Thursday, September 22, 2016

Let's Stop Blaming Amazon and Focus On the Real Problem

The Problem With Amazon

If you are a member of the indie authors community, you have no doubt heard complaints about Amazon's strict policies regarding self-published books. If you're a newcomer, here's a quick summary. Amazon reserves the right to ban your book or terminate your account at any time. If they do, they will send you a letter giving you a vague reason but no specific details then tell you not to inquire further. Amazon will also remove any review of your book that they deem dishonest, and they include reviews from your family and friends under the heading "dishonest". And too many "dishonest" reviews is another reason they could potentially terminate your author account.

No, I have never been in trouble with Amazon, and I hope I never am, but like all indie authors, some of these policies make me more than a little nervous. But I'm not laying all the blame on Amazon.

The One Problem I Do Have

Most of these strict policies scare me, but as I said above, I'm not blaming Amazon completely. The only area where I agree wholeheartedly with the authors who are lodging their complaints is communication. It seems to me that keeping authors informed would be a good thing. After all, if you don't fully understand what you did wrong, how can you be expected to improve? It seems to be Amazon's practice to have very little communication with indie authors, and I disagree with that practice. Communication is always good. But as far as everything else goes, I think we should be focusing our attention elsewhere.

What Is Amazon?

Amazon is an online retailer. Amazon is not YouTube. People can put crap videos up on YouTube, call all their friends, and get those friends to view those videos, like those videos, and follow that YouTube channel, and that's perfectly okay. Why? Because YouTube is not selling these videos. They don't have to keep people satisfied with the content of the videos made available there because people aren't paying to watch them. Yes, YouTube does have policies, but for the most part, the atmosphere there is "anything goes."

Amazon is different. Amazon is a store. People pay money for what they get there and if the customer is dissatisfied, the store's reputation suffers. And what's bad for Amazon is bad for indie authors because if we want to be able to sell our books there, well, we want Amazon to have an impeccable reputation. Many of their policies that sometimes hurt indie authors are just good business decisions, pure and simple. We are not their only reason to exist, so they are not going to cater to us and us alone. And if it's the choice between us and a paying customer, of course they're going to put the customer first. I think most business owners would agree with that philosophy.

The Real Problem

Why would Amazon have such strict policies for indies? There could really only be one reason. Because people have abused their policies in the past. Take reviews. Why would they delete reviews by friends and family members of the authors? I would imagine it's because there have been a lot of really bad books published recently boasting pages and pages of five star reviews. How would such terrible books get such great reviews? Because the reviews were all written by friends of the author. Does that mean that any review by someone who knows us personally is dishonest? No! Of course not. That's what makes it so infuriating. If we have a friend who reads our book, and actually likes it, we'd naturally like for them to be able to leave us a glowing review. It's very frustrating that they aren't allowed to do that. But at the same time, I understand Amazon's issue. We are asking people to pay for our books. If they see a string of positive reviews and buy our book on the assumption that it must be pretty good if that many people like it, then find it to be a mess of grammar errors, plot holes, and flat characters, that not only reflects badly on us but also on the retailer making money from our book. And Amazon is going to protect itself first. That's the only way they can stay in business.

What Can Be Done?

There's no easy way to solve this problem. We can't control what everyone else does. We can't stop people from engaging in dishonest business practices. And we can't do anything about the consequences that fall on the rest of us when other people do that. But if we can't be part of the solution, we can at least vow not to be part of the problem. So if you are an indie author, please, write a good book. Edit your book ruthlessly. Proofread meticulously. And when you are finally ready to publish, run your marketing campaign with the utmost integrity. Remember, your book does not just represent you, it represents the entire indie community. We have to protect our reputation just as tenaciously as Amazon does, so do the right thing. Sometimes the best way for indies to help each other is by tending to their own business first. That's how we'll show the world that our books deserve just as much respect as those published the old-fashioned way.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Irony of Star Trek

Two Kinds of Futuristic Fiction

When people envision the future, they often see two possibilities. They either see a paradise in which all disease, war, and poverty have been eradicated and people are free to live their lives the way they want, or they see a future in which mankind has nearly destroyed itself and a small band of survivors is fighting to restore society to what it once was. Examples of the second kind are everywhere. Logan's Run, The Terminator, The Matrix, The Hunger Games, etc. are all examples of this grim view of the future. Star Trek, however, presents to us a very optimistic view of where humanity is headed. It shows us a society that is more cultured, more educated, more civilized than the society we live in now. Or does it?

