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1.22.2015

In Defense of Fifty Shades of Grey and Twilight

I didn't want to have to do this, but the literary snobs have backed me into a corner, and now I feel forced to defend two books I dislike: Twilight and Fifty Shades.

In case you weren't sure, I'm about the last person on earth you would catch perusing the romance or erotic fiction sections of Barnes & Noble (at least with any intent to buy). I am also about the last person on earth you would catch writing in the genre. It's just not for me, the way g-strings and high heels and country music and olives aren't for me. If you like those things, though, that's awesome, because it means someone who produces them is making a living, while you remain one happily fed and entertained motherfucker.

But there are a lot of people--writers in particular--who look down their noses at books like Fifty Shades and Twilight. I mean, who hasn't taken a swipe at that low-hanging fruit? I know I have. I'm lazy and don't have long arms. That's my excuse and I'm sticking to it.

But why do we do it? Well, I guess it's because these books offend our sensibilities. We ridicule the not-so great writing and the ridiculous characters and proclaim the end of literature at large if books such as these can get so popular. We shake our heads that such junk can make so much money. And, of course, we are always so damn certain we can do better, and many of us have set out to do just that.

Of course, I don't think any agent or publisher is specifically looking for someone to improve upon two series that have collectively made them billions of dollars. No one will ever confuse E.L. James and Stephenie Meyer for Donna Tartt or Margaret Atwood, but I don't think that was ever their intention.

But why are books that are so regularly decried as poorly written or trash so very successful? Well, as William Munny said in the wonderful Unforgiven, "deserve's got nothin to do with it." And I could leave it at that, but I figure I'll dive a little deeper and provide some actual reasons.

1. That Fresh Car Smell (at the right time): Carp all you want about the BDSM "Mommy Porn" or the sparkly "vegetarian" vampires betwixt the pages of Fifty Shades and Twilight, but up until that point, there really wasn't anything else like it on the mainstream market at the time. Oh, there were books with sex. There were books with vampires, but none quite like these. Like all successful products of either culture or commerce, they filled a gap in the market in a way that wasn't being filled before. Yes, there were tablets on the market before the iPad, but Apple designed it in such a way that made us actually pay attention and want one.

These books made people talk, either in spite of or because of their less-than-stellar writing (and it's TALK that sells). Even their covers were different for the time. Alluring, striking, different. No flowing hair or pouty faces. It was all pure symbolism and clean-lined simplicity. These books very likely appealed in many ways to people's need for simple, unassuming comforts in a complicated and depressing post-9/11 world, and countless authors and publishers have copied that stark simplicity ever since (er, Hunger Games, anyone?)

Keep it simple (and sexy), stupid.
2. People Want Taboo-Based Escapism (but not too much): It isn't enough to just make your characters have sex. They need to be having a different kind of sex, the kind most people don't have. But it can't be TOO different. I don't imagine a story about furries would hold the same appeal. There was kinky sex in Fifty Shades. The kind with rules and rituals and an element of naughty danger that seems downright scandalous to your average housewife who regularly consumes magazines like Cosmo and Glamour, hoping to find more tips to spice up her bedroom. However, it wasn't so extreme it frightened off that intended demographic. It merely gave them a curious and safe peek. Going into full-bore gimp-suited ball gag territory would have relegated it back to the underground world of literary porn from whence it came. By the same token, Twilight appealed to the inter-species romance taboo of a young girl falling in love with a creature long associated with blood-sucking gothy hissing fang-baring psychopathy. You might not like exactly what Meyer did with her vampires, but the point was she did something DIFFERENT at the time. Just as E.L. James (using the Twilight template) brought S&M to the mainstream. Not to say other authors weren't attempting to do the same, but these lightly taboo works happened to find the right set of eyes at the right time, and them's the shakes.

Kinky. Gentle Kinky.
3. Style Doesn't Matter (much): Look, I love making and reading awesome, lyrical, inventive sentences brimming with voice as much as the next book nerd. Words are fun, and I think writers should try to have fun with them. If you have a stylistic gift, fantastic. But when it comes to the buying public at large, at least the segment of it that will make you ten of millions of dollars, that kind of flashy stuff just isn't at the top of the priority list for many readers. They aren't looking so much for panache as they are clarity among ideas, plot, and characters. Sometimes so much clarity they're downright transparent. So transparent you can see all the gears and pulleys turning, and it fills you with a comforting sort of familiarity that doesn't force you to strain your brain too much. You just settle in and enjoy after a long ass day. People reading for this sort of escapism in particular, they want the literary equivalent of a standard Chevrolet, something they can hop into, know where all the buttons and dials are, and just dash down the well-worn path to wish fulfillment. Writers like Meyer and James and the people who published them understand this and they very keenly understand their audience. Even if you don't care for the characters in their stories, they are at least fully-formed and recognizable, and the stories follow an easy-to-read track. And within that template, they managed to make those characters do something just different enough to feel refreshing.

