Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Sweating the small stuff

We authors can be an anal lot. We have to be – especially in these days of social media and instant commentary. (Incidentally, you also have to develop a very thick skin.)

I’m using “author” here, as opposed to “writer”, since I firmly believe they are two very different jobs. In my edited down definition, a writer is someone who puts words together to make a cohesive story which will eventually become a book, while an author is someone trying to sell that book. Speaking for most of us I’m sure, it’s a lot more fun to be a writer. Being an author is far too much work – often for too little reward and not much fun.

When I’m thinking as an author, I’m keeping my eye on the business aspects of my craft. Things need be paid attention to, unfun things like doing the best job you can to self-promote your books and yourself. This involves planning book signings and other appearances, going to conferences, doing all those social media things, and generally trying to get your name out into the public eye. It’s nice when other people help (like your publisher’s promotional department), but if I’ve learned anything over the years it’s this: you really can’t count on anyone but yourself.

Self-promotion is easier now than it used to be, though. Type M is one example. Make no mistake: we’re all here to promote ourselves and our books. That’s the real bottom line. If we can entertain and provoke visitors with our weekly scribblings, that’s all to the plus – but what we really want is for you to buy our books.

Like every other author on the planet, I keep tabs on the reviews of my novels that are online. Everyone can now be a critic or cheerleader by posting reviews on Amazon, Goodreads, 49thshelf.com (if you’re Canadian), etc. These reviews/assessments can be very blunt and very cruel, and what’s posted online can come back to bite you. I read them for other people’s books and I pay attention, making my decision based on what criticisms I’m seeing. Sure, there are trolls out there who just delight – in a decidedly sociopathic way – ripping apart any book they read. But there are also thoughtful readers who just flat out didn’t like your book, or some aspect of it. Their criticism is harder to take – especially if you’re forced to acknowledge that they’re right. No one wants to open themselves up to unnecessary criticism, though, and that’s where sweating the small stuff begins.

I remember seeing a review of a novel that had a musical theme to the plot. Obviously, those sorts of stories appeal to me. Two reviews – one on Amazon and one on Goodreads – had the same bone to pick, basically this: “It’s obvious that the author is neither a musician nor consulted one in the writing of this book.” Ouch! If I’d seen that sort of statement once, I might have still taken a chance on purchasing the novel, but when I saw it twice, and by what appeared to be different readers, I certainly took notice. The result? I didn’t buy the book.

I didn’t go further and find out if the author was or wasn’t a musician. It wasn’t clear from the profile on Amazon whether she was one. Being one myself, I get extremely bugged when it’s obvious the person has little idea of what they’re describing or using as a plot device. I’m sure lawyers, cops, accountants, really anybody would feel when reading a book filled with holes because the author didn’t take the time to do enough research – or to solicit needed help from experts.

Fortunately, this was top of mind when I spent last week looking over, commenting on and fiddling with the edited version of my November release, Roses for a Diva. I had consulted widely with my opera experts (singers with global careers), an expert on surveillance devices, and others who provided oversight to what I was putting down on paper, but also giving me those little detail nuggets that lend a plot real verismo (to borrow an appropriate post-Romantic operatic word).

All was going along pretty smoothly with my editor catching various faux pas that I’d made (errors, bad/missing words, dodgy punctuation). Then I got to a note late in the book: “This can’t happen. My significant other works there, and they guard the equipment very carefully. There’s no borrowing…”

You get the drift. What happened is that I assumed something instead of finding out for sure if what I was writing was indeed true. I should know better. (One of my life mottos is: “Never assume anything except an occasional air of intelligence”.)

Granted, it was a very small point to sweat over. One sentence in a 300+ page novel, but anyone who has worked at an Apple Store would know what I happened in my novel is completely erroneous. It was damned lucky for me that my editor had personal knowledge. The editor in the next cubicle would have undoubtedly let my erroneous sentence stand, I’m sure, assuming themselves that I’d done my research homework.

How many Apple Store employees are going to read Roses? Well, possibly one (the significant other), but the point is, when you blow a point like this, you’ve lost those readers who have the real knowledge, or at least made them highly suspicious of everything you’ve written. You’re also leaving yourself open to the kind of review statement I mentioned earlier. And that has the potential to cost you a lot of readers.

Now I like research. Who wouldn’t if you get to travel to places like Venice in order to write about it with some authority? But you also have to be aware of those smaller details. Those are the ones that will jump up and bite you in the butt when you’re not looking. You cannot let your guard down – ever. To write a successful crime fiction novel, you have to be just as authoritative as someone penning crime non-fiction.

And that’s something for which both sides of your wordsmith split personality will thank you for: the writer side for sticking to best craftsmanship practices, and the author side for not having to deal with embarrassing errors and potential lost sales.

I just pray we caught everything in Roses for a Diva

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