Thursday, February 27, 2014

Heartbreakingly Beautiful Writing and One Star Reviews

As a genre writer specializing in mystery and suspense, I have to admit the tiniest bit of contempt for literary authors--the ones who spent years in higher education, only to stumble into the Real World with an MFA in Creative Writing and a six figure student loan debt.

They come out having learned how to write for each other and especially their instructors. A librarian friend once told me she’s received many books from recent MFA recipients where she can almost see the praise the authors were seeking from their professors written in the margins.

Okay, maybe my contempt is not all that tiny.

But that attitude changed dramatically after reading This Is Not an Accident: Stories. It’s a collection of short stories and a novella. The stories all deal with dysfunctional people doing the best they can to function. These stories are quirky, sad, funny and darkly humorous. And the writing is often heartbreakingly beautiful. I gave the book five stars in my review, a rating I rarely give out.

Full disclosure, I received a free copy from the publisher.

When I finished the book, I found myself wanting to forget about writing books that entertain people with puzzles to solve, and devote myself to writing stories that are just as heartbreakingly beautiful. I want to put together words in such a way they would touch your soul, make you feel and make you think, possibly change your life.

I even thought about taking the last of my Jeopardy! winnings and enrolling in a creative writing program. (Not going to happen. That bit of cash is earmarked to give my husband a fantasy racing weekend at the Virginia International Raceway).

Imagine my dismay when I read the reviews on Goodreads for This Is Not An Accident. Out of the 15 reviews posted, the book received a pair of two-star reviews and five one star reviews. It has an average rating of 3.48, hardly a ringing endorsement.

Even more disturbing for me was the fact that the five of the seven negative reviewers disclosed that they had received a free copy through Goodreads Giveaways. And for all I know, the other two had received free copies as well and just forgot to mention it. 

As an author I know that when you offer your book as a Goodreads Giveaway, an honest review means an honest review. The possibility that the winners may not like your book is always there. I’m of the “If You Can’t Say Anything Nice, Don’t Say Anything At All” school of reviewing for everyone except established authors--I figure E.L. James can handle my trashing Fifty Shades of Grey but a new author should be encouraged. Of course, not everyone feels that way.

I don’t fault the reviewers for saying they didn’t like the book. That’s what Goodreads is all about. Readers share their opinions on books with other readers.

But I do feel bad for the author. Her publisher went to the expense of sending out books to readers in an attempt to promote the book and through whatever mysterious algorithm Goodreads uses, the books were put in the hands of people who did not like them and said as much online, making the book appear below average in ratings.

I hope that potential readers consider the positive reviews for this book as well as the negative ones. I don’t want this writer judged by the opinions of a few random book winners who found the book wasn't their cup of tea.

I also hope that Ms. Wilder is not affected by the poor response for her book on Goodreads and that she’ll continue writing.

But I’m pretty sure I don’t need to worry about that. I would bet that April Wilder couldn’t stop writing even if her life depended on it. It’s the sort of thing no amount of coaxing, or prodding, or one star reviews on Goodreads can change.

Judy Nichols is the author of several books available on Amazon

Friday, February 21, 2014

Gone With The Wind--Racist Or Just Telling It The Way It Was?

My most popular review on Goodreads  by far with 42 likes is for Gone With The Wind by Margaret MItchell, a book published 78 years ago. And yet it endures.

I gave it two stars. 

Here's the text of my review:

"Having a hard time slogging through the blatant racism in this book. Times sure have changed. And thank God for that.

"Okay, nearly forty years since I first read it, the epic love story against the brutality of the Civil War still manages to sweep me up.

"But the racism still rankles, especially the glorification of the Ku Klux Klan--southern gentlemen had no other choice. They weren't bullies terrorizing people because of the color of their skin, they were protecting their women from the rapacious appetites of the newly freed slaves.

"Mitchell says more than once that the blacks were like children and couldn't manage without whites taking care of them. There's a part in the book where she describes how Scarlett's mother Ellen would evaluate the Negro children, selecting the best and the brightest to be house servants. The others would be taught a trade and if they failed at that, they become field hands. As the best and the brightest of the race, the house servants were the ones who stayed with their masters, apparently aware of their own limitations.

"And yet, this is a book about a strong woman who actively defies the strictures for women of her time. Scarlett runs Tara, she becomes successful at business, she bosses grown men around, even though she was taught that a lady must hide her intelligence and always appear subservient and helpless around men. Since they had little if any rights, that was the only recourse for women at the time.

"I find it ironic that Ms. Mitchell never realized that just as the women were playing the role of fragile creatures subservient to the fathers and husbands, their black slaves were doing the same thing--hiding their abilities and intelligence because they had no other choice.

