On reviews: Inflation

Everyone seems to be talking about reviews lately. And they are saying good things:

I love reviewers/readers. Without them, I’d be out of a job. I respect that it takes a reviewer time to read and review my work, just as it does with a reader (though readers are out of time and money). I am not so arrogant or deluded to believe that a reviewer owes me a review, let alone a positive one, or that I have to right to pitch a fit if it’s negative.

[ . . . ]

In the end, reviews are for products people buy, not critical assessments of writing skill or talent. Reviews cover plot, theme, characterization, editing, formatting, cover art, and price of book. They’re about products, nothing more, and that bit of emotional distance can do an author a world of good when someone says that their book sucks.

S.L. Armstrong

And:

When you put your book out, either through self-publishing venues or through a publisher, there has to be a certain sense of letting go. You might have been trying to send out a particular message or woven a subtle theme into the fabric of your story, but once it’s out there and available to the masses, you have to leave your expectations at the door. Some people will love your book, some will hate it, some will shrug their shoulders and say they think your idea could have been executed better, and some will read into aspects of the story in ways that you had never even imagined while writing it. There are ups and downs, and it’s really just part of the beast.

K. Piet

I think both of these posts are valid and should be read and internalized. But they fail to hit on the thing that I want to talk about today, which is sending your book to your friends in order to get favorable reviews.

There was a recent kerfluffle about an author who made a lot of sockpuppet accounts on Goodreads and gave all their books many five-star reviews; the whole community recoiled at this idea, this inflation of the score and this idea that the author would dare to do such a thing.

I think that the community’s reaction to this was right on the money. The author’s behavior is the type of thing that ought not be accepted since it is sneaky and dishonest to other authors who are not doing that sort of thing and also readers who are looking for an accurate opinion of a book before they read it.

You can probably see where I am going with this.

Sending a book to a bunch of friends* is only marginally better than sockpuppets; it’s still underhanded in this writer’s opinion. The action has the same outcome, and the exact same intent: inflation of the opinion of your book. It’s dishonest and I think that it’s actually pretty bad for business.

Why?

Think on it this way: what happens when the new reader–who bought your book on a whim, perhaps, after seeing that it had good reviews–reads the book and finds it to be not at all what the reviews portrayed it as? Not only have you earned another bad review (or bad reviews, if more than one person bought the book and was disappointed) but you’ve also repelled a reader; the chances of them buying any more books written by you are low.

It also makes for dismal chances that they will believe that future reviews written by certain people are accurate opinions of your book. You will gain a reputation for dishonesty, too. I know that doesn’t bother a lot of people, because integrity seems like a lost cause these days, but it bothers me, which is why I am writing about it.

Even with all of these things, I think the thing that an author loses the most from ignoring bad reviews and inflating their book with friends’ reviews is the chance to improve their craft. These reviewers are trying to tell you something; listen.

And that’s all I have to say about that.

* Sending it to one or two friends is kind of industry standard so I can’t frown on it too much. Besides, one or two reviews aren’t going to inflate anything; I mean when you send to five, ten, or more people.

Why should authors write short stories?

A recent post on one author’s experience with short stories inspired this post, though I am not writing (mostly) from a personal point of view; I am writing from an editor/beta/publisher point of view. And I am defining short story as anything under 20k words. (Over 20k is novella, over 50k is novel. These are the definitions I generally go by.)

Short stories are invaluable. They are worth their weight in something more valuable than gold: experience.

Of the two new beta-partners I have acquired lately, one of them is a new(er) author and has no love for short story format. She asked me why she should be writing short stories, when all of her ideas were novel-length, and I told her: because it takes a hell of a lot longer to finish a novel.

You can write 100 short stories in two years, but 100 novels?

Let’s do a numeric breakdown, since numbers are pretty hard to argue with. Even if you only counted a novel as 20k words, that would mean writing 2,000,000 words in that two year period. One. Million. Words. Two years in a row. That’s just under 2.75k words a day, 19.2k words a week, 82k words each and every month. Forget NaNoWriMo’s 50k–you will be going for the long haul. For two years.

Even if you did manage to write that much, the novels would probably be worse for having been rushed. When you are writing that much you have no time to stop, to plan, to let ideas ferment in your mind. Never mind any kind of editing experience; the only experience you will be getting here is novel-writing experience.

We’ll go back to the numbers, now. 100 short stories. I will use 5k as my number, here. That is 685 words a day, 4.8k words a week, 20.6k words a month. This is much more manageable!

Not to mention that you would have plenty of time to plan out short stories, edit them, submit them to publishers (if you are that brave), and hone your craft. You will have enough time to join a critique group and have your stories critiqued by others, or to do something with the crit that your personal beta has given you.

So, yes, short stories are experience because you can churn them out and edit them much faster. They are also experience because you really have to make every word, every scene, count.

You will learn pretty fast (Or I know I learned pretty fast) that when you try and make your writing conform to certain word counts that you will have to sacrifice some element, or elements, of the story in order to have a narrower focus. Part of the joy (and the pain) of short stories is that they are snap-shots, and while they can be very complete and finished, they can also be a glimpse at a much larger world.

