Monday, May 14, 2018

Desensitizing

Social Media in one image
One of the hazards of modern writing is a sector of the public who is ready to find fault and discomfort in nearly anything they encounter.  This oversensitivity and zeal to run to social media and decry what one finds objectionable.  An author can run into this movement to their discomfort, particularly in certain genres.

There is such a thing as the "Sensitivity Reader" being used at big publishing houses, and you can hire one or more personally as an independent writer. What they do is go through your book to see if there are any of a certain sort of stereotypes, biases, or what they consider to be "problematic language."

This has the advantage of giving your work a seal of approval that is likely to avoid most of the social media outrage machine, and prevent people from complaining to your publisher (or you) about certain elements of your book.  However, there are many disadvantages.

I would warn authors to be cautious having a "Sensitivity Reader" edit their book for the basic reason that conflict and uncomfortable characters and situations are what make for drama and engaging storytelling. If you sanitize everything out of the book that certain groups may find objectionable, you're likely to defang your story and may even ruin your plot.

Its important to remember that an author has a story to tell and uses characters, situations, language, and events to move that story along, entertain, inform, and interest readers.  Having someone pore though your manuscript to remove all the objectionable bits is very likely to ruin the story. 

Mark Twain's books include racist terms and peoples.  Should that be removed for being objectionable to minorities?  JK Rowling's Harry Potter stories have very unpleasant people doing mean things, should those be removed for triggering those who have experienced similar events?

We are literally turning umbrage into an industry.

...if all the characters speak with the same courtesy, and voice the same standard left-of-centre views, contemporary fiction can’t hope to contribute to the understanding of a world that elects Donald Trump. Fiction won’t help younger readers to make sense of their real lives
OK the rest is allowed
Sensitivity Readers are expensive, one quoted in the Guardian piece about them quit while making $100 an hour to go through books.  Another reference states that it cost $250 for a single book examination.  

Further, based on the article, they can be difficult to work with.  The retired reader complains:
“I quit doing them because they were exhausting and sometimes authors wanted to argue with me,” she says. “They weren’t open to the feedback. They weren’t trying to understand the feedback. They were insisting on the rightness of what they were writing.”
Now, that's not the voice of a skilled, engaging editor, that's the voice of a tyrant.  And to be honest, anyone who reads other people's writings in order to find things the consider objectionable is not very likely to be flexible and understanding.  They aren't typically the sort of person who is there to engage in a discussion or consider what other people think, only to impose their viewpoint.

And it is important to understand that these readers only come from a specific and particular viewpoint.  They are not going to worry about how poorly white men are portrayed or what insults are directed at Christians.  They won't care if a conservative nationalist is treated in a story.  They will not object to the depiction of southerners as ignorant incestuous bigots. 

So the end result is that an expensive Sensitivity Reader is likely to just slant your book in a manner that is objectionable to another group of people, rather than clear up any objections.  And that's not a big win for authors at all.

Monday, April 16, 2018

The Write Sisters

Lauren is dead to me
Recently a piece of news reached me through the Ace of Spades HQ blog and it made me chuckle.  It seems a Cleveland Ohio book store decided to highlight all the books by female authors (that they were aware of) by turning the books by men backward.  See, that way you can't see their titles or author, just pages.

They did it for a few weeks for "Women's History Month" according to the article at the Cleveland Scene, as a way of "silencing the male voice."  One publishing house raved:
This articulates the display’s effect admirably in terms of speaking and silence, but the visual effect—a clear picture of the gender disparity in the canon—is what’s stunning.
But are there so few female authors out there?  Are women in  disparity in publishing and literature?

As a published author with 8 books under my keyboard, I've got some experience in the publishing and literature business.  I have self-published them all, for a variety of reasons I've gone into elsewhere.  There was a time when I tried very hard to pitch my book to agents.  My theory was, self publish the first one and establish that I have readers and the ability to do it, and use that as a springboard into what at the time I thought was the "mainstream."

