Indie Authors Defiant: What Are We, and Why, and Who Wants to Know?

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By Shawn StJean

In part this post is a response to my friend Emily McDaid’s ruminations awhile back, Why Do We Do it?, http://emilymcdaid.com/blog/12/why-do-we-do-it and to anyone feeling a similar crisis of spirit over your chosen, unremunerative path.

I’ve been teaching English for 22 years, and every Autumn I find myself reviewing whether I think it’s still worth it–okay, so I’m a bit early–it’s been a tough year. 

My best students are often the most concerned about their grades.  I always tell them, “Do your best, and the grades will take care of themselves.” To me (who was a college student myself for 10 years,) this referring them to a higher standard seems so clear.  But from the undergraduate perspective, and given the pressures and competition of the job market out there, I can empathize with their concern. 

Now, as an Indie author, try this one on for size: “Do your best, and the sales and reviews will take care of themselves.”  Seems hard to swallow, right?  Yeah–now we can really feel my undergrads’ point-of-view. 

‘Cuz writing is no more about making money than going to college is about grades.  College is about learning, making friends, drinking too much, sleeping in the wrong bed, finding out excuses won’t work anymore, doing your own laundry, not eating right, throwing a frisbee, flirting, and. . .learning.  Writing is all of that, too, and more (I’m fairly certain they still offer courses in writing, so it’s no coincidence.) 

Writers have a higher standard to uphold, and that makes us a bit freakish.  The Amazon reviews will be unfair, the good ones mysteriously vanish, sales slump or never start, favors go unreturned, the blog doesn’t get enough hits, it never ends, and it’s all so much damn work. 

You aren’t writing for fame and fortune.  You aren’t.  If those things are in the cards for you, they’ll come like the pot that boils, unwatched (I love to mix metaphors.  Take that, corporate editors!)  You’re doing it for a dual-higher purpose.  One: You’re doing your mite to keep literacy alive on our small planet.  Once we lose it–the ability to communicate at a level above the blurb, to ponder our purpose in words, to think in other than cliches, to access the records of our own fitful past, to force those dormant neurons to fire into life so that our heads actually hurt from the brain growing, a useful pain very few human activities can produce–once we lose those, we’ve lost civilization.  And we don’t want to find out what replaces it–worse, we don’t want our children to find it out for us. 

Purpose Number Two:  You’re writing because you are a freak.  Somehow the latent and preposterous belief that everyone possesses–that, deep down, you really are special, a unique if garbled snowflake–is actually true.  Why else would you pursue such a pathetic risk-vs.-reward-ratio, against all the common sense that pushes most of the human race to their toolboxes, spreadsheets, trucks, plows, cubicles, and secure paychecks, every day?  Face it: you’re a mutant, an X-Man.  There’s a screw loose. 

And you can think of your reward for reaching toward a higher standard this way: When there’s an errant nail sticking up above the hardwood floor, will the carpenter raise the entire floor to meet it?  What will he do?  That’s right–he’ll drive it down, to the level of all the other nails.  It better have a hard head.

But my feeling is, if they’re going to beat on your head anyway–and they will, ‘cuz everyone’s a nail–you might as well go down hard, and bend, or work your way out again, your best way. 

 As Thoreau once insisted, it’s not enough to be a philosopher, or even found a school and think better, if you can’t live according to your wisdom.  And if realizing that pursuing money is not going to improve your life, but will actually hinder your progress, isn’t one of the first steps in reaching a higher standard, then what in Hell is? (I paraphrase).  

To put it another way: 

If you’re a freak like me, Wave your flag 
If you’re a freak like me, Get off your ass 
It’s our time now, To let it all hang out 

So shout if you’re a freak like me, Don’t apologize 
They can’t hold you down, You were born to rise 
It’s our time now, to come out    -Halestorm

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“Static”: Synthesizing Bad Reviews

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By Shawn StJean

Another one star review on Amazon, bringing the reviews of Clotho’s Loom there in, as the novel approaches a year since publication, exactly split down the middle (ignoring the five-star reviews that were taken down). Seven positive, and seven negative. I doubt you’ll find a more even spread, anywhere. And enough of a sample to signal a love-hate trend that may always continue.

So based on this uncanny balance, I’m awarding myself an official Most Controversial Novel of 2012 title. No, there is not a lot of sex. There is, rather, a lightning rod that brings together diverging assumptions over what good writing is in our culture, and is not.

Rather than present both sides–lest this be seen as a promotional piece–I’d like to re-consider here only the negative comments. As always, I’d prefer anyone contemplating buying the book to read the sample first. Positive reviews can be as equally misleading as negative ones. Though bad reviews tend to be shorter, and not particularly informative–often due to the fact that the reviewer has neither bothered to finish the book, nor bothered to say so. However, there are a few recognizable trends, and a gap between what I expected and what I’ve gotten (SPOILER-FREE):

I expected folks to have a bit of sympathy for a veteran who learned to hate war, yet got sucked in to fighting another one and endured a brutal moral crisis over it. I had in mind the entire generation of Vietnam vets that history has tried to forget ever since they returned home, not in a wave or to a mass welcome, but individually and isolated, and to mistrust and apathy.

By contrast, several readers have found Will Wyrd cowardly–though they haven’t said that directly. “Spineless” and “without a backbone” seem to be the preferred expressions for a sniper who eventually discovers he can’t follow orders, and (unlike most Hollywood heroes,) is not vindicated by unqualified success.

I expected readers would enjoy reading about a strong woman (co)protagonist who is neither a vampire succubus, werewolf, or derivative, but rather, a career woman facing more lifelike challenges at home and work–though I have rendered them in as dramatic a fashion as realism allows.

Instead, she’s barely been mentioned in the bad reviews. Perhaps I should have expected this, given the gender biases of our culture, and shortened her skirts/augmented her breasts. But this overlooking her to focus nearly every remark on the male really is shocking to me, given that 90% of the book-buying public are women.

I expected people to have trouble accepting the ending, knowing that Americans prefer closure, and hearts-and-flowers affirmation.

What I didn’t expect was pretty clear evidence that half the readers aren’t making it to the ending at all, but many that do are resentful when they fail to understand it. Comments like “What was the point?,” “doom,” and “no resolution” leave little room for doubt there.

I expected quality of prose to matter; another mistaken assumption–perhaps my biggest.

But even for the “baddest” reviewers, one can sense the spectacularity of Clotho’s Loom’s failure for them: “Reads like complex history and literature,” “sensory overload,” and “it wanted to be mythology.” These are indeed some of the very qualities that other readers enjoy.

Oh, one final note: if your novel is long, that will only amplify people’s love or hate of it.

So based on my own, admittedly limited experience as a writer and educator for about 20 years, I’m concluding that we truly have reached the point at which some authors–me–will need to choose between what they expect from readers, and what the buying public expect of a novel. If you are, like me, one for whom those two sets of expectations stand on either side of a very wide chasm, you’ll need to either adjust your sights in toward conservative, commercial viability, or stick to your guns as currently zeroed.

Will my next book be different? Possibly. But as for my first novel, for better or worse, I wrote the book I always wanted to read. I wouldn’t change a word.
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