Are You Sure? (Y/N)

Dear Fellow Writers Who Have Yet To Publish,

Don’t do it.

Love,
Liz

…Wait. You need more than that? Oh. Okay.

Dear Fellow Writers Who Have Yet To Publish,

If you love writing and value your sanity, don’t do it.

Love, and really, I mean it,
Liz

I can hear you from here, you know. “Well, of course she’d say that. She’s done it. This is just sour grapes or some competitive bullshit because she knows my book is better than hers.”

Dearest fellow writer, I hope your book is better than mine. I hope it’s Shakespeare or Melville or Butler or Rowling or Gay or whatever massively-selling author you idolize. I hope you are brilliant and productive and creative and beautiful, and that publishing brings you massive success and recognition and love from strangers all over the world.

Spoiler alert: It probably won’t. Even if your book is better than mine. Even if it is better than Shakespeare and Melville and Butler and Rowling and Gay.

And even if it does bring you massive success and recognition and love from strangers, it’s not going to feel the way you think it will.

We are storytellers, you and I. It’s a strong desire, and a motivating one. (It has to be motivating, because damn, finishing a book is hard.) We are storytellers in part because we’ve had stories told to us. We’ve read, some of us more widely than others. We’ve had that window into another world, another mind, another framework. That window has changed us and taught us who we are, and who we want to be.

Maybe we started with Goodnight Moon. Maybe nothing spoke to us until we had to read Clarissa for that college 18th century lit class we only took because nothing else fit into our schedule. Maybe it started when we were 35 and waiting at the airport and the only thing on the racks was Stephen King’s It.

We love being told stories. And you and I, fellow writers, decide, at some point, that we want to tell stories of our own. For all the stories that have made us feel less alone–maybe you and I think that perhaps if we write down our own stories, we can give that feeling to someone else.

We tell stories out of love.

Dearest fellow writers, I tell you this as someone who has been making up stories for 47 years, since before I could write, since before I knew what an adverb was (or why I should use as few as possible): Write and write and write and write. Tell all your stories. Pour all your love into your work. Share it with your friends. Have beautiful bound copies made (there are some places that do very nice low-volume binding work these days) and give them as holiday gifts.

But if you love to write, don’t publish.

There are lovely aspects to it, of course. Beautiful covers. Your name in print. The feeling of seeing your words neatly typeset, like all of the stories you’ve read all your life. The feeling that now you’re one of them. You’re one of the storytellers, the ones that tell stories to strangers, just as you were once a stranger who picked up a book. You belong.

Except you don’t.

Perhaps it’s different for you. Perhaps you’re the sort of person who can walk into a room full of strangers completely relaxed, feeling entirely at home, able to blend in a way that makes other people gravitate toward you, assuming that of course you belong there, even if they don’t know you. Perhaps your name and your cover and your words for sale at your favorite retailer is enough.

And right now, you’re certain it will be. I sure was. I knew exactly how all this was going to feel, how all this was going to go. I was prepared for the inevitable bad reviews, the sales that didn’t go quite where I wanted them to. So many authors I love have had bad reviews, have taken years to build proper sales (if they ever did). Belonging doesn’t mean there are no downsides. The downsides are part of belonging, because they hit everyone.

Dearest fellow writers. I was not prepared. I was not.

There are bad reviews. There are always bad reviews. I don’t read them. (I don’t generally read the good ones, either, although my spouse sometimes emails them to me, and some of my readers are genuinely lovely people, I have to say.) But it’s not the bad reviews that will get you. It’s the conversation. It’s the people at that party you’ve just walked into, the ones you think will welcome you. Fellow storytellers, and fellow consumers of stories. We are all one. We Are The World. We all belong, right?

People will talk about you. And it will not always be nice. People you like will say genuinely awful things. Because being published doesn’t mean you join the party. It means you become a topic of conversation for the partygoers. They are, of course, welcome to say whatever they choose; but they will say it as if you are not there.

Because you’re not.

This is the bit that I know you’re not going to get when I explain it, but it’s not you that’s joining the party. It’s not you that’s dealing with belonging or not belonging. It’s your story. That thing you wrote out of love, that you tortured yourself over, that you polished and perfected and fought with editors over, that you finally found a way to offer to the world. It’s all of your heart and parts of yourself you never knew you had.

And to the rest of the world, it’s just another story. And it does not matter a bit how much the story matters to you.

It’s often true that when authors get successful, personalities emerge. There are a number of personalities right now in the SFF world. Most of them I like. Some of them, not so much. But there’s one thing I notice, even about the ones who are successful to a degree I will never, ever see: They don’t frequent those places where they are discussed. They interact with people in their own spaces, on their own terms. And in all of those other places? They’re discussed as if they’re not there, just like the rest of us.

Sometimes, of course, you hear things that make you say “Huh?” My favorite was bashing into a “review” of my book in a random comments thread, in which the reader had been unhappy with my characters. “People who should know better behaving badly.” I remember thinking, “Do you even know people?” And then I started wondering if maybe software, where I spent most of my adulthood, was just full of weirdos. (It’s a valid reaction to the book, of course. If you don’t like my people, you’re not going to like the story. But goodness.)

