The curious incident of the train in the nighttime

Picture of dog. Words: No. You can't. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt

WARNING: DETAILED ANALYSIS OF A FAILURE. MAY BE BORING.

It is my nature to analyze ‘what happened,’ especially with the physical and mental details of what it is to live – and try to write – with ME/CFS, and the only way I have of remembering for sure is to write them down.

I share – because there may be useful information there for others, with or without CFS.

The beginning: when I could have and should have made a small decision

We’re sitting watching TV (the second part of Luther, Season 4), and it is exciting, as TV shows go. This is relevant.

The text comes from child in NYC at 9:49 PM: “I’m getting in at 11:08.”

I text back: “Will pick you up at 11:08.”

This is our system: if I don’t confirm with the correct time, we’re not good yet, because I’ve gotten it wrong before. And she had to wait at the train station.

It’s a good system. I know when she’s getting in, she know I know, and we both have it in writing.

I don’t have to remember.

The MY problem starts

But note: at 9:49 she is already ON the train. And I have one hour and 19 minutes before someone has to be at the train station to pick her up.

It’s still good – and she doesn’t know what train she’ll be on unless she’s either on it, or is close, and knows she has enough time.

There’s always another train (until 2 AM? sometime, and then they start up again a few hours later) from NY to NJ.

At worst, she’ll spend an uncomfortable few hours sitting in the train station.

I mention the arrival time to husband sitting next to me.

He says (and this is the crucial bit), “I’ll pick her up.”

The next bits are on me, and are why I’m writing.

I said, “If I have to get her, I need to take a nap before.” See? I know my limits.

He says, “I’ll go.”

The problem sticks up a finger to the wind

We watch the rest of the program, another twenty minutes or so, chat about the ending.

I see what I should have suspected, given how the last couple of days have gone: he is falling asleep.

I say, “I’ll get her.”

He says, “You sure?”

I say (big lie, it turns out), “I’ll be okay. It’s only ten minutes to the train station.”

He says, “Okay.”

It’s now about 10:10, maybe 10:15 (reconstructing from memory here).

I LET the MY problem compound – because I’m not making good decisions

And this is where I made my fatal mistake (well, okay, not fatal fatal, but fatal as in fatal mistake): I futz around a bit putting my embroidery away, and don’t head straight up to bed for a nap before picking her up, because I’ve been skipping that last night lately (it happens inconveniently in the middle of watching the little bit of TV or a movie we do in the evenings – which is also our chatting time for the day).

But I forget that it doesn’t matter if I’m sitting at my computer wasting time, surfing, writing an email to a friend: I am not risking anything major by missing that nap and being rather non-functional. After all, who can tell what level of non-functional I’m at late at night, and I ALWAYS resist lying down for these naps I need, because that’s what mental two-year-old do.

He trundles up to bed, I look at the clock – it’s now 10:35.

And I’ve just, by being non-functional already, priced myself out of that nap.

The MY avalanche begins

Because I do what I should have done when I said I’d go: the calculus of napping and time and leaving the house that is required – for me to be a safe driver on the road.

Here is what I HAVE to do: start getting ready 10-15 minutes before I need to leave the house, dressed, with shoes on, having my purse and PHONE with me. And my driving glasses, which I don’t keep in my purse all the time necessarily because I have two sets – day and night – and keeping them both there makes the purse too full and heavier.

I need to leave an extra minute or two if I decide to wear my leg braces. They’re an annoyance when driving, just a bit awkward, but help if I need to walk or stand more than a minute. I decide to just put on sandals. It will take me longer to walk to the car, but I won’t have them on while driving, and I won’t have to put them on.

I need to put clothes on, because I am in jammie-equivalents 99.99% of the time.

I need a pit stop.

I need to get out of the house, get into the car, and settle the controls and mirrors. I know others have used my car, and they won’t be in the right place.

The avalanche gets a’rolling/sliding

So I look at the time again, and there MIGHT be time for a shorty – a 10-15 minute mini nap (oh, how I wish I’d taken it!), but only if I get a move on, make the decision, and MOVE.
This is me, non-functional at night. I don’t make the decision.

Instead, my stupid mind moves to ‘what I need to do to just drive safely to the train station.’
If necessary, she can drive back. Unless she’s too tired.

I decide: Diet Coke.

I know it’s late at night, and caffeine after 3PM is a huge no no because it keeps me up at night.

But we’re in not-thinking-straight-crisis-mode now, and the Diet Coke WILL give me the kick I need.

I can take just a sip, right?

I change my mind: I won’t drink it before I leave. I will take it WITH me in the car, and that way won’t use it unless I need it.

Execution

I get dressed, grab my purse, put the sandals on.

One last pit stop and out to the car.

I sit in the car, adjust the mirrors.

And yup, you guessed it: it is now 10:55 on the car’s clock – and I forgot to bring the Diet Coke.

Damn.

Decision time.

I figure out I probably have created enough adrenaline to do this.

It would take me 5 minutes to walk slowly back into the house, climb the stairs and get the forgotten Coke, and get back to the car.

I know the train may or may not be on time, it sometimes takes them a long time to let passengers off, and there is a long walk from the far platform, and the Hamilton Train Station is a relatively safe place for her to wait for me if I am a few minutes late, even at 11 PM.

My mind emphasizes ‘relatively.’ I decide to skip getting the Coke, go the ten minutes or shorter in my immediate future, and get there on time.

Remember, these are all MY decisions. I want to be the perfect mother, saying, “It’s fine – I’ll get her,” to my husband, and showing up on time for my daughter, then one who can be counted on in an emergency to do what’s necessary.

Never mind that I’ve CREATED the EMERGENCY.

Because I so often can’t do these things. Because it is humiliating to be sick and ALWAYS dependent on other people. Because I rarely leave the house, and this is a short trip which should be within my limited capabilities. Because, because, because…

And the folly succeeds!

I do it.

I drive to the train station – and hit ALL the red lights on the way, at their maximum durations. It doesn’t matter – I’ve allowed for the maximum times, ten minutes.

I’m fine.

I get to the train station, and the train pulls in as I stop in the little parking lot opposite the entrance.

In a couple of minutes, the passengers start coming down the long staircase from the overpass.

This time she is the second person.

I flash my lights, she comes on over, and we head home.

On the way home I mention a tiny bit of the above. She says, “I could have driven from the station.”

I say, “I know, but I’m fine.” With a second person in the car, my anxieties calm down just fine.

Another bad decision? Probably. But easier – and we really are that close to the train station. 5 minutes – if you get all the green lights. Which we did. On the way back, of course.

No big deal – picking someone up at the train station and driving home.

The beginning of a really bad night

She says she’s tired. I tell her I’ll put the chinchilla to bed if she will feed Gizzy her treats. We agree. I add ‘put out foods for Gizzy’ to my pre-bedtime list. It’s a short chore in principle. If Gizzy has been out of her room, it may take longer to get her back if she’s hiding under the living room couch and I have to chase her out with a flashlight (the light, not the metal part).
Later, it will turn out that Gizzy never left her room (she sleeps under the bed) because it was Italian-American weekend at Mercer County Park, and they ended with fireworks, and fireworks turn Gizzy into a shell-shocked ball. No biggie – I leave out her food and close the door earlier than usual.

Now the payment for my folly really starts.

Daughter goes up to her nightly struggle with getting to sleep.

I am too wound up to go right to bed, but manage to force myself into bed at around 2AM, not too bad for me.

And the night of horror starts.

Why? Because I have broken the basic rule: you’re NOT normal

The root cause is the BRAIN FOG I live with.

The proximate cause is that I can’t metabolize adrenaline (which I know). My body insists on twitching every few seconds, just as I’m starting to fall asleep. It requires the FULL set of stretches and isometrics I do to get rid of the twitchies.

There are oh, about ten, bathroom trips. I have minimized water, though really thirsty. Doesn’t matter. I have a few sips.

I go up and down the stairs too many times.

I have a small protein shake – which, because it is full of ice, usually makes my core temperature go down and lets me get sleepy.

I end up eating two Atkins bars in the middle of the night.

I get up and play sudoku on the computer until I realize I cannot make that last column add up no matter how hard I try.

I spend time lying there with the lights off, exhausted, knowing it’s the end of the world, and I’m having trouble even doing my meditation breathing, and I’m going down hill so fast it’s scary, and I’ll never be any use to this family, and how could I possibly have thought I could do something useful like picking my own child up at the train station?

Eventually, around 5:30, I finally get to sleep.

Cost accounting: I lose  day of my writing life again

My happy body gets me up at 9, later than I’d generally like, ridiculously early after nights like this.

I put myself back to bed after what seems to be the twentieth bathroom trip of the night.
I sleep until almost noon.

And THEN it finally hits me: this is the AFTERMATH of adrenaline, you idiot. It happens every time – which is why you don’t allow yourself emotions, and you certainly don’t allow yourself adrenaline.

This is MY fault.

Again.

My decision-making functions don’t work, and especially don’t work when I’m tired. And go all to hell when I push them.

The conclusion: write it down.

Maybe it’ll serve as a cautionary tale, even though it’s a stupid little story of a single night.

But, you see, it will cost me today’s writing time (for fiction) because I’m singing at the Princeton U. chapel at the 4:30 Mass, and to get there for practice I have to leave the house at 3, which means, backtracking, I have to be in BED for the pre-nap by 2:10, and have to allow for something to eat in there somewhere, and I desperately need a shower, so I’ll have to nap with wet hair…

I started writing this at 12:03, and it’s almost 2 PM.