If you think your own version of an erotic or vampire story is more worthy simply because you can make your words sound prettier, then you're kind of like the five-star chef cooking up foie gras and duck confit in an elementary school cafeteria. You're not paying attention to what the audience actually wants. Sure, have your style cake, but if it's making your story too impenetrable for everyday readers, then you might not be able to eat it too.

Yeah, it's a little "meh," but it'll get you there.
4. It Looks Easy to Do (but trust me, it's not): Storytelling using simple, non-flashy prose depicting tropey characters doing predictable and formulaic things looks easy because it reads easy, but I can guarantee you it isn't easy at all. It's deceptive that way, but it's actually the hardest thing in the world for an author to get out of his/her own way and just tell the damn story. Some authors have a knack for it right out of the gate, while others develop it over time after enough editorial wrist-slappings (I'm still working on it). That isn't to say their stories will always be something you particularly enjoy. Maybe it's because their characters are saying things and making choices that just don't sit right with you, but that's separate from being able to actually objectively say "I can comprehend this story and see its characters and what they're trying to do easily enough in my own head. Full stop." Sooooooooooo many stories just do not pass this seemingly very simple sniff test. Some of them get published anyway, but most of them do not. Whether you like them or not, Twilight and Fifty Shades both accomplished this feat, and given the millions of people have read them, I would say they did it remarkably well.

It sounds like a backhanded compliment, but trust me, it's not. I may snort at some of the lines of dialog and bristle at the ridiculous themes, but I bow down to those two ladies for doing what so many writers and aspiring writers struggle to do every time they sit down to write. Until you can accomplish that feat even a little bit, you might want to keep your snark somewhat in reserve (I said somewhat...).

It's just that simple.
So there you have it. Reasons why Twilight and Fifty Shades made (and continue to make) billions of dollars. Is it sad the mainstream at large doesn't appreciate more "literary" type work? I suppose. But then again, we all have a favorite niche, but we ALL need our popcorn, and it comes in a variety of flavors. Stephenie Meyer and E.L. James earned their paychecks, and not only that, their incredibly lucrative bodies of work have helped publishers and countless midlist authors earn theirs. I might not be into whatever they're peddling, but as a writer, I'm glad they're doing it.

1.19.2015

5 Reasons Why I Hybrid Author

So many writers out there are making so much ado about whether to self-publish or traditionally publish. They form sides, they bicker about who has it better or worse. I'm not gonna rehash all that, because frankly, Chuck Wendig has done a hell of a job over at his blog covering the bases of why there should be no debate, and how there are pluses and minus to doing it both ways.

I'm going to assume you the author are coming here with your brain filled with all that information. Maybe you're unsure how to traverse this freakishly fecund publishing landscape. Maybe you're interested in why others have made the choices they have. Maybe you're just looking for simple validation. Or MAYBE you should be writing your book, but you feel like engaging in shop talk. Either way, you're welcome to stand next to my virtual watercooler while I talk at you!

To begin, I consider myself a hybrid author. I have an agent and traditionally published books, but I also independently produce short stories and novellas. I love this arrangement for more than 10 reasons, but right now I'm only going to do 5:

1. Cake or Pie? The Correct Answer is "Yes."

Sometimes you go to a dinner party and there are multiple desserts, but you don't want to look like a cow, so you have to pick one dainty slice of something while you look longingly at the other things. Publishing doesn't have to be that way, and honestly if you're entering the industry in 2015, it behooves you to not limit yourself. In fact, instead of a stuffy dinner party, publishing these days is like visiting your favorite Vegas buffet. Load your plate, man! Experiment, learn, have fun. Get more of what works and toss out what doesn't. Being a hybrid author is like . . . CHERPUMPLE!

Sweet Sexual Jesus
2. Because Maybe You Won't Be A Whiny Fucking Diva So Much.

Taking a little time to act as your own publisher is a great crash course in learning, at least a little bit, what a larger publisher goes through to make sure your pampered ass gets to call yourself a "published author." When you're in DIY mode, you're responsible for the editing, cover, formatting, interior design, promotion, and distribution of your sweet little darling. What you soon discover is it's a lot of hard work.  It's also expensive and takes time to get it right. You might also find you hate it, but hey, sometimes you have to do a little of what you hate, because you're a fucking grownup.

