 3 definitions, is wanting to do a thing or having a plan to do a thing. I don’t see in these definitions the actual effort, just the preparations.

There’s nothing wrong with preparation, it’s how we improve and effort towards success. But preparing to do X isn’t actually doing X, and that’s the important point.


I want to take a second to point out that moving forward from aspiring to doing can bring a lot of people and their opinions into whatever you’re doing. They may say things like “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” or “Are you sure you want to do X that way?” or they become some sort of oracle when previously they had just been critical. Take their feedback with a few handfuls of salt. Critics are not the boss of you. It’s okay to move forward and do the best job you can, even if that job requires time, patience or learning some new stuff. You’re allowed to make mistakes, and you’re allowed to get better. Okay, sidebar over.


We use aspiring to talk about stuff that hasn’t happened yet, but we’d really like it to happen. As if we’ve placed the order with a server, and we’re waiting on our entrees. This suggests that what we want is subject to external forces, and while that is partially true depending on circumstance (selling a million books means a million books need to be produced), the bulk of what we aspire to do is within our ability.

Maybe it’s not automatic. Maybe we’ll need to raise money, get training, change a habit, start a new habit, talk to some people, take a risk, fill out a form, get on a plane, write an email, or whatever. But we can still do those things. We’re not wholly incapable of performing the task, it’s that we’ve mentally resigned ourselves to a position where we think we can’t accomplish the task.

It would be expensive to travel. Equipment to do that thing is expensive. Getting something done takes time. You don’t know who to talk to. What if people laugh at you? What if other people, society, the universe, determines you’re awful? Note: It’s been pointed out to me that awful people can run for President and get their party’s endorsement, so don’t give up hope.

We imprison ourselves in a little comfortable low-risk cage, with shackles made of fear and excuses and projection. We could be doing stuff, but “our place” is over here where we don’t let ourselves take whatever steps necessary, or even take the steps beyond those. Because we might fail. Because we might be rejected. Because we might find out we’ve wasted time or money.

Says who?

Who’s going to laugh at you for taking that vacation? Who’s going to think you’re a failure because you’re taking noticeable steps towards your goal? How is making an effort the same as failing?

It’s time to stop aspiring, and start doing. This is how we got to the moon, landed a dishwasher on a comet and know what DNA looks like. This is how we created national parks, got a black guy elected, and learned that graham crackers get even better with chocolate and marshmallow.

But how? How can we excise this word and this idea out of our heads when we see it repeated over and over?

We prove it wrong. We prove it to be an inadequate descriptor of what we’re doing.

We’re not just people staring out the window, diddling around, with big hopes and blank spaces. We’re creatives. We make stuff. We tell stories. We make art out of cheese. We shake our moneymakers. We hammer metal into shapes. We do stuff, sometimes with pants on.

Every day, every chance you get, not just when convenient, not just when you remember to, do something substantive that gets you towards your goal.

A writer? Get more than 1 word on the page. Aim for multiple sentences. Not revising them. Fresh ones.

A maker of stuff? Sketch, prototype, develop.

What I’m saying is do more than just think about it. Do more than fire up the imagination and wouldn’t-it-be-nice engines. You can make this stuff happen.

No, not right away, nothing happens right away. It’ll take time. But you have time, more than you realize. And you’ll accomplish the goal, you’ll get where you want to be, you just need to make progress.

No, it won’t always be easy. Some days you’re not gonna wanna do anything. Some days you’ll feel like you haven’t done nearly enough. The goal is going to look a million billion miles away.

But that’s when you look at the work you’ve done. The actual work, not just the time spent thinking or staring out the window watching the neighborhood pass you by. See the words on the page? They weren’t there before. See the sketches? They didn’t poof into existence. You did that. You took a step forward. Good job.

And celebrate when you take that step forward. I know, it’s not the goal, but if goals were only one step away, you probably wouldn’t be lamenting them not happening, would you?

