Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Everyone's got one. Reviewing the Reviewers

I started this blog entry weeks ago, but let it languish while I was thinking it through and doing other things. Then my attention was pointed to this article: Reviewers for hire... and I decided the world was ready for it.

Every person who uses the internet has a valuable commodity: their opinion. Opinions in one form or another undoubtedly account for an easy majority of all web content. People who voice their opinions inform all the rest of us. When someone throws their opinion out into the great opinion heap of the web, they add to its collective wisdom (and folly).

Everyone knows that opinions are like, well, you know what, and most of them stink. That's why people who have informed, well-thought-out opinions are like gold. When we find people who form their opinions carefully and with reason, we tend to pay attention. At their best, the opinionators give a careful analysis of the facts that informs and illuminates their audience. By listening to them, we can inform our own opinion—whether we agree with the opinionators conclusion or not. Once we find an opinionator who routinely agree with our sensibilities, we often forgo reading their reasons and just adopt their opinion. We have to.

There is way too much information out there for us form our own independent opinions on all of it, but when we are at a party, we don't want to appear to be ignorant about a subject, or say something stupid about it. It's the opinionators that save us. They do the work and we reap the rewards of impressing other people with our savvy. For example, I KNOW “Fifty Shades of Gray” is poorly written erotica that is not even a good example of it's genre, because people I trust have told me so. Have I read it? No. Do I have an opinion? YES! How cool is that?

Well informed opinions are valuable. Good ones take time to formulate and state. Well known opinionators (a.k.a Pundits, Columnists, Bloggers, and Reviewers) routinely get paid to give their opinions—and they should. Valuable services deserve compensation.

Then we come to advertisement. Advertiser's seek to influence and inform opinion in a shamelessly biased, easily digested, and tasty way. We know it, we expect it, and we defend against it. In newspapers, they clearly flag opinions and thoughtfully label their advertising so we know to take it with a grain or two of salt.

On the web? Not so much. It's terribly easy to disguise ads as true opinions. It's sneaky, underhanded, and just good business. It works, it makes money and as long as that is true, it is unstoppable. What's a poor opinion-eater to do? How do we protect ourselves?

We use science! We keep databases of our opinions on the opinionators. We track the opinionators and log their opinions, and then serve them up in tasty info-graphics or ridiculously simplified scoring systems. We track the opinionator's street-cred, or web-cred as the case may be.

Ideally, the thought-police will track every publicly stated opinion and action ever made by anyone and let us all know about it. Unfortunately, that is a bit unwieldy, unreasonable, and creepy to boot. Fortunately, even an extremely simplified version of this information in a limited domain would still be useful. Of course, as an author, I'm primarily interested in the opinions of readers and book reviewers, so I'll explore that market.

Reviewing the Reviewers
Amazon has made a start at ranking reviewers. You can go to Amazon reviewers and see their ranking of ten thousand reviewers. They form their ranking system simply based on how many people find their reviews helpful. As I said, its a start, but it is not all that useful. First, it only tracks Amazon reviewers (reasonably enough) and second, their ranking system is opaque and limited.

It's hard to believe, but there are highly ranked Amazon book reviewers out there who dislike fantasy. Who knew? What happens when one of them is temped/tricked/coerced into reading a fantasy book? They will read it, and then write a careful and considered review trashing the poor writing and ridiculous concepts they find therein. The book gets panned, and the author slinks off in disgrace, vowing revenge against the world. A new potential, highly imaginative super-villain is born. Tragic. Not a result anyone wants.

So, what we need to see is a standardized scoring system for each reviewer. In addition to a helpfulness rank, we want to know the total number of review's they have foisted upon the world. We want to know the average score they give. We want that broken down by genre. Then, when we see this person's review, we will know if it should carry any weight with us. We could form a grid like the one below.

Reviews of My Fantastic Fantasy
Genre: Fantasy
Sub Genre: Alligators (optional field)

What does this tell us? Everything! Guess which 2 reviewers review for money. Guess which of those give honest reviews for money. Guess which one is the writer's mother or father. Guess which one is our embittered embryonic super-villain striking back at the world. Guess which one is an orthodontist. OK, so not EVERYTHING, but who cares if a reader has straight teeth?

We can take it even further if we want. We can give more weight to a person whose opinions have been rated the most helpful, collect standard deviations and come up with a single number which allows us to rank reviewers like Amazon does, though we will expose our formulas to all. We could use number theory to detect collusion like the on-line poker sites. How cool is that?

