Getting Book Reviews: Go to Your Extended Network

Reviews matter more than feedback on your writing by a factor of a billion. Squared. We can talk about feedback later, because, like I said, reviews are more important. Since this isn’t directly Resistance related I’ll be brief and vague.

Most of us have a personal network of about 150 people (look up Dunbar’s Number.) These are our strong (or relatively strong) connections.

Beyond that, we have a network of those people’s 150-person network, or approximately 22,500 weak connections.

Weak connections are fine, those people you ping once a year to say hey. That’s where virtually all the business connections and good stuff lives. The strong ties, folks you see all the time, already know your situation, perhaps share it, so if they had an answer, you’d already know it.

The good stuff, in this case, comes from the weak ties, friends of friends.

When you’re looking for reviews you’ll be tapping into your extended network: friends of friends, down to the third generation, down to the fourth generation, down to the tenth generation.

Rule of thumb: ask for 10X the number of reviews you want and be pleasantly surprised instead of unpleasantly bummed.

Creativity Hallucination and Subsequent Punishment

Some raw unpolished thoughts on the article Secrets of the Creative Brain by Nancy C. Andreasen, subtitled A leading neuroscientist who has spent decades studying creativity shares her research on where genius comes from, whether it is dependent on high IQ—and why it is so often accompanied by mental illness.

Andreasen writes: I’ve been struck by how many of these people refer to their most creative ideas as “obvious.” Since these ideas are almost always the opposite of obvious to other people, creative luminaries can face doubt and resistance when advocating for them.

Powerful realization from that: much of my reality feels like hallucination because I’m the only one who sees it. When you go through life seeing things no one else does, and being mocked or pitied or shunned when you admit it, it’s no wonder we lose our emotional and mental balance.

I’ve never thought of that before. My reality is different from most people’s, and I’ve never internalized the idea that much of what I see as simple, normal, obvious, is invisible to everyone around me. It’s like being the only one to see the strange man in the hallway or whatever; I’m having a hard time verbalizing it. Thinking about the psychotic episodes in TV shows and movies where a character looks crazy to others because they’re hallucinating.

That’s what it’s like: I feel like much of my reality is a hallucination because I’m the only one who sees it. Despite appearances I’m not arrogant enough to have started life thinking I was right and everyone else was wrong, so it must be me, right?

And I still push down my “seeing other ways” because when something is obvious to me but no one else, I still feel wrong because I was always taught I was wrong.

This has implications in my desire and ability to do it all myself, my lifelong habit of ignoring feedback that doesn’t make sense to me, of finally learning to trust my intuition instead of having to prove my instincts to the satisfaction of onlookers.

Lemon Juice: Not the Solution to Resistance

The Dunning-Kruger effect, in brief: those who know least about something have the most confidence, while those who are advanced in the same field feel the greatest doubt and indecision.

After decades of fighting Resistance, tricking myself (and, when I do it right, Resistance), finding tools, processes, and methods to make it irrelevant, I still face it. The past two years have been the single greatest bout of Resistance I’ve faced since I started writing.

The more aware I am of Resistance, the more doubt and indecision I feel about success.

Yet here I am, finding new ways to get the job done.

Are creatives who claim they face no Resistance the ones experiencing it most?

(I leave it to you to read the source of the lemon juice reference.)

Feedback Fraught with Fear, False Findings, Fruitlessness

I know well the desire to have approval, the boost we get from a genuine compliment.

I also know that asking others for feedback when what we really want is a pat on the head is fraught with peril, asking for trouble, bending over and begging to be kicked.

Some general thoughts and specific comments on feedback:

  • Feedback is a minefield. Proceed with extreme caution.
  • Know what level of feedback you seek. Rosanne Bane explains.
  • Do you really need someone else to tell you whether what you’re writing is what you should be writing? Veteran editor (and publisher of The War of Art) Shawn Coyne says “That’s a recipe for disaster.” Mick Torbay says to avoid the committee like leftover brussels sprouts:
  • I have found general feedback from readers and writers to be useless. USELESS.
  • Feedback from a professional editor is golden.
  • Answers to specific questions can be helpful if
    1. you know exactly what the question is, and
    2. the person you ask is eminently qualified to answer that question, and
    3. the person you ask will tell you the truth, and
    4. the answer actually matters, which should really come before ‘a’ above.

What I’m Doing About It

I’m writing my first scifi adventure. I’m going to share the first draft, ugly and stinking, with a reader who loves Asimov and Burroughs the way I do. All I’m going to ask her is, does this feel right? Does this feel like them?

If yes, good. If no, I’ll ponder whether that matters and whether I’ll do anything about it except perhaps adjust my marketing message. I highly doubt I’ll change my writing because of the feedback. So that’s marketing research, not writing feedback, isn’t it?