Another bad decision? Probably not. I can’t write fiction under these conditions – too jumpy.

Why do I write these things in such detail?

Because I’m working on a non-fiction book, working titled PAPER BRAIN, because no one has solved this for me in the almost 28 years I’ve had this stupid disease, and if I don’t write it now, I’ll forget.

This is, by the way, why Pride’s Children: NETHERWORLD will take a long time.

But I’m working on it.

And I could go on in this vein for another hour. Husband came in, and said, when given the mini-summary, “I could have woken myself up.”

I won’t even tell daughter – she has enough on her plate, and did NOTHING wrong.

But some day I’ll read this and remind myself, and maybe I’ll get smarter, or at least remember.

Or someone else will.

And I will continue to try to avoid adrenaline, the adrenaline I thought I wasn’t going to create or need – last night.

Be warned.


This was pretty much the way it happened. Stream of consciousness writing.

Don’t pity me. It’s my life. I try to learn from it.

I’m okay. I’m going for that nap – it’s 2:07.

Drop words in the box if it resonated. Thanks!


I keep forgetting: if you like the blog posts, consider buying the book in the sidebar – it’s written by the same detailed idiot with experience.

Copyright 2016 Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt

Do you like your books pessimistic or optimistic?

Mountains, lake, trees. Words: Should fiction lift your spirits? Alicia Butcher EhrhardtWHAT DOES READING FOR PLEASURE MEAN TO YOU?

Why do we read?

To learn about the world and to learn about our potentialities as humans.

Really.

To read a book is to live part of another life.

To learn something new.

For relaxation.

For a vicarious adventure.

For pleasure.

Okay, so what KIND of books?

Optimist or pessimist? is a question I ask books.

Even horrible books can raise spirits, especially by the end of the book. The Diary of Anne Frank does that.

Is your book ultimately depressing or uplifting?

It’s a value judgment.

A depressing book – depressing author?

Doing some research, I spent time reading the Top Reviews for Karin Slaughter’s Pretty Girls (2016).

‘Top reviewers’ on Amazon are the ones who get the most comments or upvotes; the first four pages with that option selected had negative after negative reviews (it wasn’t until page 4 that I found two short positive reviews, from readers), many of those from reviewers you would love to get to read your book: Top 500, Top 1000, Vine Voice…

And those reviewers were appalled at the violence against women that was graphically depicted, over and over. ‘Gratuitous’ was used as a descriptor.

Many commented that the writing was good or adequate or competent (workmanlike would have been my assessment, from reading the Look Inside sample provided), but that the choice of subject matter left them sick to their stomach.

Ms. Slaughter is a NYT bestseller.

Apparently, previous books she wrote were not nearly as negative as this one; but many of these reviewers commented they would not read another of her books.

Some commented they wished they could scrub their minds of the images, for which they could find no socially redeeming reasons.

Me, I wondered why they continued reading, even if they skimmed.

The optimistic book – optimistic authors?

And I don’t mean just sappy and inspirational, with ready-made solutions to the world’s problems.

SF can be pessimistic (dystopias) or optimistic.

Romance is usually optimistic, and those fans who like to read Romance want their ‘happily ever after’ (HEA) ending, and can be very unhappy with writers who don’t provide one. There is a subset of books which end, not with an HEA, but with a ‘happy for now’ (HFN). These books are still hopeful, but possibly more realistic – and also possibly open to sequels.

Jane Eyre is optimistic. Silas Marner is optimistic.

Huckleberry Finn is optimistic. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (Heinlein) is optimistic.

Thrillers and mysteries can be all over the map – but do deal with the grittier side of life, and more often are pessimistic or neutral, but possibly with an optimistic undertone, say, to a continuing detective’s life.

A special category is the detective who finds happiness

My favorite, obviously, is the definitely HEA ending of Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey novels, ending with Busman’s Honeymoon, where Peter and Harriet marry, finally, and solve one last real mystery which sets the tone for their married life. Sayers wrote only two short stories about the pair and their children after that, even though her series was popular and is still popular now.

During all the novels, there was still an optimistic cast to the series: there was a right and wrong, people had principles, and there were consequences – but mysteries were solved and things set ‘right’ where possible. Sayers went on to write theology, so her stories were optimistic because she believed in the possibility.

You read what you like

And I don’t like ultimately pessimistic books.

Almost every genre can be written either way; even serial killer Dexter is optimistic.

I just want to know that, at the end of the book, things are, or have the potential of being, better.

That covers a lot of territory, but the thing in a book that makes me pick another book by an author is that there was hope at the end.

And you write the same way

The road to happiness for Harriet Vane and Peter Wimsey is a rocky one. But when he asks her, on their honeymoon, if she finds life, on the whole, good, she answers,

“Yes! I’ve always felt absolutely certain it was good–if only one could get it straightened out. I’ve hated almost everything that has happened to me, but I knew all the time it was just things that were wrong, not everything….Things have come straight. I always knew they would if one hung on long enough, waiting for a miracle…”

I haven’t the slightest reservation about Pride’s Children. It is an optimistic book.

Not easy. Not simple. Not fast. And you may have to trust me for a while.

It makes a difference to me.


Are you an optimist or a pessimist? And does it show in what you read and/or write?

The odd reason Pride’s Children will never be free

Text showing a Google search of a site infringing on IP by offering a free download of Pride's Children.IF YOUR BOOK HAS NEVER BEEN FREE, THE PIRATES STICK OUT

I’m not as blasé as some indies about ebook piracy. I’m not spending a lot of time and energy on something I have no control over, such as sending DMCA take-down notices to websites which post supposedly free access to millions of ebooks, mine being a small minnow in their insatiable maws.

For one thing, I don’t think I’d have any real effect.

For another, I’m not sure I want those people mad at me.

And again, I’m sure a great many of those sites, if not all, are phishing sites, and people who attempt to get a free book are sufficiently punished by having their personal information harvested.

And finally, although the greats in the indie world like Hugh Howey and Joe Konrath think that if anyone ever reads these downloads they might turn into a fan and buy your other books (or which I have none right now), I’m skeptical.

And I already offer a free ebook Review Copy to anyone who will consider writing a review (consider only – there is no way I could enforce a promise anyway), so if you want to read it, drop me a line. There’s no real need to pirate. A copy from me will just be a nice clean file (and possibly you need a format other than .mobi for Kindle, too).

Does the price of an ebook encourage pirates?

I follow Kris Rusch’s and Dean Wesley Smith’s pricing strategies. I do understand that there are some readers who have been burned, and won’t try indie work unless it is very inexpensive – in some way, that’s the cost of the new freedom to publish. It will sort itself out.

I don’t think the listed price for an ebook affects pirates at all, though. I think they just grab everything for their lists with computer algorithms, and don’t take any time to curate their selections.

The automated service to protect IP – Blasty (beta)

I’m a beta user for Blasty, a program being developed to defend your intellectual property by automating the process of identifying infringements and issuing the take-down notices for you. As far as I know, they’re still not charging beta users as they develop their program, but I’m sure it will be a service with a fee when they’ve gotten it tuned up.

But right now the process involves them showing me everywhere on the web the phrase ‘Free download PC’ appears, and asking me to click ‘Blast’ if it is infringing.

And it is super-simple for me to BLAST! when I can scan Google’s 24th page of results quickly, check the ‘free download…’ phrase, know that I have NEVER made Pride’s Children free for ebook download, and click the Blast button. I don’t have to THINK.

And, since I’m well past a thousand completed blasts, and just had to spend a while blasting another 15+ pages worth of Google results (at about ten a page), I’m grateful for shortcuts.

The furor for free is a feeding frenzy

When I homeschooled, I discovered that even caring homeschooling families had an odd quirk. I’d go to the trouble of arranging, say, a visit – FREE! – to the NJ State Museum. Families who got their registration in first got the 20 places the museum reserved for us, with a staffer to take us around and do activities with our kids. And people would simply not show up. When families could be 7 members, that left me looking like an idiot with the museum, and besmirched the name of homeschoolers, AND annoyed the heck out of people who didn’t get on the list because they took too long to respond – and could have gone.

So I started charging a small per-person registration fee – say $5 – and refunding that (essentially just returning the check to the parent) if they showed up! To an event they had signed up for and committed to. In principle.

Principle: if you have skin in the game, your commitment is real.

I think ‘free’ in indie ebooks has had its best run already. I feel people grab something free (which now doesn’t stand out much), but haven’t invested even a buck, and never get to most of what they grabbed.

Permafree – such as the first book in a series – seems to be an exception. I’ll know if I ever finish a series! That makes sense, as a ‘loss leader’ to tempt a reader to try a new author. I haven’t taken any on myself to read, so I don’t know whether it is a good tactic.

Conclusion, summary, will she ever shut up?

Thought it would be a way to introduce you to Blasty, and payment (I get a blog post out of spending the time clicking those red buttons), and a little oddity for your reading stream.

Now that I’ve started blasting – a never-ending process, it seems – I’m wondering where this is going to go. Pirates adjust their algorithms every time something new comes along, I’m sure. I’m not worried about them at this point, possibly never (if the indie greats have thought things through, with their experience, I’m good with the concept of not worrying about piracy).