That one wasn’t upsetting, really. What was upsetting was that shortly afterward I had to stop reading those random comment threads. Because other people would say things. And they were not always polite, and they were not always about the work. These were people I respected, whose recommendations I had taken. Some of them I had even interacted with. The brutality of the tossed-off remarks was startling. Some of this is just the nature of the internet (and before anyone tells me to toughen up: I’ve been on the net since 1988, and I know from toxic flame wars, children). But it’s a bit like road rage: at a real party, nobody would say those things to your face, even if they were thinking them. And reading that from someone you respect…it does change the way you see them.

And if I’d been a raving Shakespeare/Melville/Butler/Rowling/Gay success, maybe I wouldn’t have cared.

But I suppose my ultimate point to you, dear fellow writer, is that with all of the success that may be awaiting you, you’re not wandering into the party you think you’re wandering into. You’re wandering into some gazebo on the side, maybe full of gold and champagne, maybe full of warm fruit punch and bad lighting. You can watch the party. You can wonder if they’re talking about you, and maybe they are, and maybe every word is lovely. But you are never going to be a part of that. You are a storyteller now, and you’re cut off in a way that you weren’t before you opened your heart and let your stories into the world.

It can be very, very hard to write in that gazebo. Because you can’t go to the party and take your stories back. You can’t stop all those people, the ones you thought would let you in, from talking about you however they will. It’s too late now that you’ve published, and you’ll know it’s happening, and you cannot do anything at all about it. You cannot ever go back to the party, you cannot ever untell your stories.

You cannot ever have those dreams again, the ones where you belong.

And now you know, when you write a story, what’s going to happen to it. You know what people will say about it, and about you. You’ve lost that purity of impulse, the story that grows inside you so big and so complete that it has to come out, that joy of writing for that one person who will just Get It. You know now that you may not find them. That they may not exist. You’re not painting on a neutral canvas anymore, and even if you’re writing only for yourself, you can’t unknow that.

I suppose I’ll get used to it. REMNANTS OF TRUST was finished before THE COLD BETWEEN was published, so it lives in innocence. BREACH OF CONTAINMENT was written in a constant state of anxiety and consciousness of dismal failure. But I wrote it anyway. It’s still being whacked with the editing stick (and I will admit, dear fellow writer, that I adore having an editor, and I highly recommend that part of the experience), but I wrote it and finished it and it ends where I want it to, so there’s that, at least.

But it is a different experience. And I can’t go back. And I’m not the sort of person who’s good at doing the hypothetical “What if I could go back and talk to my younger self?” thing. No matter what I said to that woman back in 2013, when I first started querying, she wouldn’t listen.

You won’t either, dear fellow writer. But I can warn you. What makes you write now, what feeds you, those evergreen dreams of sharing your stories…it’s not going to be like that afterward. No matter what your success, no matter what your failure, it’s not going to be what you think it will be.

You may think it’ll be better. You may be right. Maybe this is just me, just the sort of person I am, just my own particular sensitivities. Maybe it’s just how I write and exist in the world, and everybody else is wondering what the hell is wrong with me.

But I will ask you, dear fellow writer, to think long and hard about publishing before you pull the trigger.

Are you sure?

Are you?

Listening to Critiques

(What? A non-political post?

Why, yes. Because despite the chaos surrounding us all, writing is still my job, and I still love doing it, and today I’m going to write about it.)

Like most writers, I’ve got an uneasy relationship with critiques.

As a writer, you understand, when you’re writing with publication in mind, that other people are going to read it. (That’s the point, after all.) And you know they’ll have thoughts about it. And in this day and age, when it’s easy for them to share those thoughts, you know that people are going to say stuff publicly about your work. Back when I thought I’d self-publish the book that later became THE COLD BETWEEN, I sent it off to betas and said “Be as honest as you can, because people are going to eviscerate me on Amazon either way.”

Oh, naive me.

Critiques are a different thing than reviews. Reviews are written by readers for readers; even negative reviews can be informative. (I’ve bought a lot of books based on the content of negative reviews.) Critiques, on the other hand, are a way for you, the writer, to discover potential weak points in your manuscript, allowing you to correct them before letting your baby bird fly.

A lot of us get critiques not from professional critics (such as editors), but from family, friends, or fellow writers. For those critiques, there tends to be a common denominator: most readers want to identify a problem by telling you how to fix it. Which sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? It’s the way any reader thinks about a part of a story that’s not working for them: tell it to me this way instead. (Writers in particular are fond of doing this.)

The trouble is, for the very reason any book with a critical mass of readers will get some negative reviews, you’re likely to get contradictory advice from your critics. And if you try to make every change suggested, you’re going to end up with a Frankenbook made up of a germ of your original story and a bunch of unfamiliar things that other people wrote.

The only way to get anything useful out of a critique is to figure out the underlying issue.

This isn’t always easy. If someone writes you a critique and says “You need to make a joke here,” it’s not clear if they’ve been disturbed by pacing, tone, or lack of character development.

And this is the hard bit. Because you, as an artist, must sit down with this piece of your work and allow for the possibility that there is actually something wrong there.