This is all predicated though on taking your goal and breaking it into reasonable steps. And the key there is “reasonable.” Reasonable means not only a manageable size given the current time frame and all the other stuff you have going on, but it also doesn’t require extraordinary intervention. Winning the lottery so you can pay off your crushing student debt is not as reasonable as say, having 2 and not 3 drinks when you go out, so that eleven dollars doesn’t leave your checking account is reasonable.

Your goal shouldn’t always means an end to your life as you know it. Sometimes, yes, it can, if you wanted to become a monk and live in a cave, you probably don’t want to living in downtown Seattle going out to microbreweries every night. But on the whole, you can develop incremental steps towards your goal (those steps are goals themselves, don’t forget), where the rest of your life doesn’t detour.

My point is, you don’t have to keep aspiring. You can go do it. One step at a time. Set up your own steps, and make your goal happen. I believe in you, even if I’m just a guy on the internet blogging three times a week and tweeting a lot.

 

Have a great weekend, happy writing, I’ll see you back here Monday.

The Issue of Anxiety And Worry

Good morning, my friends. My apologies for missing time with you earlier this week, I hope you’ll forgive me, I neither wanted to bring you inadequate thoughts, nor did my body want to cooperate and be in less pain for a few hours. But I’m here with you today, and it’s good to be here with you at the end of the week.

While I’m writing this, it’s in the mid-60s, the sun is out, and I hear the scrape of neighbors’ rakes. Normally that sound would lead me to turn the stereo louder and grumble, but frankly I’m pleased to be surrounded by ambient sounds right now.

Let me further apologize for not speaking to today’s issue sooner. I have been meaning to, the outline for this post has called my Drafts folder home since FiYoShiMo, and this was almost going to be one of the early days, but the thoughts hadn’t congealed to more than day old pudding, so it sat around, fermenting, until I was pleased with it.

Today we’re going to talk anxiety, but not the specific anxieties. I want to focus on the anxiety about writing, the worry about what you’re writing being “good enough”, the idea that you’re being “original enough”, and the fear that you’d be better off yelling at a sock puppet instead of querying.

I hear this fear a lot. I hear it directly as people doubt that they’re doing the right thing. I hear it indirectly as people downplay a day’s work, or shrug off a compliment from a reader. It’s an insidious pirate, sailing the high seas of creativity and plundering your word and publishing booty. It’s a legion of cockroaches in power armor, marching strident towards your couch, even with the lights on. It’s a jerk and a bastard and a bitch.

But what can we do? We can’t let the pirate scuttle us, we can’t let the roaches set up an embassy and Starbucks franchise, can we?

If the worry is that what we right isn’t “good enough”, shift your focus from ‘good’ to ‘enough’, and realize that ‘enough’ assumes you have a context and contemporaries to whom you can be judged. Think about the face of it: if you’re talking about your not-complete manuscript, and you’re saying you’re comparable to finished book X, on how many levels are you judging yourself?

Their book is done. Yours isn’t.
Their book is about … space weasels. Yours has housewives.
Their book is published and available in paperback. Yours is available in that folder on that thumb drive you keep in the bottom of that old plastic cup you got from that date you took to the carnival and you thought you two were totally gonna kiss then they decided that just after getting off the Ferris wheel with you, they were going to go meet up with their friends and they’d totally call you later, so you raced home, only they never called you, but you eventually saw then about eight years later, they became a skiing instructor with a spray-on tan and a bad boob job and you decided not to call her back either. (I may have said too much)
Their book is the fifth in a series. Yours has barely got five chapters so far, but you’re like, really close on figuring out what happens in the sixth.

There should be a law, so let’s call it … the Adamus Law of Judgmental Comparison, because it’s my blog, and I need more ego strokes. (Make with the stroking…), which says: For every point of difference you can find between your work and someone else’s, you knock down your own sense of value and quality ten per cent on average.

I say this because there’s a huge difference between comparing and contrasting two items, and putting one on a telescopic pedestal so you can always fall short.

This is particularly the case if you’re not done writing and you’re judging your words on the paperback you picked up in the airport bookstore. An incomplete thing, whatever it is, cannot measure up at all to a finished thing. Even if what you’ve got is already bigger or more complex, or has better LEDs, you can’t let the finished state of one thing be the judge of your incomplete work … unless you’re comparing completeness. And if you do that, it’s binary: you’re either finished or you’re not finished.

