Self Cringe

—After a few people have talked to me about this post, I feel the need to clarify that this is meant to be a commiseration type of affair. It’s meant to say ‘hey, I know some of you out there have done a dumb thing like this, and you’re not alone. If It ever happens again, try doing this thing that helped mitigate the situation.’ That’s it. I’m not trying to soapbox or anything like that. It’s just a blog.—

 

You know that feeling when you’re watching a terribly awkward social situation unfold and you see what’s coming, and you feel embarrassed for the guy who’s just digging that hole deeper and deeper?

That’s Cringe.

When you’re the one digging the hole, and you finally realize what happened…

That’s Self-Cringe.

This just happened to me in a rather public way on Twitter.

I’ve only been actively Tweeting for about a month, so I’ve got a lot to learn about that particular subset of the social media scene. Apparently one of the unspoken rules about Twitter is that you don’t make jokes about why someone is or is not following you. I didn’t realize this, so when someone I follow made a comment about having to re-follow someone after a bug caused them to unfollow them, and a third party commented, I said (innocently, because I thought it was funny) ‘so that’s why <third party> isn’t following me. It’s a bug.’ (paraphrased, but you get the idea.)

You have my permission to hiss, bite your finger, groan, moan, heckle, and look away. Except you probably can’t because it’s a train wreck.

Third party called me out on it right there. Which I’m actually grateful for because it helped to show me what I had done wrong. I hadn’t even realized that what I did was drop a nice sized deuce in the ginger ale. Third party put me on the spot and said it wasn’t cool to call him/her out in a public forum like that.

Of course I immediately realized what I had done, and even at the safety and distance of my desk, I blushed. The bottom of my stomach dropped. This is a person who I respect and who I want to respect me. This is a person who I have met, made a good impression on, and have developed a small professional relationship with. And now I’ve probably fucked all that up.

I did not try to sweep it under the rug. I have always been the sort to own up to what I say/do, and face problems head on so they don’t bite me in the ass later. So I immediately acknowledged that what third party saw/inferred was a reasonable inference, but I did not intend to insinuate that. I saw the subtext, and tried to reassure him/her that it was unintentional. I did this both on Twitter and via email where I could expound more than 140 characters’ worth, and could reassure them that putting them in such an awkward situation is not how I would pay back the kindness and professional/personal courtesy they had shown me.

If you ever find yourself in this position, where someone takes something you said in a way you absolutely did not intend, the best thing I can suggest is to own it, acknowledge that person’s feelings, and then try to make amends by ensuring that is not what you intended to communicate.

Equally important, if not even more so: learn from it. Don’t do that same thing again next week when a similar situation pops up. Not committing the error means you don’t have to hustle to make up for it.

Learn from my mistake.

EDIT AFTER THE FACT: This is not intended as a way of pointing fingers or calling anybody out or trying to make a big stink about anything anyone said or did. This is just me being cathartic, and trying to show people a (reasonably) graceful way to react when your sneaker slides through the social cow pie. Because it’s going to happen.

My Ideal Editor/Author Relationship

I’ve been going back and listening to a bunch of old Writing Excuses podcasts. For those who have been intentionally avoiding all things related to writing in the last several years, Writing Excuses is a brilliant podcast with Brandon Sanderson, Howard Tayler, Dan Wells, and Mary Robinette Kowal where they talk about writing, publishing, cartooning, graphic novels, etc. in a short, easy-to-digest format. It’s updated weekly and is only 15 minutes long because we’re in a hurry and Americans have a short attention span. This podcast has really given me a bunch of blog ideas, but the one I have most strongly latched onto is the idea of working with an editor or and editing agent.

A lot of writers operate under the guise that editors are the enemy of purity in literature and seek to destroy all that is holy and worth cherishing in their works. I used to be one of these people. I think this feeling stems from an insecurity about the value of their written words, and a simultaneous belief that what they have written is the best thing to ever grace a page. I may be revealing too much about myself here, but I have both of these thoughts almost constantly battling in my cerebrum. Part of me wants for people to read it and love it, and the rest of me is overwhelmed with terror that they will laugh me out of the room.

This story is perfect! No one is going to like it.

What I have grown to learn, though, is that people in the industry, particularly agents and editors, want your book to succeed, and the things they will tell you in the editing process are intended to improve the manuscript. They will not tell you something they do not believe will make your story better. Agents don’t make money if you don’t get a publishing deal. Editors don’t make money if that deal doesn’t make them money. Agents and editors like to make money.

