Thursday, May 31, 2012

The magic of invisible words

As the subtitle of this blog notes, I am a "resurrected" romance novelist.  And throughout the course of this blog, I've been presenting some resurrected books and ideas.  For some time now, I've been trying without success to find an article I wrote for an RWA newsletter back in the days..  Although I remember parts of it, I had hoped to take the original and update it to reflect changes in the publishing scene.

Today, while looking for something else, I stumbled across one version of it, a fading hard copy that contained all the important points.

Writing has always been, for me, a very magical business.  We writers are able to create new worlds, where everything is exactly as we want it, where we are in complete control of everyone's lives and fortunes.  We can reward good and punish evil; we can dispense justice fairly; we can solve all the world's problems within the space of two or three or five hundred pages.  Love is always perfect, and everyone who deserves to will live happily ever after.

Unfortunately, once we decide to bring others into the world we've created, the magic doesn't always work.  In the old days when a writer was at the mercy of traditional publishers and editors and agents, she faced the very real possibility that her magic failed and she got rejected or didn't win the contest or her critique partners said, "Are you kidding me?"  The magic worked for her and she thought it would work for everyone, but it didn't, and that meant her book didn't get published.

Today, digital publishing is a magic all its own, and it makes possible the instant publication of virtually any book, no matter how well or poorly written.  Digital self-publishing has magically removed not only the time it takes to market, contract, and publish a book through traditional print channels; it has also removed the bad juju of rejection letters, of low contest scores, of critique group partners who say, "What the fuck?"  Digital self-publishing allows the writer to go directly to the reader without any intermediary.

But the magic of digital publishing is only half the magic.  It can bypass the traditional obstacles of agents and editors and publishers to take the created world directly to the reader, but it alone cannot bring her inside that world and make her enjoy her stay there.

Digital self-publishing has replaced the form letter rejection with the negative review, which wields the added weapon of public humiliation.  Whether it's "0 stars" or "DNF" or "F-" or "STA," the negative review is out there for all the world to read.

Many people used to say in the old days that there was no magical secret to prevent rejections.  But in fact there was.  And today that same magic works just as well to prevent negative reviews of digitally self-published books.

The magical spell for avoiding rejection slips and negative reviews is very simple:  Never let anyone see your manuscript.

The first spell was used frequently, often unconsciously, by those writers who were either too timid or too unsure of their work to put it into the hands of an editor, an agent, or even a friend.  These people wrote, sometimes churning out novel after novel, but they never showed their work to anyone else.  By never letting anyone see their manuscripts, they never suffered the pain, the disappointment, the disillusionment of rejection.

But by invoking that magic, they cut themselves off from any possibility of experiencing the joy of seeing their name on the cover a book, the sweet savoring of success as they scrawl their name across the back of a royalty check, the delicious delight of penning an autograph on the title page of their published novel.

Today, that type of writer does the same thing:  They don't put their stories online, don't share them with friends, don't enter contests.  They never let anyone see their books, and they never have to deal with negative reactions.  The magic works, every single time. 

If you never let anyone see your manuscript, you will never be rejected.

But wait, are you saying you want to share your story, want to sell your books?  You don't want just to avoid rejection and negative reviews, you want success?

Well, you're in luck, because there is a magic spell for that, too, and it works just as well in the digital publishing format as it did when print ruled:  Never let anyone see your manuscript.

You say it sounds the same as the other one?  Well, similar maybe, but not identical.  And they mean two very different things.

Those writers who enjoy the thrill of publishing success in the traditional print format (not self-published or POD) have always employed that second spell rather than the first:  They let other people -- editors, agents, critique partners, etc. -- see their manuscripts, but they never let them see the manuscript.


The first spell obviously requires no complex incantations in an arcane language, no special ingredients, no ensorcelled tools.  It is very easy to cast:  Simply keep your stories to yourself and you will never be rejected, never be criticized, never be told you have no talent, never be embarrassed in public.  You can entertain yourself and be perfectly content.  There is no law that says you have to share your writing.

