Tuesday, August 22, 2017

The Chapter From Hell

The "chapter from hell" has finally fallen!
 

Those of you following my most active social media channels (https://twitter.com/RossPonderson and https://www.facebook.com/pages/Ross-Ponderson-Author/441583685981864) know that a critical chapter in the novel I'm currently writing has had me spinning my wheels like a subcompact car in a snowbank.  I've come to refer to this problem child as my "chapter from hell."
 

For those unfamiliar with my literary career (shame, shame,shame!), I'm well into the first draft of my second novel, a story I've come to love even more than my debut offering, "Child of Privilege." (http://amzn.to/1AbE1ty)

Was that a shameless plug?  Yep.
 

For months now, I've been tied up in a creative knot by one of my novel's most pivotal chapters.
 

Having already painted the backstory, emotional makeup, and current circumstances of my protagonist--a young woman named Samantha--I'm reaching the juicier portions of my suspense arc, the part where Sam carelessly surrenders her heart and soul (and body, eventually) to the most diabolical, backstabbing, and cold-hearted S.O.B since Richard Van Werner in "Child of Privilege."

(Subliminal message: "He sounds like my kind of S.O.B.  I'll buy the book.")
 

In fact, I think Cole (my antagonist) makes Richard look like a kindly, gentle soul with a heart of marshmallow.  What a sub-human piece of s***!  (heh, heh)
 

A requirement that I impose on myself as an author is to experience my novel from the reader's point of view rather than my own.  What do I mean by that?  It isn't enough for a novel to be as structurally, grammatically, and mechanically correct as I'm capable of producing.  That's only part of it.  Each chapter (and each scene, for that matter) should have a definable feel to it; it should convey something--fear, sadness, anger, happiness, anticipation, empathy--or your reader will disengage and pick up another book.

Let's face it--there are millions of works out there from which to choose.

For you, however, that's a major no-no.

Every chapter and scene should flow at a proper pace while still taking the time to explain whatever may need explaining.  You don't have to sacrifice a scene's richness and texture on the altar of "Show, don't tell."  No, expository prose isn't a capital crime when used wisely.

Dialogue can also be used to divulge information; it should be interesting yet credible.  ("Do real people talk like that?")

At the end of a sequence, the reader should have a gut-level sensation of "I get it."

If not, oops.
 

If a sequence of events doesn't feel right--or, as I like to say, doesn't lie down right--that's a problem I need to address.  This may require relatively simple revisions, a more involved re-staging, or a complete rewrite--whatever's fair.
 

Such was the case with this chapter of my discontent.
 

Sam was about to allow her life to be changed--and potentially trashed--by her relationship with Cole.  My initial treatment didn't feel right; it didn't lie down right.  This was a major turning point in this woman's life and it simply didn't have the right OOMPH to it as first written.  Even though this is a first draft--and I let many things pass at this stage--it felt so wrong that I simply couldn't let it go.
 

So, what was the solution?  You're cooking up a literary omelette--crack some eggs, dammit.
 

Because of storyline restrictions, I couldn't alter the chapter's setting or basic premise; so I turned to my minor characters for help.  I had done this with great success in my first novel.  

(Subliminal message: "Hmm, that sounds like an interesting literary approach.  I'll buy the book.")

Luckily, I did have several offline characters just itching to come back onto center stage.  It was time to start the "What if" games.  
 

I started shuffling the supporting players in and out, "auditioning" them singly and in various combinations.  In all, I wrote over thirty different scenarios before I found one with the right flow, character sync, dialogue, credibility, and conflict potential.  It also set up a wonderful segue into the rest of the story.  It worked; it felt right; it laid down right.  Result: a happy author ... and hopefully, happy readers once the book is published.
 

Chapter from hell: doneWoo hoo!
 

There are innumerable solutions out there for writer's block.  Use whichever remedies work for you.  But please don't fail to consider the simplest solution of all: write through it and never give up.
 

It works!

Don't forget to pet your thesaurus today.




Saturday, April 29, 2017

Listening to the World


On December 25th, 1964, I opened a Christmas present from my parents, a gift they were hoping would somehow appeal to their grade-school-aged son’s affinity for writing, electronics, and communication.

What I received that day was a portable radio about the size of a shoe box--American-made (what a concept!) and transistorized, no less.  While equipped with a carrying handle, AC adapter, AM and FM bands, a large speaker, a lighted dial, and a telescoping antenna, one feature immediately captured my imagination and hasn’t let go of it since: it could receive shortwave radio broadcasts.

With that humble beginning, my lifelong fascination with international radio had begun.

The mid/late 1960s was one the most turbulent eras in American history.  To say that the tapestry of American life was being torn further apart with each passing day would not be an exercise in exaggeration.  We were still reeling from John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963; little could anyone have predicted that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy would meet similar fates in the coming years.

