Self-Imposed Deadlines

The deadline to get Portsmouth Avenue Ghost up on pre-release was the 21st of November. I hit that deadline. Great. Yay me. Well, I didn’t hit it as much as I flopped messily against it, exhausted, frustrated and strung-out. With everything else that’s going on, the point of hitting the ‘upload’ button on Smashwords felt like an afterthought.

Who made that deadline, anyway? What’s the point of it? Why bother putting myself through the wringer just to hit some arbitrary date scrawled on a whiteboard? Doesn’t that turn writing into a chore?

Let me answer those one by one: I made the deadline. I made a date for the first draft. Then, when I reached that, I made a date for the second, then the third and also for the cover.  Finally I made the deadline for the pre-release.

The point is that by making dates and tracking my progress, I force my focus onto getting that task done. I then prioritise writing over, say, playing video games or watching television. The priority game also comes into play when I’ve got other creative tasks on the menu, like making You Tube videos or drawing or painting or crafting.

Sounds good, right? Keeping myself on track, avoiding the pitfalls of procrastination and distraction. It’s more than that, though. There’s this thing called Reality.

Most decisions are beyond me. It’s often not a matter of ‘I can do this, or I can do that’, rather it’s ‘I must do this and must do that’. See the difference?

The real question is why do I threaten my health and sanity just to reach some uninteresting date imposed by no one other than myself? It’s quite simple, really. I have commitments. I have to work, no questions. I have to take care of my family, no questions. I have to deal with emergencies and chores and errands and last-minute things. There’s no choice about that.

If I want anything of my own to be accomplished, then I have to afford it a status of ‘has to be done’, otherwise it can’t compete against the rest.

And, yes, it does turn writing into a chore. If I was writing for myself or for a friend, it wouldn’t be a big deal, but I’m writing for a bunch of people I’ve never even met. I’m putting my name to a book that can be read by some guy on the other side of the world and he expects that what he gets passes a basic standard, and, more than that, expects it to be entertaining or informative. He won’t be as forgiving as a friend or relative. My credibility is directly linked to his enjoyment of it.

You’re damn right it’s a chore. It’s bloody hard work!

Imagine you’re making a batch of home-brew beer. There’s the cleaning and the sterilising, and the washing and the cooking, checking up on it, then the bottling and capping and storing it all under the house and checking again at intervals. It’s hard work, for sure, and one could easily pop down to the store and buy a slab, but that’s not the point, is it?

Deep down we want to create something. We want to put ourselves into what we do, express ourselves creatively, make something from nothing. That’s being human. Not all creative endeavours benefit others, of course, but those that do must be taken seriously.

A sketch on a napkin or a ditty in one’s head remain just as they are until they get turned into something ‘real’, in that they get taken seriously. The ditty gets engineered into a song. The sketch gets worked into a painting. Time and effort, lots of both, must be spent making something from nothing, creating things that never existed before we applied what God gifted us. Otherwise those little bursts of creativity stay on that scrunched up napkin and eventually get forgotten about.

Believe me, it’s all too easy to pretend that it doesn’t matter. You can think, “Ah, I’ll miss it by a day. Big deal.” It is a big deal. I’ve missed many deadlines and, each time, I kidded myself that there was nothing more that could have been done.

Bollocks.

Each time there was something I could have done. Without exception, every time I looked back, with honest eyes, and understood that I had left things too late, wasted time at the beginning of my project, spent too much effort doing trivial tasks. I could have done more and I could have done it better. Criticising myself retrospectively (another useful tool) means that, now, I reach my deadlines.

Deadlines are a front-line weapon against Entropy. They are an essential tool to make stuff real. Use them honestly and they’ll keep you honest.

Add that salt

In previous posts, I was banging on about how the audience can give feedback to the artist. In short, it’s a personal reflection from the reviewer and says more about their tastes and attitudes than the work itself.

This is a key concept to keep in mind for you, my fellow artist, when dealing with accepting criticism and feedback.

Objectivity

The problem with art is that there is a misconception that anything goes. If I call it art, then it must be art, and if I say, “That’s exactly how I wanted it” doesn’t mean that it’s perfect.

Whoa, whoa. Really? Yup, really. I cannot draw a circle and call it a square. I might say, “I’m challenging your concept of a square…”, that’s fine, I can call it whatever I like. I can call it Bob. I can call it, “The Impression of Time”.