Will it be “good enough”? What does that mean? Do you mean “Will people like it?” How about you finish it and then go find out? Neither you nor I know whether or not your book is going to be liked, but being liked doesn’t make it good “enough”. It doesn’t even make it “good”, because there are loads of things people like that aren’t good (political discussions, victim social politics) and loads of things that people dislike that are good (episodes of Maury not about finding out who the father is).

Also, you and I will define “good” by different definitions, based wholly on our subjective experiences, our educations, our own tastes, and a host of other influences.Neither of us is wrong, we just disagree. (It’s important to remember that people can disagree, and neither has to be the wrong one)

Instead of chasing good enough for other people, go after good enough for yourself. This isn’t a call for narcissism, for blind arrogance, or intransigence. The internet has plenty of that, often in a variety of hair colors, funny hats, suits, and photo filters.

Don’t move the goalposts on yourself, that’s not the same as setting a new goal and accomplishing it. What’s wrong with setting a goal, accomplishing it, feeling good about it, then setting off to achieve a new goal? Do you just want to cut out the part where you feel good, because you don’t think you’ve earned it?

Remember please that feelings aren’t facts, so your feeling that you don’t deserve praise is noted, but in no way does it need indulgence. You’re better than that, and you should hear that more often. Set a goal, celebrate its accomplishment, and set another.

As for your fears of originality, so long as you’re not lifting wholesale story chunks and badly filing down the serial numbers (sorry, writer of Winged-Rodent Young Woman), and so long as you’re doing you, to the best of your ability, you’re good. Keep going.

Oh, you want more? Sure. While there are only so many basal stories for our foundations (I covered them here), anything you do creates original content. Yes, anything. So, yes, you’re being original “enough.”

Will any of what I said allay your worries? I don’t know. I hope so, it would be nice to be less worried, wouldn’t it? But ultimately I cannot know how you’re doing unless you tell me, so I look forward to hearing from you.

Have a great weekend, make amazing art. I’m going to see a very heavily promoted and poorly reviewed movie this weekend, so Monday’s blog will likely be called, “What the hell did I see at the movies?”

See you then. Happy writing.

Show vs Tell, Emotion vs Information

Welcome back to your work week. I know, I know, weekends always seem so short and the hours you do other stuff seem to vastly outnumber the hours when you don’t have to put on pants. And as a guy makes his living doing the opposite of that – I only have to put on pants when I’m not working – I get it. So let’s dive into making good art and we’ll get through this.

There’s a big deal made about “show versus tell” and it’s worth the big deal, for sure, but I ask a lot of writers what they think it means, and I hear a lot of differing answers. They’re not all wrong, some are just incomplete, or vague. Today, I want to give you another definition for it, maybe you’ll find this more applicable or understandable than how I normally talk about it.

But that means we need to give the usual definition first, so we can build a point of comparison. Usually, I talk about show vs tell as a way to give the reader a sense of investment, or “room” to be a part of the story, as the writer doesn’t over- or inflexibly explain the elements in text, so the reader is drawn deeper and forward into the fiction.

And that’s not a bad definition – you show the canvas, you don’t have such a rigid sense of what’s been painted on it, and you had the reader a little brush and a little color and say, “Yeah, I know I’m talking about a coffee table, and it’s not that critical that I need to be so controlling, so you picture whatever table you want, it’s cool.” A fair definition and explanation, but it’s hard to grasp if you’ve never done it well.

Here’s the new way to come at this. We’re going to talk information transfer theory, but rather than get super technical and duller than bad paint, we’re going to stay simple.

Information transfer theory is the idea that one person has something to convey to someone else, and how they choose to do that. Maybe it’s spoken, maybe it’s a gesture, maybe it’s written. Maybe it’s smoke signals and arranging rocks. Whatever it is, info goes from one person (the creator) to another (the receiver), and we use have very declarative verbs to express that transfer: speak, say, yell, write, draw … tell.