The Vietnam War was polarizing the nation into hostile and irreconcilable camps: hawks and doves; police and protestors; conservatives and liberals; old school and new school; patriots and draft dodgers; students and draft boards; politicians and average Americans; the military establishment and pacifists.  Each faction trumpeted its “perfect” solution to the unsolvable: letting South Vietnam deal with its own problems; more soldiers and more bombs; immediate withdrawal; pacification; more effective weaponry; a negotiated peace; nuking North Vietnam ”back to the Stone Age.”

The air waves of the time were crackling with anti-war songs from iconic folk singers and rock-and-rollers alike.  Even the beloved Glen Campbell got into the act with his hit song “Galveston”—whose lyrics included “I am so afraid of dying,” and “While I watch the cannons flashing/I clean my gun/and dream of Galveston.”  At the opposite end of the musical spectrum, Sergeant Barry Sadler proudly sang of the bravery and patriotism of “The Green Berets.”

(Sidebar for those who are interested: Glen Campbell is currently suffering through the final agonizing stages of Alzheimer’s Disease.  He reportedly can no longer play his beloved guitar; neither can he communicate in any meaningful fashion.  The day he leaves us will be a very sad day in my life.)  

It was amidst this international turmoil that I began my shortwave radio foray.  I quickly discovered that battle lines had been drawn along the air waves.  Each day’s listening found mega-broadcasters such as Radio Moscow, Radio Peking (as it was known back then), and Radio Havana Cuba on one side—and the Voice of America, the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service, Radio Canada, and the BBC on the other duking it out for the hearts and minds (and support) of millions of worldwide listeners.  One concept I instantly learned was the extreme “spin” employed by both camps.  Objectivity?  Forget it.  The same news stories routinely assumed radically different meanings depending upon the station.  This served as my real-world introduction to Propaganda 101 and spin control

I recall a Radio Peking newscast which was prefaced with: “My God, Dean Rusk must’ve made another appeal for peace.”  What followed was a detailed recounting—accompanied by somber, funereal music--of a Hanoi bombing raid that allegedly destroyed private homes, hospitals, and orphanages.  That same raid—as reported by the VOA--reported the successful destruction of weapons caches, military command posts, and guerilla safe houses.

Who was right?  I don’t know; I wasn’t there.  But the truth was likely somewhere in between. 

Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, and then-President Lyndon Johnson were the favorite targets of those newscasts and were pilloried daily … and mercilessly.  Imagine if social media had been around then. (shudder!)

Okay, enough of the political background.  This blog isn’t meant to be a forum for ideological or political debate.

But shortwave wasn’t all propaganda during those war years.  Moscow and Peking did occasionally present culturally-oriented programs showcasing their finest artistic talents.  And I vividly remember an evening’s enjoyment of sensuous Latin rhythms during a broadcast entitled “Cuban Music of Yesterday and Today.”

Some stations avoided the war news as much as possible.  Radio Netherlands Worldwide focused rather on Dutch culture, upbeat music, cheerful program hosts, and informational dialogues with its global audience.  I recall one of its most popular shows was called "The Happy Station."  Ecuador’s HCJB ("The Voice of the Andes") and Trans World Radio beamed a steady stream of soothing religious programming from their transmitters in the southern hemisphere.  

As my appetite increased for more distant and exotic stations from around the globe, I gradually acquired higher quality and more expensive radios to feed my shortwave jones.  While I drooled over the top-of-the-line receivers from Hammarlund and the R. L. Drake Company, they were well beyond a teenager’s financial resources.  But I must admit I didn’t fare too badly with an Ameco R5 made in North Carolina (Electronics made in America?  Those were the days!), and a Knight Kit Star Roamer from that center of the electronics universe, Allied Radio Electronics.  Both are pictured below:

Ameco R5 - my primary receiver


(Photo courtesy of Universal Radio, Inc.)

Knight Kit Star Roamer
(Photo courtesy of Universal Radio, Inc.)
http://www.universal-radio.com


So what exactly was shortwave radio listening (otherwise known as SWLing or DXing)?

Many stations were either supported, subsidized, operated, or owned outright by their governments.  Broadcast operations were very costly, and the politicians wanted proof that their programming was being heard.  Maximum bang-for-the-broadcast-buck, as it were.  After all, listeners were the raison d’ĂȘtre for the station’s existence.

Was anybody listening?  

When I encountered an interesting station from amidst the atmospheric noise, static, and interference of other stations shoehorned into a very small range of frequencies, I would keep the “fix” going as long as possible, continuously adjusting my radio’s controls to improve the reception.  I would take perhaps 30 minutes of program notes including announcer names, music, news, commercials, features, etc.  This was needed to convince the station that I had actually heard them.  Finally, I would rate the broadcast signal’s strength, consistency, intelligibility, and clarity.  This information was then snail-mailed to the station.