I don't know about you, but this is what I want to see as a reader and a writer. So, get out there and do it, I'm busy writing.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Read to write good

After I finished "Ghost Story" by Jim Butcher, I put down the book and wanted to read the next one. Well, old Jim's taking his good old time on that so I decided to write a series of my own so I'd never run out of something good to read. (Yeah, Yeah) When I started writing, I thought "I've read for 40 years. I know what it takes to make a good novel." Turns out judging a story is a bit different than actually creating one. Who'd of guessed? Just like it's easy to criticize The Mona Lisa (I mean, can you say 'Dark and boring?') It's hard to actually create something even remotely close. So, after I pumped out three novels in as many months (I've been a frustrated writer for a long time now) and started shoving them into the faces of everyone slower than me that I could tackle. I got lots of feedback and discovered that most of my friends can't read. Damnedest thing. I had no idea we had so many functional illiterates in this country! Anyway, from the feedback I started to get an understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of my manuscripts and of how novel writing is really done. The most interesting thing is that the weaknesses that were pointed out were not a surprise. I knew it, even if I didn't let myself know it. The problem was, I didn't understand how to fix them. Since Jim Butcher is the reason I got off my butt and started writing, I decided to look him up on the web and see what he had to say about it. I found a blog of his that goes back to 2004. Even though it was probably out of date (I mean it was 8 years old!) I decided to read it. It made a terrible amount of sense. I even made this little flowchart out of what he said to show how a story should be put together. Being a programmer for decades, I like stuff like this. http://jimbutcher.livejournal.com/
So, just follow this diagram and you will make an exciting and fun book. If you feel like you'd like a little more detail, go read his blog. I also found out that Jim also took CLASSES in writing. That was certainly a novel thought for me. Get it? Novel.... never mind. As a point of interest, this info-dump really helped me understand the strengths and weaknesses in my stories. I went back, rewrote them and liked them better. My interest was peaked and my natural arrogance was spanked and sent to the corner, so I started backtracking some of the books and people Jim mentioned. I've found some really good ones. I'll be sharing them over the next few posts.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Step 1: Learn to write good!

One of the reasons I've chosen the self publishing route is the shear masochism involved with traditional publishing.  You have to have no pride and you've really got to like pain to do it.

Let's see, let's send a manuscript I've been working on for months or years to some agents, wait up to three months to hear from them as they judge your baby, then when you get the response, its NO. That's it, not even, "you suck, your manuscript is terrible, don't quit your day job", or "haven't you ever heard of a period?"  There is no way to glean any useful information out of it.  This is a system designed to cause nervous breakdowns and thumb sucking.

On top of that, the agents tell you how important it is that you spend lots of time preparing the submission. Make sure that it is EXACTLY the unique manner they request and PERSONALIZE it. Suck up to them: "Dear Editor, I love your work. I saw you on Oprah. I love the book blah blah blah..."  The implication is clear, if you don't jump through these hoops, you will get a simple response: NO.

There are entire websites devoted to reading the minds of agents on the off chance you will get a maybe.  Heaven forbid you should try to increase your chances by sending the result of your blood, sweat and tears to every agent in the world.

This is enough to put anyone with any pride on their high hobby horse of righteous anger.

Of course, after the string of soul destroying rejections, if you don't just give up,  you start trying to understand WHY they rejected your manuscript, even without any clues.  For me, I started consulting the sages, reading books on writing, sending my work off to friends and, as I mentioned before, even paying strangers to read it and give me their thumbs up or down.

Now, to be fair, I probably should have done this BEFORE,  Not AFTER being rejected.  This became painfully clear to me just yesterday as I was reading The First Five Chapters by Noah Lukeman.  Mr. Lukeman is an editor and he is trying to reveal what editors look for at first glance to relegate a manuscript to the rejection pile.  It's a really good book and it's pointers are not at all surprising after considering that a typical agent can get 20 manuscripts a day.

I plan on discussing the books and other oracles of writing quality later, but I wanted to share a quote from old Noah.  It perfectly summed up what I have been coming to realize in the last year.

"In order to even begin to learn how to play his instrument, it takes the guitarist weeks to build calluses on his fingertips; it takes the saxophonist months to strengthen his lip so that he might play his instrument for only a five minutes stretch; it can take the pianist years to develop dual hand and multiple finger coordination.  Why do writers assume they can just "write" with no training whatsoever-- and then expect, on their first attempt, to be published internationally? What makes them think they're so much inherently greater, need so much less training than any other artist"

Yep, that loud thunk you heard was me falling off aforementioned hobby horse.  I've learned a lot about the craft in the last year through books, editors and general feedback. I can't really hold a grudge against the agents and editors for rejecting my books.  But, it still would have been nice to hear why.

So, am I going to go back to traditional publishing?  Hell no, I'm not a masochist.