Telling is all about conveying information. And yes, when we relay information, we don’t want there to be any wiggle room, we want our meaning and our specifics conveyed, especially when the information relates to something critical. Would you be okay with playing the telephone game if the original message is “Your house is on fire!” or “Would you like medical attention for that gunshot?”

We learn a lot of telling in school. We tell the class about the book we read. We tell the teacher the answer for question 18. We tell the attractive person that we want to go to the dance and then she tells two people she doesn’t want to go with you, so they tell you her message, with their fists. (8th grade was a very strange experience for me).

We learn a lot of telling from our media. The television tells us the news, weather, sports, political atrocities and traffic updates. Those blogs you subscribe to tell you all kinds of stuff about whatever you’re interested in.

Telling lets the receiver be very passive in the transfer relationship. You sit there, the other person does all the work. Telling is the lapdance of writing. You get an experience … but is it really the experience you want? Save some dollar bills and keep an eye on how much telling you’re doing.

Showing though is the champagne room. You get past the expositive bouncer, and you have some ability to feel something (that’s some wordplay for your Monday). The flip side of information transfer theory is emotion prioritized over information. We feel however we feel based on the information, but we can be steered towards some emotions over others based on context.

A writer has a responsibility, though I’d call it a duty and obligation, to make the reader feel something.

But, you say, if I’ve got information to convey, and I can’t control whatever the reader feels upon hearing that the sky is overcast on a particular day, how can I make my reader feel anything?

Well, writer, assuming they feel nothing doesn’t speak very highly as to what you think of your readers. What you’re subcutaneously asking is how you can make them feel “what you want” when they read that the sky is the color of pigeon wings.

Which is why we need the combination of show AND tell when we create art. No, you can’t and don’t want to be all one or the other.

All tell, and you’ve got a dry stack of words with minimal warmth and interest. You’re Spock telling me about planetary life signs. After a while, we need to go find another crew member to interact with.

All show, and you’ve got words with greater width than depth. You can go on and on, adding adjectives and flourish to same ideas, making them more ornate or being more specific, but you’re not combining them with other information to build a complete picture. It’s a teenage love letter, happy to be repeating “I love you” a thousand times, but not having a depth to the idea. And after awhile, it loses its meaning.

But telling serves a critical role: it gives us a boundary, or more like several boundaries. It establishes the perimeter within which we can do all the emotion-evoking we want. And the more definite the boundaries, the more detailed we can get within them.

For example, let’s look at the room I’m sitting in while I’m writing this. It’s Sunday, at 1 minute past noon as I write this sentence, and I’m in an office chair, a bottle of water on my left side, next to my phone that I’ve plugged in to charge while it streams Spotify. The blinds are up on the windows to my right, and the windows are closed. I can hear morning doves. My feet are cold.

That’s a whole lot of telling. I’ve put together quite a few boundaries:

  • The time of day, and the day of the week
  • The chair I’m in
  • Some of the items to my left and right
  • The state of the window blinds and windows
  • What I hear
  • A physical sensation I’m experiencing

With those things defined, I don’t have to qualify additional boundaries. You have enough there to picture me sitting here writing on a Sunday afternoon. What I can do now is add in elements I think will help you feel something in the ballpark of what I intend the text to feel. I can add character and color and shading and narration so that we see a completed picture that tells you a story, not just a set of facts.

Like this: It’s Sunday, just after 12 noon, and as I write, there’s two thoughts at war with the writing – first, I want a shower, second, I want it to be about ten degrees warmer and ditch this grey sky. It’s a downer, no matter how loud I play swing music or think about delicious food. The chair creaks under even the gentlest strains, locking me into a posture like I’m stuck in an economy seat next to some shoe salesman named Earl. Checking wordcount, I’m through 1260 right now, so I’m pretty satisfied. My feet are cold, and I wish I had something other than water to drink as I stare out the windows.

No, the above facts didn’t all make it, because when you aim to evoke emotion, you’re not going to need all the facts to stay, because narration isn’t recitation.  Nor will there be a perfect 50-50 balance that you can always strike.