If my reception report was validated, a “verification of reception card” (or, as the early telegraphers’ brevity-oriented code dubbed it, a QSL card) would arrive via return mail.  This was legitimate proof (and a badge of honor) within the SWL fraternity that I had indeed heard that station.  QSL cards were as varied as the stations themselves; no two were alike.  Below is what remains today of my former collection:

Armed Forces Radio and Television Service

British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC)

Canadian Broadcasting Corporation


Radio Moscow

Radio Finland

Trans World Radio

If you were really lucky (or if your report was especially valuable to the station), they might also gift you with a memento or souvenir.  These station pennants are some examples:
Radio Deutsche Welle (West Germany)

Radio Bucharest (Romania)

Radio Nacional de Espana (Spain)


My most noteworthy gift was from Radio Peking: a copy of Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung, the infamous “little red book”.  While I neither embrace nor endorse Communist ideology, I keep the volume as a fond keepsake of that turbulent era.



But hard times have befallen the hobby in recent years.  Technology, national economics, and shifting audience tastes have prompted many major broadcasters to shut down their radio operations (and dismantle entire transmitter facilities) in favor of digital-delivery-based (spell that I-N-T-E-R-N-E-T) platforms.  Are these methods more cost effective?  Yes.  Are they more dependable than broadcasting?  Yes.

But I ask you: where’s the sense of achievement in that?  Where’s the thrill of searching the dial for THAT elusive station you’d been pursuing for weeks or months?  Where’s the challenge of straining to hear a station long enough to complete an acceptable reception report?  Where’s the serendipitous pleasure of scanning the shortwave frequencies and discovering a new and unknown station to explore?

Simply put, the thrill of the chase is gone.  It just ain’t the same anymore.

But I still have my memories of listening to war news, cultural exchanges, ethnic music, travelogues, concerts, and interviews at all hours of the day and night.  I still have the memories of meals eaten in my radio “shack” while straining to listen to some rare station I had spent months pursuing.  I still have the memories of receiving those treasured QSL cards in the mail and proudly pinning them to my bedroom wall much to my father’s disapproval.  I still have my memories of discovering Radio Somewhere-or-Other completely by accident at 3 a.m.

And what wonderful memories they are.


With that, we will now conclude our broadcast.  This is Ross Ponderson Radio signing off.  Thanks for listening and Good Night!

P.S. Don’t forget to pet your Thesaurus today.



Tuesday, January 17, 2017

What If I Played What If?

Ya gotta break a few eggs to write a novel.

The alleged success recipe is intimidating enough to make a grown author cry: mechanically-sound and easily-readable prose; a roller-coaster of a story line; enough subplots to populate a small town; characters capable of bringing you to tears, hurting your sides with laughter, or making you want to strangle them; a level of suspense that hooks readers from the very first sentence and never lets them up for air; and plot twists capable of keeping your readers wide awake and turning the pages at 3 a.m. on a workday.

To make matters worse, there are no guarantees that this recipe—even when strictly followed--will produce a best-selling novel.

Damn!  The prospect of all that work makes me want to crawl into bed, pull the covers up over my head, and settle in for the proverbial long winter’s nap. 

To be perfectly candid with you, I’ve come sooooo close in recent months to doing just that, at least within the context of writing.  More bluntly put, I’ve quit more times than a cheap watch. My debut novel, “Child of Privilege,” taught me a variety of sometimes brutal lessons in writing, editing, marketing and promotion, networking with other authors and bloggers, and social media basics. (Before “Child,” I was one of six people in the U.S. who had neither a Facebook page nor a Twitter account nor any kind of social media presence whatsoever. I was such a radical back then. Sigh.)

I had undertaken my next book believing that 2nd novels imposed even larger responsibilities upon their authors. Why? Because they were expected to be so much better than their debut siblings.

I was determined to bring this newly-acquired wisdom to bear on Novel Number Two which is slowing wending its way (with a lot of stall-outs along the route) through its first draft. Number Two was to be as perfect as I was capable of achieving. We’re talking soaring to new heights, crashing through barriers, raising the bar, pushing the envelope, reaching for the stars, breaking new ground, reaching the other side, rewriting the record book, ad nauseam.

God, I love it when I write like that!

The result? Analysis paralysis. Too much thinking and not enough writing. Worrying. Chocolate overdose. Doubts. Do-overs. An overwhelming urge to turn off the computer and watch my fingernails grow. Fussing over every finicky detail which is generally a huge no-no at first-draft time. I became obsessed with perfecting this book in just one draft rather than following that time-tested writing protocol of just-get-the-damned-thing-down-and edit-it-later. This has been going on for months now as I’ve gotten myself stuck like a subcompact car in a snowdrift.