But if Blasty manages to automate this process even more, so I don’t have to inspect those pages and pages of people offering free downloads of MY book, the phrase which includes ‘free download’ will be the automatic giveaway.

Because I’m not making Pride’s Children free. Ever.


Advance warning: there will be a Kindle Countdown sale the first week of October – US and UK 0.99. If you’re following, you’ll get the post which announces it.

And the offer – contact me if you want to read it for free (abehrhardt [AT] gmail) – is still open. I’d love it if you would then post a review on Amazon if you like it.

Data mining for the critical book description

Teddy bear with sign Looking for friend; Words: Help refine the book description; Author: Alicia Butcher EhrhardtCROWD-SOURCING IS THE NEW GOLD STANDARD

The purpose of a book description

The description of a book should do one thing, and one thing only: get a reader to click further.

The click may be to the book’s page on Amazon, to a Buy link, or to the Look Inside feature on Amazon. The next material seen, if it’s not the book, already downloaded onto a Kindle or Kindle app or a book in the mail, has to continue the process, but the first click which lands in a place the reader can make a decision should have an irresistible ‘Call to Action.’

The book description is the beginning of the words that form the Contract with the Reader.

Why fiddle with the book description after spending so much time crafting it?

At this point in the development of marketing for Pride’s Children: PURGATORY, the book description, originally crafted to attract the kind of reader I thought would like it, someone exactly like me (!), isn’t working.

Plus that turned out to be wrong: there is something that unites the merry band, a sensitivity perhaps to the way I’ve chosen to tell a story, or to something in the characters themselves, but I haven’t isolated it yet.

My gentle description of what is an intense book full of unexpected shadows is too mild. It expects too much of the general reader – and is not helping convert those who might reach the description into possible readers of the book.

Advertising – the soggy ground

The field of advertising is one I don’t wish to plow, because of the energy it takes to generate a hundred concepts until a few seem ‘possible,’ and then to refine the gold in those into ‘probable,’ and continue working an ad into ‘Yes!’

Companies spend a lot of money on advertising. I have neither the money – nor the time. So I’ve resisted doing the work.

I tell myself, ‘Finish the next book – then this one will sell.’ I think, ‘It’s good enough,’ or ‘The description is accurate,’ or ‘It doesn’t matter what I do.’

And maybe I’m expecting too much – and all this is moot.

But an ad I crafted for a summer issue of the Princeton Alumni Weekly netted exactly one sale. I’m not getting it right.

Are there stones left unturned?

There are books out there whose readers I want, and I haven’t mined them yet to see whether there’s something I can use. Amazon has oodles of data – the whole book’s page is stuffed with information. Some of it I can’t get easily (or within my budget, such as Kirkus review) because the big publishers need a staff to do that for the books they’ve decided to push, and my staff consists of me.

‘Editorial Reviews’ can contain some pretty heavy hitters (‘Stephen King recommends that if you read one book this year…’) I don’t have access to – whether anyone reads the blurbs or not.

And I haven’t mined the 24 reviews, 21 of them positive, to really hear what my readers have said. The ones I already attracted, and who were impressed enough (yeah, I’m going with that explanation for now, rather than the chain-gang one) to write a review.

I intend to start doing this.

Especially the first: if I think Pride’s Children would attract readers who either liked, for example, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, or who specifically didn’t like it because of perceived flaws, I need to be spending some time looking at the description the copywriters at the big publisher produced for the book, and what the book’s readers have left in the reviews they wrote. I’ve done some of that – it could use a serious go-around.

That’s work I will do on my own.

You, my blog readers, have been kind

But I also want to ask my blog readers whether they think I’m doing the advertising part wrong – and what they think might work better.

Feel free to do one of two things:
1) Think for a minute and tell me what attracted you to read Pride’s Children, if you did, and
2) Anything you haven’t already told me about what I’m not doing right. Because I have saved, and will be rereading everything anyone already sent.

I have my own small data bank – that cache of all the words I’ve received already, kind or caustic – plus the reviews on Amazon, Goodreads, and blogs, and I think I’m ready to do some more digging.

Email privately (abehrhardt [at] gmail [dot] com) if this blog is too public for you. I promise not to publish anything identifiable! And I’ll be taking suggestions in the helpful intent they’re offered. No hurt feelings.

For blog responses, here’s the easy link (no scrolling back up).


PS: price and cover are not up for discussion in this round – they are separate issues. I’ll reexamine both eventually, but right now I’m concerned with book description and ad copy. Just the words.

PPS: Don’t worry, writing NETHERWORLD is still my first priority. If you were worried.

The writer’s greatest trap: friendly fire

Feet walking up steps. Text: To be fully responsible means accepting even the unintended consequences. Alicia Butcher EhrhardtIS A CLOSE FRIEND WHO WRITES – AND WOULD DO THINGS DIFFERENTLY IN YOUR BOOK.

Friends who are writers are a unique resource

Writers want the approbation of readers, critics, family – but especially they want the praise of their close friends who are also writers. And it must sound both earned and sincere.

So when a close friend who is a writer takes your writing apart, nitpicking, essentially calling your baby ugly, a major dissonance is set up in your head about what you have written – and whether you need to listen and change things you thought you were sure of.

It is in many ways a gift: if the emperor has no clothes, the emperor is making an idiot of himself, with the well-remunerated connivance of his tailors helping him along. Yes, they are making a fool of him – but he is also making a fool of himself.

Good friends tell you when you’re making an idiot of yourself, and sometimes this should and does bring you up short, followed by insight and realization, and a new path.

Writers have blind spots, just as everyone else does. Most editors think writers are much too close to their own writing and lack the objectivity necessary to edit themselves, and should never do that (and should pay said editors, genuine or scam artists, big bucks to mess with the writer’s work and ‘improve’ it).

Lack of objectivity is a problem

And any writer who doesn’t think it’s a real possibility is already lacking in objectivity by default.

Which is, as I’m just figuring out, a very strong reason for me not to have a writer as a beta reader (or alpha reader – depending on what stage you usually share your writing at; I call alpha readers ones who see rough drafts, and beta readers those who see something which is as polished as I can make it before outside eyes and brains get a look at it).

And when you expect a reader, and get the writer in full critique mode, it is a very uncomfortable experience.

When you ask someone how did you like my book?

In my defense, I didn’t think my reader/friend considered herself a writer – or I would have been far warier, because I know the tendency to rewrite work that isn’t ‘right’ to your own standards and specifications, if you’re a writer. Which is the reason I won’t read other writer’s unfinished work – I can’t afford to get sidetracked onto someone else’s problems when I’m having so much trouble finding the necessary brain power to solve my own.

So, faced with a huge critique when I expected some feedback from a reader and possibly a few questions to clarify why I had made certain choices, my first reaction was to feel betrayed, gut-punched, defensive, attacked where I least expected it, ambushed. I have had the same reaction to close friends who have been critical, who consider themselves experts because of their reading, or who consider they know me and thus know my intentions and my flaws – and poke at my choices. But not to the same level, because they are not writers.

I shouldn’t have let it happen

I was tired – which she should know means ‘not all here’ – and, in retrospect realize she blew right over because she had so much to say. I have also realized it is a potential huge gift to receive a critique of such proportions from someone who seemed to have engaged enough to have serious questions and opinions (see It is daunting to be taken seriously as a writer) – we talked, or rather I listened, for the better part of three hours (and I can’t do that).

Plus, her ego needed soothing, as perhaps she recognized she was doing a certain amount of stomping on my grave, and she is a valued friend I had just never seen as a fellow writer, so my instinct was to shut up and let her have her say. And keep the flow of information coming.

And I couldn’t get away physically, because at the time this was happening, I wasn’t sure I wanted or needed to get away and shut off the listening I was trying to do, because it was literally the first time this had happened. The only other time I’ve worked with another writer was when I was starting Pride’s Children, back in the early part of the century, and my writing partner was working on her thriller, and we would get together to be a mutual support society, read each others’ latest pages over lunch, and talk a bit about it: we learned very quickly not to go to critique mode, and instead to reflect something about the new pages back to each other. If either of us had asked the other, “How do you do X?” it would have meant admitting we didn’t know how to do something, and had no idea how to learn it, and that we thought the other knew it well enough to teach. Fortunately for our friendship, we didn’t go there. Or I think those lunches would have become very rare. Support and critique are mutually exclusive.

Why write about this experience?

I write these posts about the writing process because I’m still a beginner in many senses, and I’m discovering these things as I write about them, and using the posts and the process to make real-life decisions.

And I’ve spent all morning – time I didn’t have and energy I don’t care to spend – dealing with the consequences and figuring out what to do about it.

My conclusion is that I can’t change a word, and I can’t change a thing about my process or the content of my story or my characters. No changes will be allowed to plot or theme or language. I can’t. For me, this whole story – all three volumes (which were always planned to be a unit) – has been locked into its final form except for the actual words for such a long time that I have to take ownership of it as I’ve made it.

I need to be far clearer about what I need as feedback

My decisions have been taken long ago – and the current writing only supports those decisions. Even the most minute changes my friend was angling for are wrong for me. Her feedback reflects how my story hit her, which is an incredibly valuable piece of information for me, as I value her experience and her friendship, and she is somewhat in my target audience.