It’s easy to say “That’s silly. This isn’t the time for a joke. [Critic] doesn’t know what they’re talking about” and dismiss the whole thing. But every reader’s experience is a true one. Your critic may not have articulated their issue in a helpful way, but they have given you valuable feedback on their reading of your story. And it’s worth your time to take seriously the very real possibility that they’ve pinpointed something that needs improvement.

This is something that takes a lot of practice–or at least it did for me. I was probably in my mid-20s before I could hear a critique of a piece I loved and not have the knee-jerk response of “Hmph. What do they know?” I gave a short to a friend of mine once, and after a few paragraphs he said the beginning was slow. I told him to trust me, and he finished the piece, and said that he loved it–but his initial response was just as valid as his final one. Moreover, he was right: the beginning of the story was filler, and my ego got in the way of my seeing that. My reader may have loved it in the end, but he properly identified a major flaw.

fixable flaw. That’s the other thing to remember: your non-professional critics are not taking random potshots at your baby bird (unless they are jerks, in which case: new critics). Unless they’re pointing out something systemic about the plot, they’re showing you something you can change to make your work better and stronger. They’re doing you a favor.

But it doesn’t always feel that way, does it?

I have, on occasion, chosen not to make corrections based on critiques. I think a long, long time before I do this. I can only think of four major bits of feedback where I chose to hold my ground, and I’ve had a lot of critiques at this point. But all four times, I spent a lot of time working to understand what the reader was saying, what they might have been responding to, what the cost to the story would be to make a correction that would work for that particular reader. I chose with my eyes open. I still don’t think, in any of those situations, that I was wrong–or at least, I don’t think the story would have been better told with those changes.

This is the thing about critiques: you have to be receptive, and you have to recognize that your readers’ experiences are valid. But you need to have enough of a sense of your own story, of the way you’re using prose, of the precise response you’re going for, to decide when to listen and when to ignore. And if you’re going to ignore, you’ve got to have enough self-awareness to know why you’re doing it. If you’re ignoring because you get where they’re coming from and you’ve decided it’s okay with you that they’re uncomfortable–even if it means you’ve lost them as a reader–you’re probably coming from the right place. But if you’re inclined to ignore feedback because your feelings are hurt and you want to shrug off everything that critic has said, you probably owe it to your story to take a break, step back, and consider the possibility that your critic has hit on something important.

Past a certain point, quality of writing is a subjective assessment. Not every story is going to work for every reader. With critiques, you’ve got to learn how to be both objective and subjective: objective enough to really listen to what your critics are telling you, and subjective enough to know when to ignore them.

It’s very possible no writer has ever hit the balance quite right.

In Which: There is rambling

“Be present on social media, Liz. It’s good for the book.”

<checks date of last blog entry>

Oops.

One of the casualties of writing to deadline is that recreational writing – and the exhortations of people insisting that blogging is an important marketing tool don’t make my personal blog any less recreational – gets shoved way, way down the priority list. It’s an absolute truth that writing a book is hard, but I’m starting to think that editing a book is even harder, and I’m not done with this one yet. And as always, I won’t be able to keep it in the rock tumbler as long as I’d like to. Are there writers who don’t pick up the bound versions of their books and flip through and find a million things they’d change?

Speaking of which, I do worry about the second book. I love it unreservedly. One loves one’s children. But it’s a different animal in a lot of ways from the first book. In my mind, it’s a logical progression of the story, but based on some of the things readers have enjoyed in the first book…hmm. I’ve had some nice early reviews, which reassures me that at least it was in the rock tumbler long enough to make it readable. And it is the book I wanted and needed to write. But whether it’ll find a real-world audience? We shall see.

I still love staring at the cover. Which is a weird thing to say, I suppose; it seems vain, but I’m not the one who drew it, so I guess it’s OK? I think about the third book’s cover, which is, of course, not even a gleam in the milkman’s eye at this point. But I am really looking forward to it.

I’ve delivered a draft of the third book. There will be changes, of course; but unless someone says “What are you, nuts? You can’t do that!” the story itself is more or less baked. I don’t know what it’s about yet. It’s a strange phenomenon, but when I write a book, I don’t know what it’s about until I’ve been done with it for a while. THE COLD BETWEEN is about belonging. REMNANTS OF TRUST is about revenge. This one? I can’t reduce it to a single word, not yet. Connection, maybe. Or community. (Doesn’t sound very space-opera-y, does it?)

Humanity. Maybe that’s it. Which sounds pompous, but really, humanity is such a small, personal thing. We’re human on our bad days and our good days, and when we say the wrong thing, and when we do the right one. It’s the one thing every one of us has in common. It’s probably a cliché to suggest that the world would be a better place if we all remembered that, but I also think it’s probably true.

There have been other things going on in my life besides the time-devouring act of completing a novel. But there’s a point at which you stop writing about your kids online, and I think I’ve hit it. She’s old enough to have veto power over what I do and don’t expose about her life, small and large. So I’ll only say two things: 1) All is well; and 2) Parenting is sometimes paralyzing. All those people who tell you it’s hard? They mean it. And it’s hard in ways that – no matter what you read or how you prepare – are going to kick your ass and make you question your entire existence.