Don’t Wait to Be Picked

Marketing guru Seth Godin has been saying it for years: don’t wait to be picked. Pick yourself.

Learn your craft. Know what a good story is, and isn’t. Do your best work, at least, best for now.

Don’t wait for someone else to tell you whether or not you’re good, whether or not to publish, whether or not your story matters.

Once your brain has enough information to get the basics done, it’s your heart’s turn to run with the story and scatter it to the four winds. And hopefully, more than four fans.

Suspension of Disbelief

Some level of suspension of disbelief is necessary for any fiction. Larger or lesser, but always necessary.

“Unbelievable” is hardly criteria for failure. In fact, it’s entirely immaterial, as long as the writer observes the only rule that matters about making sense: never pull the reader out of the vicarious experience.

Internal logic and consistency is important in helping readers stay in the vicarious experience.

I lean strongly toward the belief that readers want to believe, or at least suspend disbelief, and most will gloss over even glaring issues. I remember Michael Crichton’s translating earbuds in Timeline and after a moment of “Really?” I moved on and enjoyed the book immensely. (The movie, not so much.)

As writers we need to be as careful as we can, especially when the contrivance is core to the story’s spine and resolution. Coincidences and contrivances that make the story possible, on the other hand (like magic translating earbuds) are places where readers will go to great lengths to dive into a story they want to love.

It’s easy to go down the path my mom takes in stories, where she’ll spend 12 minutes talking to herself about whether Margaret’s middle name was Elisabeth with an ess or Elizabeth with a zee and in the end, accuracy had no bearing on the emotional impact of the story; in fact, the search for accuracy destroyed it.

I’ll take Crichton’s magic earbud over Melville’s endless treatise on whaling any day.

As writers, we tend to seek out readers who read like us. Your own experiences and dislikes are probably a good rule of thumb for what you can pull off with your own readers.

How Evil Can You Get?

In Story Robert McKee talks about “the negation of the negation” (NotN). It’s not mathematical, the multiplication of two negatives leading to a positive. It is the end of the line in the emotional or moral value of the internal story.

Take the normal “worst case” scenario, and find the thing that’s so much worse it’s unthinkable.

In “living dead” stories, that’s often the fate worse than death: damnation, or living death.

McKee talks about four stages, from The Big Win through Not So Much to Real Bad and finally, the NotN. For instance, in a love story you can have true love, indifference, active dislike/hate, and the worst thing in a normal romance, hate masquerading as love.

Scifi adventure: success might be beating the aliens. The other end of the spectrum might be seeing your whole race enslaved by the aliens, in a manner which prevents mass suicide. Nope. You’re slaves, maybe even eternally because they gave you live-forever-juice.

For many stories, the NotN is going to be, if not unique, at east customized.

The lighter the story the less devastating the NotN. For instance, in my book A Long, Hard Look

  1. Success: Phil solves the case and gets the girl.
  2. The likely case is he doesn’t solve the case, but at least he gets the girl.
  3. Worst case, you’d think, is he doesn’t solve the case, doesn’t get the girl.
  4. What happens is he stands in a room full of his girl’s family and is helpless to prevent one from killing another, and in the end, his girl leaves because he reminds her of his failure and her family’s brokenness.

Not only does the case get solved too late to prevent another death, the girl despises him and runs away.

Figure out what your readers will assume equals “success” and if you choose a happy ending, deliver that and more.

Know, or define, what they’ll expect as the “less than success” the hero is worried will be his fate.

Know what your readers expect as a worst case scenario. That’s failure.

Make your protagonist suffer that failure, then give him a way out.

Then, come up with something so unimaginable your readers never saw it coming, couldn’t foresee it, won’t believe their eyes.

And aim it straight at your hero.

Writing: First It’s Muck

It’s a writer’s nature to assume that what pours from our fingertips will be the brilliant story in our heads. When we read a book, we see the polished outcome, not the deadly trudge it took to create it, and when it’s our turn we forget.

Instead of polished prose streaming from our minds, it’s more akin to the green soup steaming in the concrete waste canal in a springtime milking barn back home in Wisconsin. Not even usable as fertilizer.

At least, that’s what we think.

Truth is, it’s probably 80% excellent, and all we see is the 20% green soup.

The 20% is 80% easy to fix. That is, once we dig in (to the words, not the mucky green soup) we find that most of what’s less than stellar in that last fifth is easy to fix.

Before you start thinking about another kind of fifth, do the math: 80% + (80% of 20%) = 96% done.

Now you’re down to the 4% that’s excruciating.

That’s where writing happens: the choices you make, and the fervor and grit to slog through that 4%.

No, you never get to 100%. If you can cure another 80% you’ll be at 99.2% which is closer than any of us have a right to expect.

Defining Resistance for Yourself

I recommend The War of Art to every single writer I meet. I have yet to get any response except “life changing!”