I noticed something while pouring through the lists of thousands of literary agents.  There was a consistent theme, a repeated fact that stood out very noticeably after a short time.

Literary agents are mostly women.  By a fairly large margin.  In fact, it became surprising to find a man who was an agent.  After a while it was kind of an amusing game, picking through the list like looking for a four leaf clover.  This is a pretty well established and known fact, one examined in this Quora article.
I was going to question whether there really are, since in general people tend to seriously overestimate the percentage of women in any mixed group, but then I checked the AAR membership list and saw that 37 of the first 50 names are indeed female.
The author claims this is some cruel trick by the publishing business to keep women down because of the "glass ceiling" of course. But if you examine publishing, you find the same phenomenon in place.  Most editors and people who work at publishing houses are also women.  That article about the bookstore above?  No men work at the shop.  In fact, women's voices are very well represented in publishing overall.

Publisher's Weekly ran an article about this phenomenon entitled Where The Boys Are Not.  They said comfortably that everybody knows that women dominate publishing:
It’s no secret that lots of women work in publishing. But just how many more women work in publishing than men? In PW’s recent Salary Survey (Aug. 2) one statistic stuck out: 85% of publishing employees with less than three years of experience are women.
In Random House, they reported that more than half their executives are female.  Women by a huge margin are the ones in publishing from top to bottom.  Even in this Book Seller article that complains too few women are in charge of publishing they admit:
  • Eighty percent of Pan Macmillan's staffers are female 
  • Women sit on HarperCollins' UK executive board 
  • Penguin Random House UK has core divisions run by women 
  • Hachette UK operates with women as division heads
Its not your glasses, the writing really is that bad
Look over a list of desired books from publishers and the genre agents are looking for the most: Women's Lit.  Chick fiction.  Strong female characters.  Romances (strongly preferred by women over men).  They are actively seeking these kind of books.  Why?  Because women read more than men, on the average.  According to industry studies, women account for a whopping 80% of the fiction market.  And that's the audience publishers are trying to reach.

They do worry about how they aren't getting the male 18-35 market which for some reason advertisers believe is their sweet spot (the age range of adult men with the least disposable income and interest in books).  But they focus on their reliable market.

Further, women are dominating sales.  Female author sales have been accelerating over time.  In the last decade, the top 10 best selling authors in the last 10 years are women.  21 of the top 50 are by women.  Women's total sales are booming, dominating the literary book sales for 2017.

This has long been my perception, particularly with the Harry Potter, Twilight, 50 shades and other books written by women dominating sales and public interest, but I didn't have raw data until I started digging into this.  I'd figured it was true when I was looking for an agent and they were mostly women.  Incidentally, I found another oddity: many agents who said specifically that they would only take female authors. Not a single one said that about male authors.

There was a time, long ago, when female authors would pitch a book under a male name, in order to be published.  Women were considered frivolous, not writing serious books, and often the male-dominated publishing industry wouldn't even consider a book by a girl.  Now, its getting to the point that everything is reversed: you're better off using a female name to get an agent and a publishing contract.  Mind you, I wouldn't go through traditional publishing, but its an interesting thought.

Why do women dominate publishing?  I don't know, probably a natural attraction to editing and print, probably the same reason women buy so many books, and probably at least in part because of a deliberate effort by publishers either to achieve some social justice goal or because as I've seen happen a lot, when a woman gets into a position of hiring, they tend to hire other women.

This effect it does cause some problems for men trying to get books published that men like, which then leads to fewer men buying and reading books, which makes women dominate the industry even more.

What does this all mean?  It means that more men are going to be self-publishing, and that women will for now at least have an easier time getting traditional contracts.  At least for now, it seems that women will continue to dominate reading, if men are going to be given less focus by the industry.  And that doesn't really help anyone.

Monday, August 7, 2017

That's Entertaining!

But I was just getting started
Several times in the past on this blog I've written about the things a writer should focus on for every scene, how everything you write has to serve the story.  A lot of people write about this, its a constant theme in classes, books, articles, and other blogs.

