Birthday Blues

So….

Birthday today. Forty…something. Another year of cheating death. Another year older.

(Muse: And uglier, don’t forget that.)

Yup.

Sorry for the misleading title. My mood isn’t blue as much as it is reflective. Thinking back over the past year and where I stand, writing-wise.

On the upside, I entered the SPFBO (written about in previous entries), with mixed results. Learned a lot from that. I have finished two books in what I hope will be a five-book series, though starting to question whether it is, and I quote, “good enough.” Feedback on that project has also been mixed.

I’ve written a few short stories and started another fantasy series, which should be three books when I finish. Reeled off 10K words in the last week, which is pretty good for me.

On the downside, it’s been two years since I pushed Pilgrimage to Skara out for self-publishing and I haven’t put out anything since. Looking at the state of my projects, it will probably be next year before I do get one out. I also got some feedback on a non-novel project that basically let me know that I was pissing in the wind in that particular venue (if that sounds vague, it is deliberately so, because I’m not trying to call anyone out right now). I still love writing but I have gone through periods of self-doubt this year and really wondered at my end goals.

And keeping up with this blog has been abysmal, though I blame that on the amount of time I’ve been busy this summer in the gardens and what not. That’s not the real reason, but that’s what I am blaming.

Like I said, very reflective.

Mid-forties. I probably have twenty to forty good years of life left. What do I want to do with my writing in that span? I guess just one step at a time and see what we see.

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Meeting Your Heroes — Why Author Interaction Matters

So….

I was brought into mind on this topic by a post made by Petrik Leo, a prolific reviewer for Booknest.EU and Goodreads.  It came about in the SPFBO Facebook group, on a discussion about reviewers.  Petrik had a sidebar sub-thread on brutal reviews where he stated, “I was called a huge jerk and an asshole by the author himself for giving his book 4/5 stars.”

Wowsa.

That got me thinking and that is, of course, always dangerous.  I’m no stranger to harsh reviews but it’s never occurred to me to attack someone for stating their opinion about my work.  Why not?  Well, for one, no book is going to appeal to all the people all the time and I don’t expect mine to be any different.

But more than that, I see no upside in this business of doing so.  It just doesn’t feel like a good idea.

There’s that saying out there:  you should never meet your heroes, with the idea being that even heroes are flawed, imperfect human animals, and once exposed to those imperfections, it will cast an indelible stain on your perception–your idealized notion–of that person.  In short, you’ll come away with a poorer image of them than you started.

While there is a fragment of truth to the notion, I think it’s a bad philosophy to live by.  Moreover, it’s incumbent on said “heroes” to not make it self-fulfilling prophecy.  Allow me to explain.

(Muse:  Would you please?  Your circular babble is making my head hurt.)

Shaddup, you.

I think there is nothing better than meeting an author you like in person.  You don’t have to get a book signed or praise them up one side and down the other.  Just having a few moments to converse with that person gives them a feeling of….tangibility, I guess.  You can make a connection, even if just a fleeting one.

I think it goes without saying it helps if they make an effort too.

I’ve met a number authors.   By and large, they were mostly positive experiences.  For example, I met Brian McClellan (Powder Mage trilogy) last year and had a chance to chat with him for several minutes.  Down-to-earth, easy-going guy.  He was happy to chat a bit and just put me at ease immediately.  I had a very brief interaction earlier this year with Fonda Lee (Jade City).  She never stopped smiling, was very, very nice.  Over the years I’ve had similar experiences with Terry Brooks, Beth Cato, Gini Koch, and others too numerous to mention.

I attended the San Diego Comic-Con in the mid-90s and met author/artist Frank Miller   Frank Miller has a reputation as being prickly but he was polite and open and seemed genuine.  I met Mark Silvestri and talked to him a few moments and came away thinking he was absolutely the nicest guy in the comic industry at the time.  (I also nearly ran over Stan Lee the same day but that’s another story).

You know what the commonality between all these interactions was?  It made me more inclined to support the authors.  For those whose work I hadn’t already purchased, I did so.  Those I had, I talked up to friends and fellow readers.  Something about a positive personal interaction makes you (well, me, at least) want to be more supportive.

Of course, none of these people knew me from Adam, so I wouldn’t expect any of them to remember those meetings.  I am certainly not at all famous in the writing community–

(Muse:  Based on the reviews for Pilgrimage to Skara, you might be infamous, though.)

–but that didn’t matter.  They engaged with an fan of the genre (me), if not of their work specifically, and did so without expectation.

Now there is the other side of the coin.

I have also had a brief interaction with an author who won a Nebula Award in the last decade.  They were arrogant, condescending, insulting, and generally full of themselves.  I am embarrassed to say but were we in another era, I would have punched them in the face.  Suffice to say, I will never buy one of their books.  I don’t care how many accolades that person receives.

At that same aforementioned Comic Con, I met a comic writer I greatly admired–and came away disappointed.  I loved the person’s writing and storylines but in person, they were sarcastic, short-tempered, and generally unpleasant.  I stopped reading books written by that person.