What it actually is, is beyond debate. It’s still not a square by any definition. It’s a circle. And if my intention was to draw a square and I ended up with a circle, then what I did is not what I intended – it was a mistake.

If I write “Grandma waked to a shops,” and you pick me up on my spelling and grammar, it’s pretty evident that, by any rule book, the sentence is wrong. Of course, this sentence could be part of a character’s speech, and they are apt to mispronounce words or whatever, but that’s beside the point. The intent of the sentence is not what manifested – it was a mistake.

As a rule: Objective criticism is not personal so don’t take it that way.

As an artist, be thankful that the mistakes have been pointed out to you. If you’re drawing a realistic scene and someone complains about the perspective, listen to them rather than waving your hand and claiming artistic license. If it was your intention to display proper perspective, then another set of eyes to criticise your work is invaluable.

Perspective, like grammar and punctuation, or timing and chords (if we’re talking music) can be measured and determined as being correct or incorrect, true or false. Because of this, you can take the criticism and check it for yourself.

Remember: Objective criticism can be verified externally.

And I’ll take the time to reiterate my stance on ‘correctness’ because it bears repeating: Just because a painting doesn’t have perfect symmetry, or a singer dropped a note, or a writer put his comma in the wrong spot, doesn’t mean the artwork is instantly less enjoyable.

Subjective Criticism

The other problem with art is that there is a misconception that good art is good for everyone. After all, everyone subscribes to the works of Bosch, right? Everyone enjoys reading Dean Koontz, right? Everyone digs Daft Punk, right? Right?

Wrong.

The reason is simple. Different people like / dislike different things. The old adage says that “You can’t please everyone” and this is the truest statement of them all. I know people who don’t like Star Wars, or Harry Potter, or Celine Dion (it’s true!).

Big rule here: No work of art will appeal to everyone.

As such, you cannot expect that your efforts will be labelled as five stars by everyone or even anyone.

The other way of saying this is that you must expect that you will receive negative reviews. Full stop. You’re deluding yourself if you think otherwise. In fact, I’d argue that you should be worried if everything you’re not getting negative reviews.

Of course, if you’ve poured your heart and soul into a work, only to find that everyone who has bothered to tell you what they think says that it stinks, then it’s time to step back and appraise it from their point of view.

It may, genuinely, 100%, honest-to-goodness, hand-on-heart stink and you’re so committed to it, and have worked on it so hard, that you can’t, or won’t, see that it isn’t really fit for public consumption. If this is the case, and I truly don’t think it will be, but if it is then it still doesn’t mean that you stink, only that what you made stinks.

OK. Fine. Learn from this and move on. Take the criticism, push your chest out and start your next piece – or perhaps tidy up what you’ve got, fix the flaws and try again.

Don’t forget: Any genuine feedback is good feedback.

From what I’ve seen, though, reading through indie books and listening to indie music (Head to The Blitz, now! You can listen while you’re reading) and such, is that there is a natural filter, Fear, that acts to prevent the artist from dishing up tosh. While it can be debilitating, it means that anything the artist does finally squeeze out is going to be refined and sculpted to their liking.

I’m not talking random snaps and duck-faced pouts on Snapscat, I’m talking actual honed and published material. Hence my reasoning to claim that, more likely than not, what you’ve got isn’t tosh. More likely than not, the right person hasn’t seen it.

If a thousand people hate your song, and one person absolutely loves it, is he wrong? Not at all! He’s the only one out there who gets it. He’s the one who has something the others don’t have – a connection with the artist.

Importantly: If someone has taken the time to give feedback, take the time to accept it.

Wankers and Arseholes

There are arseholes in this world. There are people who will bag you, pay you out, drop one-star bombs, write incoherent gibberish on a feedback form, troll you in forums… you know, arseholes.

Then there are the wankers. The ones who talk to hear their own voice, take an opposing point of view simply to have an argument, use their almighty Google-fu to assert their point, correct every minor flaw with their mighty keyboards… you know, wankers.

Thankfully, there are fewer of them out there than there are genuine people. They’re easy to spot. They know how to get a reaction. Writing back, getting aggressive or defensive, stewing over it or cyber-stalking them isn’t going to do a lick of good. Hunting the White Whale what flipped your boat will only end in tears.

Always: Leave the arseholes and the wankers alone.

By listening to what people like and don’t like about what you do, you acknowledge your audience, close the loop and, at the same time, gain a valuable insight into how your work is being received.