"Something else, my daughter is reading GWTW and commented 'Everybody dies.' I explained that during the Civil War, 800,000 men died and just like the Tarletons, families lost all their sons. A good  reason not to go to war."

The review was followed by 39 comments, many insisting that I missed the point of the book, that Mitchell was relating the way things were at the time, and I shouldn't get all bent out of shape by what I perceived as offensive stereotypes. Of course, some of those comments I made myself in response to posts I found particularly outrageous.

To me, the book is blatantly racist. There's no defending it or explaining it away. Even so, it's obvious that it has its diehard fans, for whom it's all sweeping romance and drama. And no one realizes the idyllic lives of Scarlett's fellow plantation owners were made possible by the enslavement of another race.

But it sure is one hell of a love story.

Judy Nichols is the author of several books available on Amazon

Friday, February 14, 2014

The Eighties Called, They Want Their Movies Back

Watching the so-called "New At The Box Office" segment on our local news, three of the four films coming out this week are not all that new. They're remakes of of films from the eighties.

First was "About Last Night," which came out in 1986 and starred Brat Packers Demi Moore and Rob Lowe. It's a romantic comedy about a couple embarking on a new relationship, all the while dealing with personal problems and their disapproving friends.

In this incarnation, the cast is African American, starring Kevin Hart and Regina Hall.  Seeing as how the original film was based on a play that came out in 1974 called "Sexual Perversity in Chicago" by David Mamet, we're not covering any new ground here. I guess the takeaway is that even after 40 years, relationships are still complicated.

Next up was the remake of 1981's "Endless Love."  Brooke Shields and Martin Hewitt played teenagers caught up in an obsessive love affair. The movie was God-awful. It received Golden Raspberry Awards nominations for Worst Film, Worst Director, Worst Screenplay, Worst Actress. Worst New Star, and Worst Supporting Actress. To its credit, other films took all those dubious honors that year. It also featured a catchy little duet by Diana Ross and Lionel Richie, "My Endless Love," which was a big hit for them.

I didn't see it, but according to Wikipedia, it was fairly successful, despite being panned by the critics. Leonard Maltin called it "a textbook example of how to do everything wrong in a literary adaptation." 

Now, I've always associated "Endless Love" with an info-tainment tidbit I heard about the filming. Brooke Shields, who was quite famous at the time for being a virgin, told the press that in order to portray her character's experience of an orgasm in the film's steamy sex scenes, director Franco Zefferelli pulled her big toe until he got the groaning and grimacing he wanted. 

Kind of takes some of the magic out of it, doesn't it?

The new film stars relative newcomers Alex Pettyfer and Gabriella Wilde. Wilde seems to be making a career out of starring in remakes. She's already done the 2013 version of "Carrie" and 2011's "The Three Musketeers," a film that's been remade so many times, the original was silent and starred Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. as D'Artagnan.

I saw the trailer last December when my daughter and I went to see "American Hustle." I suppose it's not giving anything away to say that Jade and David use cell phones, something that was not in the original. My reaction: Whose idea was it to bring this turkey back?

Finally, we have "Robocop," which came out in 1987 with Peter Weller as the Detroit cop who's terminally wounded then transformed into a powerful cyborg haunted by memories of his previous life. 

Of the three, it seems like the only one worth doing over. In a film heavy on special effects, imagine all the improvements over the techniques available in 1987.  Audiences can expect to be blown away by realistic robots, just as they were with "Pacific Rim."   Lots of action and violence in a dystopian future.  What's not to like?

I understand that making movies is a huge gamble and studios like to go with something they already know. And you could argue that after 30 years, all these films have a whole new audience of people who either weren't born or were too young to go see them when they came out. 

But with everyone and his brother writing original screenplays in LA, isn't there something that hasn't been done before? 

If you'd like to hear Lionel and Diana singing "My Endless Love" (and see the bits where Brooke Shields is likely having her big toe pulled), you can take a look here.

Judy Nichols is the author of several books available on Amazon

Monday, February 10, 2014

No One's Too Good To Be A Salesman

Rejection sucks. 

We all want to go through life believing the words of Stuart Smalley (otherwise known as Senator Al Franken) "I'm good enough. I'm smart enough. And doggone it, people like me."

But when you're trying to find a job, or a publisher for your book, or an investor for your business, it doesn't take long before you believe you'll never be good enough or smart enough. And no one likes you.

Job seekers are told not to take rejection personally, but it's awfully hard not to. The whole process can be very demoralizing and for that reason, so many of the unemployed just give up.