There’s some parenting stuff in Book 3. How could there not be?

Somewhere in August – the 21st, I think – I hit the first anniversary of being without a day job. That I didn’t note the occasion, or even really think about it until after the fact, suggests that I’ve adjusted. Mostly that’s true. I’ve got a routine, of sorts, that more or less works for me, and I’ve weathered what I hope are the worst of the alone-all-day-weirdness changes. (We’ll see about that. I’m almost certainly out of practice dealing with people I don’t know, and next week I get to go to NYCC and…deal with people I don’t know. If I’m weird, PIDK – well, thank you for being part of my learning curve.)

When I think back on how all of it happened…it was clearly the right decision (and I say this well aware that I’m privileged as hell to have been able to make the choice). And I do have feelings about the endgame at that last job, which are probably best left unsaid. There’s also some reformed smoker stuff going on about the software industry in general, and some thoughts about the big STEM push in schools – but that’s a different blog post, and possibly also best left unsaid.

October, so far, looks like it might be fairly restful. There’s a little promotion I’m doing for REMNANTS OF TRUST, but so far nothing huge. And then there’s November, during which I will again do NaNoWriMo, and end up with 50,000 words of…something. I have a few scenes in my head, and the odd complication, but so far that’s all. Generally, when I start writing, I have an end point in mind. This time…well. Can’t say much without spilling Book 3 spoilers. 🙂 But suffice to say, I have a good place to start.

Someone asked me a few weeks ago if I might write about different characters someday. I might, at some point. But I’ve lived with these characters for so long. They inhabit my head and put their feet up on my coffee table and drink the last of the hot chocolate and generally hang around making pests of themselves. They are not finished with me yet, and so I am not finished with them. That’s OK with me. Like I said, one loves one’s children. All of them.

 

 

 

 

Dispelling a Couple of Myths

Regardless of my newbieness, it turns out there’s one thing I do know about the publishing business, and it’s this: sometimes conventional wisdom is bullshit. I hear assertions from people that are downright startling, mostly because I’m a living counterexample. I’d hate to have people reluctant to push their baby novels out of the nest because they’re concerned about things that aren’t true.

So here’s a pair of things people sometimes say you need to worry about that you totally don’t need to worry about.

Myth #1: You need an MFA to publish fiction.

News flash: I do not have an MFA.

I don’t have a masters degree of any kind. I have two college degrees, one in math, and one in what was called interactive media design, which was basically graphic design for people who wanted to pick up a little HTML. (As I already knew HTML, that degree was much easier than the math degree.)

In fact, it’s only in recent years that I realized you could get a masters degree in creative writing. Based on the people I knew in college (back in dinosaur times), MFAs were mainly for art history majors. As paintings bored the daylights out of me, it never once entered my mind that acquiring an MFA was a thing I might actually enjoy doing.

I know better now, in a couple of ways. For one thing, as part of my media design degree, I took an art history course, and it was great fun. I learned more about religious history studying art than I ever did in actual history courses. (TL;DR: Humans don’t change. It’s both fascinating and horrifying.) One of the only textbooks I saved from that degree is my big fat gorgeous coffee-table art history book.

For another thing…wait, you can get an MFA in writing? I would probably have sold several chunks of my soul for that in my 20s, although I was also feeling some pretty strong pressure to get a job and have a Real Life. Given how well that went at the time…the MFA wouldn’t have been an awful idea. And I could have studied creative writing.

On the other hand, my college English courses were an exercise in frustration. I did well enough – I was able to churn out 5 pages on almost anything in just a few hours, which made the coursework pretty easy – but I never could shake the idea that literary criticism was just a bunch of people arguing about their opinions using big words. I was welcome to hate The Great Gatsby, as long as I could explain why. I could write about why I never wanted to read Faulkner again, as long as I argued it against the rich background of his life. It seemed like one long exercise in how to make smart people acknowledge that you’re allowed to disagree with them.

Am I doing a huge disservice to the field of literary criticism? Almost certainly. Then again, sometimes the damn curtains are just blue.

So yeah, I probably wouldn’t have been a great MFA candidate anyway, despite the theoretical coolness of the idea. I would have dragged my lazy brain through an MFA the same way I dragged it through college: reluctantly, with lower grades than I was capable of earning, and this nagging sense that I was wasting a spot that would have been better spent on someone with more enthusiasm.

I’m actually very glad I never heard the “you need to have an MFA, or at least a spot at Clarion” myth about getting published before I actually queried. I’d have never tried. The Book as it was at the time would have ended up self-published, and…well, really, I suspect I’d have been perfectly happy. But it would have been a different book, and a different series, and I’d have had a different career (if you can call four months of having a book in print a career).

But my long-winded point is this: No, you do not need an MFA. No, you do not need to be a graduate of an elite writing program. Yes, those things are marvelous, and if you want to do them and have the motivation and the wherewithal, then do them. It is never, ever a bad idea to study something that brings you joy, nor is it a bad thing to cultivate friends and professional contacts who understand the struggle you’re going through. But don’t go into it thinking If I don’t do this I will never, ever get published. Because that’s flat-out false, and no, it’s not just me.