If everyone is saying that it needs more salt, perhaps you can afford to sprinkle some more on before you push out your next dish?Mini Jeztyr Logo

Four (and a half) Little Words

In year nine I wrote a poem. It was chock full of symbolism and meaning. I thought it was pretty straight-forward, the rest of the class, teacher included, stood dumbfounded.

“What was that about? Was that a collection of random words?”

“Well, er, don’t you see? Marching across the clock-face and the bit about the hooked cross and, um, the star twice-threed and… um…”

He crossed his arms and shook his head, “I don’t get it.

And there they are, those four (and a half) damned little words that strike fear into the heart of the author.

The Tradeoff

Your artistic integrity demands that you tell a story (or write a poem) the way it is supposed to be written, warts and all. The population in general demands that you keep things palatable and digestible.

I’ve tried to take the high road when writing my books. Rather than beating the audience over the head with the meaning behind the book, I’ve opted to respect that their mind is more than capable of making its own decision. Noble attitude, right?

Well it still sucks when you get told, point blank, “I don’t get it.”

Case in point, The Bullet:

  • “There’s not a lot of action, is there?”
  • “Dude, it’s a whole book about… a bullet?”
  • “Who was the Target? Why didn’t you just tell us who the Target was?”
  • “Is there a sequel?”
  • “Rifles don’t get mounted on the shoulder, you know…”

And it goes on. Each time I bite my lip and do my best to explain that the story isn’t a war-story, nor is it an historical account, nor do I want to labour the meaning behind it. It’s metaphysical. It’s abstract. The story is what it is, and it becomes what you, the audience, makes of it.

Then there’s the flip-side of the coin. After the looseness of The Bullet, I tightened up the underlying metaphor. Alas, with Atlas, Broken – everyone else seems to get it wrong:

  • “It’s a zombie book, right?”
  • “It’s a modern-day twist on ‘Atlas Shrugged’?”
  • “Are you Henry?”
  • “Is this just a self-indulgent platform to complain?”

And I bite my lip and try to explain that it’s a book about depression, and that I could have entitled it “Henry, Depressed” but that would be akin to taking out the Mighty Metaphor Mallet and smacking the reader over the head.

What can I do?

I’m still grappling with that question, and something comes to mind every time I try and figure it out. Writing is art, like sculpture or painting or music or dancing. And you know the thing about art? You don’t have to like it. That’s so important that I’ll say it again. You don’t have to like an artwork.

You don’t have to appreciate it. You don’t have to get it. You don’t have to like it.

BUT, and it’s a big but, there will be some art that you do like, that you do appreciate, that you do get, that just resonates with you.

And if that’s true for you as a member of the audience, it’s true for all members of your audience. Not only that, if your reader sees something else in your book that you didn’t intend, great, that works too.

The thing about The Bullet is that it’s so open ended, that the audience is bound to make its own interpretation, and I have to be able to accept that. And Atlas, Broken is really only going to resonate with those who have experienced depression. To everyone else, it’s a gross-out zombie book.

So what can one do? Sure enough, there isn’t a silver bullet, although I’m tempted to say the following: “Write for your audience.

If your target audience doesn’t get it, then you’ve failed. If they do, you’ve succeeded! If the wider population doesn’t get it, too bad. You didn’t write it for them, after all. That’s not to say that you can write any old tosh and claim that “It just hasn’t found the right reader yet.”

That’s just being lazy.

What it does mean is that, when you put your final story out there, and strange questions and ideas come flooding back, it’s not the end of the world. Feedback is feedback and, heck, at least people are reading your stuff and, what’s more, they’re thinking it over. That can only be a good thing.

As for the poem, no, I don’t have it handy. It’s landfill.Mini Jeztyr Logo

Uh, I’d prefer it if you didn’t…

“What is this filth?” Nana exclaimed, hurriedly clapping the novel shut lest the foul contents should spill upon the floor. She looked up, “Who’s leaving this lying around? What sort of person gets his jollies writing this tosh?”

“Um. That’d be me.”

Awkward. Embarrassing. Demotivating. The conversation from this point can only go down, down through the maw of gall, past the spleen of shame, into the bowels of contempt. It’s a conversation – you know what? Make that plural: They are conversations that any entertainer or performer or writer is going to have to have at some stage with people they know.

Justification

I remember back in grade five, we were asked to draw a picture out of a squiggle. There were dragons and wizards and horses and cats. I managed to make a girl’s face out of mine, with long hair, a rounded chin and a scowl. I thought I did a pretty good job of it, I even added shading to give a sense of dimension and shadow.