What is Star Trek, Really?

Does Star Trek present to us a society that is indeed more civilized, and therefore superior, to the one we have now? Or does it merely show us a society that believes it is superior? Hmm...interesting question. Let's probe a little further.

If you are a Star Trek fan, then I don't need to explain the Prime Directive to you. For the rest of you, here's the abridged version. The Prime Directive is a strict rule of noninterference. Members of Starfleet travel throughout the galaxy and encounter countless lifeforms on countless worlds. Many of these lifeforms are intelligent and have formed their own societies. Starfleet's primary rule when dealing with these societies is to let them govern themselves. Let their civilizations develop in their own way. The last thing they need is Starfleet stepping in and telling them what to do.

The irony is that the actual people who make up Starfleet, or at least the people who are the main characters of Star Trek, do not believe in the Prime Directive. Oh, they'll say they believe in it. They'll say it's their most sacred rule. But how many Star Trek episodes have had as their central theme the idea that without the Prime Directive the whole situation could be much more easily resolved? I haven't done an exact count, but I'd be willing to guess at least half of the stories we've seen on Star Trek involve, at some point, a desire, even a need, to defy the Prime Directive.

When Has the Prime Directive Hindered a Mission on Star Trek?

When has the Prime Directive hindered a mission on Star Trek? All the time. My examples will come from the first couple of seasons of The Next Generation, because that's what I have watched most recently, but even in that small sample of the enormous Star Trek franchise, there have been several examples of a "need" to defy the Prime Directive.

One example is when Wesley is arrested for disturbing a flowerbed on a planet that imposes the death penalty whenever any law is broken. The Prime Directive dictates that Starfleet must abide by the laws of this planet while dealing with its inhabitants. But! But! If they abide by that planet's laws, Wesley will die! They simply cannot allow Wesley to die. They have to find a way to save him, even if it means disregarding the laws of the world they are visiting. Besides, that world's laws are cruel and barbaric, so to do what's right, they must rescue Wesley. And they do.

There is another episode where the Enterprise has to transport a group of diplomats who refuse to use the ship's food replicators. They insist on being provided with live animals so they can slaughter them and have fresh meat to eat. There is more than one scene in which we see one of the regular characters complaining about the finicky diet of the passengers. In fact, at one point, someone, while actually talking to one of the diplomats, says, "We no longer enslave animals for food." Well...if that statement doesn't carry an air of superiority, I don't know what does.

Why Does the Prime Directive Exist?

Star Trek is the story of a group of explorers. The very idea conjures memories of the European explorers of old sailing down the coast of Africa or setting off for the New World. What do we know about those explorers? Well, we know a lot of things, but one is that they most certainly did not have a rule of noninterference. They interfered everywhere. With everyone. Star Trek is supposed to take place in our future, so members of Starfleet carry those first explorers in their cultural memory as well. They don't want to repeat some of the viler things that were done in the past, so they resolve not to interfere. Sounds good, right? I wonder...

The Irony of the Whole Thing

What were the Europeans during the Age of Exploration? They were an advanced society with a strict code of conduct. When they encountered cultures who did not follow the same code of conduct, those cultures were labeled "savage" and "barbaric". They prided themselves on manners and proper dress. Cultures who had different ideas of how to behave in public were seen as "inferior". Music, art, and architecture in Europe were all reaching their height during the Age of Exploration. When Europeans first encountered the artwork of other societies, they labeled it "primitive".

Star Trek would have us believe that our future society is as far removed from that of those European explorers as a society can be. After all, Starfleet is not colonizing already inhabited worlds. They are not taking over and forcing everyone in the galaxy to obey their laws. So it seems that our species has really matured. Or have they?

How many times are words like "barbaric" and "primitive" used on Star Trek? How many times does the crew of the Enterprise encounter another culture only to be appalled at how its people behave? In the episode where Commander Riker takes a temporary assignment on a Klingon ship, there is even a scene in which several members of the crew are standing around making fun of Klingon food. So much for respecting other cultures.

