Thursday, August 30, 2012

To Buy or Not to Buy (Reviews)?

by Mary Sutton / @mary_sutton73

The big kerfuffle on the Internet and Twitter these days seems to be the news that multi-million ebook seller John Locke paid for reviews of his works.

You might be tempted to say "so what?" but let's stop a minute and think.

It's pretty standard in the publishing industry that publishers will send copies of books (advance reader's copy or ARC) to reviewers. They want the blurbs for the book jacket and for advertising. I'm not sure of whether publishers pay for this or not - but I also can't imagine Kirkus doing something for nothing, so who knows.

It's also pretty well-known that indie authors have a hard time getting reviews. Kirkus, Publishers Weekly and others don't want to review self-published works.

So if an indie author wants reviews, what's the harm in paying for them?

For me the answer is "plenty."

Let's set aside the fact that buying reviews goes against Amazon's policies. Even if it didn't, I think it would be a no-no. No one in her right mind is going to pay for reviews unless they are good. So let's say indie writer Ima Author pays $500 for fifty reviews. She gets some good and some not-so-good. I'm fairly confident that Ima is going to weed out anything less than a glowing 4 or 5 star review. So the book looks phenomenal to prospective buyers. But is it?

To me a purchased review devalues honest reviews. Because once the reading public knows that you can purchase these things, they start to distrust them. So I go out and write an honest review. How does a prospective buyer know that my four-star review hasn't been paid for? He doesn't.

Going along with this is an article I read this morning on "sock puppet" social media accounts. These are fake accounts set up by an author (or author's rep) to create buzz around a book. To me it's just as deceitful as paid-for reviews. "Everyone does it," one author quoted in the article says. Uh, no, I don't think so. I know how much time I spend cultivating my community on Twitter. I can't imagine doing that for multiple accounts.

Oh, and by the way, what are you - too chicken to do your own promotion? To afraid of looking like a brazen self-promoter? Then I submit you are Doing It Wrong.

I've already written about the challenges of reviewing and how some authors bemoan anything below four or five stars. But paying someone isn't the answer.

Mr. Locke said he was "confident" about the quality of his story so reviews were to be honest. Really, Mr. Locke? If you were so confident, why not let the reviews fall where they may?

As an author, I think I've written some pretty good stories. I'll be willing to throw them up for review once they are published. I'm going to get people who really like them. I'll get people who like them, but aren't wowed. And I'll get people who don't like them, or who don't get the story and will give a bad review. And that's all part of publishing.

And if someone came to me and asked for a review, I'd gladly do it. I wouldn't ask for anything (okay, maybe I'd ask for a free copy of the book). But I'd also warn them that they'll get an honest review. If they don't like it and don't want to use it, that's their right.

But Mr. Locke has damaged the credibility of every review ever posted. And that's to bad, because with the explosion of self-publishing, the virtual "word of mouth" represented by reviews is the best way to get your book noticed.

Paying for reviews doesn't just damage the credibility of one author. It damages us all by casting doubt on our reviews.

Thanks, Mr. Locke. What a way to support indie authors.

Image courtesy of 401(k) 2012 and used under Creative Commons license

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Scrivener, Two Months Later

by Mary Sutton / @mary_sutton73

Back in June, I published several posts on my experience with Scrivener (here, here, here, and here). At that time, I was still in my trial period phase with Scrivener and mostly I had imported a small project and done some tinkering.

Since then, I've purchased Scrivener and done several full-length projects, including some novellas, short stories, and novelettes. And I've come to a couple of conclusions.

1. Scrivener rocks.

2. How did I get along in Word for so long?

First, a clarification. I said in my Step 2 post that the trial goes by 30 days of actual use. That turned out to be incorrect. It uses actual calendar days. And you can't cheat it by simply leaving it open. It must check the system clock for the date.

I admit I got a little lazy. I was writing the second story using some of the same characters, and I thought "Oh, I know all about these folks." But somewhere along the way, I thought "Wait, does she have green eyes or blue?" Yep, I had forgotten the color of my own character's eyes. I thought I'd have to recreate all my character sheets, but figured I'd check to see if I can drag and drop. Turns out you can. Open both projects and drag from Project A to Project B. Sweet.

For me, the true beauty of Scrivener lies in the fact that it is designed to write scene by scene. In theory, you can do this in Word. But the problem for me in Word was always organization. If I wrote each scene in a separate file, how would I ever paginate and print the whole thing easily? Not to mention I'd end up with literally hundreds of files to store, organize, and name. Jumping between them? Forget it. It was only marginally better if I created a separate file for each chapter.