But you need to define the sandbox somewhat before you go play in it. Information is the basis upon which we educe emotion from our audience, whether we’re writing a touching eulogy or using green on a canvas to make someone remember the lawn of a childhood home.

Consider your boundaries. You control the focus and camera movment, so why do we need THAT piece of information in THAT spot at THAT time? Is it to get us to feel a particular way in a particular moment? Or are you building towards something in word-increments so that when we soon reach another point, we’ve got this whole context in hand so we can appreciate what you mean?

Consider the emotions. How intensely do you need us to feel them? Do we need to feel them as intensely in every sentence, every time? Is that going to yield diminishing returns, constantly keeping the reader cranked to 11? Don’t forget you also hold the ability to push/pull, to vary the words and the emotional triggers and state. The audience has come to you for a whole story, and you’re leading people through the experience a word at a time.

I know, it’s one thing to talk about it, another to do it. So go practice it. Draft after draft. Paragraph after paragraph. You’ll get better at it, the more you do it, and the more you push yourself to do it in ways and places you didn’t think you could or should (yes, you can and should do it all over the place).

See you back here for #inboxwednesday. Happy writing.

InboxWednesday -Racing, Reviews, and Respect

In case you missed it Monday, the survey (still free, still anonymous) about editing and coaching is up. If you could take a minute or two and fill it out, I’d really appreciate it. Check it out right here.

Welcome to the middle of your week. We’ve made it this far, I think we can get through. I don’t know why we’d want to put noses to grindstones, that seems like a great way to end up like Voldemort or Skeletor, so how about we instead jump into the inbox and answer some questions?

John, I’ve been trying to finish this MS for 4 years, ever since my daughter went into school, and have days to myself when the house isn’t a wreck. I’m writing a little nearly every day, but it’s so discouraging seeing other people talking on social media about how they’re querying manuscripts they wrote and revised in half the time. What am I doing wrong? – Danielle

Danielle, you’re not doing anything wrong. I’ll say that again, you’re not doing anything wrong. Publishing (like so many other things in this world) isn’t a sprint with a gold medal on the line. There’s no bonus prize award for speed. There’s no achievement you unlock for writing a novel in less than thirty drafts. Writing is meritocratic, meaning the good work goes forward, and the duds don’t (even though all work teaches us stuff).

I know what you’re talking about. That sense of near-failure or struggle that you’re taking so long to do something that other people seem to do in the blinks of a few eyes, and then to top it off they talk about all the other good things going on in their lives and you start wondering if you’re doing anything right at all because you’re not done writing AND your kids just spilled juice on the rug AND your spouse forgot to get the eggs AND you’re supposed to be out of the house within the next 10 minutes. Yeah, it’s a maelstrom of suck, or at least you keep telling yourself it is, so long as you lens everything through whether or not that manuscript is complete.

But, Danielle, you are not your manuscript. You are not your rejection letters. You are not your to-be-done text file of ideas. You are not your Pinterest boards and daydreams.

You’re a whole person, and the only one driving you to compare your manuscript to someone else’s is … you. The reader over there? They don’t care how many drafts it took you. They’re not aware that you wrote chapter 23 while you were sick with flu and ran to the bathroom every six sentences. They just want the book. And since they’ve made it this far in life without your book, I’m pretty sure they’ll be happy to wait for the thing they didn’t realize they would enjoy.

What I’m saying is this – make the  best manuscript you can Danielle. Be bold and fearless and take risks. Put your guts on the page. Write as best you can, when you can. Don’t fall prey to the comparisons about other writers. You’re not other writers, and they’re not you.

Write your story. Finish your story. Keep going.

Hi John! I just got my first book published last year, and the first months of reviews were positive. And for a while, I would run into people who read the book, and they really liked it. But now it’s been nearly a year, and the reviews have slowed down, and I started getting a few negative ones. What do I do? Is this normal? – C.

Hi C. Congratulations on getting your first book published, and I’m glad to hear the reviews have been positive. Yes, what you’re experiencing is typical. There’s a great surge up front, and then things cool off. There are a couple reasons for this.