But I realize I have long passed – long – the point at which I might change anything, however arrogant and self-centered and pig-headed that sounds. And I’m not even sure those changes I might have accepted in the past were what she was talking about – she wanted the core values of my story modified because she didn’t quite like them the way I decided they would be.

I don’t think she realizes this. In the same situation I would have backed off completely rather than talk about how something didn’t work for me. She said she assumed she could speak freely and be frank because we are long-time friends now. And I respect that. I don’t know if it was hard for her, and that’s part of why it came out in one piece, because she had to get it out. She has spent at most a couple of weeks with my story. I have spent fifteen years.

Aftermath

But I’ve spent the morning examining the battlefield (for battle it was, out loud at the beginning, and then in my head as I tried to let her have her say without interruption, while continuing to get more and more exhausted) and picking through the bombed-out ruins, and coming to my conclusion which is: never again.

I gave her the courtesy of writing down as many of her points as I could remember, and of listening last night and of considering this morning whether I needed to do anything.

And have decided on a blanket prohibition against this ever happening again.

Because of who I am, and how having CFS has forced my hand…

I have made my decisions – plot, character, language, theme – and every one of them has taken thought and huge effort and no little time. They will be allowed to stay unaltered. There will be no changes in what’s planned or written, because it’s all of a piece, and I literally can’t change anything this far into the game. I wouldn’t be able to handle the consequences of the changes, and how they would affect the plot, for example.

But mostly just NO. This is the way Pride’s Children is, and all I can hope is that God gives me enough time in this life to write it all out.

It’ll remind me not to seek feedback from friends, as I’ll have to live with the aftermath. And to just plow on ahead, instead of being so damned needy.

Burned paw on hot stove. Lesson learned.


Have you ever been blindsided by a critique?

I am always the wrong survey demographic

Diverse group of people in silhouette playing basketball on the beach. Words: Nope! You really don't want me to take your survey. Alicia Butcher EhrhardtMOVE ALONG; NOT THE DEMOGRAPHIC YOU’RE LOOKING FOR

I can’t fill out your online survey, and it is because you don’t want me in your group of survey respondents. I’ll ruin your results.

Really. In every possible area, I am the wrong demographic for your product.

If I bought your product, I am the wrong person to answer your feedback questions. My answers will either be trite and obvious, or useless.

Why did I buy your product in the first place?

If I bought your product, it was often for an off-label reason, and it’s also probably for a one-of-a-kind reason.

You will most likely not get me to buy your product again unless it perfectly serves a need I have – in which case I won’t need your advertising, or your automatic refill system, or anything useful to you in a marketing sense, and I’ll just buy it again as long as you make it and sell it. On my schedule. Which would give you conniption fits if you knew it, such as my buying a product only during the summers.

If you, by chance, put up a product which is perfect for me, and I buy it and love it, and tell everyone, and answer your questions, and leave a review – you will not find enough other people like me who will also buy it, and you will end up sadly taking it off the market.

In fact, I am the kiss of death for your product.

You fervently hope you are not attracting customers like me as your main audience.

What is my demographic?

Well, I’m female, overeducated, in physics/engineering. And when I see an ad at all, I read it carefully, and recall a lifetime of broken promises from you marketing folk, and it makes me very wary.

I don’t read Romances. Not the modern ones, anyway. They are about people in a very tiny demographic (perfect perky women and billionaires and Scotsmen) I’m not likely to ever come within range of, and I really can’t identify with them.

I don’t use cosmetics, except when trying not to scare the horses in the streets, and then buy an inexpensive new mascara once every couple of years.

I don’t wear heels – that eliminates a lot of potential products. Back in the day, shoes for women stopped at a size 9 (and were made fun of in Clementine: ‘and her shoes were number 9, herring boxes without topses sandals were for Clementine’) – so you can’t sell me women’s shoes, which are extraordinarily hard to buy by mail – the fit and all, you know. I wore a 10 before having kids, and an 11-1/2 W after three of them, darn it.

I am past the age of your female products, not interested in your products for older women (please God, as long as possible). I take as few supplements as possible. I don’t use anything with an odor.

I shop online – but not often, not well, and not impulsively

I’m disabled – and I don’t go shopping. I used to be tall, and you lost me a long time ago because it never occurred to you that a woman might be proportionally shaped, so it was either tall (and thin) clothes, or short (and ample) clothes at the stores, and never a large enough size in the tall ones – and you trained me out of all the female clothes-buying patterns I might have established way back then by having no merchandise available in my size.

I have no interest in fashion – because I was never able to get into it, and the hand-made clothes were never quite fashionable (even the patterns were hard to get in the right size, way back then, and had to be modified).

I have AdBlock on my computer. I don’t use a smart phone to access the internet. On purpose. Even Facebook ads get easily ignored – I’ve permanently tuned them out, and only sometimes bother to Hide Ad so you get that information.

Don’t court me – I’m a terrible consumer

You don’t want me.

And if you ever sent me a product to test, you would be sorry. My reactions would drive you to pull your hair out, and if you followed any of my suggestions, to the poorhouse.

And that is why I won’t fill out your survey or send you feedback: it’s a waste of both our times.


Are you their demographic? Some people actually like to shop.

Choose reading carefully for maximum satisfaction

A runner with the words STOP The reader is the starting pointARE WE GOING TO HAVE A READER VS. WRITER PROBLEM?

General warnings:

If you don’t like epic mainstream commercial fiction (i.e., ‘big books’), you should think a bit before you start, or you might have to make some adjustments along the way. I’m not going to tell you what you can read and can’t read (note carefully this is not on the book’s site, which should contain nothing but praise and happy customers’ reactions).

If you don’t like the epigraphs at the beginning of the chapters in Pride’s Children, you can skip them. All of them, the long ones, only the ones that are Kary’s writing, or the biblical ones – whatever you want to skip. I won’t stop you. Epigraphs in general are sort of pretentious, aren’t they?

At the same time, feel free to ignore the Chapter titles – they probably don’t add anything to your reading, and are just the author pretending to be refined. Too mysterious by half, just decoration. Skip.

If you don’t like prologues, you can skip mine. You will miss a few tiny pieces of critical information tucked into a single-page, 145 word piece, but it’s definitely your choice if you don’t like prologues. Besides, some of that won’t even be relevant until the second or third book of the trilogy, and you’re not going to remember it anyway. Skip without a thought.

Character warnings:

If you don’t like third-person multiple point of view, we’re going to have a major problem, because that’s the choice I’ve made for how the story is told, and it isn’t easy to change, though you might just tell yourself it’s omniscient pov done poorly, and live with it. Three first-person povs, rotating, seemed more awkward, so I chose three third-person ones.

There may be a problem with too many characters. I stopped counting after about 50. Just ignore the minor ones and you’ll get most of the story. If they’re important, they’ll come up again. If not, why bother remembering them? If you don’t want to read about disability in your characters, you might want to skip the whole thing anyway, and look for books with young, hot, healthy characters – all of them.

Many people aren’t all that happy spending time with Bianca. Her scenes are clearly marked, so if you want, you can just skip those. You probably get plenty of her in the scenes by the other characters anyway.

Writing warnings:

Don’t like big paragraphs of mixed dialogue and interior monologue, some direct and the rest indirect? Feel free to pick up the dialogue bits (they’re marked with double quotes, single quotes when it’s remembered dialogue), and skip/skim the rest. Your choice. There are all kinds of annoying bits that foreshadow things that won’t happen for a long time, anyway.

Don’t like paragraphs of pure description of which you think there are too many? Skip ahead – don’t worry that there might be something buried in those descriptions that will add to the story. They’re probably window-dressing, the author showing off she knows many words for sky color.

After all, Pride’s Children: PURGATORY is a whopping 167,000 words, and they can’t possibly all be relevant to the story, and you usually skip the boring parts, so skip ahead freely, without a qualm.

Don’t pay too much attention to the language – it really is a little bit much, and it would have been much better if the author learned to ‘write simple.’ Maybe she will by the next book. If you bother to read that one. Skip the part about context.

Plotting warnings:

If you’re still going to be unhappy that he and she (not telling which she) don’t get together and have hot monkey sex sooner, feel free to skim until you find the parts you like to read. It won’t bother me anyway, since I won’t know unless you decide to write about it in a review, and then you don’t really have to put your name on the review, so it’s no biggie.

You can even tell everyone you didn’t like PURGATORY, and aren’t planning to read NETHERWORLD and whatever I decide to call the third book in the trilogy. Besides, trilogies are too long. Fine with me – I am happy for you to have your own tastes and opinions, and truly believe they are just as good as mine.

I’m not sure I can help at this point if some of this stuff seems confusing, there are too many characters, the story seems to keep getting disconnected, and many pieces just plain don’t make sense, though.

I wish you much happy reading with other books more to your taste if you don’t like mine.


Still want to read? Or should I have warned you before you already read?

Writing a DRABBLE got me banned

A pair of small empty canvas sneakers between two sets of lower legs with sneakers; the word NO is in a yellow circle and the word BANNED is below.BANNED – FOR WRITING FICTION?

New milestone: my writing got me banned permanently on a site.

The reaction to a fictional drabble (100-words) was swift and disproportionate.

I was writing for FREE for a site which publishes a drabble a day (or none if they don’t have any they like). The reason: because, if they included your drabble on their newsletter, they would, by way of payment for your work, put up a link to your books.

Writers shouldn’t write for free, should they?

IF they choose to, and have a reason which makes business sense to them, now.

