Saturday, November 3, 2012

Greatest Hits, Volume I

Recently, I was interviewed for the Simon's Groove podcast and he asked about negative reviews. I gave an answer about how one-star reviews, etc., don't bother me as much as they should. I wished I had more time to elaborate. Simon likely would have been okay with that, but in truth, when the mic is on, I tend to get ahead of myself and not say everything I'd like.

The truth is that bad reviews do sting. I try not to read them, of course, but they're unavoidable. I'll always get them as long as I'm sharing work with the public. I said it to Simon and it's true: some readers hate what I do.

But after the Simon's Groove podcast, I got to thinking about where the bad reviews come from. I believe they stem from readers who have a genuine misunderstanding about what it is that I'm writing about. Their expectations don't line up with mine. I don't have an interest in writing stories in the same fashion as other writers. And, when a reader doesn't see that, I think they feel cheated, surprised, or confused. Then, they either don't finish the story before them, or feel the need to take to the web and express that in some way. How is it socially acceptable to express frustration over a consumable form of art? Give it a bad review on some website and stick it with as few stars as possible.

Well, I went looking and discovered that I had written about my particular niche-style of writing about two years ago. The ironic thing (among a few) is that I mention how I will never have a #1 Amazon book. Since then, I've actually had a #1 Amazon book. Things change I guess.

Have a gander at how I saw things two years ago. My thanks to authors Rima Jean and Neil Crabtree way back when for contributing to the discussion. If you have a point of view, I'd love to hear it in the comment area below.

NOTE: This post is originally from November 2010.

I'm A Dweller on the Threshold

Stephen King. John Grisham. The Joy Luck Club. Twilight. The Catcher in the Rye.

These authors and these book titles are what people call household names. Even people who don't write, who don't read a lot, or haven't in a very long time, have probably heard of or read one of the above. For the purposes of this essay, and as it relates to fiction only, I will term this as mainstream: something that nearly everyone has heard of, and a great many have actually read.

I was working with an author who's first book was published in the more traditional way: she had gone to school to learn the craft, or, at least discuss the craft, for a number of years, then wrote a book, and found an agent to represent her interests. She was lucky because the agent sold her book to a large paper-based publisher that supported her work and then the agent continued to get the book listed in newspapers, on websites and in literary publications until the writer found a grant and started writing another book.

When I was meeting with this writer, she was fairly confident in her ability to sell books. She was very nice to me, very helpful with her support and comments and, in her own right, a very good writer.

What she took issue with in my storytelling ability was my penchant to disregard the rules. By that I mean that I didn't write in a straight line. I tended, she said, to borrow from different kinds of writing and bend things to suit my story and my style. She said I probably wouldn't find a home with a big publisher because my writing scope was narrow. I didn't have all the elements of candy-coated genre books and I didn't have all the heartache of a genuine literary book. I can't just jump around like this because I don't have an established voice. I'm not established in the mainstream so I don't yet have the right. I asked her if she meant my writing voice and she said, no, your publishing voice. She probably didn't use that word, but we got to talking about what she exactly meant, and that's how I think of it now: my publishing voice.

She said, You want people to read your books, right? I said, yes, of course. She said, Well then, you need to follow norms and standards. You have to write something like everyone else is writing. It needs to be mainstream. You can't write anything too complicated because no one will want to read it. You can't be too creative with elements of your style. And she reiterated. You need to write like everyone else does. But. You still need to say something meaningful through the course of your plot. You can't be too niche.

Too niche?

That's right. You need to tailor your writing to speak to the highest number of people you can.  And that means writing the same way everyone else does. Look at popular authors, emulate them, then you put your stamp on things with a unique premise and a compelling character.

Well, that last part was fine. That was definitely a good attack strategy. But, seriously. I can't write what I write? The way I write it?

No. Of course not.

Now, I knew when I began writing that my material was not going to be the next set of Harry Potter books. I don't write like everyone else. That's just the plain truth of it. And I don't want to. I knew that I wouldn't sell a million copies of anything I penned. But what I also knew is that I had some interesting stories, compelling characters and some tough issues to talk about through the course of it all. I never in a hundred and five years thought I'd be told to "tailor" anything in order to reach an audience. Maybe I was naive, maybe I still am, but I never considered writing to a mass audience.  I know that it happens every day. I do. I get that. I just don't want to do it that way.

To strike out with the intent of writing The Next Harry Potter. Or to try and be The Next Stephen King, that just doesn't jibe with me. Who wants to read something that's trying to hit the highest number of nails with one swing?

I asked this talented, published author, Have you ever heard of a band called Sigur Ros?  She was into music, a great deal more than most and was even into a lot of indie bands, some I'd never heard of. But she said, No, I've never heard of Sigur Ros.

I told her that they were a group from Iceland. They write really experimental pop in their native language, not English or Spanish or Mandarin, some of the most popular and well-recorded languages in current pop music. Some of their songs are sung in an entirely made up language and are sometimes twenty minutes long. Their albums have unusual titles and artwork on the cover and they had one album filled entirely with untitled songs. They probably have a big label behind them now, but when they started, they were outsiders, touring little clubs in a country you and I will probably never visit because of its foreboding name. She laughed.

