Friday, July 29, 2011

Guest Blog by Alain Gomez

Alain Gomez lives in San Diego and has been writing since she was sixteen. She works in the field of music but has continued to pursue her passion for writing as an independent author. Though she generally sticks to writing shorter stories, Alain enjoys experimenting with a variety of genres including romance and thrillers. Alain’s blog is at Her Space Hotel collection is available from Amazon.

Guest Blog by Alain Gomez:
Short Stories Spread Social Disease

Or at least that’s what it feels like sometimes when trying to find someone to review your work.  How does one gain exposure as a new self-published author? It’s simple, they say. Pay for advertising if you’d like, but the best thing to do is send your work to book bloggers and have them review it. This sounds simple enough. So what if they hate it? I can take criticism like the rest of them.

There are thousands of book bloggers out there willing to write reviews. So it’s usually not hard finding several dozen that review your genre. But that’s when the narrowing down process starts.  Not every reviewer accepts self-published works. Of the ones that do, not all of those accept e-books. Out of that considerably smaller pool… you have to find one that actually reads short stories.

Yes, for some reason, reviewers will reject stories that are too short. I completely respect each reviewer’s right to accept whatever story they want. But the sheer number of people who have told me “I don’t review short stories” has led me to suspect that this genre must spread a truly heinous social disease to the reader.

It just does not make sense to me. If I accepted full-length novels on a regular basis for review, I would most likely welcome the occasional short story to mix things up a bit. If nothing else, it wouldn’t take me very long to read and review. Perhaps if the story(ies) are so short they are not worth the time? I have no idea.

The intent of this blog is not to pick on blog reviewers. Those people provide an invaluable service to the author community. It is merely to point out that there is a very real (I’d almost like to say unfounded) stigma toward short stories. The short story is its own literary genre; they are not mini-novels.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Grow A Pair

In an earlier post, I described an incident that occurred on the writers’ section of a popular online forum. One of the participants e-mailed me with the observation it “provided excellent grist for the mill in terms of a psych profile.”  That started me thinking: why would presumably decent, ordinary individuals become heinous jackasses online? These are probably the same people we see every day at the supermarket who smile or even stop for a polite chat. What is it about online forums that brings out their dark and twisted natures?

Chalk it up, in part, to Harry Potter’s cloak of invisibility – the anonymity offered by the Internet. Psychologists have a term for it: “deindividuation” – the result when social norms are withdrawn because identities are concealed. A faceless crowd combined with personal anonymity leads individuals to violate social norms they would otherwise not breach.

Cloaked in an alias or an avatar on a blog or online forum and surrounded by virtual strangers, the anonymous bully sinks to lowest-common-denominator humanity. The Internet has developed its own terminology for this behavior, dubbing it flaming and those who start such flame wars, trolls.

Offline, the bully may be the reasonable, friendly neighbor or co-worker; but once the modem is plugged in and the invisibility cloak is activated, morality, civility, and common sense are banished from the lexicon. The less the chance of identification, the more uninhibited individuals become.

What is lacking is accountability. Blogs and forums allow anonymity because they realize many discussions would dry up if individuals were required to write under their own names instead of screen names or pseudonyms. Many fear family, friends, or future employers might stumble across their words (the Google axiom: the Internet is forever). One solution is to grow a pair: stand behind your name. When an individual signs his name, his words carry more weight because he is taking responsibility and accountability for them.

As I noted, anonymity is only part of the cause of such behavior. Another psychological phenomenon, like the situation I described in my earlier post, is the tendency for anonymous or pseudonymous posters to develop a pack mentality, turning into a collective, ongoing flash mob that piles on once a troll or bully has attacked the initial poster. It becomes an anonymous hive mind and while some forums employ moderators to reign in the trolls, they are often co-opted when the bullies are frequent posters and thus recognized members of the insular online community, which they do not wish to offend.

This leads to a no-win situation for the initial poster. First,  arguments on the Internet are never over. Someone will always post a reply in an attempt to have the elusive last word. Second, if the moderator has been co-opted, he or she may prevent the initial poster’s replies by ending the discussion (by locking the thread), or edit or delete comments by or in support of the initial poster. Never debate in a forum where someone biased or co-opted owns the microphone.