Myth #2: You need to know someone to get an agent.

So, I don’t know anybody.

I’m a (now former) software engineer. I hung out with tech people for twenty-five years before I queried for an agent. What I knew about publishing (which, as I’ve since discovered, was close to eff-all) I had gleaned from reading posts on writing forums. And I didn’t even apply all of that knowledge.

Somewhere flying around I saw an agent say they acquired a little more than half of their clients through cold queries, and I was shocked it was that low. I had no idea that there was any other way to do it. I was stuck on (apparently) outdated conventional wisdom that said “Write a book, find agents who rep that type of book, and query them.” There was nothing about friends of friends or publishing contacts or you are doomed if you don’t know someone who lives in New York City.

I wrote a book. I had some friends read it. I made some changes. I wrote a query letter. I had some friends beat it with a stick. I made some changes to that, and I sent it out. It wasn’t the world’s fastest process, but this month will mark three years since I first spoke with my now-agent on the phone, and I have a book out.

(Let me tell you: In this business, three years is nothing. After the quarter-to-quarter life of writing software, this is mind-boggling to me.)

In those three years, I’ve met writers who have had more than one agent, or who have acquired agents by being recommended by other writers. So clearly it happens, and my ignorance of that side of the process doesn’t make it unreal. It may even help to know someone, but if I had to guess (didn’t I say I wouldn’t speculate? Oh, well) I’d say the only thing it helps with is if you have trouble writing effective query letters. Past that hurdle, you either have a book that particular agent believes they can sell, or you don’t. Same as the slightly-more-than-half of us who contact agents via cold queries.

(If you do have trouble writing effective query letters, go find Query Shark and read from start to finish. Then find a forum like Absolute Write and have your query critiqued by merciless strangers. It is worth it.)

My path to publication was no more or less conventional than anyone else’s. I don’t think any two writers have the same story. I wrote for more than 40 years before I took the time to figure out how to focus enough to actually complete a novel. On the other side of it, our local Barnes and Noble once had a signing for a book written by a 14-year-old girl. We all bash at it in different ways.

And we all get discouraged so easily. That’s just about the only commonality I’ve ever found among writers: we’re all one critique, one rejection, one bad review away from hanging it up and never venturing outside the safe bubble of keep your nose out of my notebook again.

Not to get all serious here, but there are classist implications to these two myths as well. I would have had the option to get an MFA. (I could do it now, economically at least; whether or not I could get accepted at a program is a different issue.) And I did, as it happened, have a cousin who was a published author. I knew people. I had money.

Not everybody knows people. Not everybody can afford a college degree, never mind an MFA. (And I don’t mean only financially; there’s a time investment there as well, and time is a luxury.)

How many stories do we lose? How many people just give up when they hear Oh, you need to have an MFA or nobody will talk to you at all? I see it on forums all the time: people discouraged because they don’t have the right background or the right contacts. And the people on the forums are the ones who still hold out a glimmer of hope, who are posting I know I’ll never get anywhere because I don’t know anyone in the business because they’re hoping someone will respond and tell them it’s bullshit.

For them, and for the ones who aren’t even hopeful enough to be pessimistic on a message board: it is bullshit. All of that stuff you think is going to keep anyone from taking you seriously is bullshit. Ignore it, and write the story anyway.

News from the Weeds: The Social Media Thing

(Yes, I still have a deadline, so of course I’m writing another blog post.)

Social media is weird. This is not a particularly original observation, but I’m still struck by it from time to time.

There’s Facebook, which is a coordinated, (mostly) self-curated version of every generic holiday letter you ever sent or received. (I should mention I’ve received some really awesome holiday letters, which may explain why Facebook is doing so well.) In addition, you can subscribe to various celebrities, news outlets, and professional entities, who will provide their own holiday letter entries. Advertising and data-scraping notwithstanding, it’s not a terrible system. I can get news updates, keep up with people I haven’t seen since high school, and watch people I will never meet crack jokes and have political arguments.

Then there’s Twitter, which is the electronic version of a highway billboard. Once again, you can curate whose billboards you see, and float your own little billboards out into the world. Unlike Facebook, though, you don’t know who’s going to see what you post. You know you’ve put it up aside a highway, but you don’t know who’s going to be driving by. Your followers will see it (unless they’ve muted you); but others can see it as well. You don’t know whose attention you’re going to attract. On Facebook, you can assume, up to a point, that only your friends will see what you post. On Twitter? You’re yelling to the whole world, and at any point, anyone anywhere could tune in and listen.

There’s also Instagram (where I have an account and follow a pack of people) and Snapchat (where I do not have an account, because I suspect I’m too old) and more flashing in and out of existence every day.

I’m not entirely terrible at this internet stuff. I’m pretty comfortable with the sort of back-and-forth one gets into when it’s all in writing, when you can think about what you say but have to deal with the complete lack of body language.

But as an author…I have no idea what I’m supposed to do.