First, that initial surge probably had some promotion behind it. You were tweeting about it, you were blogging about it, you had friends talking about it when it first came out. It was a new experience, and there was a rush behind it. After a bit of time, it’s no longer as new.

Second, there’s something called “initial push and conversion” which is the immediate reach you have to audience, with a little bit of extension. What that means in English is this: how many people can you directly talk to about your book, and how many of those people will go pick up your book, read it, AND review it. I have 1520 Twitter followers, so while I can reach that many people, I can’t control all 1520 to read my blog, nor can I many all or any of them share what I post with their friends. That’s a lot of people who have the potential to read the blog, but I can’t go to each of their houses and make them not only read, but also comment. Past those 1520 people, my blog is just out there in the wild, so some element of the traffic is based on people googling stuff or just stumbling upon it.

Third, it’s always tough to get readers to leave reviews. That’s not the book’s fault, that’s a combination of factors like assuming someone else will do it so they don’t have to, the perceived amount of time it would take to do more than just click on a number of stars, and the amount of time it would take to sign into a website people may use all the time anyway. And while it’s great that Mary from Anchorage gave the book 5 stars, you’re hoping that Mary takes a few minutes to put some words down along with her 5 stars, so that people read the review and want to buy the book.

The funny part is where you may struggle to have people write lengthy praise, you may have no trouble getting them to bomb your book, especially if it somehow pisses in their cornflakes, upsets their apple cart, or challenges their previously held thoughts. Oh, how the heavens shall tremble when you make a character a race other than what they’re expecting. Oh, how the world shall fall asunder when two characters of the same gender decide they want to go hang out without pants on.

Yes, I should say here, I am a believer in the idea that even bad press is press, and you can use this to your advantage (without the horseshit of generating your own controversy so you can play the victim though, I have no patience for it, and if you want that, there are plenty of websites where you can go for that experience) with sharp marketing copy like “Come check out the book everyone says is ruining all of mankind because two ladies go out for latte.” or “Do you agree with X number of reviewers that anthropomorphic hot dog aliens are the worst thing ever since ‘we let the gays marry’?” But that’s just me, and maybe your preferred response to bookcritic4lyfe88 is to get your ice cream and beer on.

What you do is this – keep writing. Go make that next book, tell that next story, don’t lose yourself to tending the garden of reviews when you have so many other seeds to plant and watch bloom. Just keep going.

Hey John, love the blog. Glad to hear you’re recovering from surgery and I’m happy to see you posting again. I’m not sure you’re going to answer this email, but I wanted to tell you that I’ve taken the plunge and starting writing. I’m a SAHM, so I squeeze my writing in during irregular hours when I’m not being a chauffeur or referee between two kids. My husband has started working from home two days a week, but I’m having trouble convincing them that I’m seriously trying to write. Any tips? – Allison

Allison, thanks for the question. Yes, I have some tips.

First, one of the things that you need to look at are those “irregular” hours. Yeah, I know, kids can throw a wrench in a lot of routines sometimes, but that’s not always the norm is it? Sometimes, yes, there are just regular downtimes and a sort of unspoken schedule. Spend a few days really trying to figure out what that schedule is and write it down.

If your kids are both in bed and asleep by 8:30 (I’m making times up here), and your husband is happily content doing his own thing by then too, then you’ve got let’s say 8:30 to 10pm to yourself. Explain to your husband (always start with the adults) that you’re going to make a habit out of writing from 8:30 to 9:15 (again, I’m making up times Allison), and that during that time, you want to keep the distractions to a minimum. Now I don’t know what you consider a distraction, maybe you want him to yell at the Xbox a little less loudly, or when the kids pop up because of whatever reason, you send them to see your husband first before you. Yeah, there might be some grumbling, there always is when a status quo changes, but if you stick to it, people will come around.

You deserve the opportunity to have your time and interests respected. But the other people around you aren’t going to know what’s up without you putting down a boundary and enforcing it. Sure, some distractions are going to require your intervention, and that is going to cut into that writing schedule, but by and large, you can set up a schedule and stick to it, so long as you ride out that initial anxiety you have that people will freak out because you’re going to go be creative. It’s worth pointing out that you don’t know how they’re going to react until you start, so start, and trust the people around you to be supportive. You’re good enough to respect yourself and be respected by others.

