Thursday, August 28, 2014

Amazon vs Hachette

Amazon has stopped selling books by Hachette published authors. This move is ruining the livelihood of many professional authors. This is what happens when you let a company become a monopoly. Amazon is the enemy of authors.


Hachette is dragging their feet. Hachette refuses to negotiate because they want to force Amazon into being a party to their exploitation of all their authors. They are hiding behind the media and publicity generated by their big name authors. It's one more motion by traditional publishing to screw us all over.


Look, this isn't affecting me. Hachette and Amazon bickering over contract terms? Nothing to do with me. I'm not published by Hachette and Amazon is still selling my book.

So rather than addressing Amazon or Hachette, I'd like to take this time to address all the authors who are getting involved. I'm specifically talking to you Hachette published folks who are taking a stand for your publisher, but it applies to everyone.

Authors everywhere, on both sides of this argument, you need to shut up for a little while.

I've been reading about this a lot since it started and as far as I can tell, nobody really knows what is going on except the big boys at Amazon and Hachette. They can't tell us what's being said in negotiation and the details of what terms are contentious. You and I just don't know. It's foolish to assume we do and jump into this argument like we've got all the facts.

And Hachette authors, if you're concerned about not having your books in stock with Amazon, there's this big company called Hachette that is in charge of your distribution. If they're not doing their job, talk to them. They're your middle man. Your contact is with them, not Amazon. They exist to speak for you, so go make sure they're speaking for you.

Or go back to writing. In the end, stories are going to be told. If Hachette folds, books will still be written. If Amazon quits the book selling business, books will still be written. Two people are needed for this arrangement: An author and a reader. No matter what happens, authors will author, readers will read and we'll find some way of getting out stories into the hands of the audience. Industries change, but that will always be true.

In the end, Hachette is trying to do what is best for Hachette. That's not the same as doing what's best for Hachette authors. They have a bottom line to look out for and do you know what is written on that line? Protip: It's not your name.

Amazon is no different. They want to run their business in a way that, they think, will make them the most money. That's not the same as making the most money for their suppliers. They are looking out for their profits and you shouldn't expect anything different.

Side with the people who are benefiting you. That's easy in this scenario, because when Amazon isn't stocking your book and Hachette isn't getting your books stocked, neither of them are benefiting you.

It's like Treebeard says: I'm not on anybody's side because nobody is on my side.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Your Style Sucks: When and Why to Break The Rules

Some time ago, a writer friend of mine asked me to critique their work. They hadn't written much, which made it easy to oblige. So I gave it a read and the next time I saw my friend, I brought it up. While reading my friend's work, something struck me. My friend had used a lot of incomplete sentences. Half sentences. Sentences that didn't seem to finish before a new one started. It was some of the strangest use of language I'd ever encountered. Needless to say, this poor grasp of syntax and grammar did not lend itself to the most pleasant reading experience. It wasn't to the point that it was indecipherable by any means. It was just strange.
I said to my friend, "You know, you use a lot of half sentences."
"Oh yeah." My friend responded. "That's my style."

I looked for the nearest exit to that conversation. I probably changed the subject or went and got a drink or leaped out the nearest window, grabbed hold of a telephone wire and glided to safety. That's how I like to remember it.

In any event, what I learned that day was that, sometimes, when a person says the words "What do you think?" or "I'd like some feedback." What they are really saying is, "Please praise me for this thing I have done." And if you just want to show off, then fine. Let me be the first to shake your hand, pat you on the back and say "Well done. You did a thing!" Just don't ask for honest or critical feedback if you don't want it.

But coming back to that statement ("It's my style.") I find myself wondering if this is ever a good excuse. Can style break the rules and create good writing? Well, yeah. Sometimes it does, although let's just clarify that by saying quality of writing is something of a subjective notion. Still, a lot of people seem to like Ulysses and that certainly sacrificed a lot for style. Catcher in The Rye makes use of passive voice as a stylistic choice to define the narrator. There's a lot to be said for style.

So then, I guess the question is, when does style win?

Or, perhaps the better question is, when is it okay to break the rules? Rules are, of course, made to be broken. I've gone on record as saying the rule "Show, don't tell." can, often is and should be broken. But that doesn't make it any less a "Rule for Good Writing" (somebody suggest a better name. Something snappy.) So when can we break those rules?