I’ve got a Facebook page. It’s fun: I can squee over my book covers and post links to podcasts and toss up random NASA and science-y stuff. But I’m never sure how much to be myself. On my personal Facebook page, I’ve been known to have political arguments. (I’ve also been known to block people over political arguments.) I actually kind of hate political arguments, and I don’t want to have them on my professional page. But how much of myself do I actually put there? I mean, people Like the page because they want book news, right? And there’s not a lot of book news, really, except “Here’s the first book!” and “Here comes the second book!” and “There’s going to be a third book!” Three posts, and all the actual pertinent information has been disbursed.

Twitter is both easier and stranger. It’s easier, because I have one account, personal and professional. @liz_monster is me in all my varieties, and because Twitter is public, I’ve always been careful there. But I’ve been annoyed, and silly, and off-topic, and ham-fisted, and political (although I generally retweet other’s stuff, because other people so often say what I’m thinking much better than I could), and as a result my tweet history gives a much more complete picture of my personality than Facebook does. But when I talk on Twitter, I have no idea who I’m talking to, and that changes the message.

Blogging is much more my natural habitat. I’m still careful here (YOU HAVE NO IDEA), but it’s much easier to construct nuanced arguments in a blog. (I adore Twitter, but really, it’s no place to have a complex discussion about anything.) It would have been nice, in some ways, to have published ten years ago, when Facebook and Twitter were babies.

And here’s the thing: I don’t know if it helps.

I suppose I should define what it helps would look like, but I can’t. I don’t actually know. I see authors on Twitter talk about how much their social media presence has helped. I’ve had people tell me “Yeah, do what you like, but it doesn’t make much difference.” I don’t know who to listen to. I suspect both are correct: for some authors, Twitter and Facebook have really boosted sales, and for others it just doesn’t matter.

I’m beginning to think, though, that the “it doesn’t make much difference” crowd are all authors that were established before Facebook and Twitter came to be, before the internet was a place we were all expected to have some kind of presence.

So I don’t really know what to do, and I push forward and try to be myself, and I feel like I’m yelling into the great and terrible void.

Earlier I was reading a discussion thread about self-publishing, and someone brought up (as someone always brings up) how trade published authors are still often asked to do their own marketing. In the spirit of honest ignorance, I’ll say I don’t know if that’s true or not. I can say I haven’t been asked to do my own marketing. I asked if I could help, and the marketing people asked what I was comfortable doing and found places for me to do those things. Is this me doing my own marketing? I can see how someone might say that it is, but I’d have to disagree. It’s entirely different than the kind of marketing I’d have to do if I were self-published. I’d be absolutely crippled marketing-wise if I were self-published, because I get paralyzed when I don’t know what to do. I’d end up victimized by one of those “send us $10,000 and we’ll get you a few hundred sales!” outfits, and I’d be grateful to them.

I don’t really see social media as marketing. Maybe this is foolish of me. I sometimes use it that way – I like tweets and post review links on Facebook and talk about covers and release dates and I’m Oh So Positive All The Time!!! – but I don’t expect anything I say to have much reach. (This is possibly because I can see how widely things are read, and I know they don’t have much reach.) I participate in social media for the same reason everybody else does: it’s fun, and sometimes you end up interacting with really interesting people. It’s a quick-and-dirty way of keeping in touch (I often know family has made it home safely from a get-together when I see them Like something on Facebook), a fine spider web of human contact.

The biggest complication for me is that I don’t know, really, how much I should be responding to readers. Not that I see much from readers, but I do, now and then. I want to say THANK YOU for every good review I see, for everyone who says they’re reading, for everyone who says “Oh, I’ve been meaning to pick that one up.” Not because of marketing, but because it really is neat when a total stranger picks up the book.

But I don’t know what to say about it. For the most part, I’ve taken a “stay out of it” stance. Reviews are supposed to help other readers. Still, people say things sometimes that I want to respond to, and I don’t, even if maybe I should. I’ve seen reviews that mix up the names of characters, and I’ve seen people attribute things to me that I haven’t said. Nearly all of it’s benign, so I say nothing, because what purpose would it serve? And then there are the good questions, like the people who wonder if I’m using my real name. After a lifetime of being teased for Bonesteel, it’s quite nice when people think it’s a cool name. But saying “thank you” just seems weird in that case. Or probably any other case.

Social media is a huge time suck. (Blogging is a huge time suck. I’ve left a character mid-rant, and I need to get back to the book.) I strongly suspect I’m not making the most of it, author-wise. I also strongly suspect that I don’t have the right personality to do that. I might get there, over time, if I’m fortunate enough to have the opportunity; but for now? I struggle. I want to be myself, but I also want to be a professional. It’s a blurred line, and it’s still uncomfortable.

Why I’m Not Podcasting

I have been getting the urge to podcast again. This means two things:

  1. I have a deadline coming up. (My ambitions are never quite as wide-ranging as they are when I have a deadline coming up.)
  2. I really need to blog more. (Because what could I say in a podcast that wouldn’t be the same said in a blog?)