So, I remembered that line from one of my favorite movies, the iconic feature, “Speed”: “What do you do?” 

You call out the reserves; shorten your bench; signal to the bullpen; reach back for that little something extra; send for the literary equivalent of the U.S Cavalry; google the phone number for Ghost Busters; try to find Clark Kent so he can summon Superman.

Last but not least: go for the doughnuts.

More realistically, you grab the most potent tool in the writer’s toolbox: the game of What-If.

One of my more troublesome roadblocks consisted of four characters intended as antagonists for my beloved protagonist and heroine, Samantha. (Yes, Virginia, Sam would eventually have seven really bad eggs determined to skin her alive. That’s quite an antagonist omelet, don’t you think?)

Problem: these four nasties were too weak to execute their own subplots. As individuals, they lacked depth, roundness, credible back stories, and complexity. I didn’t want to devote precious “onscreen” time to them in order to endow them with what they needed to work. They were germane to the story but not THAT germane.

What do you do? You start playing What-If.

What if I created additional characters to bolster these four weaklings? No, I didn’t want to overcrowd the stage. You CAN have too much of a good thing.

What if I dropped them all? No, Samantha needed a menagerie of villains to overcome. Otherwise, there was little point to the story.

What if I developed them all? No, too little time and space. 

What if I dropped some of them? No, that would still weaken the overall story line.

What do you do?

What if I did a “mix and match” amongst these four characters? Could a “personality transplant” between these four ineffective entities create more formidable players whose subplots could then be reworked and expanded to make Sam’s life even more miserable? Could a literary Six Million Dollar Man get my novel started again?

THAT’S what you do.  And that's what I did.

When the dust finally settled, I had “grafted” bits and pieces of those three characters onto the fourth, creating a considerably more powerful force whose subplot I’m already expanding … with several tantalizing plot possibilities under consideration. The three “donors” were then consigned to my Outtakes folder.

And more importantly, my desire to complete this book seems to have returned with renewed vigor. As the wonderful Fred Rogers used to sing: “It’s such a good feeling!” 

So don’t hesitate to reach for the What-If tool when your stories or characters need a little something extra. Sometimes an acceptable stew can be amped up into an epic stew with the simple addition of the right spices and accents. You might be pleasantly surprised at what happens. 


Before you leave:
Due to the success of my recent “Child of Privilege” Amazon Giveaways, I’ve been finalizing plans to conduct some future Giveaways in this space through the use of Rafflecopter. After several weeks of research, I’m excited about the potential for reaching new readers and connecting with them. Stay tuned to this space (following this blog via email is the easiest way of doing that!) and watch for future announcements.

P.S: Don’t forget to pet your Thesaurus today.



Sunday, October 23, 2016

An Author Comes Calling.



It's always a special occasion to have an author colleague stop by at the Country House for a chat and a drink.  

This time around, it's my pleasure to welcome Ceanmohrlass to my little cyberspace cottage on the lake.  She is a retired grandmother who has been writing novels for her family and friends for over 20 years. She is the family genealogist, and writing the family history has only increased the passion for writing. She resides in Texas, and is currently (and always) working on her next novel.  "Stephani's Light" is her newest literary offering. 


So, since we're all here to talk about books and writing, let's get right to some interesting conversation with Ceanmohrlass.
 ------------------------------------------------

Has writing always been a part of your life? 
Absolutely, it has been a part of my life since I learned to write at 4 yrs old. Crude, but effective even back then.

What made you decide to publish on KDP?
I tried to submit Stephani’s Light to six different agents, and although I was surprised at the majority of the responses being very helpful and cordial, my book wasn’t what they were seeking at the time. I decided to continue the tradition of self-publishing instead of continuing to query agents.

Tell us about the inspirations for your books.
Most of the time, my inspiration is some very simple thing that just nags at me until I get a story outline created. I have scrapped thousands of stories well before a completed first draft, and have at least a dozen stories that are chomping at the bit to get their time in the spotlight.  Stephani’s Light was inspired by a late-night view of a lighthouse photo online, and a dream began that woke me in the wee hours of the morning.

How do you go about creating your characters?  Are they inspired by actual people?  Are they “composites“ assembled from many “bits and pieces” of personality?  Or are they purely products of your imagination?
The characters are a struggle for me still. Some of them are a conglomeration of me at a younger and far less intelligent age, who are fortunately written in a much better light. Others, well that is a trade secret. ;)

How do you deal with every author’s nemesis: writer’s block?
I will let you know when that happens. I hear it is a real downer. I have the opposite problem. The characters are beating down my door most of the time, taking control of my pencil, and shoving me out of the way!