It’s fair enough: I write something you can choose to use, you give me a tiny bit of promotion by

1) letting me publish a sample of my work (NOT my book, just my writing), and

2) providing a link a newsletter reader can choose to click on to my Product Page on Amazon, where, as it happens, I have one single book up – 167,000 words of fiction (see that – I can write at more than one length!)

Drabbles? Is that like a haiku for prose?

Drabbles are an interesting story form. You get exactly 100 words and are supposed to tell a complete story, beginning, middle, and end, in that space. Obviously, you get little room for backstory or description, and editing a short story down to an even hundred word is an art in itself. I have written a few fiction ones before, and a whole book of non-fictional drabbles on Wattpad (64 at last count, I believe, mostly about the process of writing, editing, and publishing a novel).

Back to being banned, please!

I submitted some drabbles to the site as time permitted; the first five were, in due course, published.

Then I realized I had two available there which had not been published, and that the daily newsletter had been appearing for a while with no drabble in it, either.

So I thought it reasonable to go investigate; sometimes software somewhere between the site and your home computer resets, and the defaults need to be changed.

I was totally surprised when I attempted to log into the site and received the message:

Totally barred for unprofessional behavior

or was it?

Permanently banned for unprofessional behavior

(didn’t get screen shot; can’t now)

Excuse me? Huh? I hadn’t done any behavior at the site for a while, much less anything I considered unprofessional – all I did was post a few drabbles a while back for their consideration (no obligation – they warn you at the beginning that your drabbles may not be posted – I was fine with that when I started submitting a few, after noticing what other writers had created with their 100 words). These drabbles were in the site’s SUBMISSION queue, posted to my account while waiting to see if they would be published or used.

Pause: If I had been informed at this stage that something was unsuitable, I would have removed or changed it. You can hardly afford, when sending work anywhere, even for free, to get upset if it isn’t published.

What do you do when something like that happens out of the blue?

Through a back channel, and assuming something technical had gone wrong somewhere along the line with them, and expecting an apology!, I cautiously sent the email:

I went to the site this morning intending to post another drabble, to find that I have been permanently barred for ‘unprofessional behavior.’

This mystifies me – the only behavior I’ve committed at the site has been to post a few drabbles, some of which have been published in the daily newsletter.

Would you please tell me what my next step should be? I would at least like to retrieve the unpublished ones – or see a list of them.

I’m assuming this is a mistake. If not, could you please let me know what I’ve done, so I don’t do it again?

No answer came over a several day period; I assumed the person I had written to was busy (it had happened before that I didn’t get a response, prompt or otherwise).


CAUTION

Before I do this next bit, PLEASE NOTICE I AM NOT NAMING NAMES! I’m making the information vague ON PURPOSE: I believe this site and every other has the right to control what they publish, to remove contents and comments they find objectionable (as I have at my site), and to not be publicly indicted for their behavior because of it. In fact, I consider TROLLING and FLAME WARS very unprofessional, and do not participate.

In addition, brain fog and extremely limited energy and awake time due to CFS, make it really not worth my while. I actually assumed I had missed something important in this whole event simply because I didn’t read something or understand it right.

So why post at all?

BECAUSE it is MY first banning anywhere for writing FICTION, and I choose to write about the experience on my own blog. That’s what writer’s blogs are for. It may even serve as a cautionary tale for other newbies.

If someone I know very well wants the information, I will be happy to supply it; I have warned some writers already. PRIVATELY.


When you got no response, what did you do next?

Next step, try the front channel. I sent the following email to the site directly:

Dear XXX site:

I had been happily supplying drabbles; you published four or five of mine for the daily newsletter.

Then drabbles didn’t appear for a while, when I knew I had two left that hadn’t been used.

I went to your site to find I’ve been ‘permanently banned for unprofessional behavior.’

Since I’ve done nothing on the site, much less anything that might be considered unprofessional in my book, I’d appreciate it if you’d take a look.

If I did do something you objected to, would you please let me know what it was? So I don’t do it again?

Really clueless here – no idea of what I did. They had even actually published a somewhat similar drabble of mine before.

The response was swift and abrupt:

[Short pause here: because the sender of a letter/email owns the copyright to the words, while I could show a friend the actual email, I may not publish it exactly as is, and it doesn’t come under the concept of Fair Use. So I’m going to paraphrase it, and try to be accurate, but you’ll have to trust me on the content. Of course, the owner of the copyright – the sender – would have to own up to it and make a big deal of it if I did publish exactly what I received – but I’m well read in copyright law, and not about to give that a chance, since I’m trying not to identify the person, but only write as to how this affected me, okay? Also, too bad, because there was a lovely typo.]

It’s not professional to request help, dislike the help offered, and write about murdering the person who offered the advice.

[I didn’t request the kind of unsolicited advice the drabble was writing about; it was sent by a marketing firm without being asked for or wanted. Especially not wanted. And the number of writers who have use an incident that happened to them to choose their next murder victim in their stories is Legion, to the point where it’s a meme for beginning writers (I did it myself when I started) to get rid of some hostility that way. It’s FICTION, folks. What else do you call The Silence of the Lambs or Misery?]

This is rubbish.

[The opinion of the site owner is valid on their site. It was an intense drabble, and it took me an hour to get it to say exactly what I wanted it to say, with no room to qualify or maneuver. I have the feeling I hit a nerve somewhere, but have no idea WHAT nerve, unless the responder has had unpleasant experiences – and how would I know that?]

It’s a permanent banning so don’t bother me again.

[Not bloody likely. Excuse me for asking when you provided no information at all, and I didn’t think that much of your site anyway, nyah, nyah, nyah!]

I asked a writer friend whose response was, “Banned for fiction? That’s absurd.”

What should the response have been to my original email?

Any one of the following, singly or in sequential emails (if I was insistent), would have been the professional response of a site open to the public. And remember, the drabble was never published by them. It was in their SUBMISSION queue. Something like:

Your drabble does not suit us at the present time.

We don’t think drabble X can be rewritten to be appropriate for our readers, so we have deleted it.

Your drabbles are too dark; please don’t send us any more. We don’t think we are the right publisher for them.

We find your work too disturbing for our site. Please do not send us more. And we don’t think we want to associate with your work. Thank you for your previous submissions. We have closed your account. Please do not open another account.

In other words, just about any formal rejection you’d get from a publisher after submitting, oh, say, Carrie. Or Hannibal. Or Cujo. Or any slasher thriller or novel with Jack the Ripper in it.

What next?

Nothing, really. No action is necessary on anyone’s part, least of all mine. I know where I’m not wanted, and would not return even with a very good quality formal apology (which I’m not likely to get). The drabbles are mine (those were the terms – they merely requested you not post them elsewhere until they had been used on the site – IF they were used on the site). I always intended to publish them myself later.

I’ve put them on a new drabbles page; note that the drabble You Do What You Have To Do has a similar punchline and was published on the site (without ‘advice being offered’ by the victim, of course – which should make it worse, not better, as the results were applied without provocation).

I will put these on MY site, under MY control, from now on – it’s easier. I have apparently thin skin, probably too thin for indie, and it bothered me. I have now written the bother out, and it’s a closed matter as far as I’m concerned.


That all said, I don’t think it’s a bad thing for a writer to consider her words before putting them out into the wide world. Words have power – words can hurt.

Have you any experiences of being banned? With or without provocation? How did you react? (Not talking here to those who make a habit of being deliberately confrontational to get attention – you know who you are.)


Thanks to Stencil for the ability to make images for posts.

And, if you like the non-fiction and/or short fiction, consider purchasing and/or reading the long fiction – see sidebar. They’re written by the same person.

New post over at Pride’s Children

QUICK UPDATE:

I put stuff that is more book-related on the other site – and if you have been supportive lately – for which I thank you – there is a list of the things that keep me going over there.

It’s constantly amazing how much effort it takes to get a book launch off the ground, but it’s a very big world, and I haven’t wanted to play some of the cards I have.

I would always rather books made it on their own merit, but there is that pesky bit about people even hearing that it exists, and with 7 billion people on the planet – and it seems 7 million other books competing for attention – maybe a little noise has to be made.

I’m just reading, studying, and searching for the RIGHT noise.

There are cards which are hard to un-play, information about an author which, though relevant, makes you think of the author and not the book, so I’m holding onto some of those.

All writers (okay, most – those generalizations are always wrong. Hehe.) want to be read, and read widely. I’m no different.

Even ‘merit’ is a slippery concept. You are advised all around to ‘write a good book’ and ‘know your audience.’ Hard to do when you don’t write in a particular genre, and are at the mainstream/commercial end of the literary spectrum (i.e., well written, I hope, but not high-falutin’).

IN ANY CASE – I’m always glad to have y’all talking back to me.

If you write literary/commercial/mainstream, know where the audience is, and how to interest them, PLEASE let me know. I’ll make you cupcakes or something.

Rhetorical questions in fiction: good or bad?

Healthy dessert with grapes, cherries, and granola, with the words: What do you think? 3 question marks. Good? Bad? and Alicia Butcher EhrhardtSHOULD YOU USE RHETORICAL QUESTIONS WHEN WRITING FICTION?

This was a shocker.

When working on Pride’s Children: NETHERWORLD, I came across a note:

Sue Coletta: don’t use rhetorical questions. They take you out of the story.

Like all other blanket prohibitions, this one is wrong.