Um... I don't know. Nope. Sorry, I don't have a clean cut answer for this. You'll have to figure it out for yourself. I mean, I break the rules. When do I do it? I do it when it works. But when it works to break a rule can't be easily defined. It depends on what and how you're writing.

Fortunately, what I can do, is help guide you in deciding whether or not you're going to be a rule breaker.

#1: Don't do it often. Be sparing in how and when you break the rules. The standard style in which you write - that is, your default voice and use of language - should not be built on breaking the rules.

#2: Know the rules. There are rules and you should follow them. They're easy to learn. The rules are important. Use active voice. Kill ugly adverbs. Show, don't tell. Start as late in the story as you can. Engage all your reader's senses. Pick a tense and stick to it. The verb goes between the subject and the object of your sentence. The full stop goes at the end of your sentence. These are all rules. Know them. Obey them.

#3: Understand the rules. It's not enough to go around reciting the mantra "Adverbs are bad. No words ending in -ly." Pick up a dictionary and learn what an adverb is. Not all adverbs end in -ly and not all words that end in -ly are adverbs. Not all adverbs are bad, either. But a clunky adverb in the wrong place can be damaging to your writing. We're told to gut our work of these menaces for a good reason. They're ugly, clunky and often unnecessary. You never need to tell me that "John ran quickly down the road." because by using the word "ran" I know he's going "quickly"

#4: Know what you want to accomplish with breaking the rules. Are you doing it to set a tone? Are you doing it to emphasise a point? Is it important to charaterise your narrator? Is it funny? Is it exciting? "It's my style." is not a reason. Don't break the rules to stand out. Break the rules because it adds more than it subtracts from your work.

#5: Don't do it at all. Don't break the rules. Find a way around it. Find an option that does what you want without breaking the rules. Rethink your plan. Go back to the drawing board. Explore your options. Look for an equally effective way to tell your story, the way you want to tell it, without breaking the rules.

And finally, go ahead and smash them. Rip them out, break them in half and stomp them into the dirt. Rules? Fuck the rules. You are the master of your own destiny. Sometimes the best option is to kick tradition right in its pudgy, decrepit arse.

Rules can be broken, they are broken and they should be broken. If it makes your writing stronger and your story better, then do it. But before you can be sure that it's the best move, you need to understand why so many writers who came before you have learned them, followed them and passed them down. The wisdom of the ages should not be ignored. Only when you understand what those rules mean and what they do for your writing, can you see how breaking them might add to your work.

And don't ever, ever do it because it's your "style." That's your style? Sorry, buster. Your style sucks.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Writers Group

I don't regret leaving Deviant Art. It's been great for my procrastination. But it did leave a hole in my life. So I recently joined a writers group. I did this once before. That was six years ago and it was so horrible that I never wanted anything to do wither writers groups again. This group is different though. It's made up of people I already know an am friends with, all with varying skill and experience as writers. Also, it's primarily done online, so we can fit it around all our schedules. There's also a policy of anonymity, so the work we share and the work we review is not attached to any person in particular. I guess the idea is that it is easier to give and take criticism if you don't know exactly who it's coming from. We're also all adults, so that should help. Anyway. It's a unique approach to a writer's group. We have our own private little forum space on the internet to share and communicate. The only reason I dared to join again is because it is made up of people I already know and form my day to day social circle.