Do you prefer first-drafting or editing existing work?  Why?
I vary. For something like NaNoWriMo, I just start that pencil scratching and don’t come up for air until my Frappe high subsides. I have to slap myself upside the head sometime after and yell, “What were you thinking here?”  Most of the time however I just write until I have gotten the scene from my head to paper, then the details start to call out to me to be fixed.  I have mild dyslexia (yeah, that’s fun for a writer) and I can read that paragraph 20 times and it still needs work after.

Is there a subject you would absolutely refuse to write about, even if doing so would assure you of fame and fortune on the scale of J.K. Rowling?
Yes. I will not write a scene that my grandchildren could not read if they are under 21. I just don’t have it in me to allow myself to do so. Money aside, I stick to my guns on this one, and the money isn’t worth being less in my grandbabies' eyes.

Are you a plotter or do you prefer to “wing it”?
I usually am a pantser, but lately, I have come to appreciate even a vague outline of sorts. (Wish the characters would respect those outlines, but sometimes...)

What do you like to do when you aren’t writing? 
Gardening (horrible at it) and art, but reading is my main vice as the days become shorter.  (Note from Ponderson: I can totally relate to the lack of a green thumb.  I can lay claim to having killed a plastic plant!  It wasn't easy; but I did it!)

So tell us all about “Stephani’s Light,” your newly-launched book.


This is a contemporary fiction, and I consider it my tribute novel. This is the only one I have made available in paperback. My parents, younger son and his wife, my step-daughter, and my husband, and all my family and friends that encourage me are in my heart and a part of this book. The story of Macy, is one many of us can relate to. Macy has been content to trudge through each day but when her dreams begin to take over, things must change. I tried to make it light enough to not be depressing and readers to say, “Been there...” yet serious enough to show that actions have consequences in life. It is a journey of her sudden strength to take control of her destiny, and the havoc her rash decisions cause. I still tear up at the ending, but it does have that element of that happy ending that I try to incorporate in every novel I write.

Any final thoughts?
I have often been accused of being too perky, totally off the wall, and eccentric to the max! I wholeheartedly agree with this. I figure that I will someday become THAT granny on the porch, flowered dress, pearls, support hose, and a beer, in a big rocker on my screened-in front porch, antagonizing the young-uns when they pester me. :) I’ve survived cancer twice, and I understand the old third time’s a charm scenario, so I live for each day. No reason to waste a moment in life, whether I have 1 second or a trillion minutes left, I plan to enjoy them all.
-------------------------------------------------------

Here's where you can check out the books written by this multi-genre fiction author: amazon.com/author/ceanmohrlass


I would like to thank Ceanmohrlass for stopping by on this beautiful autumn afternoon to share some of her thoughts on writing with us.  You can easily follow her on social media by clicking on these links:


My thanks to one and all for stopping by today.  I wish everyone a productive day and an inspiring autumn season.  Get out there and enjoy it! 

P.S: Don't forget to pet your Thesaurus today.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Got Flaws?



Tell me about your weaknesses.

No, this isn’t a post about job interviews.  However, once—just once in my life—I would love to respond to this asinine question by saying “Well, my main weakness is my tendency to puke on any job interviewer obtuse enough to ask me that totally lame question.”  I would then proceed to vomit the semi-digested remains of an enormous meal all over his/her desk.

I guess job interviewing isn’t one of my strengths; you might even consider it a weakness worthy of being mentioned during job interviews!

But we all do have imperfections, don’t we?  In my experience, perfect people are essentially uninteresting and not much fun to be around.  They lack depth, personality, warmth, magnetism, and charisma.  They are neither well-rounded nor sympathetic.  I’ve encountered a number of perfect individuals in my life—at least they loudly proclaimed themselves as such—and I’ve found them to be … frankly … boring.

This can apply to literary characters as well.  Consider the characters (particularly the protagonist) in the novel or short story you’re currently writing.  Do they have flaws?  Do they have imperfections?  Do they have personality elements that are downright unlikable?  Do they have relatability?

To be grandiose about it, do they have humanity?

If not, your writing may not be reaching out and connecting with your readers as effectively as possible.

As I sometimes reflect upon Dana, my protagonist in Child of Privilege, I wonder if I should’ve given her more of an edge, more of a nasty side, and a few more general flaws in her character.  Perhaps I should’ve given her more of a fiery temper or more of a potty mouth.

To this day, occasional plot questions still nag at me: after the incident with Wanda, what if our runaway debutante had resorted to prostitution in order to buy another bus ticket?  What if she had become a cocktail waitress at Red’s?  What if she had spent the night with some trucker at the honky-tonk and rode off with him?  What if she had cleaned out Greg’s cottage while he was at work and skipped town? 