But it sounded good. And I had stored it away for a reason, specifically to make sure I didn’t do something that took my readers out of my stories.

How many rhetorical questions are too many? One? Two? In how much ‘scene’?

I had just finished writing the first scene for one of my main characters, and it seemed a good time to 1) check to see if I had many rhetorical questions in it, and 2) to go back to Book 1, Pride’s Children: PURGATORY, and see if I had that problem there, too.

I startled myself: this main character, Kary, had TWENTY-SEVEN rhetorical questions in her new scene. Wow. Certainly too many.

So I check a different main character, Andrew, and found he had a couple. (My scenes have 800-1500 words in them, typically.)

I went back to Book 1 and found Kary had another huge number of rhetoricals in her last scene. Andrew, only had a few in his last scene in Book 1.

And I realized how different I had made these characters in how they talk to themselves – and I didn’t even know I’d done it!

One of my ‘go to’s on my Left Brain righT method is to ‘Become the character’ before attempting to write the character’s next scene. It includes going back and reading that character’s last previous scene, and possibly a few before that, to get into the character’s voice and mannerisms.

This turned out to have a vastly different style in something I prized, the interior life of the character – and I didn’t even do it on purpose.

Characters are different – duh!

I’m not sure whether I’m channeling or inventing these characters.

But it spooked me.

I don’t know when this happened, and yet there it was.

I just knew they were different, and I knew how they were different (from spending years living with them in my head and in my notes), and the characterizations came out by themselves.

I like things like this in my writing, but I always thought I did them deliberately.

About those twenty-seven rhetorical questions that Kary had? I couldn’t change a one.

Takeaway?

Sue’s admonition – Don’t ask rhetorical questions because they take you out of the story – needs to be changed.

To: ‘Don’t ask the READER rhetorical questions.’

Because it takes the READER out of the story.

It’s fine for the CHARACTER to ask herself questions without answers. How often? As often as she would do it if she were real.

Is she?

Dunno.

What is real?


Do you ask rhetorical questions?


Thanks, Sue. You made me think – and that’s always, uh, interesting.


If you find any of this intriguing, and/or want to see rhetorical questions in action, you can find Kary’s scenes in Pride’s Children at Amazon US, written by the same person who writes these posts. Note: the link leads to the reviews; the product page link is in the right sidebar. Don’t you like to see what other people think about a writer before considering buying?

PS I’m depending on word of mouth right now, as I can either write, it turns out, or market. Or you could go out and find a cure for CFS, so I can do both (might be a wee bit harder).

5W+H newspaper method gels writing beat

different wayI HAVE SIX FRIENDS THAT HELP ME WRITE

Every once in a while I get myself into a jam, and, though I think I have every thing I need in writing a piece of a scene, it fails to gel, I feel frustrated and tied in knots, and I keep going at it from all directions, starting and restarting the section without getting to a coherent flow.

I tried an old newspaper trick this morning.

Newspaper reporters have to make it fast and easy for a reader to engage with a story, get the basic information into the reader before she does the pre-computer equivalent of clicking on something else to read: giving up on one story, and finding either another one to read or moving on to the rest of her day.

Your English teacher probably taught you this, too (I didn’t have an English teacher, so maybe that’s why I came to this in a roundabout way).

It’s called 5W + H.

And it means, you recall, supplying the six pieces of information the reader needs to lodge the basics of the story in his head:

  • Who – people present or necessary to the story
  • Where – setting
  • What – is going on (the plot)
  • When – time, time frame, sequence
  • Why – are you telling this story? Why did they do it?
  • How – the plot reaches resolution, and the information is transferred securely into the reader’s head.

The order doesn’t really matter as long as, after a very brief period, the reader has enough to interest him to keep reading the details.

TV news people usually drag this out as long as possible, especially if there have been little advance hints all day (news at 11) – and now they have to supply the goods. They tease you along with the less interesting bits, finally supplying the actual meat of the story (which is often anticlimactic – I waited up past my bedtime for this?) after as many commercials as possible, when they could have ‘informed’ you the first time you heard about the story.

Writers can’t afford this – the reader won’t stick around.

For the writer of FICTION

The problem for a writer is when the dramatic pieces want to come first – the startling headline, the shocking news – but they won’t make sense without the more informational bits.

Readers have an empty gray-goo area in the brain, a formless void, when they approach a new story, and it has to be filled in quickly.

If you don’t reveal that this shocking dog’s death occurred, not in their neighborhood, but in Manila, they will 1) assume it’s local, and 2) be annoyed at you when they find out it’s not.

So the system is: shocker, fill in the absolutely necessary stuff to orient the reader, more shocking details.

But it’s not the reader’s job to avoid the confusion: it’s the writer’s job.

LEAD with the emotions

Life is boring – readers need vicarious experiences.

We are, as Lisa Kron says in Wired for Story, primed to absorb new information that we need.

Need is critical: grab readers by the emotions, and supply the details as quickly and efficiently as possible, and they will follow.

What I figured out was that I’m relatively good at doing these steps in a normal scene – hook, set the scene, supply story, leave cliffhanger of at least one question so the reader will read the next scene.

But not when I get tricky – for good story reasons – and try to cram a lot into the piece of scene.

Then I need to stop, make sure the 5W+H are provided asap, and choreograph the presentation of story information in the most effective way I can. Deliberately. As if I had a news desk editor with a lot of experience to satisfy, and the pickiest readers.

The contract with the reader

Lead the reader down the garden path, as it were, until we find the dead body.

If you can do this in a tricky case, it improves the facility for doing it in normal situations.

It comes down, after you’ve identified the 5W + H:

DON’T CONFUSE THE READER – FOR VERY LONG.

Just as soon as the reader starts to think all this is a bit too much, it GELS.

Because the critical information is all there.

And the reader is no longer confused, the dreaded info drop has been avoided, and the story is firmly lodged (one hopes) back in the reader’s brain.

The analytical side of my brain is very pleased with itself – the artistic side is chomping at the bit.

The details? You’ll eventually have to read Pride’s Children: NETHERWORLD to grade my performance, but I can tell you the bit is the beginning of the second scene; it involves four people and four different settings; there is a tiny necessary shift in the timeline; the formatting helps (Lord knows how I’m going to do this in the audiobook version); and, if I do it right, it will bring you right back into the story with very little ’splainin’ (think Ricky Ricardo and I Love Lucy: “Lucy! You got some ’splainin’ to do!”).

Trust me, the other way was long and boring.

What say you? I love discussion.


Thanks to Stencil for the ability to create images for posts.

 

Blogging topics can turn too serious

where are we goingGOING DEEPER OR GOING HOME

Blogging is optional. No one pays you for posting on a blog like this one, you have promised no one anything you must deliver, and the posts usually reflect what’s going on in your chosen topics.

This has mostly been my writing blog and my CFS blog, and they go together because many of the things I do as a writer, except for the actual writing, are affected by CFS and low energy and brain fog.

When I say, not ‘the actual writing,’ it’s because that part is still as much a mystery as when I started. The preparation is tailored to me and my damaged brain – so I can operate on very small chunks of material at a time, and still end up with a coherent whole.

But the writing – the actual words that come out, sit on the ‘page,’ and are chosen to stay in the final product –  that is something that just comes when the prep is finished. This post is not about my fiction.

Blogging is different from writing fiction

Up until now, when I had something to say about the things I was learning as a writer or a person living with CFS, I would come up with an idea, sit and write about it for a while, clean it up a bit and add some headings, and voilà, blog post.

Like sitting down, and dumping my opinionated opinion on someone who happened to ask, “What do you think about…?” and then sat and recorded what I said. I often clarified my thinking about something – or organized a proper set of steps to do something (quite different usually from the chaotic way I figured it out) – as I wrote.

These were easy.

Images became de rigueur – so I added some

I’ve added a few photos I took and occasionally worked on. I used programs such as Quozio and Stencil which had free and easy ways to make a few easy quotes and images.

And I’ve created specific images with Pixelmator, as necessary, to illustrate how I do something.

Nothing fancy, but that has been uncomplicated.

Something’s changed, and I’m chewing on what that means

Most of this blogging occurred during the writing and launching of my first published novel, Pride’s Children: PURGATORY.

As a newbie, I first looked mostly online, and some in books, for instructions on how to do things involved in getting a book ‘up there’ on Amazon. If I didn’t find something that worked for me already described, I wrote it up.

Because I have a Mac, and don’t use Word any more for most of the writing, and am not learning Photoshop or GIMP, my solutions were often different – and I wrote about them.

There’s nothing unusual in that among bloggers.

How deep is too deep for a purveyor of fiction?

But now I have 30-40 blog posts that I’ve started – and nothing is coming out of my fingertips.

Thinking about it some gave me the insight that a good number of these abortive topics are ones where I’m getting in a lot deeper than I intended to get on a blog.

Opinions that I hold are coming out of the depths – and I am not naive: I know these are controversial, argumentative, and not bland.

I think that’s why I’m not finishing these posts and posting them. I keep thinking: if I say this, it’s out there forever. Potential readers can find it, and may not read me because of my opinions.

Other people are controversial, but I haven’t been, not out loud. Partly because it takes way too much energy to deal with the controversies in our modern world. If you’ve read my fiction, you’ve probably figured out that I hold opinions that are considered somewhat old-fashioned. But in fiction the ideas are expressed with some subtlety, through characters pro and con, not stated overtly.