You may have noticed the word “again” up there. I had a podcast for a while, although I was too chicken to ever list it on iTunes. (That’s…kind of the story of my life, and possibly why I didn’t get published until I was 51, or perhaps everything I would have written earlier was so terrible I wouldn’t have been published anyway, but I’m just going to tell myself it’s because I was chicken.) It was called Bad Parenting, and it was about dealing with my then-very-small kid. There were 25 episodes, and some of them weren’t bad; but I’ll tell you, my audio setup was terrible. I invested in limiters and mics and software, but the sound quality still sucked.

When I was doing publicity for THE COLD BETWEEN, I did a couple of podcast chats, and as part of the preparation for that I bought a USB mic to use with Skype. The sound quality? Gorgeous. For $60, I got better sound quality than hundreds of dollars and hours of reading had gained me 10 years ago.

Technology rocks, y’all.

(I should also mention that the only reason Bad Parenting ever existed was because of the Podcast Music Network. Free tunes! Except you were supposed to be a podcaster. So, in the Ethical Universe of Liz, this meant I had to be a podcaster in order to get the free tunes. Music motivates everything, at all times. And have I mentioned I’m kind of a binary thinker?)

We just returned from vacation (Acadia National Park, which is beautiful, but possibly rather too much like where I live the rest of the year to be as dazzling as I want it to be, apart from the ocean, which: wow), and I managed to leave most of my work notes at home, which meant I had to think about stuff instead of just cowering in a corner by the hotel pool whacking out words. So I thought about what I might talk about in a podcast.

(Wait, I hear you say. Shouldn’t you have been thinking about the book, even without your notes? Yes. I should have. Shush now.)

Most of what strikes me about all of this publishing stuff is that I don’t know shit about anything, and that’s disconcerting to me. Not that I’m not used to being ignorant – I’m ignorant about an enormous number of subjects, and destined to remain so, unless said subjects become something of immediate importance to me, like atmospheres and general relativity – but I’m not used to being ignorant of my own profession. There was a time I knew nothing about the software industry, but that would have been a loooooong time ago.

(That isn’t, by the way, the same as saying I was never ignorant at a new job. Every new job brings with it a period of utter stupidity, during which you go through the usual competence stages: 1) I can do this; 2) wow this is hard; 3) I’ll never learn this; 4) wait now I’ve got this; 5) I rock; 6) OMG I’m terrible and I don’t know shit. It’s not until you hit Stage 6 that you start to do genuinely solid work.)

One thing about blogging is that you never really know what people are going to be interested in reading. This blog has been kind of a generic diary for me. I’ve been a lot more careful of what I say since The Great Publication Date; although my hit rate hasn’t increased hugely, there’s the URL of my web site on the back of the book, so it feels more public even if, in practice, it isn’t. So there are things I don’t write about because it would be unprofessional, and because I remember enough of the competence stages to suspect I’d feel like a fool in about a year.

(Except for this one thing, which I swear someday I’ll write about, but long after I’ve passed Stage 6, if I ever do.)

But when I talk to my friends, what they really want to hear about is the process. They may, on some abstract level, care about What Publishing Is Really Like; but what they ask me about is my personal experience. Not “What’s the process of submitting a novel?” but “What was submission like for you?”

And hey, I figured, I can podcast about that! I can talk about my own experience! I don’t have to know anything to talk about my experience.

And then I realized: Being ignorant of publishing is part of my experience.

Not in a spreading misinformation sense. I am so wary of that. I don’t even know if all publishers work like mine does. (I suspect macrocosmically yes, microcosmically no.) I don’t even know if other authors at the same publisher have the same experience. And I don’t know how much of what I observe is the process, and how much is me and what I’m like to deal with. (I suspect, now and then, that I’m a pain in the ass. I don’t think I’m a major pain in the ass, but we all have our moments. And knowing that, I recognize that I may in fact be a major pain in the ass, in which case I sincerely apologize, but probably won’t be able to change because this is the best I can do.)

But I do know what it’s like to be tossed into the pool without any real idea of how deep it is, and without any real knowledge of whether or not I can actually swim. And I can certainly talk about how it feels to hang there, suspended in water of unknown depth, awaiting unknown currents, uncertain of the best way to avoid ignominious drowning.

I’m not going to podcast. (Seriously: deadline.) But…maybe I’ll blog a bit about What Publishing Is Really Like, From The Perspective Of Someone Who Is Wondering If She Should Have Brought Her Life Preserver.

As long as everybody remembers I know nothing, it should be fine.

 

KILL IT WITH FIRE

I tend, these days, to be cautious on the internet.

A lot of this is because of all the years I spent not being cautious on the internet. I started on Usenet back in 1988, and I did my share of ranting and piling on. I have a temper, and the reason so few people know this about me is because I have spent a lifetime practicing how to think before I react. I still sometimes fail, but it’s rare these days, and I almost always regret it after the fact.

Which is a long-winded way of saying I don’t rant much in public. I’ll do it on message boards from time to time, but even then, I’m careful, and I spend a lot of time typing and deleting. I’ve spent hours on posts that have never gone up. On many forums, all I need to do is wait, and someone else will say what I was thinking, and they’ll be more rational and make a better argument and do, overall, a much better job of actually debating an issue.