Without explaining in detail, every single scene which you write in your fictional story should do at least one of these jobs:

  • establish the setting
  • develop the characters
  • move the plot forward
  • resolve conflict
If what you wrote doesn't do at least one of these things, then its time to cut or edit. What you've written may be brilliant, but its padding, its the stuff people skim over or wonder why its in the book. Even if they don't know why it bothers them or they find it pointless, people will sense it.

Yet there's an aspect here that some may bring up: what about entertainment?  What about a scene that's there just to be fun and exciting, or entertaining?  Like my last post about sex and violence, where sex scenes almost never serve any purpose except titillation and arousal, some might wonder what's wrong with that as a purpose?

Well, there's a place for scenes that are there for exciting or interesting, but to understand what I'm saying here, you have to consider what actually makes things interesting and entertaining.  Compare and contrast these two action sequences

The Bunny Sleigh - The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

The Barbarian Horde - Gladiator

Now, when you consider these scenes you notice some differences in tone and especially context.  One is a scene of pure action and tension, the other has story and purpose.  One is just there to be "entertaining" and the second is there as part of the overall tale being told.

Bunny Sleighing
This entire scene could have been cut out of the movie, and nobody would have noticed.  In fact, if you do cut it out of the movie, the only thing that you notice is that the time traveled between The Trollshaws and Rivendell is very quick.

What is this crap??
Why is it so expendable?  Because its just padding.  Its there to help extend the film (so you can have 3 movies of 2+ hours long) and its there to be exciting and a change of pacing from the previous scene.  Peter Jackson is working from a very specific playbook here, laying out one scene after another according to a formula.  At this point, he needed a chase scene.

I'm not going to address most of the many flaws in this scene (the scene not in the book, Radagast's absurd sleigh, how he's supposed to lead the orcs away but keeps going back to where the dwarves are again and again, its muddy and confusing, you have no idea where anything is relative to each other).  What I want to focus on is how it tries to be entertaining but fails because it doesn't fulfill any of the above criteria.

Nothing takes place in the entire scene which develops any characters.  It doesn't advance the plot, it doesn't set the scene, it doesn't even resolve any conflict.  Its lots of scenes of the bunny sleigh riding around and dwarves charging all over.  There's not even any sense of place; they're in the wilderness somewhere, but its irrelevant where.  Its just lots of activity with no purpose.

Didn't The Romans Win?
Now contrast that with the simulated Battle of Carthage, with the Barbarian Horde vs the Romans.  This scene hits several points in the requirements.  It moves the plot (conflict between the emperor and Maximus), it develops character (you see Maximus as a leader in action, etc) it resolves conflict (lots of fighting to save their lives), and it even sets the scene: this is the first big fight in the Colosseum and it gives a wonderful sense of place and time.

Now you're just showing off
The Bunny Sleigh isn't entertaining because all it offers is action.  Its just pointless fluff action that adds nothing to the film.  The Barbarian Horde scene gives us several story points that makes you care about what happens, who these people are, and what takes place.  There's drama, there's movement to the scene, driving the plot.  Each of the main characters has a chance to shine and is shown to be interesting and distinct.

I chose two extremely distinct examples to make the point, but really it comes down to this: your purpose to every scene is to entertain, in fiction.  But what entertains isn't "entertainment" its making your readers interested in and care about the scene.  Peter Jackson's mistake with the Bunny Sleigh scene is that he just put it in to be interesting and take up minutes on the digital copy, rather than tell the story.

If you don't care about the characters, aren't shown some movement in the story, don't get a sense of what is going on, or resolve anything then its not entertaining.  It is the engagement in the story, the reader caring about what happens that makes it entertaining.  Entertainment is the result of making a scene meaningful and pulling the reader in.

So the basic goals of writing a scene aren't dry mathematics, but rather the tools by which you create entertainment.  The scene without any of these basic requirements is a scene that can be just dropped because it doesn't do anything for the story at all.