The truth is Starfleet is travelling the galaxy, approaching new cultures with the exact same attitude as those Europeans of old. They have the Prime Directive rigidly preventing them from overstepping their bounds, but they do not like it in the least. In their hearts they all secretly want to step in and show these "primitive", "barbaric" cultures how things are done in the "civilized" world. So really, humanity hasn't changed a bit.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

The Most Confusing Advice People Give New Authors, and What It Means

Advice Everywhere

There are lots of "rules" out there dictating what separates good writing from bad. Why did I put "rules" in quotation marks? Because most of the time they are more like suggestions. They are good things to do, but if you want to venture away from that standard, it won't make your work intrinsically bad. In fact, most authors bend the rules all the time, even award winning and bestselling authors. So why are these rules so important if so many people disregard them?

The truth is, most successful authors don't disregard the rules completely. They bend them, and that is something quite different. Take grammar, for instance. This is a hotly debated topic in the indie publishing world. Basically you have your grammar snobs on one side and those who think grammar rules are arbitrary constructs that in no way impact one's ability to tell a good story on the other. Those who are all for breaking grammar rules will point to real, published, bestselling books that seem to happily ignore the world's definition of good grammar. They contain sentence fragments. They begin sentences with "but" or "and". They end sentences with prepositions. Yes, these authors are breaking some rules, but when you read their work it's obvious they knew the grammar rules before they broke them. When an author doesn't know the rules, it's painfully obvious, and the most common thing that can happen in that situation is the meaning of a sentence becomes unclear. In a profession where you use words to communicate ideas, clarity is vital. So, with grammar as well as all the other writing "rules", you have to know them, and know them well, before you can break them.

For more information about writing "rules", check out these lists of common mistakes amateur authors make:

My Confusion

When I self-published my first book last year I read a lot of books and articles on ways to improve my writing. I must admit, a lot of it was confusing in the beginning, but the one that consistently had me scratching my head was the warning against being too "wordy". Um...isn't writing all about words? Do I really want to start eliminating them from my books?

The point is not just to eliminate words. The point is to eliminate superfluous words. Those that add no meaning to your sentence. When someone tells you not to be wordy, it doesn't mean you can't be long-winded. It doesn't mean you can't be descriptive. It doesn't mean you can't take your time setting the mood and building the suspense. What it means is you shouldn't fill up your book with words that don't need to be there.

What "Wordy" Means

I'm going to humble myself. I'm going to analyze sentences from my own book, Amelia's Children, to show you how I could have made them less wordy if only I had known then what I know now. I'm not bashing my own writing. I love my book, and will continue to love it, but rereading it now I can see ways that the writing style could be improved, and I'm going to show you some of those ways.

Wordy sentence:
David had a hint of a laugh in his voice when he answered.

Improved sentence:
David answered with a faint laugh.

Why it was too wordy:
The reader doesn't need to know the laugh was in his voice. It's the emotion I'm trying to convey, not the physical aspect of how he laughs. Also, the first sentence contains the superfluous words "had" and "of". Sometimes those words are necessary, but if they can be eliminated they probably should be.

Wordy sentence:
David was sitting with his head resting against the back of the sofa.

Improved sentence:
David sat on the sofa, his head resting against the back.

Why it was too wordy:
The words "of" and "with" were unnecessary in communicating the meaning of this sentence.

Wordy sentence:
The excitement of the night was starting to wear off and I realized how exhausted I was.

Improved sentence:
The excitement of the night was wearing off and I was exhausted.

Why it was too wordy:
The word "started" is probably one of the most overused words in amateur writing. There are times when it is needed, but if the sentence means the same thing without it, get rid of it. Also, I don't need to tell the audience that my narrator "realized" she was exhausted. If she says she's exhausted, the reader knows she realized it.

Happy Rule-bending

As I said above, most writers bend the rules all the time. Some of these wordy sentences could work perfectly fine in a book, as long as every sentence is not overflowing with "of", "with", "was", "started", "had", etc. When there are several such sentences on every page the book begins to scream "amateur." Used in moderation, they're okay.

This was the most confusing advice I've ever received. What about you? Do you share my confusion, or do you struggle with some other aspect of writing. I would love to hear about it in a comment.