Both of these things are okay in my book, as long as the author learns the art of writing a story that has a clear beginning, middle, and end, and doesn’t leave readers going “That’s it? But what about this? And what about that? And this other thing!” You really don’t want this, even if you are intending your short stories to be some kind of single-author anthology. It is fine for readers to want more of a character, but if they want more of the story you were trying to tell, you were trying to tell too much story for a short story.

That’s what writing short stories is really good at: making you figure out what the fuck you are doing. It becomes harder to get two characters and throw them in a room; there has to be some conflict in order to make the story interesting. Oh, yeah, you know me: it all goes back to conflict. Short stories are not, contrary to what I have heard some people say, too short of a medium for real conflict.

They are too short of a medium to tell all sides conflict, but they are just the right length for other, shorter conflicts, or for specific parts of a larger conflict, especially one where the beginning and middle of it are boring. Just show us the end, if all else fails. I have seen authors do this to great effect!

So, short stories: good for experience with finishing and editing, for learning how to focus a narrative, and one last thing: mistakes tend to show in stark contrast in short stories.

If the author is inexperienced, it will show. If the author isn’t used to finishing things, it will show. If the author rushes the ending, if the conflict is unclear, if there is no conflict, if the narrative is disjointed, if… any mistake, you name it, it will probably show more in a short story than in a novel-length. The only two things I can think of right now that you can tell more with novels than with short stories are pacing and keeping characterization consistent.

Consistent characterization throughout a story is a post in and of itself, I think, but I also think that writing short stories can help you a lot with your pacing, especially stories in the 10-20k range.

One last thing that short stories are good for is giving out presses a test-drive. Submitting a short or submitting to anthologies is a good way of seeing what their contracts are like, seeing what their editing is like, seeing what their general feel is. You don’t want to sign your novel over to a press and find out that their editing is horrible after the fact. You don’t want to find out that they withhold royalties after you have already sold your book. You don’t want to find out that they are uncommunicative only after months of spotty e-mail exchanges.

These are things you want to know before committing a piece that you have poured months of hard work into, and there is no better way to do that than with a short story. Not to mention that anthology deadlines give you goals for when you will be finishing things–I know this is something that helps me a lot!

Why should you be writing short stories? The important question, to me, is why aren’t you writing short stories already? There’s not a singe author who can’t stand to improve their writing, and short stories are an easier way to go about that than novels.

Plot/porn balance! Or, How to get your story accepted

An author asked me this in an e-mail exchange recently: [H]ow much erotic content are you looking for? Obviously at least one sex scene […] but what are you picturing for the overall plot/porn balance?

This was a subject that I had never thought about in depth before. I tend to write and read very instinctively, which is one reason why I love to talk about writing: because I’m not going to think about if I don’t have anyone to talk to! But this was a good question, and the author needed an answer; the gears in my head started turning.

My first answer was that I was looking for as much erotic content as the story demanded, whether it meant that there was only one sex scene or that it was full of erotic scenes. Both of these were okay, i said, as long as there’s purpose for both the reader and the characters in the erotic content; as long as the sex wasn’t gratuitous.

(I tangented a little, at this point. Because I do like gratuitous sex, but if you don’t know the characters it’s a bit like watching someone you’ve never met before have sex–there’s no emotion/meaning attached to the characters, so it’s just bodies. Not something many authors can get away with outside of established universes.)

I want the sex to mean something, I said, once I wandered back on topic. It doesn’t matter how much or little sex there is as long as the sex is as important to me, the reader, as it is to the characters. There’s not a straight answer to this question, because it varies story-to-story. As long as there’s at least one romantic scene, it’s gravy.

So how does this translate to you? How does this translate to your story?

At Storm Moon Press, we publish erotic romance. Sometimes it seems like people put more emphasis on the first word than the second, and it ends up meaning that they write a story that’s centered around the sex that the characters have–or don’t have.

I will be the first to admit that sometimes this works. Sometimes an author can put enough conflict and emotion and importance into the sex that it carries the story without any need for an over-arching plot. Strong romantic conflict can be very enthralling.

But. And this is a big but.

Storm Moon also loves non-romantic plots. I love non-romantic plots. It creates even more conflict, which means more is going on, which means there are more things that are making the reader ask the question every author wants to hear: what happens next? (Thank you, Neil Gaiman.)

If your story has me asking this question, chances are that you’re going to get a contract.

Conflict not caused by the relationship (most especially if this conflict still has an effect on the relationship) is a big, easy way to do this. Sexual tension/friction–otherwise known as unresolved sexual tension, or UST–is another. I want something that will draw me in and make me care, and both starting with conflicts/problems and make bad choices that create problems are a good way to do this.

Just make sure you resolve it. I don’t want that UST to stay unresolved. I don’t want the biggest conflict to not have some kind of resolution–even if it’s obviously temporary. I want the story to end in a way that solves the conflicts that we’ve spent the entire story caring about, spent the entire story investing ourselves in what the outcome will be for these characters.

Bullet points, if that was tl;dr:

  1. Include as much or as little erotica as the story demands.
  2. Plot is never a bad thing.
  3. A strong conflict is the key to pulling the reader in.
  4. Make sure the conflict is resolved.

Sounds easy, right? I’m still working on it, myself.