In her new book “The Upside of Down, How Failing Well Is The Key To Success,” Megan McCardle addresses how to combat the fear of rejection by using the strategies of successful sales professionals.

From the lowly telemarketer to the senior sales manager, every day means dealing with rejection over and over and over again. It can take hundreds of calls to get to that one sale. It doesn’t get any easier, either. Making that first cold call of the morning is just as daunting for the seasoned pro as it is for the rookie. They all hate it.

How do they manage?

They have a system, McCardle says.

First, they concentrate on input rather than output. Get in there and make those thirty calls. Success is a completed call list, not a completed sale. That will come if you just keep making those calls.

They have a set routine--start calling at 9:00 A.M. sharp and get it out of the way.  They also follow a script so they know exactly what they’re going to say when they make contact with a lead.

Finally, they surround themselves with people going through the same thing.  Sales people make a point of getting together after a long day of hearing “Sorry, not interested.” They find support and encouragement from each other, gaining the strength to get up and do it all again the next morning.

It works for writers too. Books do not fly off the shelves or get downloaded en masse to Kindles on their own. They need to be marketed to readers and these days, that task falls to the author, much as we hate it. We see ourselves as creative souls not salesmen.

I will be incorporating these ideas into my marketing plan. Write the emails. Make the calls. Follow the script. Keep track of my output. And make a point of hanging out with independent authors doing the same thing.

A great place to start is The Alliance For Independent Authors, which offers advice, connections and forums for all of us who are trying to get our books noticed. 
Because it takes a lot of no’s before you get to yes.

Judy Nichols is the author of several books available on Amazon

Saturday, February 1, 2014

A Big Thumbs Down For Facebook

I admit it. I have spent a lot of time on Facebook--hours and hours of my life that I will never get back.

For the past six years, I've been logging on to Facebook nearly every day and usually several times a day if there were events and issues everyone was talking about. From trashing Sarah Palin to heated discussions over the Casey Anthony verdict to making those silly lists of 25 Random Things, there was always something I wanted to comment on.

One thread especially stands out. A friend from high school posted a photo of herself and her sister taken during our town's sesquicentennial celebration, when Bataiva's entire population of 1700 or so joined in, wearing pioneer outfits and getting photographed at Nash's Drug Store.

Her post was flooded with comments from people all over the country who'd been in that small Ohio town in 1964, when they turned Main Street into a carnival and we all got parts in the town pageant.

Facebook gave us a portal back in time, to share our memories of a relatively obscure event that was a big deal to us. Where else could you do that?

That was then. This is now.

Something changed. I noticed the same updates appeared at the top of my news feed for hours at a time. And they were from people I barely knew, while my niece's posts disappeared all together.

It all made sense after seeing this video by Derek Muller, creator of the Youtube channel Veritaseum. Instead of all your friends' updates appearing in your news feed as they're posted, Facebook has come up with an algorithm to manipulate them so only the ones deemed most popular or most important or maybe just whatever is the most pleasing to Facebook will appear.

That's why posts from my friend Sara Shaber never seemed to slide down and whenever I scrolled down all I'd see were lots of those little bits of silliness from George Takei.

As Muller says in his video, part of the reason for the change is to cut down on the noise. If you have 800 friends all posting at once, obviously you can't possibly read through all of them.

But Facebook wants to make money so it's decided to limit how many of your friends and fans see your most recent post. If you want it to go to everyone, you have to shell out seven bucks.

What's going on with Facebook is similar to what happened to Newsweek a few years ago. I was a loyal subscriber for decades, looking forward to receiving my copy every Tuesday, knowing I'd be reading in depth analysis of recent events, letters to the editor, the Conventional Wisdom, a selection of political cartoons and a column by George Will or Anna Quindlen.

First it stopped coming every Tuesday. Those special "Double Issues" started happening more often, allowing the magazine to skip a week of delivery. Worse yet were the format changes. The Letters to the Editor section was cut. The political cartoons were cut. Anna Quindlen's column at the back was replaced with "My Favorite Mistake," where celebrities recalled things that they'd done wrong that somehow turned out right in the end.

Basically, Newsweek was trying to appeal to all the people who turned to the internet for their news and failing miserably. Seeing as how it was no longer the magazine I enjoyed, I cancelled my subscription, as did everyone else.

What Facebook doesn't understand is that in their efforts to make their venture profitable, they are cutting the things that their users like most, causing them to leave in droves.

Just like we did with Myspace.

I'm still a loyal user more or less. But if something better comes along (Google Plus anybody?) and all my friends are there, count me in.

Judy Nichols is the author of several books available on Amazon