During those final violent scenes in the bedroom at the Van Werner Mansion, what if Dana had actually carried out her wishes?

If you're unfamiliar with what I’m referring to, Child of Privilege is available at many fine online retailers.  To get in the know (and your very own copy), just follow THIS LINK.

(The preceding has been a Shameless Plug.  We now return you to our regularly-scheduled blog post.)

All characters—especially protagonists—need flaws.  Why?  Because perfect is boring; perfect is not much fun to read; perfect doesn’t keep the pages turning late at night; perfect leaves a writer little room for character development.  Perfect just sits there … being perfect.

YAWN!

Skillfully executed, flaws can become powerful devices for plot advancement, serving as triggers for totally unexpected twists and turns in the story.  But more importantly, they imbue your players with depth, texture, and connectability.  The most endearing characters reach out and touch the reader through their humanity, their fears, and their vulnerability.  They project the quality of humanness—like a bright spotlight--onto the theater stage of the reader’s mind.  The result: connection … and an engaged reader who keeps reading nonstop until The End.

So, don't overlook the potential value of imperfections when thumbnailing your characters.  You just might end up with some endearing personalities that your readers will love.  Allow them to stumble, fall, screw up, go to the bathroom at inconvenient moments, chew with their mouths open, leave the toilet seat in the wrong position, pick their noses, step in dog poop, scratch themselves in indiscreet places, and perhaps even fall asleep after sex.

Most of all, when some interviewer asks them what their weaknesses are, allow them to puke on the interviewers’ desks.

It'll serve ‘em right.

Imperfect is the new perfection.

P.S. Don’t forget to pet your Thesaurus today.



Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Authors and Reviewers: Was It Good For You?



Imagine pulling up to your local drive-thru window and shouting at that screeching menu board:

"I want a 5-star review, please.  Hold the constructive criticism.  I want an extra helping of praise for the characters, a side order of flattery for the author, throw in lots of compliments on the plot, and a large order of applause for the writing style.  And top it off with a glowing recommendation.”

Imagine having to wait in THAT line!

With the near-closure of the trad publishing industry to all but "elite" authors--celebrities, household names, and established authors with astronomical sales records--today's independent reviewers find themselves in roles far beyond what they had envisioned when they first started blogging.

In addition to simply reviewing books, many have transitioned into publicists quite capable of focusing thousands of interested eyes onto an author's latest novel.  They've become polished practitioners of social media, adept at strategically positioning those priceless Facebook, Goodreads, Twitter, Amazon, and Google Plus spotlights upon authors literally starving for attention.

A well-engineered promotional splash by a prominent blogger with hundreds--or even thousands of followers--can serve as a marketing catalyst that can benefit that book and its author long after the initial review has been archived.  Many bloggers open their forums to raffles, guest posts, giveaways, novel excerpts, and spotlight features as well.  A good number delight in interviewing authors struggling to get the word out about themselves and their writing.  Personally, I've been offered a number of interviews with bloggers who had either declined a review or were logistically unable to provide one at the time; needless to say, I enthusiastically accepted.  In retrospect, I can truthfully say that I thoroughly enjoyed every one of my interview experiences and hope to do many more in the future.  

The vast majority of reviewers perform this eye-straining labor out of a love of reading, a devotion to literature, and the satisfaction of turning the world on to a deserving book that might've otherwise gone unnoticed and unread.  But I'd be willing to bet that the occasional THANK YOU from a grateful author does brighten their day.  They sacrifice their leisure hours and family time to read strangers' books and write reviews; not a good way to make a million dollars, but a great way to make a difference in the lives of the people who follow them.

But there are the inevitable times in this delicate relationship when pressures, egos, frustrations, agendas, and personalities will clash.

In an attempt to bolster a sagging Amazon ranking, a frustrated author contacts a reviewer and "demands" a quick 5-star review.  The reviewer declines.  Some caustic comments or emails are exchanged.  At this point in the proceedings, some reviewers will choose to simply ignore the intruder, add another name to their S**t Lists, and move on.

Longtime reviewers, having spent years earning their stripes and carefully cultivating their reputations and followings, may not be quite so tolerant in the face of an overly-aggressive author's disrespect.  You might call it the This Is MY House Effect.  Their blogs are indeed their cyber-homes, and somebody entering their homes and bullying them is unacceptable.  The reviewer is now doing a slow burn.  If the insistent author continues to denigrate the reviewer's standards, character, or methods of conducting business, the wrong button gets pushed.  And some reviewers--if pushed far enough--have no qualms about pushing back.  

At this point, Author Person, I have bad news and worse news for you. 

The bad news? 