It is reminiscent of themes worthy of Lord of the Flies: the conflict of civilization (existing in tranquility and concordance according to a set of rules) versus the need or desire of a bully to dominate others; individuality versus Orwellian groupthink; and rational discourse versus emotional outbursts.

As Tim Adams wrote in his piece in The Observer, “The utopian tendency is to believe that social media pluralizes and diversifies opinion; most of the evidence suggests that it is just as likely, when combined with anonymity, to reinforce groupthink and extremism.”

It is food for thought.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Standards Matter

Standards matter. Standards are what separate aspiring amateurs from professionalism. Every profession has a set of objective standards that must be met by its practitioners before one can be qualified to earn the title granted by that profession. This usually involves education and training, culminating in the receipt of credentials, to establish the individual has learned the skills of his craft or trade.

Lately, there has been a populist sentiment that standards don’t matter, and anyone can adopt the label of any profession and bypass all of the above. Chris Matthews was shocked when a Tea Party politician said he knew all about economics and the effects of the U.S. defaulting on its debt because he had raised a family. Matthews berated the man for claiming his statements carried the same weight as economists who had studied economics and actually knew what they were talking about, noting “raising a family’ was irrelevant and neither a proper nor sufficient credential to issue pronouncements on the subject. Anyone may have an opinion, but a professional has an informed opinion.

I was aghast to learn the Huffington Post had issued a call for “citizen journalists” to write news articles for it.  I went to the forum discussing it, prepared to explain how the phrase was a misnomer; how journalism was a profession, with standards – such as objectivity, truthfulness, conciseness, writing style (the inverted pyramid), consistency (stylebook) – that had to be learned and followed before one could wear the label of “journalist”; but 38 other people had beaten me to it. The most recent poster said he did not want his appendix removed by a “citizen doctor”, nor did he wish to be represented by a “citizen lawyer” in his divorce suit, nor have a “citizen mechanic” fix his car brakes.

While I’m waiting in doctor offices, I read their diplomas on the wall because where they interned or earned their degrees matters. I want a professional who has credentials I can evaluate. Maybe he is a skilled doctor who graduated from a college I never heard of in Trinidad, but an MD from Johns Hopkins and an internship at the Mayo Clinic carry more weight with me because I know those institutions have high standards one must meet to have earned those credentials.

I was appalled to read on the Kindle boards an “aspiring author” ask “if grammer (sic) really mattered”.  The question was absurd. Of course, grammar matters. It is a foundation of the writer’s craft. This individual wanted to fast forward past having to learn the craft and merely spew his babble onto his screen and label himself an author. Sorry, it doesn’t work that way. Writing has standards. And by the way, spelling is one of them – the word is spelled with two ‘a’s, no ‘e’.

By far, the worst offenders are the amateur book reviews. Anyone can read a book and post their opinion. But there is a difference between an opinion or comment and a book review. The latter must meet certain standards. This notion offends some self-proclaimed “book bloggers” who eschew the notion of learning the craft of reviewing before actually doing it. Again, we see the populist sentiment  that anyone can pick up a pen and do it. No, they can’t.

To quote popular author and indie guru Joe Konrath: The world wide web has spawned an unpleasant epidemic of idiots who are quick to criticize, insult, dismiss, and reject without any accountability. These folks really believe their nearsighted and downright idiotic opinions are not only correct, but need to be voiced in public.” 

Amazon has made it more difficult by labeling reader comments and opinions posted on the authors book’s page on its site as “reviews”. When author Susannah Morgan had the audacity to post in the writers’ forum on Kindle Boards “With the ever increasing number of book bloggers calling themselves ‘Book Reviewers,’ I think it may be time for authors to point out the difference”,  she was pilloried by an angry mob of, what else, outraged book bloggers and “aspiring authors”. One questioned the need for any standards for book reviewers, such as a knowledge of literature, familiarity with classic works, or even a college education. In her world, simply being able to read the book qualifies one as a reviewer. After all, I drive a car, so that qualifies me to be a mechanic.

Still, one poster stated what should have been obvious:To get a job as a reviewer you had to have some credentials other than being opinionated and being able to type 35 words a minute.”