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If you have a question you want to see answered on #inboxwednesday, send me an email. Yes, I really do read them all.

Go create. We’ll talk Friday.

 

 

Of Writers and Scotsmen

Welcome back to the week. Hope your weekend was a good one. Mine wasn’t too shabby, thanks for asking. The weather’s getting warmer, so I’m encouraged to leave the blinds up and I’m counting those days until the clocks shift an hour when we’re one step closer to me having windows open and music blaring – it remains my favorite stretch of the year.

Also, on a personal note, I’m getting better. The meds are working, I can afford them now (yay insurance!), and I’ve got more energy than I had last week. I’m not completely up to speed again, but this is definitely a big step forward.

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Before we get into today’s topic, I’ve got a favor to ask. I’ve put together a short anonymous survey (you don’t need to give your name or e-mail address) that I’d appreciate you taking. It’s 10 questions, and won’t take more than a few minutes.

Check it out here. Thanks.

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Today we’re going to talk about sort of a hot button issue, depending on how often you frequent message boards and forums for writers, though the problem exists outside of writerdom. I want to talk today about the No True Scotsman fallacy and how it kills rather than strengthen writing and its communities.

What is the No True Scotsman? It’s an assertion that a “true” (read: “real”) __________ wouldn’t do whatever it is they’re doing.

Like this:
A: No writer succeeds without an MFA.
B: I’m a successful writer, and I don’t have an MFA.
A: Yeah, okay, but no real writer succeeds without an MFA.

Swap “writer” for any label you can think of, and swap the back half of the sentence  (start with the verb and go forward), and you’ll see this a lot. Here are some examples I’ve heard and read over the weekend.

No real writer writes children’s books.
To be a real larper, you need to be out there every weekend.
No real feminist thinks penetrative intercourse is acceptable.
No real chef makes a casserole.
A real writer would know that only trad pub makes you legit.
No real parent lets their child eat a doughnut.
To be a real gamer, you had to have played Dungeons & Dragons first edition.
No real patriot thinks we need to get rid of guns.

Maybe you’ve heard this sort of stuff before. Maybe it hasn’t been in the form of a single sentence, but the idea gets put out there that there are “real” writers and then there are “not-real” writers based on what people do or don’t do. You see this a lot on message boards when people ask questions or challenge assumptions or just plain don’t know because they’re new or unsure.

What this does is create an unnecessary division within a group, so there’s an opportunity to create an us-versus-them environment, where one group can deny access, praise, legitimacy, information, or experience from another group. It’s another form of gatekeeping, since it makes one group have to validate themselves to the other group, if they want to be considered “real.”

It’s a giant crock of applesauce and horsefeathers.

Because a real writer is someone who writes. Period. A real gamer is someone who plays games. Period. A real ____ is someone who does/is _______, because the act of doing a thing is  what makes you a person who does a thing. To suggest that someone isn’t legitimate because they don’t conform to your metric says that you’re somehow the arbiter of other people’s efforts and talent and thoughts.

I just checked. You’re not the arbiter of other people.

I’ve also noticed that the people who want to spend their time talking about who is or isn’t a “real” writer are often doing so at the internet watering holes for writers, and often do so repeatedly over the course of several hours. I watched one user write 7 or 8 posts over the course of 2 hours, feuding with anyone within 60 virtual feet about how you shouldn’t go to Author X’s blog, that Author Y’s blog was better, how you can’t trust any editors, how you need to be doing A and B and C things … all this talk, when they could instead let the writing and production of writing be a meritocracy.

Want to be a real writer? Then be writing. Make good art. Art hard. Challenge yourself. Don’t poison the watering holes by pissing in it. That time you spend yapping about who is and isn’t a writer is time YOU could be writing, helping yourself rather than shutting down others. Unless, of course, you feel you need to shut down other people to feel better about yourself.

We’re all true Scotsmen. We’re all real writers, even if we disagree with each other or work differently.

See you later this week for #inboxwednesday.

Happy writing.