I'll let you know how it goes in the future. But now let me tell you about the last group I was a part of. This was the writer's group from hell. So let me set the scene. It is the hottest part of summer here in Sydney, Australia. That means we're in the low 40 degrees celcius range and the humidity could drown you. It's around eight in the morning and I have the biggest hang over of my life and all of about four hours of sleep. That right there should be enough reason to kill myself rather than go anywhere on this morning, but I agreed (the night before) to go along to this writer's group that a friend of mine has just joined (thanks to another friend of hers). So there's the connection. A friend of a friend of mine is part of a writer's group. My friend has been once before and now I'm going along. The writers group meets at a little cafe in the inner-west, about an hour's drive from my quaint little suburban home. Normally I'd get the train and it'd be a smooth, air conditioned ride with lots of space to spread out because nobody travels that early on a weekend morning, unless there's something big happening. That weekend there wasn't, so the train would be a comfortable way to travel. But we're not going by train. My friend, we'll call her Jessy, has arranged with her friend, we'll call her Lillith, Queen of the Demons, to pick us up and drive us there. This won't cut much time out of the journey but it will get us close to the door of where we're going. Sounds good. So I meet Jessy at the appointed meeting place and Lillith, Queen of the Demons arrives to pick us up in her car. Her old, old, old, old, probably has a horse powered steam engine, badly in need of replacing, doesn't work car. This car does not really have working windows and the air conditioning isn't so much an air conditioner as it is a set of sporadically working fans. It's all pleather interior and was made in the days before they tinted windows to stop the sun from smiling its murderous smile down upon you. So the car is hot and sticky and uncomfortable and I am hating every waking moment of my life. But Jessy and I climb about Lillith, Queen of the Demons' carriage to hell and we set off. Lillith, Queen of the Demons introduces herself to me and asks how I am and tells me that normally people coming to the writer's group bring a story to show off and talk about and everyone exchanges criticisms. The usual stuff you'd expect. She says because it is my first time, they wouldn't expect me to bring anything. I did bring something, but I don't say that just yet. I don't say anything, really. Me saying something would require a pause in the conversation and I am not afforded any such luxuries. And then Lillith, Queen of the Demons starts talking to Jessy. And she talks the whole drive to the cafe. We arrive at the cafe an eternity later. There's already some people there with a table for us. It doesn't take long before we've all arrived, we're all sitting down and we've ordered breakfast. Some people open up their bags and take out their writing pieces for this week's meeting. One woman doesn't take out any writing, but she does take out a notebook she bought and she starts showing it off. Everyone here, of course, also has a notebook that they can compare it to and talk about. They all agree that having a notebook is great and useful and it's what all the professionals do. Ugh... So I'm going to skip ahead a bit now. This is because, over the next hour and a half, a number of things happen. 1. Breakfast does not come. 2. Nobody talks about writing. 3. Lillith, Queen of the Demons does not stop talking. In fact, Lillith, Queen of the Demons hasn't stopped talking since I met her. The moment we got in the car with her, she began talking and she does not stop. Eventually she runs out of opinions and anecdotes and I hear her begin again from the beginning, talking about the things she spoke about in the car. It's like she's on some kind of loop. A loop designed to make me suffer. It is now I realised that I have given myself alcohol poisoning and I am dead. I am dead and this is hell. No. This can't be hell. Firstly because their are too many cute waitresses in denim hotpants for this to be hell. Secondly because nobody is deserving of this kind of hell. No god would be so cruel. No, this kind of suffering can only happen in our living, mortal realm. Only humans no how to create torture this horrible. Death and a swift deliverance unto hell would be a release at this point. There the devil and I could commiserate on my drawn out suffering. But eventually breakfast comes. A bacon and egg sandwich that would have gone so well with my coke if I hadn't already finished it. I'm too hung over to taste the greasy goodness of my breakfast, but not so hung over that I can't feel it when it burns the roof of my mouth. The clock ticks by and I see that we've been there for two hours now. That's in addition to the hour it took us to get there. I am no less uncomfortable or hung over but I hate everything a little more with each passing second. I begin to wish I could somehow harness the ticking of my watch and create some kind of watch ticking death ray that I could use to kill everybody around me. Headline: Man in subdued rage kills everybody in Newtown cafe, including himself, with bizarre watch weapon. Headline: Newspaper forgets how to make snappy headlines. Finally somebody suggests they talk about writing. Oh thank God. I've already read everbody's contribution at this point. Several times, in fact. I'll go through them one by one. First was my friend Jessy's. It was twilight fanfiction starring herself. Actually, that's not quite right. It wasn't Twilight fan fiction because that has some level of self-awareness and uses the Twilight setting. She had just rewritten Twilight, but instead of