But writing scene by scene is exactly what Scrivener was designed to do. I create folders for each chapter. Then I can think, "What do I need to accomplish next?" and I write it. Since I recently took a course on scene writing, this is perfect. Instead of getting tempted to think way out in the future, I can concentrate on the scene in front of me. What kind of scene, what is the goal, how does it contribute to the story question?

Writing this way, scene by scene, also makes reorganizing so much easier. I got some edits back on a story that made me realize that not only was I going to have to write new scenes, I had to reorder some of the scenes I already had. In Word, this would have been a complete nightmare. Where did I put that scene? Find it (often by hit or miss method), cut, paste to new document, find the new location, paste.

With Scrivener, this is a snap. The scenes are named and if I've been smart (which I haven't always been), the synopsis tells me that yes, this is in fact the scene I was looking for. Then I just drag and drop it to it's new location. I don't have to worry about pagination. Scrivener does that in the compile process.

The first time I did it, I wanted to weep with tears of joy.

Speaking of the compile process, it rocks too. I submitted a manuscript to a magazine for publication. I hit compile and compared the output to the submission guidelines. I only had to make a few tweaks because the margins, font, and paragraph spacing, as well as the address block at the beginning, was already perfect (headers and footers were where I had to make most of my changes, but only on the second submission).

One small nitpick about compile and chapters: If you don't name your chapters (e.g., Chapter 1, Mary Goes to the Store), you'll have text you need to delete - either the placeholder text you used for your folders or "unnamed document." As I don't name my chapters (hell, I have a hard enough time coming up with a title for the entire story much less for every chapter) this is a little irritating, but minor. I would love it if Scrivener would be smart enough to drop that paragraph if the folder is not named.

Project targets are great if you have a target word count. For example, I recently wrote a short story that had to be 6,000 words or less. By setting the project target word count, I knew that if I'd reached the 5,000 word mark and was only 2/3 of the way through the story I was in trouble. Session targets are great if you are doing things like 1k1hr or have a target count for the day.

Some things I've learned:
  1. Don't shortcut and skip the character or location sheets. They will really make you think about everything you introduce in the story, including such important things as character conflict. They will also keep you from forgetting that the house is supposed to be white with blue trim, not blue with white trim. Because you will forget. Trust me.
  2. Don't import a Word document that is hundreds of pages and thousands of words. I tried. It was messy. Just don't.
  3. Scrivenings are your friend. Using those, I can read an entire chapter (or any other selection) end-to-end. And I can make any changes right there, I don't have to jump back to the individual document.
  4. Take the time to familiarize yourself with the Preference. Because it turns out yes, you can set the default font and spacing so you don't have to do it for every project. Every. Single. Document.
I know I have not completely used all the features. I've barely touched the cork board or made full use of individual scene statuses (although I have set them religiously). But I know one thing's for sure. Any other tool I may use is going to have a pretty high bar to meet. So worth the $45 USD.

And I don't think I'll ever use Word for authoring again.

Update: For more information on purchasing Scrivener, or downloading a trial version, go to the Literature and Latte web site. Scrivener is also available for purchase through the Mac App Store.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

A Writer by Any Other Name

By Mary Sutton / @marysutton_73

I've got names on the brain lately.

If you're a Shakespeare fan, you're familiar with Juliet's thoughts on the topic of names.

'Tis but thy name that is my enemy; Thou art thyself, though not a Montague. What's Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot, Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part Belonging to a man. O, be some other name! What's in a name? That which we call a rose By any other name would smell as sweet;

I've written in multiple genres and I love them all: mystery (police procedural and traditional), romance (with and without sex), and middle-grade fantasy. I don't want to stop writing any of them. But I've worried about the whole name vs. pseudonym thing. I thought I had put it to rest when a published author I knew advised not to worry about it because maintaining multiple "brands" (an author's name is essentially her "brand") is difficult. If people can't read the genre on the cover, that's their problem.

But then I saw this post on The Naked Hero about following authors across brands. Now I'm second-guessing myself. And I'm really good at that.

To a certain extent, this is all putting the cart before the horse. I haven't been published yet. But chances are that middle grade fantasy will be the first thing to hit the virtual shelves. If I use my true name, am I going to have to come up with another name for everything else?

Argh. It's enough to give someone multiple personality disorder. And maybe that's how cross-genre authors feel.

So, dear readers, what do you think? Would you follow an author across genres if you really liked her writing?