Some authors act like jerks.  How’s that work out for them?  At least with me, not well at all.

Look, I don’t pretend negative reviews hurt.  Of course they do.  But acting like an idiot and yelling (verbally or in print) is a lose-lose situation for an author.

Some authors prefer not to interact with the public at all.  That’s probably the safest course….and least rewarding.  Nothing ventured, nothing gained, right?  Besides, how much effort does it take to be polite and pleasant?  Very little, IMO, and the rewards from the fandom are well worth it.

I fully think that keeping my chin up and letting negativity sluff to the side has led to more people being willing to take a chance on Pilgrimage and on me, personally, as an author–and indirectly, a few more sales.  That kind of goodwill is hard to build and easy to squander, so I look at it as a gift and I intend to nurture it.  And honestly, I do appreciate that they took their time to read my book and offer their thoughts.

So to that anonymous person Petrik referenced in the quote above:  lighten the fuck up.  4/5 stars?  You should be falling-on-your-face thankful.  If it was 1/5 stars, politely thank the reviewer for his time, put the review away, and read it a few days later after the sting subsides.  See if there is any kernel of truth you can use to improve.  Separate criticism of your work from criticism of yourself.

And when interacting with your readers, you’re going to get bored.  You’re going to be tired.  Some people will be annoying.  You’re going to hear, “I have an idea for a book” or some variant at least once every ten minutes.  It will get old, I know.  Don’t get mad.  Smile and nod.  Answer questions thoughtfully.  Pay attention to what your readers tell you.  Readers will appreciate the effort.  I always did.

Seriously, keep it on an even keel.  Giving attitude directly to your readers is the fastest way to turn them off.

And if you want to be a writer, that’s the last thing you need.

State of the Pembroke

So….

Pilgrimage to Skara, my second completed novel (the first shall never see the light of day), continues to garner, uhm, “stellar” reviews.  See here, here, and here, for the latest reviewer feedback.

Muse:  You did earn all those reviews, you know.  It’s your own damn fault.

By the way, if you have morbid curiosity, you can check out Pilgrimage right here on Amazon for Kindle.

Anyway, nothing to do now but move forward.  Here’s kind of a list of ongoing projects:

I started a four-book series with a working title called Princess of the North.  Not sure if I am going to keep that title or not.  The series is told in alternating POVs between a woman and her granddaughter.  The draft of book one (tentatively titled Scion of Andoya) has been done for a few months and I have one more beta reader from which to collect feedback.   It will undergo some major changes.  I am about 3/4 of the way through the first draft of book two (Empress in Waiting).  When I finish that, heavy revision time on book one.  And I admit, I am going to try and agent/trad-pub this series.  Goal is to get it out by the end of June.

Muse:  When you submit to agents, are you going to mention Pilgrimage making it to the final round?  Given the feedback, you might be better off not.

Good question, and I have not decided.

On that point, I am going to do a few things to clean up Pilgrimage.  Going to get assistance with line edits, put a new cover on it, and make it available for print.  It won’t make it more palatable for those who don’t like it but at least it will be cleaner.

And on that note, does anyone have a cover artist they love that works with independent authors?  I’ve looked at a few but nothing has jumped out at me yet.

MuseThat’s–

Yes, that’s all shit I should have done in the first place.  Live and learn.  If I self-pub the Princess series, I will do it right.

I also finished a short story called Five Hours to Lake Champlain.  It takes place in a universe where demons, angels, vampires, imps, and other mythical creatures walk among us openly.  I have two stories set there and am thinking about intertwining a series of episodes around the same handful of people who experience it when all the visitors go nuts at once.

I also tore out a 12K word story in two days that could only be called erotica.

Muse:  You mean smut.

Yes, and it was awkward as hell to write at first.  It was something totally different for me and not sure yet how I feel about it.  At least I tried something new.

Lastly, I started outlining a series involving an epic war and conquest but told from a common footsoldier’s perspective.  Of course, he doesn’t stay common forever, but we’ll see how that goes.

Ambition and ideas.  I got that going for me.  Now if follow-through and execution would keep up, I would be in business.

POW! Right in the Kisser.

So….

I posted almost three months ago on the great review I received at Booknest.eu for Pilgrimage to Skara.

Since then, things have been…different.  For the SPFBO contest, I’ve had six total ratings (with five reviews so far).  My composite rating so far is 4.1.

(Muse: Out of five stars?)

No, out of ten.

(Muse:  Dang, you suck.)

It’s by a long ways the lowest combined score of any of the finalists.  It is also the lowest score (if it holds) of any SPFBO finalist, of any year.

So, notoriety….I got that going for me.

I kicked this around in my head for a while to figure out why these reviews bothered me so much.  I wasn’t upset over low ratings or people not liking it, or even snarky commentary (of which there wasn’t much).

I love characters.  I think they are the hallmark of any spec-fiction book.  Plots and tropes are worn and reused.  Settings can be unique but often aren’t, and writing styles can be near-literary to colloquial without raising a book’s memorability.  But I think characters are what really makes a book both relatable and memorable.

And this is exactly what the bad reviews focused on:  my characters and why they were terrible.