being about Bella, she had written it about herself. Instead of it being set in school, it was set in her workplace. I point this out to her and she explains to me that it can't be any kind of Twilight fanfiction because the main character, totally not her, is reading Twilight in the story. ... Headline: Man uses amateur writer's work to make an oragami knife and commit seppuku The next piece to come around is the work of Lillith, Queen of the Demons herself. It's not actually a story. It is an outline of a story. Actually, it is an outline of a scene. There is no beginning, middle or end, here. At the very most, this piece would be a flash fiction. It is not a major effort. Oh and it's also about her. It's some kind of auto-biographical memoir of her sad memories of being a childhood. I'm sure it's very cathartic for her to write. Or rather, I'm sure it would be very cathartic for her to write if she had actually written it. Instead she wrote a page long outline for what would be a page long story. Why? And she had a whole week to work on this! I know all about busy schedules but it's not like this writer's meeting snuck up on her! She knew this was coming! She could have written a draft of this the night before. Hell, if she'd taken the train, she could have written it on the train over. Sigh. Finally, we come to the last piece. That's right, only three people brought work to contribute. I don't remember the exact numbers for this meet up but including myself, there were at least six people. I think there were more but it was so long ago, I can't be sure. That means that, excluding the new guy (me) there were five regular members of this group and slightly more than half had written anything. In fact, one of them had only written half of something so it sort of balances out to being 2.5 out of 5 pieces that there should have been. It's a writers group. Writers group. Writers. AS IN YOU'RE SUPPOSED TO WRITE SOMETHING!!! Anyway. This last guy is an American and the only other male in the group besides me. I'm not making a point about Americans, I just need to refer to him as something and "The American" will do. To his credit, the American has gone to some effort to write something. It's about six pages long. Six pages double spaced in size 14 font but still six pages. And it is an essay. Sort of. It's not really a formal essay in any way, it doesn't put forth any arguments, introduce them, explore them, provide argument or evidence for them and conclude on anything. So maybe we won't call it an essay. It's a monologue. It's his train of thought. It is the American thinking onto the page and typing it out. It's about time. He has gotten all waxing philosophical about time and what it is and how we define it and how it affects us and if it is real or if it is a construct. All very interesting ideas worthy of consideration and examination. You could do a whole thesis on the way time is perceived in a social and cultural sense. Well, maybe you could. I probably couldn't. The American couldn't either. Instead, he just waffles on for six pages and then stops abruptly having gone nowhere, accomplished nothing and said very little, creating no insight and reaching no depth. Now I don't remember what anybody else said about the other work or what they thought about each other's contributions or lack-there-of. To be honest, I wasn't listening. But I do remember what everyone said about the American's piece. "You should submit that." He should submit it? He should submit that? To WHO!? It's not fiction, it's not an article, it's not an essay. It's baring coherent! This offers nothing to an audience! Nobody wants to read this. I don't even want to read it and I read it three times! He should submit that? And no, they don't say where he should submit it to. There's no details. No suggestion of magazine or website or journal. He should just "submit that." Sigh. Deep breaths. Shortly after, we wrapped up and everyone went their separate ways. Jessy apologised for inviting me along and said she'd never go back either. This is why I'm friends with her and not Lillith, Queen of the Demons. Twilight addiction aside, she's got some sense in her. I never went back either and, fortunately, Lillith, Queen of the Demons had other places to be and couldn't give either Jessy or I a lift back to our neighbourhood. So we caught the train and it was a smooth, breezey ride all the way home. This whole experience, which I lovingly refer to as my journey to hell and back, turned me off the idea of writers groups for a long time. Forever, really. I would never have joined one again unless I knew every person in it. I occasionally tell this story to entertain people. It makes a good little party anecdote. But I don't do it to make fun of the people in the writer's group. I want to make that absolutely clear. They all were enjoying themselves and they all liked writing and sharing their writing with each other and talking about being writers. In my experience, these people are the standard. This is what your average amateur hobbyist writer looks like. They like to sit around, encourage each other, share their work when they occasionally get around to producing some. They stare dreamy eyed at this big world of professional writers that they want to emulate but never dare to think they could really be part of it. It's just a pleasant day dream on the morning commute, while they think about the fantastic books they'll write if they can just find the time. They're more interested in being a writer than in doing any writing. I don't begrudge or judge them their pleasure in any way. But it's not for me. When I get together with a bunch of writers to talk about writing, I'd like to actually talk about writing. It's not a lot to ask. So I joined a writers group. I'll let you know how it goes.