Image courtesy of cellar_door_films used under Creative Commons

Monday, August 13, 2012

To Review or Not to Review?

by Mary Sutton / @mary_sutton73

I have a confession to make: For years, I never bothered to write book reviews.

It's not that I didn't want to, I just didn't have the time. Or I figured that no one cared what I thought about a book. And the people who did, well, they talked to me personally. So I didn't need to write reviews.

That was before I started writing in earnest. Before I stumbled across someone who said the best thing you can do for an author is leave a review, especially if you liked his or her work. Because by leaving a review on Amazon, or Goodreads, you might influence other buyers.

So I started trying to remember to leave reviews, especially for mid-list authors (you know, not the ones getting six figure advances from a Big Six publisher) or authors I'd connected with on social media. Then one day I ran across this article in the Huffington Post from Nina Badzin: why she doesn't trust online book reviews. And it got me thinking - am I leaving "fluff" reviews?

I have two degrees in English, a BA and an MA, both grounded in literature. So I had to learn how to write a review. When I said Moby Dick was one of the worst books I'd ever read (and it still is), I had to defend that. Likewise, when I said I thought Pride and Prejudice was one of the better classics (and I still do), I had to defend that. And those argument had to be better than "I enjoyed it" or "I didn't enjoy it."

So when I leave a review, I try to say what drew me in and where something fell short. I rarely give a five-star review (in fact, I'm not sure I ever have left a five-star review). To me, five stars means that is the best thing I've read and there is nothing I could have improved. And that just doesn't happen that often.

Wait, I rated the final "Harry Potter" book five stars - and that was more for the entire series than one book. But I digress.

Then the question came up in a writer's group, "If you haven't read the whole book, can you leave a review?" and "Should you ever leave a negative review?"

Here's my take. I recently left a 3-star review for a book. I enjoyed it. I'd buy another from that author. But there was something missing. And I said so, and why that something meant three stars. I don't consider that a "negative" review. That's honesty.

Would I leave one star? If I had to. Believe me, I'd not waste a single minute rating Moby Dick one star. But I'd say why.

As for not finishing a book, well, it's true that one can often realize a book is no good after a few poorly written chapters. But if your criticism is thematic, well, you can leave a review - but you run the risk of missing the development of the theme. Because theme takes more than five pages to develop.

This happened to a friend of mine recently. She got a one-star review from someone who admitted she'd stopped reading the book because of some slights against African-Americans. Okay, fine. Into every author's life a few one-star reviews must fall.

But the beautiful thing about most review sites, such as Amazon where this review had been left, is it allows for comments. And comment I did. And I pointed out, politely, that perhaps the reviewer had done herself a disservice and she should read the entire book.

I hope someday to be published, either traditionally or indie. And when I do, I hope my readers, who I assume are fellow story lovers, will do me the kindness of leaving a well written, thoughtful review. Do I hope most of those reviews are good ones? Absolutely. Do I want my friends to leave gushing reviews because they are my friends? No. I want the truth. If a story is lacking somehow, tell me. But tell me in a polite, constructive way so I can learn. Don't leave a "I just hate your genre so I'm giving it one star" review. That is neither helpful nor instructive.

So tell me, book lovers, do you leave reviews? If you're a writer, how do you deal with less-than-glowing reviews?

Image used under Creative Commons via clarism_4

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

When the Muse Sings

by Mary Sutton / @mary_sutton73

Sometimes, the must sings sweetly, leading us down the path of creativity. And sometimes she bellows, like a fierce wind at our backs.

Fellow writers, I'm sure you know what I mean.

So, I was on vacation last week. Despite the best of intentions (and we all know what those are used to pave), I got nothing written. Yesterday, I spent most of the day running errands and putting post-vacation life back in order. I did get 700+ words written, though. I was informed that equated to approximately three standard manuscript pages (always a good thing to know).

But it was a far cry from my pre-vacation output. Had I lost something? Had the specter of impending employment (yes, a "day job") scared away my muse?

Well, as of 3:53pm EDT, I have written over 2,000 words. Not including this blog post. That equates to ... a lot of pages.

So what happened?

Honestly, I'm not sure. Maybe I just found my groove again. Maybe it's because I reconnected with my story. Maybe it's because I don't feel like melting into a puddle of goo from high heat and humidity.

I don't know. And I don't care. All I know is my muse is singing. It's as captivating as Ella Fitzgerald singing the blues.

Sing, baby, sing.

Featured image courtesy of Whitfield-in-World. Use under creative commons license.