“Why is she frowning?” the teacher asked, “She should be smiling.”

I shrugged, “She’s not happy.”

And then came all the questions. Rather than just a pat on the back, a grade out of ten and moving on, I spent the rest of the lesson (and some of recess, I remember distinctly) justifying what I had done. All because the face frowned. I don’t know if the teacher was just trying her hand at amateur psychoanalysis, but it really grated on me.

When I got it back home again, I put it in the bin. It was just another drawing, after all, doesn’t matter. But it did matter, clearly. It’s the things that matter that get stuck in one’s memory because these are what teach us our lessons.

It taught me that, even though there might not be anything technically wrong with a piece of art, it doesn’t mean that everyone (or anyone) is going to like it.

So how do you stop Granny from flicking through your horror-laden gore-fest?

Mitigate

You can’t stop her. Nor can you stop Bill, your turtle-neck wearing, self-appointed king of critics from reading and expressing his opinion on why your Cowboy should have been rougher. Nor can you prevent Jane, the innocent seventh-grader discovering the foul-language exchanged between the captain and her lieutenant.I'd Prefer if you didn't

The first thing you need to do is relax. People get it when a book isn’t for them. They’re a lot smarter than you think. No one is about to pick up Enid Blyton and complain about the lack of character development or the short, unsatisfying action scenes.

There is more to a book than just the story. In much the same way that people convey extra meaning to their words through body language and inflection, books have their own mechanisms for subtle suggestions.

The front cover image is your first port of call. We all judge a book by its cover. It’s natural. I was looking at “The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” in print the other day. If, I challenged myself, I knew absolutely nothing about this book, would I even bother picking it up to read it? And the answer was “No, I would not.” The same goes for Shambleau.

Why? Because the covers didn’t appeal. Both are sci-fi, both are very good stories, but, if I solely based my selection on the covers, I would have passed them by. You can, and should, tailor your cover to reflect the contents and intent of the book. A goofy cover let’s Bill know that the text within is not meant to be taken too seriously. A dark cover shows little Sally that the contents might be spooky or dark.

The front cover, besides attracting your audience, lets them figure out for themselves whether they want to bother opening the book – give your audience the credit they deserve.

The next stop is the blurb and front matter. Nana might not have stopped at the front cover, but now she’s adjusting her spectacles and examining the back. By this stage, she should have a pretty clear idea that the book isn’t a Dick Francis mystery.

Hand in hand with the blurb is the actual language used within the book. Big words, long sentences, complex grammar; little Sally is bamboozled by the first page, so she puts it down and seeks something else. On the flip side, a children’s or teenager’s book might use simpler terms, snappier sentences, briefer descriptions. The natural attraction to or repulsion from vernacular means you, in a literal sense, let the words do the work.

One must not forget that there is the also actual format of the book. Books published electronically (eBooks) are filtered out by a user’s own preference. They can do it by genre, by keywords, and even with ‘safe search’. Today’s searchers give ‘you might also like…’ or ‘those who bought this also bought…’.

This means that those who want to read your tales of gangster ultra-violence and/or butter and porridge orgies will have everything working to this end and vice-versa.

Ultimately, short of hiding Nana’s reading glasses, there’s nothing you can do to actually prevent someone from reading your book, so the next best thing is to use your language and design skills to let the reader know what they’re getting themselves in for.

If, after a solid front cover, a proper blurb, appropriate language and categorisation Nana still balks at your book, Bill revs up his critical analysis, and Jane practices the new bad words she learnt, then so be it: You’ve done all you can to warn them, anything more is out of your control.

As an independent author, you strive to make your book as visible, as readable and as enjoyable as possible. The last thing you want to do is think of ways to stop people from reading your book.

It’s at this stage you, as an author, need to grow a thicker skin. More on that in another post.

Ironing out the Kinks

Hot dog! You’ve finished the first, second or even third draft of your book. Kudos, congrats, and give yourself a pat on the back. Seriously, well done. Not everyone gets to this stage and it’s a big achievement, one that really ought to be celebrated.

Now take a deep breath and brace yourself, because you’ve only just hit the foot of the mountain. Yes, really. Do you remember when you first sat down and started to type? When you first decided, “Hey, I’m doing this, come Hell or high water”? Remember that? It seems so long ago, so surely this must be the end of the journey, right?

Keep going

A draft is called a draft for a reason: It’s not the final piece. But it’s close. Just spelling, punctuation and all of that boring stuff. Uh, no. It is not necessarily, and necessarily it is not.