But sometimes I wake up early and read a forum and see an excerpt from an article that sets my teeth on edge. And hours later, I end up writing a blog post.

Welcome to my Saturday!

So there’s this thing that people talk about, sometimes, when they discuss female characters – in particular, “strong” female characters. Often, someone ends up saying something like “strong female characters should not just be women who act like men.” Which, in an interview I read this morning, someone did.

And in fairness, I know what that person meant. We all know what they meant, right? Because in any culture, there are going to be norms that NO NO NO ENOUGH I WILL NOT FANWANK IT AWAY KILL IT KILL IT KILL IT WITH FIRE.

It is a bloody meaningless phrase and every time I see it my eyelid starts to twitch and I dwell on fond memories of all those tequila shots I did in my youth.

Look. I don’t know much, really. I know some things about the software business, because I was in it for 27 years. I know about why startups fail, and about the degree of luck involved, and the shocking fragility of all this intertwined software we have come to depend on. (It’s hair-raising, really. Back up your stuff, people. I mean it.)

As a writer, though? I don’t know anything. I mean, I know things about writing, because I’ve been doing it for 47 years; but I can’t really tell anyone about it. I could tell you how write, and what things work for me, and what need to do to keep from procrastinating. I can’t even tell anyone how to get published, because from my own perspective it’s some mysterious alchemic relationship between persistence and luck.

And I’m a publishing newbie, and I’m out here, a tiny pebble tossed in the ocean, and nobody’s listening anyway, so here’s the thing: Please, for all that is good and beautiful in this world, stop saying “women who act like men” when you are talking about cardboard characters. Because “women who act like men” is gibberish.

I’m not even talking about the cringe-inducing gender-binariness of the phrase. (But I could talk about that, because WTF?) But I’ve got two big problems with this idea, and they’re related.

1. Why are men considered the immutable, ubiquitous norm that we all understand?

I’ve read a lot of books in my life. By virtue of the fact that I grew up in the US, educated in a US school system buying books mostly based on US culture, I’ve read a huge number of books by men. So on that level, I really do get it: without it even being explicitly taught, we’ve all learned that the norms of our culture, of our art, of our politics – the norms of everything come from men.

So it’s natural to think of men as “the norm,” right? And to measure everything against this norm, and to define everything in terms of how it deviates from the norm.

Except wait, no, that is utter bullshit. Men make up a wee bit more than half the population (and by a wee bit more, I mean a fraction of 1%), and that’s not the kind of percentage that justifies using them as some kind of elementary particle to define every other bit of matter in the literary universe. It would be nearly as justifiable to use women as “the norm,” because in any random sampling of the population, you’re going to get numbers roughly equal.

The only reason men are viewed as the norm is because men have always been viewed as the norm, humans remember cultural shifts for about four seconds, and generation after generation we keep passing this down.

But there’s another piece that’s frankly more interesting to me:

2. What does “act like men” mean, anyway? 

Okay, so I guess I’m going to touch on the cringe-inducing gender-binaryness of it after all. Because how the hell do men act?

I don’t actually think anybody has ever been told, ever in the world, that there is only one type of male character in fiction: The Man, who is the same everywhere. If you want to write The Man, just follow these twelve simple rules. Write The Man, and he will be a well-rounded character because he is the norm. Nobody ever has been told that. And that’s because it’s utter bullshit. Even if you stick with your 50%-plus-a-fraction-of-1% people in the world, there is no norm.

In much of Western culture, “act like a man” tends to mean “the only acceptable expression of emotion is violence,” and it’s a poisonous thing to tell anyone. We tell it to our children, and we get the expected result, and seriously, people, what the fuck kind of a message is that? This is why I write science fiction.

But let’s leave out the issue of toxic masculinity for a moment, shall we? “Act like a man” is another cultural constructAsk six people what it means, and you’ll get six answers. Using it as some sort of literary shorthand because “we all know what it means” is cheap and stupid and, yes, utter bullshit. If you argue using a phrase that has no concrete meaning, I am most likely going to tune you out.

Okay, I said there were two things that bothered me about this. But there’s a third, and it’s probably the most important:

3. Why is it bad to write a woman who acts like a man?

Because unless you also write your men to be cardboard, predictable, and uninteresting, there is nothing wrong with doing this.

Now, depending on the world you’ve built, there may be characteristics that are less realistic for a female to possess; but that’s not about stereotyping. That’s about paying attention to your worldbuilding, and making sure your characters make sense.

“Strong women characters should not just be women who act like men” is repeated enough that someone, somewhere must perceive this to be an actual problem. But let’s be honest about what the problem really is: badly drawn characters. Having those characters described with a weird, meaningless, culturally tone-deaf phrase doesn’t actually change the underlying issue. Good characters are genuinely hard to write, and screwing it up isn’t an unusual thing to do.

But if you do this? Own up to it. Say “I didn’t think this through.” Say “I fell back on tired stereotyping instead of trying to write a vivid individual.” Do not tell me “strong women shouldn’t be women who act like men,” because no. It is bullshit. KILL IT WITH FIRE.

Maybe next Saturday I’ll stay off the net.