Author Bob Mayer summed it up in the same thread: But I do have to admit getting a bit weary of self-anointed reviewer gurus or publishing business gurus who have no credentials other than setting up their blog. They can say what they will. But the minute anyone questions them, they rush to defend themselves by saying authors have no right to ever question a ‘review’. Well, I think authors have the same rights they have. I don't advocate it and think it's a bad move, but really, what's the difference between an author reviewing a reviewer and them reviewing an author? Any author who publicly questions a ‘review’ is immediately lynched by a mob.”

Of course, like Morgan, he was lynched by the mob. One poster referred to Morgan’s call for standards as “snobbish”. A book blogger wrote: anyone who self-publishes, and therefore considers their book publishable strictly on the weight of their own opinion that it is publishable, has no business condemning a book reviewer who reviews strictly of the weight of having a blog.” While that does conjure the Kafkaesque vision of  amateur reviewers judging amateur writers, it is misplaced logic, evidenced when the amateur blogger attempts to review a professional writer. For example, a professional reviewer acts as a filter, explaining why a work is better than another, often introducing literary concepts to their audience; book bloggers lacking a literary education need them explained to them by the author, and if the author fails to do so, the blogger will smear the author with her own ignorance. Or, as Konrath said, “But casual dismissal coupled with the anonymity (and the cushion) of the Internet has turned a bunch of lazy morons into bitter critics who spout off their idiotic opinions without any sense to back them up.”

Bitter critics? Susannah Morgan’s statement above was met with this response from a book blogger: “You joined this forum like...yesterday. You don't get to tell older board members to go away just because they don't agree with you. You are the one who came into OUR community and, without making any attempt to understand the norms of the community, spouted off at the mouth about how the world should or should not define a legitimate reviewer.”

In other words, get out of our sandbox. You told the truth and hurt our feelings. We don’t want to play with you anymore. (I’m not sure who granted her the deed to the sandbox, but that’s another issue).

There are some amateur reviewers who aspire to professionalism and try to follow standards. They know who they are; they’re the ones nodding as they read this. The others have already picked up their poison pens to dash off their replies. As I said at the outset, standards matter. Standards are what separate aspiring amateurs from professionalism. Every profession has a set of objective standards that must be met by its practitioners before one can be qualified to earn the title granted by that profession. This usually involves education and training, culminating in the receipt of credentials, to establish the individual has learned the skills of his craft or trade. Now I’ll leave the sandbox, too, and go out to play with the grownups.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

New Interview With Keith

Jennifer Rainey has just posted her interview with Keith on her blog, Independent Paranormal. Jennifer is the author of "These Hellish Happenings", a fantasy novel about a vampire whose pact with the Devil 300 years earlier lands him a position as a bureaucrat in Hell.

In the interview, Keith reveals the inspiration for the Halos & Horns series and his greatest marketing tip for struggling authors.

Sins of the Blogger

Forgive me, blog readers, for I have sinned. It has been 21 days since my last post.

But I haven't been idle. I've written a new short story, "Hare to the Throne",  a tale about social conformity arising from within the society, through peer pressure, as opposed to being imposed by the government, as is typical in most dystopian stories. The story takes the more religious reader out of his comfort zone and place him in the POV (point of view) of an atheist viewing religion. It will probably be released as an eStorybook or end up in my next anthology.

I've also been busy writing the third book in the Halos & Horns series, "To Hell in a Hand Basket". I'm having a lot of fun reuniting with all of my characters from the series. It's like meeting up with old friends you haven't seen in a while. I had some trepidation starting the third book, since the second one was a tough act to follow (and how do you recover from the ending?) but so far I'm quite pleased with the results.

Shards, my new short story collection, will be officially released next month, but I have received some advance copies, so if anyone wants to purchase one early, shoot me an email or leave a reply here. At 542 pages, it is an impressively thick book that will give your mailman a hernia.

August is also the month we're going to begin producing some podcasts. I'll have more on that as we get deeper into the project, but I am very excited by the prospect. Later this year, we'll be making some cool products available, like coffee mug, T-shirts, and tote bags, emblazoned with book covers and logos. We've had some of these items circulating among the Amber crowd for years (I love my mug and I hardly go anywhere without the tote bag) but I recently agreed to make some of the items available to everyone.

I'm delighted to report we will soon have a guest blog by a wonderful short story author; a blog on a surprisingly controversial topic that's been prompting a lot of attention and comment lately; and a link to a new interview I did with Jennifer Rainey, author of a fabulous fantasy novel, "These Hellish Happenings".

So stay tuned.