Fast-forward your life about a year, then revisit your book. Can you see yourself holding your head in your fists, cringing? Aw, geez. Did I actually write that? Wow, I could have made that paragraph more exciting. Ew, I’ve gone and used the wrong turn of phrase there, there and there. That smells very cliche. And I’ve gone and used the term ‘predetermination’ seven times in one paragraph.

Crud. That must mean you’re a terrible author, having all those things in there. No one wants to read that, you might as well never publish a book again. Yeah, yeah it would mean that unless you… Zzzzzip! Rewind a year and sit back down. Breathe again. You’re back in the present. That was a scary future, wasn’t it?

You see, you’ve done the hard yards. You’ve crafted your sculpture, it has the shape it needs, some part are very finely crafted, other bits have been slapped on, other bits don’t actually belong at all. And, what’s more, there are greater issues you might want to worry about now rather than later.

Continuity is a big one: If your character laments the loss of his parents in one chapter, then is chatting with his father in the next (and it’s not time-travel sci-fi) you’ve got a whopping hole in your plot. Other examples may be more subtle, but they’ll stick out like a sore thumb to your readers.

Let’s say the city in which your protagonist resides is a sprawling metropolis, void of plant matter. It’s like this because you are demonstrating a futuristic dystopia, and it’s necessarily sterile. If your protagonist then hides from a rioting crowd by hiding up a tree or behind some bushes… yeah. “Oh, um, there happened to be a small park in the city I forgot to mention.” Too late. You’ve busted the concept of the stark city and you’ll have the reader scouring for anything ‘else’ that might be wrong.

But it’s not just the structure you should be looking at. The way something reads is equally as important. Just because a sentence is grammatically correct doesn’t mean that it’s the right one to use. Repetition and tics are just a couple of nasties that you don’t really get to see while you’re writing, but are glaringly apparent on review. A lot of these come from common speech, and they can be really useful in dialog to give realism to a character. I’ll get into these in a later post.

Iron out the kinks

If a character always says, “Yeah, but…” at the start of a sentence, or answers regularly with “Um,” or is a highway patrolman who suffixes any statement with “real quick”, then that becomes a nice handle for the reader to know who’s speaking. And, if the text is an informal narrative, spoken by a local recounting a situation or in a casual manner, these tics can also lend credence.

Outside of this, they can become really, really annoying. If a character takes a ‘little’ bite and runs a ‘little’ way and pokes his head over the wall a ‘little’, the reader is liable to become annoyed. I recently read a book where everything was ‘almost’. The author was using this to an effect, to deliberately draw attention to the main character’s plight, but he almost lost me.

Can’t someone else do it?

Doing a review is tedious. After all, there isn’t any surprise for you. Not only have you read the book before, you’ve done it ten times, analysed the sentences until they lost their meaning, scrutinised the characters and places and underlying metaphors and the premise and the theme and the setting and…

You have a few choices. You can pay someone to do it. This is good, if you have cash to splash. If you don’t, you might consider asking a friend to help you out. Aroogah! It’s at this point you need to evaluate your friendship.

Before you go and thrust your novel underneath their nose with expectant eyes, put yourself in their shoes and ask, honestly:

  • Can they criticise your work, openly, without fluffing about?
  • Can you accept their criticism, openly, without getting defensive?
  • Have they got the time and motivation to read your first draft?
  • Are they ‘competent’ to make critical comments?
  • Very importantly: Are they a member of the target audience?

Don’t be offended if they decline the request. It’s work, after all. In terms of motivation, someone might be an avid reader, great, but they won’t be too happy if you offer them a Romance novel when their preferred genre is Zombie Horror.

Having someone read your book is a most useful thing – if they get it. You can ask things like ‘Did you get the underlying metaphor?’ or ‘Was Sally too weak at the end?’ or even ‘Not enough gore? Too much gore?’ and expect decent answers. Remember that they aren’t writing the novel, so they don’t get to dictate terms, and their advice might be completely wrong, but at least it’s a fresh set of eyes.

If they aren’t your target audience, you’re wasting your time: “I just don’t like this, Jez, the characters are too violent and what’s with all the blood? Can’t they sort out their differences with diplomacy and tact?”

“Grandpa, it’s called ‘Attack of the Killer Tentacles from Outer Space‘ not ‘The Diplomats of Venus‘!”

Hmm. I think I just found the title of my next book…