If we then rationally consider those points, we come to the logical conclusion that an agent who knows their stuff will only help make our books better, and an editor who knows their stuff will only serve to make that better book even better. Better + Better = Good As It Gets

In that case, I can’t wait to get an editing agent to grab hold of my manuscripts and tell me what’s wrong with them. I can’t wait for an email with an attachment saying ‘I’ve found these 42,659 places you can improve this’. I can’t wait for this because I know when all that is done, when I’m all through being pissed off about how much of my blood I’m having to sap from these pages and replace with someone else’s brain spatterings, I will have a stronger story and a better book. In the end, that’s what we’re doing this for. We’re writing stories for people to read and enjoy.

My Ideal Editor/Author Relationship is the one where he/she knows what I’m trying to say, can find a better way to say it, and can then convince me that the better way is really better. I want to publish my stories, but I want them to be better than I can make them on my own.

Because the readers deserve the best story we can give them.

Paid Reviews

There seems to be an ongoing debate lately about authors paying people to review their books on websites like Amazon, Goodreads, etc. Some see this as simple commercialism: you have to get your brand out there, and you have to present it in the best possible light. Others see it as a violation of the trust between author and reader: the reader should be able to check reviews for honest feedback about the novel in question before deciding if they want to spend their hard-earned money on it, or something else.

So we apparently have a problem. Publishing is most certainly a business, and how does one promote a business? Advertisement, sponsorship, spokespeople… isn’t that what a reviewer is? A spokesperson? Don’t other businesses use them? What makes a published book any different?

Honestly, I have a hard time coming to a purely rational and logical conclusion that purchased reviews are inherently wrong and evil. How are they any different than a food manufacturer who tells you this product has less fat, but doesn’t bother to mention that it actually still has more calories and sodium? Or when an ambulance chasing lawyer pops on your TV screen and line of people tell you how much more money you’re going to get out of that guy who hit your car. Most of those people were never injured: they’re paid actors. So what’s the big deal?

The big deal, to me at least, is that it feels dishonest. It feels like the author is trying to trick readers into buying their book by falsifying the public’s reaction to it. Reviews are one of the strongest word-of-mouth generating media authors have, and anyone in publishing knows that word-of-mouth is what sells books. Sure a flashy cover will make someone pick it up off a shelf, and a good blurb will do a lot to get someone to buy it at that point, but word-of-mouth blows that away.

What these authors are doing poisons the well. It makes readers question the glowing positive reviews for the books out there that are actually that damn good. If a book has an overall 4.9/5 star rating, no one is going to believe it was actually that well received, even if the author never paid for a single damn review in his/her life. And the really shitty part is that author can never outright prove that those reviews are real without every single one of those people coming forward and saying ‘I’m a real person and I actually loved this fucking book!’

As an author, I have too much pride to pay for a review. I want my work to speak for itself. I don’t want to have to pay someone to write some bullshit smattering of nonsense that sounds like they might have read something one time, and leave a 5 star entry so someone will buy it under false pretense.

Those are my thoughts on it.

The other part of this is that someone out there decided it was a good idea to straight call out some writers for buying reviews. Now, I don’t know many of the authors on the list, but I’ve met a couple, and you know what? Some of those people are DAMN good writers. Good enough that they don’t need to purchase reviews because people already love what they do and tell all their friends about it. For my own edification, and because I like the guy, here’s a link to Hugh Howey’s response to some twerp calling him out for buying reviews. Personally, I think it’s bullshit. I met Hugh at WorldCon, and he was a great fucking guy. Top Notch. You know what else is top notch? His fucking writing.

That’s why he has a bunch of really high rated reviews. His shit’s good.

After all that, I want to close with this: Yes, paying for reviews seems like shady business. It makes me, and others I’m sure, second-guess what we see on these websites, and that can spell murder for someone who’s an author-publisher and trying to get sales based on the genuine ratings they have. Saying that, though, can we really look at it any differently than commercials in any other industry, or restaurant/auto shop/other business reviews on Google or Angie’s List?

Regardless, if you’re going to put out a list of people doing this shady business, you should be REAL fucking sure you have the goods on them before putting their names out there. Because if you’re wrong about them, you’re not only putting yourself in prime position for a lawsuit, but you’re recklessly putting their career at risk, and that’s the sort of behavior we should be condemning.

In the Face of Rejection

Fellow writers will all know what it’s like to come finger to eyeball with piles of rejection letters. If you don’t know, then you are either the greatest writer to ever grace the planet, extremely lucky, or a big fat wuss who’s never tried to put your work to the test against an editor or agent.