I’m not sure what I’m going to do

I like blogging. I like the people who pop by and enter the conversation. I have a variety of new friends since I started commenting on the publishing blogs, and then blogging myself.

But I’m not sure if I’m ready for the consequences of the topics I keep coming up with since I have moved beyond the stage of getting a book actually finished and published.

It’s not that I don’t stand by those opinions. If I don’t feel like entering the fray, I could cut off comments, not approve commenters, or not engage – all valid blogging strategies.

It’s that I shy away from publicly stating that I hold any ONE position – which divides the world into us and them.

Going back to basics: why do I blog?

The original thought was the common one: blog, people will get to know you, and when you publish, there will be a group of people out there who already like your writing, and will try your books/stories.

It doesn’t work like that, at least not with this kind of blog.

That’s more like an Author page – or a Book page – where the main purpose is to let your fans know when the next book comes out because they want to know. Most of those readers are not going to engage with the author on other subjects. They like the book(s), not necessarily the writer and her opinions on writerly topics.

I visit regularly a number of writing blogs. I comment when it seems appropriate. But I don’t buy the books that come out of the same writers often – because they are not, and were never, my kind of book. I still have a lovely horror story I bought because I loved the cover – but I don’t and won’t read horror because I can’t get it out of my head.

Some writing topics are common to all stories; I read those posts. Some publishing or formatting or editing topics are common to all writers; I read those posts.

The future of my blogging is: I don’t know

The internet is forever. If I put posts out, they will be there, part of me, characterizing me, for anyone to read.

I may lose interest in staying relatively informational and bland after I finish my silly little set of Author Photo posts.

I am NOT going to post scenes of NETHERWORLD as I finish them. That I know for sure. I was a huge effort, it worked when I needed a little commitment to keep me going at a couple of tough spots – because I had promised, not because readers were clamoring.

I’m not going to publish much new fiction on my blog, except for adding a few Drabbles I’ve written for something else to the ‘short stories’ tab. I’ve learned that I don’t go to people’s blogs to read their fiction.

So the answer is that I have no idea how this is going to play out – and that’s why I haven’t been posting nearly as frequently. I think that happens to bloggers a lot – when I came to the blogs, Joe Konrath published rants almost every other day, and Hugh Howey’s posts were very different from what they’ve been lately. The only fixed lighthouse has been ThePassiveVoice, and even that has been changing subtly lately.

Maybe the whole thing was fueled by the need to share, to pull more people into self-publishing by showing them how. I came to that party late.

My ‘how to’ posts fit in that category, even though I realized a while back that NOBODY writes the same way I do. They’re quaint when viewed through that lens. I have no followers for my methods, so I failed there. Even though I wasn’t trying to get ‘converts,’ I didn’t realize until I’d been out there a while how very different my methods are. I hope I have provided a few laughs and head-shaking moments for some entertainment value. SP is common now; we are taking down the barricades and coming down from the ramparts.

Bottom line?

Bear with me as I figure it out.

Tell me which posts you’ve liked and would read more of.

Tell me what you think you would do, if you were me.

Tell me you’ve been waiting to hear the controversial stuff. Or think there’s plenty of that out there already, and find my blandness soothing.

Because I haven’t the faintest idea how to break this streak of unfinished posts except by writing them, and it will be a lot of work, and I’m not sure anyone wants them.


What say you?

Mainstream: when your writing category vanishes

mainstream

THERE USED TO BE THREE GENERAL CLASSES OF WORK: MAINSTREAM/COMMERCIAL, LITERARY, AND GENRE.

Where did the mainstream go?

Caveats

I’m writing this post to dump the contents of my brain* about what has happened to the classification of novels on sites such as Amazon BECAUSE of the desire to categorize everything into smaller and smaller bins so the reader can find exactly the kind of book he is searching for.

It isn’t meant to be a scholarly discussion of any merit – and I welcome differing ideas, but would appreciate a general sticking to the question: Where did the mainstream go?

Mainstream fiction – as opposed to what?

This is a serious question. Type ‘mainstream’ into your Amazon search box and you won’t find the novels you expect. Maybe I should say that I’m older, and these aren’t the novels I expect.

‘General fiction’ brings up so much stuff I would consider genre fiction that it’s useless.

Although very well written genre work elevates a good story to a literary quality – which is where such novels as Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale are, in my opinion – it doesn’t make it mainstream or general fiction – the story is, in my mind, literary SF.

What IS ‘mainstream’ (IMHO)?

Mainstream fiction is meant to be appropriate and engaging for a majority audience.

Some books which I would call mainstream:

Love Story

The Thorn Birds (when it came out)

Gone With the Wind (ditto)

On The Beach and Trustee from the Toolroom (Nevil Shute)

Airport (and many of Alex Hailey’s other books)

Hawaii (ditto, Michener’s work)

Exodus, QB VII (and others by Leon Uris)

Authors such as Sidney Sheldon (The Other Side of Midnight) and John Fowles (The Magus)

The Bridges of Madison County and the novels of Nicholas Sparks

Some of these books are now classified as ‘classics,’ but were mainstream when they came out. Others are currently classified as ‘historical fiction,’ but the same applies: they were meant for a very large audience of literate people, an audience that went from children/young adults to older people, male and female, and encompassed much of the educated population.

There were no conventions; this audience could handle a WWII novel, a novel about finances, or The Key to Rebecca. Or Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca.

Mainstream. Commercial. Epic. General fiction.

Or simply what used to be called ‘a novel.’

And the category used to cover what was called a ‘big book’ – books with large casts of characters and elaborate plots, whether or not they were well-written, encompassing a spectrum of writing quality from Dan Brown to Ken Follett and Mary Stewart’s Arthurian legend novels starting with The Crystal Cave.

Mainstream novelists. People who wrote for the broad center of the complete reading public. Writers for whom plot and characterization were important.

But most importantly, people who did not want the reader to have to stop because of the language. The writing quality was sometimes awkward, generally competent, but stopped short of going into literary rhapsodies – because that would stop the readers’ flow.

Literary fiction then and now

A category which used to encompass everything from Proust (A la de temps perdu) to The Color Purple, ‘literary fiction’ used to mean stories that were intended for a more discerning audience than mainstream fiction, one with a more educated group in mind – and people who were comfortable with and appreciated language and description and minutiae and nuance. People who expect literary allusions and epigraphs and quotations from English poets, who can read Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day with pleasure.

I can’t. That kind of fiction, with its exaggerated precision and lack of plot (on the more literary or experimental end), makes me itch. These books are often taught in English and American Literature classes (the box where I found my husband’s copies had a large number of books of that kind) as ‘good for you’ and requiring study. It often meant work that was tinier in scope and more enamored of language than most readers were looking for.

Oddly enough, ‘literary’ as a category on Amazon is now used heavily by the big publishers to indicate that their books are better (and worth the much higher prices charged). When Data Guy puts out the quarterly charts of book prices by genre, the columns above 9.99 for ebooks are labeled literary and occupied mostly by traditional publishers: big 5, medium and small presses, and university presses.

Worse, literary is now the keyword associated with work which is the same as everything else, only better written. Literary fiction writers are probably screaming about that.

The problem with ‘literary’ as a category:

On Amazon, ‘literary’ has come to mean ‘mainstream.’

Now, ‘literary’ means anything not in a specific genre such as SFF or Romance or Thriller.

I’m sure authors of true literary books are not pleased to find their category invaded by everyone who thinks they write better than average prose.

The rise of genre fiction, partly propelled by Amazon and search categories

Books such as Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy were clearly science fiction. And The Lord of the Rings has always been fantasy.

Romance is a relatively recent category, but Pride and Prejudice is not a Romance; it is mainstream. Jane Eyre is now called ‘literature,’ but was mainstream when it came out.

Thrillers, mysteries, and such have always been genre – and some of its practitioners have elevated these genres by writing so well that we could probably call them literary mysteries, etc. – but the general audience I’m trying to delineate wouldn’t call them mainstream.

NOTE: there have always been omnivorous readers (I was one) who read anything they could get their little hands on, but we knew what we were reading when we chose a mystery or a science fiction story like Dune. Same stuff – only very well written.

Amazon provides all these categories and subcategories and sub-subcategories, but it doesn’t curate the lists. If you write ‘literary’ on your fantasy novel, it says ‘fine’ and shows that book with the literary novels and the fantasy novels, depending on other things like reviews and sales.

Nobody curates these lists online – it takes too much human time and trouble. Algorithms do it.

But it renders categories almost useless when anyone can put a paranormal romance with werewolves into general fiction. Or call their work literary. And I’ve had writers tell me they do this because their appropriate category is too crowded. Aargh!

What to do about this – assuming anyone cares?

And I do care – because I WRITE mainstream fiction, and I aim for the literary end of the writing quality spectrum – careful language. With the very strong warning to myself that it is NOT allowed to stop the flow.

I label it ‘literary’ and ‘general fiction’ and ‘psychological’ and ‘contemporary Romance’ (it IS a love story.

And I cringe when I do it.

I want my mainstream back. I probably won’t get it.


NOTE: If you’d like to see what the heck I’m talking about, Pride’s Children: PURGATORY, the first book in my mainstream contemporary love story trilogy, is available on Amazon US in ebook and print. For other countries, it’s easiest to type in the book’s name.