I fall squarely between Pressfield’s thinking and process (Resistance is a dragon, slay it) and Seth Godin’s (Resistance is an ally, use it.) I say Resistance is a bully, make it irrelevant. Note that I can’t say “ignore it” because you can’t ignore a bully. But if you defuse them, do things to take away their power, they are no longer a threat.

This, perhaps, stems from being a very small kid, reading at college level in kindergarten, skipping a grade early on. I ran home a lot in junior high school to avoid getting beaten up. Also I have two brothers, both aggressive, both bigger than me even though one’s younger.

I have far more experience dealing with bullies than with dragons. Or, truth be told, with allies, particularly dangerous ones.

Your own wording of who Resistance is and how to overcome it every single day is more useful than blindly accepting anyone else’s version.

Including mine.

Bad Writing: When Your Scene Is About What It Seems to Be About

I recently shut down a writing forum I was involved with. I gathered up some of my longer posts (usually responses to questions) and I’ll be sharing them here. They may not be precisely on topic (Resistance) but they have value. Or, you can skip them.

Subtext is the most important part of storytelling.

When we let the listener or reader finish the story, it’s their story now, and everyone wins.

For instance, take a simple joke, like “What’s the difference between a surgeon and God? God doesn’t think he’s a surgeon.”

The initial microsecond response is “What? Of course not. So what? Do surgeons think they’re—” Boom.

As Robert McKee, said “If your scene is about what it appears to be about, you’re in trouble.”

Bill and Sara Coming Apart

Subtext requires setup. If you go into the following scene knowing that Bill and Sara have an unhappy marriage, we’ve seen Sara eyeing another man, and we’ve seen Bill stocking up on sleeping pills, it’s not about the words at all:

When he walked into the living room, Sara was sitting at the table by the window working on a puzzle. Bill flopped into the chair by the fire.

“I’m tired.”

She didn’t look up. “Then go to bed.”

He flicked a glance her way, then stood.

“I just didn’t want you to be alone.”

Now she looked up.

“Being alone doesn’t make me lonely. I’m fine. You look tired. You should rest.”

Bill looked into the fire, then down at the slippers she’d bought him on their honeymoon.

“I think I will.”

He took a long, slow look around the room, and slowly climbed the stairs to the spare room where he slept these days.

Pressing the last few pieces into place, Sara looked at the puzzle, then shoved it off the table into the box, put the lid on, and turned to look out the window into the darkness.

If this were about a happy couple, it’d be banal to the point of nausea. Build some setup, and it’s a different scene, which is not in any way about the words but about the subtext.

Off the top of my head again, that scene, written as a beginning hack would have written it:

When he walked into the living room, Sara was sitting at the table by the window working on a puzzle. Bill flopped into the chair by the fire.

“I’m really depressed and it feels like you don’t care.”

As usual, Sara ignored him. Her attention was elsewhere.

He watched her, hoping she’d try to stop him.

“I need you to love me, Sara.”

Now she looked up.

“You’ve had what you needed all along. Now I’m going for what I need.”

Bill looked into the fire, then down at his slippers. She’d bought them on their honeymoon, when she used to love him.

“I can’t do this anymore. And I’m not going to.”

He took a long, slow look around the room, then slowly climbed the stairs. He hadn’t shared a bed with Sara in a long time, so he’d been sleeping in the spare room.

Sara thought, I’m through with him, just like I’m through with this puzzle.

Besides for being even worse writing, there’s almost nothing here but a bit of shoe leather or staging that’s worth keeping.

Yes, just as a pure pantser can find story structure, foreshadowing, etc. by rewriting their entire book 14 times, one could do it this way. It would require rethinking every single word of dialog, finding ways to not say the vital stuff, the way Coltrane or Parker might play every note except the melody.

I think knowing in advance where I plan to go makes for a more efficient trip, without taking the spontaneous fun out of it.

Entropy is Our Natural State

When you plant flowers, you get flowers.

When you plant weeds, you get weeds.

When you plant nothing, you get . . .

weeds.

In the absence of effort, weeds naturally grow.

Have you forgotten that everything is running down or growing weeds?

When you get frustrated that writing doesn’t come easy, that what’s in your mind doesn’t end up on the page, are you remembering that being less comes naturally, being more is very hard work?

Rudeness is easy. Manners take effort.

Fat and disease are easy. Health is hard work.

A friendless life will happen all on its own. Close long-lasting relationships can be the most difficult things we create.

Next time you feel the growing frustration at how your art is so much harder than you want it to be, you’re so much less than you wished, others aren’t doing their part, and everything is against you, remember entropy.

And remember that our purpose is to reverse it, to plant flowers and pull weeds, to create love and art and stamp out loneliness and pointless emotional pain.

As the good G. Matthew Sumner sang, when the world is running down you make the best of what’s still around.

That can be you, “the best.”

Fight entropy. Create art.