I’ve sent out around 40 queries up to this point, which means I’ve put my first manuscript against nearly every agent in the genre, and several of the acquiring editors. The ones I haven’t queried just didn’t feel right for me, for one reason or another, or were closed to submissions. I have three of those queries unanswered right now, one of them has a full manuscript, and the others probably haven’t opened their slush pile boxes long enough to slog through to my submission. It’s only been a couple weeks, so I don’t expect to hear back for a while.

So, 40 queries, 3 awaiting response, (I’ll do the math for you here, that’s what my Physics degree is for) that’s 37 rejection letters. I’ve been told no 37 times. While on the surface, that may not seem like a lot, it feels like way the hell too much. And it’s SO easy to look at 37 rejections and think ‘that must mean there’ s something wrong with my writing; it must really suck.’ And some days I do. Some days I want to just set the laptop aside and walk away from writing for good.

But I never do. Here’s why:

Every now and then I get some real feedback. Three times out of 37 letters, I’ve gotten some feedback from an agent where he/she tells me some unbelievably encouraging things, and gives me ideas on where I can tighten up the story and how I can improve my chances of publication. Those rejections are the little flecks of gold in the pan that keep me sifting sand from the riverbed.

Those rejections help me grow.

I take heart in those because usually there’s enough good stuff that I know I’m on the right track, I just have to take the Turtle Wax to that sucker and make it shine (some cases it seems more like sanding it back to bare metal and giving it a whole new paint job). Constructive feedback is a beautiful thing, and all we have to do is sustain ourselves on it long enough to get that one gorgeous letter that says ‘I read it and I love it, now change these 200 things and we can sell it.’

So, fellow aspiring authors, or those who have already been published and still feel human and fallible, hang in there, keep writing, keep working, and keep improving. One day you’ll look back on that time you almost gave it up and think ‘I’m glad I stuck with it just a little while longer, otherwise I’d never be where I am today.’

Now, get to work. You’ve got stories to tell and rejections to read.

What My Outlines Look Like

Chuck Wendig inspired me to write this with this post. Go there, then come back. Or don’t. Maybe just go there, he’s better at all of this than I am.  I’m going to continue as though you were still here, pop back when you’re ready… In that post he talks about all the ways and reasons to outline and the benefits and drawbacks thereof. It’s brilliant in the way that most of Chuck’s Terrible Minds posts are brilliant, which is ‘how in the bloody hell did you know exactly how I operate, you must be the devil!’ I assure you, Chuck Wendig is the devil.

Within the above linked post, he links to another of his posts, which is to be found here, where he details all the plotting methods he can dream up, and maybe a few that came to him in the meta-physical delirium that accompanies too much drinking and too little sleep at cons. If you’re a writer, I strongly recommend perusing these two posts and picking out a few contenders you may not have tried before to see if any fit. As writers, one of the most important things we can do is expand our toolboxes; we should constantly be improving. The best way to improve is to try new things and see which ones work for you. If you’re not a writer, do it anyway. Writing is fun. Do it.

To address the title of the post, my outlines look nothing like outlines. In fact, for the most part they are invisible because they are inside my head. Sometimes I jot a something down and toss it in my ‘don’t forget this’ folder, or throw note into my Evernote account to remind me of a particular thing I want to do, but generally, the major events are in my head. The trick is getting from one event to another.

For my first series, I started out with 3 events– 3 things that had to happen. I also had a world in mind, which got fleshed out as the story and characters developed. Everything in between got filled in by placing those characters in the place I had built, and letting them figure their way to where they needed to be. If things went too far astray, a little massaging and a couple of insurmountable roadblocks led them back where they needed to be. If they got really crazy… let’s just say thousands of words went unused.

All that in between stuff– how a character will react to a thing and where that reaction will take him/her is why I can’t outline. The character’s decisions being natural and spontaneous important to me, and to be honest, I don’t always know what they’re going to be, so I can’t even put them in an outline.  I’ve heard this style of writing coined as ‘discovery writing’ and I think it’s spot-on. I have an idea of where things need to go, so I point the ship that direction, then I let the interstellar winds, gravity waves, and dark energy carry me off and discover all there is to find between here and there.

And that’s fun.

It’s also scary as hell.