I also told her that Sigur Ros had a huge cult following now, because of the Internet and because of word of mouth and publications like Rolling Stone Magazine that mentioned them once upon a time, before that mag lost a lot of its cred.

And look at them, I said to her. You'll never hear them on top 40 radio in my home town. Most people have never even heard of them. They won't win Grammys like U2 or Lady GaGa or Van Morrison. But they're selling records, or as is now the case, tracks on the web. They have listeners. They have a half dozen albums of material plus some solo albums and soundtracks. One song was featured in the big Tom Cruise movie, Vanilla Sky.  They might not be getting rich, but they're making a bit of dough. Sigur Ros is selling out big arenas, making concert DVDs and touring the world now.

Even if you've never heard of them.

* * *

I don't imagine I'll tour the world with my books as the means. I also don't think I'll ever be what I consider mainstream, either in my level of popularity or in the style of writing I choose to do. But I don't think writing for a niche is such a bad thing, either.


  1. Interesting Jason, very interesting. I am working on a blog post about not following the crowd, but being original. I feel like you've stolen my thunder...kidding. Very good points. You know exactly what you want to do and you're doing it. I think it's more important to believe in your writing and do your best to be true to it, than to follow the crowd. Publishers and agents like to call this naive, but I feel it's being true to your voice. I also believe every writer has readers who will connect with them. You just have to stick it out long enough for them to find you.

  2. It is important to believe in your writing, Brenda. Very much so. I also think it's vital to know where you want to be on the sales rack. Not every book can be out front by the register. Just as in life I probably won't ever drive the nicest car or have the biggest house, in this world of authorship, not everyone will rave about my writing. I will not be everything to everyone and I won't have an Amazon #1 bestseller. But, maybe for some reader out there, one of my books will be exactly just the right kind of story...and they'll get something crucial from it. For me, at this stage, that is one of the biggest things I'm after.

    Thanks for your comment!

  3. This is a good post, Jason. The argument is always the same, write to sell books or write to say what you have to say. To me, every writer feels guilty about not having a bestseller, like that is the Blue Ribbon you're supposed to get, the measure of your achievement. But do bestseller writers feel guilty for not writing something different? It's hard to say. But some of the best work comes from mid-list authors, those who sell, but never actually BEST SELL. Interestingly enough, the midlist authors who write in popular genres are the ones getting dropped by their publishers and agents. The ones who write literary fiction go on and on, with books people remember, books on library shelves and with new covers in the bookstores. Alice Munro will always be available, though she writes short stories. How many thriller writers are on Facebook right now, saying they've been dropped by their agents? It's what you have to consider. But the guilt of NOT selling is there for every writer, like Original Sin. The trick is to work past it.

  4. Neil, you streamline a lot of what I'm saying. You should be my editor. ;)

    Your comment sparks me to think about how some niche writers can become mainstream and what that does to push the quality of all writing (literary or not) to higher levels. A few years ago, I'd never read anything like "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius" by Dave Eggars. Love it or hate it, you have to admit it is very novel in terms of style and appeal. It also became quite mainstream. I would argue that letting Eggars do his thing, whether it was a bit unorthodox at the time or not, helped everyone...and resulted in a pretty good piece of work.

  5. Jason -

    Stop stealing my post ideas. Wait, you posted this on November 9th... Whatever, I had mine written two weeks ago. SO THERE.

  6. I was given "A Heartbreaking...etc" by john Dufresne last time I went to his writers group, not as a recommended work, but as a leftover from James W. Hall retiring and leaving many books in his office for whoever wanted them. In fact, you should read Hall's "Buzzcut" a helluva thriller. The idea was ripped off to make Speed II after Hall visited Hollywood looking for film options. Be careful which wolves you deal with, Jason. You have enormous potential commercially without changing anything. MFA programs have become so numerous they might as well be McDonalds. As Dylan said, you don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.

  7. Rima (aka Fiction Chick), I hear what you're saying. Apparently I ripped off Brenda too (see above). I'm what they call a blogging clairvoyant savant (BCS). :-)

    Neil, you say some kind things. I appreciate the pep talk. I don't want to change the way I write. I just want to keep getting better at doing it. In fact, I want to avoid to many of the temptations there are to market my writing. Don't get me wrong, I still wish to market it, as in sell it to people who are genuinely interested in what I have to say. I just don't want to write it *for* a particular market.

    That's one of the many beautiful things about this industry. I don't know anyone who reads only one author or anyone who only reads from one genre. So many readers enjoy fiction *and* non-fiction. There's plenty of room for all of us to have overlapping audiences.

    And with the middle men coming out (publishers, printers, etc.) there's going to be a little more room on price so readers will be able to afford more of the content we produce. Instead of only buying one traditionally-published hardcover, a reader may have enough cash for three or four ebooks, a couple of them mainstream and a couple niche or indie. Plus, the prices will still be high enough that the content creators see some profit for themselves.

    It's an exciting time and I'm honoured to be a part of it.


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