Friday, September 2, 2016

How Writing My New Book Has Made Me a Better TV Fan

A Stickler for Continuity

I've always hated inconsistent writing on television and I never understood why it happened. I would watch a show, and someone would say something that contradicted an event from an earlier season, and I would get angry. Lamenting that it destroys the world they are trying to build when they let us see behind the curtain like that. Calling it "bad writing". Wondering why they couldn't just stay true to what they had already written.

Star Trek

I discovered Star Trek in my teens. I've seen every episode of the original series as well as The Next Generation. I've seen all the movies multiple times. I remember voicing my opinion about inconsistencies in the Star Trek universe from the beginning. It has been a while since I last watched all the way through the episodes and movies, so I have forgotten many of them, but I do remember that Data's cat on The Next Generation switches gender at some point.

I also remember that in an early episode of the original series, James T. Kirk is actually James R. Kirk.

These are things that drove me crazy when I noticed them.


I've watched Supernatural more recently than Star Trek and can recall more mistakes in that series. Honestly there are too many to count, but I'll list a few. In Season Two Dean says that he and Sam have never seen the Grand Canyon. Then in Season Eight they sit and reminisce about a big trip they took with their dad when they were kids to--guess where--the Grand Canyon! There's also the strange history of the Rugaru. If you watch the show you may recall that the first time this creature is mentioned is in Season Four. Dean has never heard of it. When he hears the word he states that it sounds "made up". Then in a later season (I don't remember which one) he talks about hunting one with his dad. did he hunt one with his dad if his dad died before he ever even heard of one?

Supernatural also experienced a major shift in mood in Season Four. One could almost say it changed genres. Everything about the show has been different since that season, including the story arcs. One particular story arc that has always bothered me is the one involving Sam's psychic powers. Do you watch the show now? Can you remember the last time those powers were mentioned? Does something like that just disappear? Okay, maybe it could just disappear, but if that was intentional it seems that the writers would have thought of a way to explain why. And let's talk about those powers for a moment. In the first two seasons Sam has visions. That is the extent of what he can do. It is hinted that if he embraces his destiny he can do much more, but for the time it's just visions. And he can't control them. They come on him unannounced and there's nothing he can do to either trigger or prevent one. Fast forward to Season Four. He still has psychic powers, but he no longer has visions. Why not? The implication in this season is that he finally has accepted what the demon did to him when he was a baby and is using the gifts he was given. So why aren't his visions among those gifts? And why does he now have to drink demon blood to use his powers when before they were just a part of him?

Again, these are things that used to drive me crazy.

What My New Book Has Taught Me

I just wrote the final chapter of my new book yesterday. Now to the editing. And this edit will be intense because I have some major plot holes to go back and patch. Here's what happened. This book has a complex backstory, not just involving what has happened to the main characters in the past but also involving family secrets which go back centuries. There is also some dark magic involved, and writing about magic requires having rules that the magic and all who use it must obey. When I started writing, I didn't exactly have all those details nailed down in my head, so my task now is to go back and find all the places where what I said in an early chapter conflicts with what happens in a later chapter. I can tell you there will be many such places.

This has made me see my favorite television shows in a new light. Primarily, I have realized that it's hard to know exactly where a story is going when you first sit down to write it. There are always going to be things you think of later that you didn't really have in mind when you began. In a book that's okay. You can always go back and change it. That Word document is sitting there begging to be looked at with new eyes, edited, polished, tweaked. But a television show? If you've already filmed the first few seasons and put them out into the world, there's no going back to change it. So when you have a new idea you have a choice. Ditch the idea because it doesn't fit perfectly with what came before, or plow ahead and hope nobody notices because it's such a darn good idea. And then of course there are the times when you don't perfectly recall what came before, and if you're writing on a deadline you don't have time to go back and review everything that's already been done.

So my point is that I understand now. I get it. I still may not like it. I still may complain. But I know how it happens. I've been there. I've done that. I'm trying my darnedest to correct it, but I know that, with television, those corrections are pretty near impossible to make. So I would like to apologize to all the writers of my favorite shows who I have criticized a little too harshly over the years and to thank them for the wonderful entertainment they have provided me and the rest of their audience.