It’s scary because I’m always convinced I’m going to lose the story and it’ll take me 500,000 words to get it back again and by the time I finally do get back to it I’ll have totally forgotten where I was going and then the whole thing will fall apart and I’ll be a complete failure as a writer and no one will ever want to read my work and I’ll die hopeless and alone without ever getting published and all my friends and family will laugh at me and think I’m worthless and I’ll die of shame and embarrassment with no one to hear my dying words where I lament that I didn’t write an outline (I realize I died twice in that sentence, but it ran on long enough to warrant a second death scene). But seriously, I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve sat and tried to make a detailed outline of a story simply for confidence or to relieve that overwhelming sense of self-doubt and fear that I’ll lose my way and never get back to the plot. Every time I start to write there’s a little part of me going ‘Okay, Martin, don’t fuck this up. You’ve been doing all right so far, but I know you, and you’re bound to drop the ball sometime.’ And chalk points up to my grade school English teachers, because I hear voices of little schizophrenic demons on my shoulders chastising me about how much easier it would be if I just finished that damn outline, just like they always told me I should.

Because, after all, who can write a plot without an outline?

Lots of fucking people, that’s who.

And I’m one of them.

Writing as Business

This is not a thing I actively thought about until pretty recently.

I wanted to be in the business. I wanted to write for a living. I wanted to be taken seriously in publishing. But I hadn’t considered what being a businessperson in the publishing industry was like.

That changed day 1 of WorldCon — the first convention I’ve ever attended. I attended a panel simply entitled ‘The Business Side of Writing.’ On this panel were several professional appearing people who spoke about having a business plan, having a brand, having a presence online, and a hundred other things I hadn’t even considered.

I got some cold sweats. I was totally unprepared to be a writer.

So I sat down and thought about what I wanted to be doing in 2 months, 6 months, a year, 2 years. Where do I want my career to go? How will I perpetuate myself in this business? When I had thought about it for a while, I wrote it down. That’s when everything changed.

I’m not just a writer. I’m an author. To me there’s a difference. Writers write. Authors write. But authors write with an eye to the future. Authors build a brand and have a plan on how to make that brand work for them. Writers write. And that’s wonderful for those who are content to stop right there. I am not one of those.

I went back to the convention the next day with a new perspective and a new attitude. I was going to be successful in this industry, and in order to do that I was going to make friends with people in the know, and I was going to project an air of success. And you know what? It. Fucking. Worked. I met tons of authors, a few agents, a few editors, a bunch of great fans of fantasy and science fiction, and collected business cards out the wazoo. Then, after I didn’t really think things could go much better for me, an author (who I won’t name here, but is seriously one of the most considerate and outgoing people I’ve ever met in my life) introduced me to an their agent and I scheduled a meeting to sit down and talk about my manuscripts.

I sat down with said agent the next day and we talked for 45 minutes (!) about who I was, what I wanted to do, and where I saw my career going. Thanks to my new mindset, I think I had some pretty good answers to those questions. I didn’t think of this meeting as a way to get some mysterious gatekeeper of writing to accept my manuscript, I thought of that meeting as a business meeting between two prospective partners, and I think (hope) that came through. I left that meeting with a request for both of my manuscripts.

Since then, I’ve sent out a few queries, which I haven’t had much luck with in the past, to be honest, and have now submitted my partial or full manuscript three times. That’s more in two weeks than in the previous 18 months. Whether that has anything to do with my newfound attitude toward becoming a published author, I can’t say for certain, but I can’t imagine it’s hurt my chances.

Hope’s End

And so begins my first ever review:

Hope’s End is a short story from Brian McClellan that takes place shortly before the opening of his novel Promise of Blood. It’s a nice introduction into the flintlock fantasy world of the Powder Mage Trilogy.

You can see a sample of the first scene on his Facebook page here. Just that first little bit does a good job laying out the conflict, introducing the protagonists, and setting the general mood. I suggest checking it out, it will give you a solid feel for the rest of the story.

Basic premise: Captain Verundish is given an ultimatum from her husband: kill yourself or your daughter is sold into slavery. At the same time, she finds out that the man she loves is tasked with heading up a suicide charge against a fortress – something known in the Adran Army as a Hope’s End.

What I really appreciated about this piece is that you don’t have to have read Promise of Blood to understand what’s going on. He does a solid job of introducing enough of the setting and magic to make sense, without overloading you with useless garbage; a hard line to toe in a second world fantasy short  story. As an immersion type reader, I would have liked to have felt a little more connection with the setting, and maybe even some more character building, but that’s hard to do in a couple dozen pages, so I’ll cut him some slack with that.

All in all, Hope’s End is a fun little read for when you’ve got a few extra minutes to kill and you want something with some action, some emotion, some things getting blown up, and some flintlocks.

The story can be purchased here, and Brian’s novel Promise of Blood is available here.

Did you find this review helpful? If so, or not so, let me know! Your feedback can make future reviews better!