Surprise!  Reviewers talk to each other.  The book blogosphere is a huge, interconnected world with countless partnerships, alliances, relationships, connections, groups, associations, and networks.  Information--and word of "troublesome" authors--traverses this matrix at the speed of email.

The worse news?  Once the word is out on you, good luck in finding another reviewer willing to even consider looking at your book. 

I've found that in working with reviewers, the late Frank Sinatra said it best: Nice and Easy Does It ... Every Time.

Welcome to the human condition, dear reader: reviewers--and authors as well--are people, too.

But when the mutual respect thing is happening, the vast majority of reviewers are helpful, generous souls who become treasured allies and partners by virtue of their love of reading, their enjoyment of an absorbing story, and their desire to help authors succeed.

Enough said. 

Now, what about us authors?

I can speak from personal experience here.  (Climbing up onto my soapbox.)

We slave away--sometimes for years--to produce what we hope the book-buying public will judge to be a compelling and satisfying read.  Like our literary comrades--the reviewers--we also sacrifice leisure and family hours in an attempt to entertain the world with our stories.  Our books--whether on electronic devices or printed pages--aren't mere collections of related sentences, paragraphs, and chapters; they are the author's blood, sweat, and tears honed by countless hours of writing and tedious editing.  Each chapter is packed not only with plots, storylines, and characters, but also with the author's emotions and feelings, many of which were exhumed from deep within his/her psyche and laid bare for all the world to see.  We've invested heavily in our novels in the hope that book-buyers will invest in them--and us--as well.  For many of us, our books are our children--and we wish everybody would love our children as much as we do.

However, in our zeal to nurture and protect our children, we sometimes mistakenly perceive potential benefactors as potential villains just waiting for a chance to harm our literary offspring.

As Shakespeare wrote, "Therein lies the rub."

Positive reviews are golden to indie authors.  There's no denying that the current publishing landscape does nothing to discourage this.  They are precious currency; they are credibility; they are acceptance; they are validation; they are approval; they are a literary “high five.” 

Our publishing environment dictates that we need them, but our egos likewise dictate that we crave them like children crave hugs.

But, like some parents at a kids' sporting event, we sometimes allow our pride and protective instincts to override courtesy and good judgment.

When you visit a fast-food restaurant, you have the right to specify exactly what you want: "I want a hamburger, no mayo, small fries, diet soda, and an oatmeal cookie.”

(Whether or not you'll actually receive them--in edible condition--is a story for another post.)

But if you're accepted for a review (no small feat these days; congratulations!), you're rolling the dice on that reviewer's opinion--for better or for worse.  If it's better, you become a happy author; if it isn't, you can always become a philosopher ... or a reviewer.  Simply stated, you pays your money and you takes your chances.  (I added this for literary effect only--don't even think about offering ANYTHING, not even chocolate!)

A reviewer's integrity is akin to a membership card in the blogosphere, something of a badge of honor.  Quality reviewers won't ask you to compromise your integrity as a writer; don't ask them to compromise theirs with a stilted review.

I actually used my imagination (for a change) and formulated my very own Top Ten List of Rules for Authors and Reviewers Playing Nice:

  1. Reviewers would welcome self-published books and review them fairly and objectively.
  2. Authors would routinely submit literate and appropriate queries, and observe genre and submission guidelines.
  3. No author would ever attempt to dictate terms and conditions or issue demands.
  4. Authors and reviewers wouldn't hesitate to cut each other some slack.
  5. Reviewers would follow through--within the agreed-upon timeframe--with fair and honest reviews based solely on literary and entertainment value.
  6. Author-bashing and reviewer-bashing wouldn't happen.
  7. Authors would accept reviews at face value, celebrating them when possible and learning from them when necessary.  Mutual Thank You’s would be commonplace.
  8. Reviewers would post their reviews to—at minimum—Goodreads, one of the major online retailers, and their own blogs (if applicable).  Additional postings would be icing on the cake and considered a favor.
  9. Authors and reviewers would routinely show respect and understanding for each other's time investment, talents, and feelings.
  10. A reviewer could feel free to DNF a book without fear of backlash or retaliation.  The proviso to this rule would include some sort of notification to the author.  This would provide the author with closure to the transaction rather than being left in the dark with no review, no communication, and no explanation--only deafening silence and a bill for the free review copy.  The author’s responsibility under this rule is simple: forget about that particular reviewer and move on to the next one.  MY standard response to this scenario is a polite (and VERY civil) note expressing disappointment that my book didn’t resonate with them, thanking them for their time, and moving on. 

If these ideals ever came to fruition, then perhaps we would all have a reasonable chance for success in this crazy and ever-changing publishing business.

I know I’d be much happier!