The second spell, of course, has always been much more difficult to cast.  It is not, in fact, a simple phrase, a cantrip to be mouthed in fervent hope.  Instead, it is an elaborate enchantment that is woven not on yourself or on your book, but on your reader, whether that reader is an editor, an agent a fellow member of your critique group, the person who picks your book off the rack at the grocery store check-out lane or downloads it to their e-reader.

To understand how this second magic spell works, you must remember that your digital manuscript exists on two separate planes.  Its quasi-physical being is the electronic document that you upload to the publishing platform, whether that is Amazon's Kindle or Smashwords, or anyone else.  Its invisible being is the story those words convey to the reader.  The trick -- and it is tricky -- is to involve the reader so thoroughly in the story that she does not see the manuscript.

It ain't easy, but no one ever said it was.

Any little thing that reminds her she is only looking at words on an electronic device breaks the spell.  These are nasty little critters called Tokens of Visibility, and they are incredibly easy to conjure up, even without trying.  Whether it is faulty formatting for the digital platform or too many typos per page or wrong words or characters who can't stay in character (or historical period) or inaccurate research or vague descriptions that never let the reader see the scenes or grammatical errors that send her into gales of laughter or inappropriate dialogue or physically impossible sexual positions -- anything that takes the reader out of the story and back to the reality of letters on a digital screen is likely to result in the torment of negative reviews. 

The same problems that used to cause manuscripts to be rejected by editors and agents have not lost their power just because the books can now be self-published digitally.  The difference now is that their magic brings on the threat of public scorn.

The very first things the reader sees are your cover art and your listing on the digital bookseller's site.  If you are not a graphic designer yourself, get someone who is to do your cover art.  Excellent digital cover art can be purchased for $100 or less.  If you are expecting people to pay you for your book, you need to invest in the product, and that means providing an attractive display.

Your listing on the digital site should be exactly what the site calls for, and this is basically what would be found on the dust jack flap or back cover of a printed book.  You are not allowed to make any spelling or grammatical errors here -- it's too public.  You have to put your magic skills on prominent display here.

Once the reader has purchased or downloaded your book, the magic takes over.  If you have not cast a perfect spell or if you have left too many Tokens of Visibility in your text, the magic will not work.

Allow me to repeat that:

If you have left too many Tokens of Visibility in your text, the magic will not work.

If there are too many Tokens of Visibility, the reader will remember she's just reading, she will not be caught up in the story, she will not engage emotionally with the characters.  The more Tokens there are, the sooner she will give up on the story.  And she just may leave you a negative review.

This is not the reader's fault.  It is the writer's fault -- and only the writer's fault -- if the magic doesn't work.  The writer is the magician, and if she fails to cast the spell properly, she has no one to blame but herself.

It is not the reader's fault that the formatting is screwed up.

It is not the reader's fault that there are spelling errors.

It is not the reader's fault the story is internally inconsistent.

It is not the reader's fault the historical or geographical or technological facts are inaccurate.

Now, it is very true that many writers whose magic fails end up resorting to devious and nefarious means to erase the negative reviews, the low star rankings.  As has been amply documented on the "Badly Behaving Authors" thread on the Amazon discussion boards, authors will go to great lengths to either erase negative reviews or post fake positive ones.  Such chicanery not only does not make the magic work; it is in and of itself the strongest evidence possible that the magic did not work.  And if the magic doesn't work, all the lies and all the sock puppet reviews and all the excuses will not make it work.

If the magic works, it works.  If it doesn't, it doesn't.  It's as simple as that.

Shenanigating authors may increase their sales, but shenanigans do not create magic.  Good grammar and clean formatting are not the only things that conjure the magic.  Engaging characters, fascinating plots, all of these combine, of course, with the more mundane mechanics of writing to create the magic of invisible words.  And while it is of course true that not every book will appeal to every reader, and there will always be readers who leave unkind (and even inaccurate) assessments of digital books, authors who understand the magic and how to use it will also recognize that there is nothing they can do to work the magic on these readers.  Authors who understand the magic and how to weave it will not attack the negative reviews; they will ignore them.  Authors who understand the magic and how to invoke it will not send out their minions to post shill reviews or denigrate the negative ones.

Authors who understand the magic and are able to create invisible words. . . . . . .are authors.

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