Thanks to Stencil for the ability to create images. I use fewer than 10 a month, so I have one of their free accounts. When I need more, they have very reasonably priced services with a LOT of flexibility.


*How and why I noticed the disappearance of the mainstream

I’m ideally positioned to answer this question because of an accident: for the past twenty-seven years, most of the energy normal people use for reading and writing fiction has been denied to me due to the energy-sapping disease called CFS – Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.

In the beginning, merely surviving the illness and coping with the children took everything I had. After a number of years, things improved a bit (or older children require somewhat less intense mothering), and I started thinking how to stay sane, not merely alive.

Writing was the answer – something I could learn to do and had always wanted to and planned to do.

We won’t argue names and etiologies here, but CFS has a constellation of symptoms, and my worst three are:

  • Brain fog
  • Exhaustion
  • Pain

The relevance of this is that I don’t have energy for reading AND writing, and, because I wanted to write, and had a story to tell, I have spent most of that time on the debut novel Pride’s Children: PURGATORY. And I didn’t read much during that period. When I woke up, ‘mainstream’ had vanished.

It’s a subject close to my heart – as I write mainstream fiction, and, as an indie, I’m having a very hard time connecting with the right readers. A collection of terms such as ‘literary’ and ‘contemporary’ and ‘romance’ does NOT add up to ‘mainstream love story which deals realistically with disability, fame, and integrity,’ does it?

‘Write the book you want to read’ is then followed by ‘find the people LIKE YOU who want to read the same book but can’t/don’t write it.’ The problem: I have no idea how I would attract ME to my book. And the categories aren’t helping.

What say you?

Temporary halt in writing to catch up

detourTHE VALUE OF MULTIPLYING YOUR REACH WITH PROPER HELP

I have 30 partial posts.

I have bunches more ideas.

I have the Author Photo series halfway done.

I am giving up on promotion for the immediate future – it’s up to those of you who read to poke your friends. I’m mostly hand-selling to people who I meet online who turn out to be copacetic – and that takes a lot of time.

This would be a great time to write the review you always planned to write, to give Pride’s Children to a friend – or to point a friend here for an electronic Review Copy.

The biggest new commitment is long-term dejunking.

Yup, and since I can’t do it, I have to make the decisions for my new assistant, who is vastly over-qualified for the position and a good friend – and this is planned to take 4-9 hours weekly for the indefinite future, or until this house has lost 80% of its current contents, with another 10% clearly labeled as already selected to be given away/junked.

The plan is to just keep doing this until every drawer, shelf, closet, wall unit, and underbed storage box is down to the minimum necessary. And basket. And garage. And basement.

Our plan – should it work out – is to move to a Continuing Care Retirement Community in the next couple of years – so we’re not responsible for a house.

Which means settling the last child, taking care of some problems, selling the house, and finding the place to spend the rest of our lives.

The benefits?

Someone else will become responsible for everything.

No stairs.

I’m not getting better or more mobile; I need to make the move before I can’t, or my brain goes even further and I can’t qualify to live in a CCRC.

I don’t want independence – I want convenience, and a pool, and a gym, and dinner, and medical rehab facilities onsite. I want the husband to have plenty of things he wants to do (me, I write), so finding the right place IS critical.

I want to be able to walk out my unit’s door, lock it, have arranged whatever supervision might be necessary with the staff, and go someplace else without worrying about the ice dam or the furnace going out or mildew or the ice maker or…

I loved doing all those homeowner things – when I was younger and not disabled.

What does this mean for the blog and the writing?

Probably not much, except for the first few weeks.

I’m not going to do anything organizing-wise without my assistant, and I’m going to try to be coherent while she’s here. So it should come out of the time I’m currently wasting because I have no energy to use it.

I’ve had assistants before, lovely people. It works.

It has just become completely shortsighted of me to try to force myself to do things the way I’ve been trying to operate.

It will be a bit harder with the husband retired, because he’s not used to having someone around. The benefits – a boost to MY capabilities – should compensate.

I’m the problem here, and the pivot point, and possibly the solution.

Wish me well – expect it will be a couple of weeks of less engagement online while I get the system sorted out.

It has already begun

The first day was last Wednesday. I made about a thousand decisions – but they all got acted on instead of being admired and re-stored. Good intentions get very little actual work accomplished.

Bags of stuff left this house, destined for the trash or recycling. Books went to the Friends of the Library, for their sales.

I have to go take a nap – she’s coming at three.

Remember – if you like the prose…

Try the fiction – written by the same person. See sidebar for link.

I promise – I’m working madly on Book 2, and have some shorter stuff to put up.

Is it a mistake to gut your readers emotionally?

ride of lifeOR IS IT YOUR JOB AS A WRITER?

To give them the biggest emotional journey you can, the most stress and pain they can take vicariously?

At least, it is your job to consider their feelings – and how you’re going to invoke them – if not as you write, then at least before you publish.

You owe your readers a thorough exploration of the questions raised by the story. If you present one action, and only one reaction, you’re preaching. Which is fine as long as you know what you’re doing, and some writers and readers are perfectly fine with that.

But not me.

Mountains, anyone?

Real-life choices are made with options. Fictional choices are made with a lot MORE options. Just because writers can. There is no budget needed when a writer says, “Overnight, a mountain had moved in front of her window.” A few black marks and it’s done. Less than a minute of writing time, and we have a new mountain, right where I say it is.

So there’s no excuse such as “it’s too expensive” or “where am I going to get a mountain?”

Since I write realistic fiction, I do have limits that I choose (and shouldn’t use dream sequences with new mountains very often). But the mountains of K’Tae, where Kary sets her SF novel (if you’ve read Pride’s Children, you know what I’m talking about; if not) were necessary for her plot on an inhospitable planet, and cost me practically nothing. Nice, eh?

Readers’ reactions to roller coasters, emotional

Leaving out those who like their fiction tame, and those who prefer a lot of physical action, gives me readers who want to know how the appearance on a single TV interview can make such a difference in the life of a woman who normally hides, due to a carefully managed illness, from any publicity. How much can she take? What does it do to her? How does she cope before, during, and after a roller coaster comes into her life?

Do we want her to get off? Do we care where the ride stops? Is it even a possible ride for her and the other people involved?

Readers deserve an author who takes into account their emotional journey, presents each relevant event as the only possible next event, has a sequence of emotions calculated to lead them through a scene, chapter, book in an inexorable progress (Noooo!) to the only possible end to the story, and then dumps them at the station wanting more.

Margaret Mitchell did that continuously through a very long Gone With the Wind, and left us at the end wanting the more which either she didn’t plan to write, or didn’t get the chance to. And which was so badly mishandled by the writer her estate hired to do the sequel that I won’t mention it – which disappointed many.

How to engineer a roller coaster:

Planning, planning, and more planning is how I do it.

My tools (the books I consult most frequently while setting the journey up) are:

  1. Writing the Blockbuster novel, in which Albert Zuckerman masterfully takes apart several important and well known scenes (from The Godfather, GWTW, and Ken Follett’s The Man from St. Petersburg) showing how it’s done.
  2. The Fire in Fiction, in which Donald Maass carefully shows how to create conflict in every element of a scene (from landscaping to literally nothing happening).
  3. Wired for Story, where Lisa Kron shows how to make a reader empathize with a character with a thorough understanding of how the human brain works, and how we feel.

I start a scene, for example, by asking myself what the character needs to go through emotionally for the scene to work for me.

Then I start working out whether some of the emotions cluster in groups. If so, a smooth transition from feeling to feeling within a group gets planned.

I ask myself where the scene starts, what the emotional changes in the character have to be, and where the character needs to end.

Once I have the character’s path and the actual events working to give a transition which makes some kind of sense, I work out how to get a reader to identify – and take the same journey. It has to be a believable journey. In real life, people go through circular emotional journeys, coming back again to the same thing, over and over, repeating themselves. If you do that in fiction, readers will notice.

You don’t get to take that trip in fiction because it’s boring. Once a character achieves insight over something, the reader expects him to remember that insight.

That’s because stories are the highlights of life, condensed, told as quickly as possible so that readers can get many vicarious lives. My kind of stories, anyway.

Relevance?

That’s where I’m at right now: writing the very first scene in Pride’s Children: NETHERWORLD. In the midst of taking the reader expectations left at the end of PURGATORY into account, setting a new direction for the next level of exploration, making sure the reader gets dragged into Andrew’s head for the battle (yes, Book 2 starts with Andrew), making sure a few old questions get answered, and even more new questions get lodged in the reader’s consciousness, and planning that very long ride up from the station to the tip top of the track and then…?

Thing is, the starting point is partly determined by where Book 1 ended, and where I know Book 2 ends and Book 3 begins.

But I know it has to kick things up to a new level, so I get out my trusty software tools, and my slow brain, dump all the marketing and promotion stuff which has been bedeviling my existence, and start chuckling at what I’m planning to do.

Because the Roller Coaster Designer gets to take the ride over and over and over until it’s as good as she can make it.

Gentle Reader: do you like roller coasters?


Thanks to Stencil for the ability to make up to 10 free images per month. I’ve enjoyed using their easy tools – and every month they give me new choices. I will get a paid account as soon as I need more images – I’ve only explored the surface of what’s available.


I you like my prose, consider purchasing my fiction. It’s written by the same person.

I’m planning to put up a few short stories in a polished form as soon as I can create covers.