Now that I think about it, that 5-star review with a side order of flattery for the author--topped off with a glowing recommendation--sounds pretty good right about now.  A little plastic toy thrown in as well would be perfect.

I’ll take mine to go, please.

P.S: Don't forget to pet your Thesaurus today.


Monday, June 20, 2016

My Review Request Hall of Shame



There are right ways AND wrong ways to submit a review request to a blogger/reviewer.

It's always a good idea to take at least a few minutes to familiarize yourself with them, their blogs, their preferences, and their ways of conducting business before hitting the "send" button on that critical request for a review.  Remember: they are doing you a favor--sacrificing time with their families and friends and their own leisure-time pursuits--by reviewing your novel.   

Here are some examples of how NOT to do it (definitely intended as tongue-in-cheek, although I'd be willing to bet that there are bloggers out there who have received requests all too similar to these).

Observing no particular sequence, we’ll start with this intellectual gem:


The “Could You Get Just A Little Personal?” request:

To whom it may concern:

I like your blog.  Do you do reviews?  I didn’t read your submission requirements because, frankly, I’m much too busy.  My novel is attached to this email.  Read it and review it.


The “Lucky Me” request:

Hello reviewer,

This novel will set the publishing world on fire.  It has mega-best-seller written all over it.  When word of this masterpiece gets out, Rowling, Grisham, Patterson, et al will be hiding under their kitchen tables.  This story is colossal; it’s stupendous; it’s stellar; it’s magnificent; it’s spellbinding; it sets a new standard in storytelling excellence that nobody will ever match … not now … not ever.  It is clearly the best frickin’ work to be released in mankind’s literary history.

And I’m giving YOU a crack at it.  I want you to prove to me that you deserve the honor of reviewing it.  Let me know real quick because there are hundreds of quality bloggers just dying to get their hands on it.


 The “How Awesome Is It?” request:

Hi Reviewer,

You'll really want to review this book because it is so damn awesome.  The characters are really awesome, the plot is really awesome, and the climax is really awesome (aren’t they all, LOL?  A little sex humor there).  This first novel is the best one I’ve written yet (it is definitely awesome), and I’m giving you the chance to get in on the ground floor.  How awesome is that?  Just go out to Amazon, buy yourself a copy, and post your review. 



The “Do I Look Like A Stepping Stone?” request:

Dear Blogger,

I’ll make this short and sweet.  I need a fast review (I’m talking next week at the latest), and I need it to be a 5-star.  Not only is my Amazon rating dropping like a rock, but I need one more 5-star review to impress Kirkus and get a real review from them.  So, hop to it … chop chop.  And remember: give me a 5 and keep me alive.

  

The “All The Good Ones Are Taken” Request:

Hello,

Would you please review my book?  I’ve tried all the quality reviewers and they all turned me down.  So, I thought I’d give YOU a chance.   You can buy it at Amazon.



The “Well, Pardon My Genre” request:

Hi blogger,

I noticed you only review sweet romances (see, I did read your requirements), but I’m sending you my horror/chick lit/dystopian/spy thriller novel anyway because I just know you’d want to review it.  You don’t have to thank me; on the other hand, the best way to thank me would be with a 5-star review.  By the way, you really should expand your genre requirements.  You strike me as a very narrow-minded person.



The “I’ll Tell You What To Do With Your File” request:

4th (and last) notice, blogger:

I already sent you three review requests, but you never answered me.  Do you want to review my novel or not?  I’ll give you one last chance.  Go out to Amazon, check out the blurb and the opening chapters, and tell me what to do with the file.



The “Stick THIS in your Google Search Box” request:

Hi,
I have a novel you’ll just love reviewing.  It’s on Amazon.  Just Google around a little bit to find out about me and the book.  Hurry; I really need some reviews from wherever I can get them.



The “I Ain’t Got No Kindle” request:

Greetings,

I noticed on your Review Policy Page that you don’t accept Kindle eBooks.  What the hell is wrong with you?  Get with the program!  If you had a Kindle reader, I would send you the latest novel in my “Mix Paper With Sand And You’ll Get Sandpaper” series.  It is entertainment at its finest; but you can’t read it because you don’t have a Kindle.  Are you a serious blogger or aren’t you?



The “Format THIS” request:

Hey Blogger:

I’ve attached my novel (in some crazy-ass digital format; I don’t understand all that technical crap) to this email.  Read it and post a great review on Amazon.  And don’t take all year to do it, please?



I hope this lighthearted stroll through my Review Request Hall of Shame has been enlightening and entertaining.  I know I had fun (and a few laughs) while writing it.  But do take heed of the underlying wisdom about review requests. 

If you’re good to bloggers, many of them will be good to you as well.

And don't forget to take a few minutes to pet your Thesaurus today.