This is the stuff a traditional publisher goes through, only it usually costs them more money because they're doing the same thing for a whole roster of authors as well as trying to manage a full staff and a bunch of other drama. So hopefully, if you have a good bit of experience with independently producing and decide to start submitting your work to other publishers, hopefully you'll be doing so with healthy expectations for what meticulous, expensive, slow, and often frustrating work it is on the other side of things. And you'll understand that their decisions aren't personal, and maybe you should chill the fuck out a little and let the professionals do their jobs. And while you're waiting for them to do that, maybe work on another project. Which brings me to . . .

3. You Do Your Thing, Mr. Publisher. I'll Just Be Over Here Making More Awesome Shit.

So traditional publishing is often pretty slow, right? It takes weeks or months for an agent to respond to you, even after they've requested a full manuscript. And then, if you're lucky to get an offer, it can take many more months for that agent to sell your book. And then, if your agent is lucky enough to entice an editor to buy your book, it takes even more weeks or months to draw up the contracts, and still more months (sometimes up to a year or 18 months!) for that book to come out. That's a LOT of time to fill. So what are you gonna do, twiddle your damn thumbs and cry into your margaritas?

Of course not. You should be working on your next book for said agent or editor, sure, but why not get some short stories out there too? Or maybe you have this really cool experimental idea that you'd like to tinker with and release as an ebook. Something to get your name out there a little more and perhaps get them interested in the book your publisher will be releasing soon? Not only that, but you can get a little extra money coming in month to month instead of having to wait for advance payments and residuals. Because in case you weren't aware, almost no traditional publisher pays you monthly. But when you publish yourself, you can count on a little direct deposit action at the end of every month. It could be tiny, but it could also be pretty substantial too. And you don't have to give up 15% of it to your agent either! It's like bonus play money for your hookers and blow fund!

4. One Hand Washes The Other If You Get Both Hands Dirty

It goes something like this. Before I traditionally published a novel, I self-published a lot of short stories on Amazon, Smashwords, and other sites. During one successful spate of giveaways, my short story "Dust" fell into the hands of one Vincent Hobbes. Vincent Hobbes is the founder of Hobbes End Publishing. He reached out to me and we formed a great rapport, and he offered to place two more of my shorts in one of their anthologies. Later they published two of my novels, and those novels have done pretty damn well. People who discovered those novels eventually discovered my author-published short work, while the people who were with me from the beginning with my author-published stuff also read my traditionally published novels and reviewed them and recommended them too.

When my novel KUDZU eventually comes out, the new readers who discover me will have a whole backlist of stuff to enjoy, both indie and traditionally published, long form and short form. Some of that money will come directly to me, some will come via my publisher. Either way, I profit.

Furthermore, I met other small independent publishers through my dealings with Hobbes End, and they've also published some of my work. Those publishing credits as well as my years of working to build my name through my short fiction gave me the industry experience and the established audience that likely helped me land an agent and also get some pro-paying sales in other markets. Being able to come to a publisher with even a small audience in your pack pocket makes it a little bit easier for them to part with their money.

Long story short: IT ALL STARTED WITH SELF-PUBLISHING, however my publishers probably did more to push my name out into the world than I ever could have done on my own. It was a purely symbiotic thing. There are other ways to skin this cat, but the point is if you're not at least considering taking both avenues, you could be missing out on some very cool opportunities.

You missed a spot.

5. Be A Little More Future-Proof

We have no idea where this crazy publishing ride is taking us. News reports every day that major bookstore chains aren't doing so hot. We already lost Borders. What happens if Barnes & Noble officially goes tits up? While no one can predict exactly how those dominoes will fall, it's safe to say that the drastic loss of shelf space in the bookseller market will have a tremendously negative impact on the publishing industry for awhile. Even if B&N holds tight, other catastrophes could be awaiting you. What if your publisher is the one to go tits up instead, or they sell out to another imprint and your book winds up trapped in contractual limbo while the dust settles? It happens all the time. The publishing business is brutal and cannibalistic as shit.

BUT if you have a healthy backlist of independently published work established, you at least won't be totally out of the marketplace while other people get their ducks in a row. Having a working knowledge of e-publishing is in many ways instrumental to insuring that your art has a chance to find a home and endure no matter how the winds happen to be blowing in the industry at large. Whether you sell through Amazon or direct through portals like Payhip, there are myriad ways to make your works available to the reading public today.

TL:DR -- Don't sell yourself short. Never have we authors had so many options laid out before us. If you're serious about getting your words before the eyes of readers, your best bet is DO IT ALL.

And that, folks, is why I hybrid.