That realization–that is, for someone who is so focused on characters and character development, I apparently failed to make my characters appealing to a wide swath of readers–is like a punch in the nose.

(Muse:  That sounds pretty dumb.  You would think you would be able to see that before you published it, you dim bulb!)

One might think that but sometimes, it is awful hard to step back and look from an unbiased perspective at you own work.  This is why good beta readers are so important–something not lost on me in working on Scion of Andoya, where beta-reader-input is is (in the current revision) leading to some major changes in the narrative.

Granted, the dislike of the characters hasn’t been universal but it has been a far more common issue among reviewers than, say, plot, setting, writing style, or dialogue.  Specific criticisms have been varied but I really can’t argue with most.  Even in places where I believe things were misunderstood or taken out of context, that’s still on me, for not communicating the intent more clearly.

I’m still disappointed in myself over this but nothing for it now but learn from mistakes and to move on.

Beta Readers…any interest?

The new year is upon us and that means a fresh start for the projects I’ve been idling on.

One thing that happened is that I finished the draft of the first novel of the Princess of the North quartet, Scion of Andoya.  So now, I am looking for beta readers.

If there is any interest, please let me know.  Anyone who enjoyed Pilgrimage to Skara might be interested in this one too.  The tone and pace are quite a bit different, but the prose is about the same.

Of course, if Pilgrimage made you want to vomit in your hat, this might not be for you either.  🙂

Anyone who interested please email me at jonathanspembroke@gmail.com and let me know.  Wide fantasy critiquing is a plus; if you have a blog or website, please link it, unless you know I already know about it (as in, I’ve been there and interacted with you).

Thanks!

 

Errata

I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes.  Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world.  You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re doing something. — Neil Gaiman

So…

Getting some feedback on Pilgrimage to Skara and its all good to hear.  One thing for sure that is coming out is….I really fucking did this wrong.

Self-publishing is not for the faint of heart.  There’s a lot of work involved that one might not consider.  I sure didn’t.  Getting started in this process, I felt a like a blind and deaf man in a spherical room covered in teflon and olive oil.

So it was kind of done on a wing and a prayer.  I did what I thought I could and hoped for the best.

After my fist review, I was contacted by a kind soul who offered some blunt, helpful advice on what I was doing wrong.

EditorNo, I did not use one.  Of all the mistakes I made, I should have seen this one coming, since I am a lousy, worthless copy editor.  Everyone who has read Pilgrimage has pointed out the numerous editing errors, even though I read through it…I don’t know eight or nine times.  Professional editing would have prevented this.

Cover.  I’m a victim of my own bias here.  I am not a cover guy when it comes to picking books but I’m getting the idea that many people are.  And my cover was not well-received.

Publicity.  I did bupkis.  It showed.

The good news is that I have a blueprint for going forward.  I know what I need to do and have an idea how to go about it.  If I end up self-publishing my Princess of the North series, I’ll be doing this different.

So, pace Gaiman’s quote above, I am learning from my mistakes.  I tried something new and I am learning from it.  Never entered the SPFBO, and I might never have figured this out, or at least not as fast.  I might still be blind and deaf but the traction on the floor is better now.

(Muse:  You probably could have figured this out beforehand and saved yourself the embarrassment.)

Maybe so but what’s done is done.    And if we’re going to consider mistakes as learning experiences, I have to go with this quote:

Success does not consist in never making mistakes but in never making the same one a second time. — George Bernard Shaw

Noted, George.  Noted.

What Goes Up….

So….

Based on my last post, one might think I was riding high in the saddle.  Not only did Pilgrimage get a stellar review but was also selected as Booknest‘s finalist in the 2017 SPFBO.  It’s quite an honor and I still keep waiting to wake up and realize it got thrown out and a more deserving book took its place.  No matter what else happens, I can savor the moment.

And then that happened.

(Muse:  Lemme guess:  someone peed in your pool?)

A little, yes.  Prompted by the good review I got in the contest, another reader picked it up and left a decently scorching review on Goodreads, pretty much finding fault with everything about the book.  I think theyu got bored and wrapped it up before saying my grandfather was a baboon, but it was a near-miss.

(Muse:  Hey.  Would you accept the argument that Stephen King is probably the most consistently-popular spec-fiction writer of the last forty years?)

Sure.

(Muse:  Based on Goodreads reviews, his best-rated book is The Stand.  It still has about 3% one and two star ratings.  The latest edition on Amazon has about 6% one and two star ratings.  No matter how good you are, bad reviews are gonna happen.)

I know.   Bad reviews happen.  It’s easy to know that intellectually.  It’s tougher on the heartstrings.  I didn’t curl into a fetal position or anything but the tone and content of that review was quite a contrast from the previous one, and did get a bit of a wince out of me.  If nothing else, it is a reminder that not every book is everything to all readers.

So….ego raised up, and then brought back down with a little reminder.

This book didn’t win over that reader.  Perhaps my next one will.  Only way to find out is to keep writing.

In the meantime, I again send heartfelt thanks to the folks who did enjoy it.