So if you are looking for helpful hints on how to break through the Amazon algorithms or a phony-baloney YouTube pep talk to convince you that you're going to be the next Stephen King if you just keep at it, you've come to the wrong place. So move along and take your shiny expectations with you. I'm not the droid you're looking for, because the truths I've discovered about trying to be a professional writer in today's market are not truths any sane and relatively stable human being wants to hear.
And yet... all one has to do is go to Amazon, pick a category at random, choose the "Look Inside" feature, and be prepared to be dazzled... not with brilliance, but with baffling and brazen bullshit. What you'll find, just to pick on one area, are stories written in first person that shift abruptly and without reason to third person... and that's just the tip of an iceberg the size of a planet or two.
My name is Peter, and I went out walking late last night. But by the time Peter had gone only a few blocks (inexplicable shift from first person to third person), he realized he'd left his sell phone in the pocket of his other jeans. So I (shift back to first person) had to run all the way back to the apartment, all the wile (sic) hoping my girlfriend hadn't been home and checked (past tense) my messages to see I've (present tense) been cheating on her with Emily and Jack and half the Denver Broncos.
Yes, the writer referred to it as a "sell phone" and used the word "wile" where he clearly meant while. No, it wasn't just an affectation or manner of speaking intrinsic to his character (an excuse often used when writers get called out on their atrocious errors). There were also numerous grammatical errors throughout - even though the character was presented as a young man with a college degree working in corporate America. Perhaps it's really just a matter of money - when writers are too cheap to hire an editor to fix these glaring problems before their magnum opus hits the cybershelves. The tense changes were maddening just in the opening few paragraphs, but what's really mind-blowing is that this writer and plenty of others just like him (her?) are very high in the Amazon rankings, raking in the big bucks while highly competent writers who are far better storytellers languish in obscurity with no clue as to how this world operates nowadays, or at what point in time readers turned into illiterate revenants who clearly never struggled through rudimentary language skills in third grade. Put simply: they don't know the difference between good writing and bad, or they just don't care.
At which point... I realize we are living in a world where there is no longer any value placed on anything with relevance or even competent writing, but instead the value system has shifted to how many obligatory sex scenes the writer can cram into the first three chapters (to insure those are the first things a reader encounters when surfing through the Look Inside feature.) Sex sells. Hell, if it didn't every cheap whore and expensive call girl (or boy) on the planet would be asking if we'd like fries with that Unhappy Meal. But at some point it started to become virtually the only thing that sells, and that's where I begin to question not only the quality of so-called literature, but the role the internet and indie publishing is playing in the dumbing down of the hoomans inhabiting Planet Earth.
I'm off topic. So many problems in the writing industry today, it's hard to stay focused on any single issue. So I'll keep it personal for now. It's all about Me after all.
|More & more, I'm convinced that the key|
to success is outright Copy Cat
Pretenderism. Pick a famous author,
slap a similar cover on it, and
make your book look just like theirs.
So what can be done about any of it? For starters, if you're a female writer in a field dominated by men, get yourself a male pen name and see things as they are and not as we might want them to be. If you're in a field dominated by women (such as the romance genre) consider a name like Destiny Dawn as a pseudonym, but keep in mind that your success or lack thereof usually won't be based on merit, but like everything else in the world, it will be reflected by who you know and who you blow. Such is life. Nothing wrong with it as long as you're aware of it - but don't go in with blinders on as I once did, expecting to be successful on your own merit, when the reality is that bad writing seems to far outweigh the good, and your ranking on Amazon will be based on social media popularity rather than the quality of anything you may do.
My mother - rest in peace, Mom - was either a consummate liar or altogether ignorant of the ways of the world or (most likely) simply programmed by her time period and culture to believe in the inherent goodness in the world and in other people. Amazing woman, really. Barely scraping by while married to a turd of a man who sat on his ass at home while she waited every morning in the dark for the Greyhound bus to take her into the seedy cobblestone streets of downtown Tampa where she worked as a waitress at the Walgreen's lunch counter. Yet despite her own hardships, she taught me to believe in myself, assured me I could be the first woman president or a surgeon or even a best-selling author to rival Ellery Queen (one of her favorites). In reality, I've come to think I would have had a much better chance of becoming a president (no skills required, judging by the present administration) or prominent surgeon than I ever had of becoming any sort of successful writer.
So what's the point of this long and rambling rant? Absolutely no point whatsoever. Except perhaps to illustrate that few things in life come to us by merit these days. Perhaps they once did. I remember picking up a brand new copy of Carrie by some obscure writer named Stephen King at the local magazine rack one day in 1974. Read it in one sitting and then read it again because it had a "shine" to it that most books simply don't. Same thing with Anne Rice's Interview With the Vampire. So perhaps things were different in The Way Back When - when good writers could reach the top on merit and skill rather than how many "likes" they might get on Facebook in a single day.
The world has changed. Some change is good. Other is just rearranging the broken furniture in the name of progress, but all too often I fear the wheels of progress run over fragile wildflowers and crush rare butterflies into extinction. Not that I consider myself either butterfly or flower. I'm just that fish out of water I mentioned previously - usually swimming to the side, shaking my head in confusion at the machinations of a world gone mad. But occasionally I feel some strange (and altogether pointless) need to examine that world on paper, which only brings home to me once again how altogether pointless it really is.
Lean in. Want to know the secret? I'll tell you, but you have to promise not to pass it around.
There isn't a secret. In almost every case I know of "overnight success" on Amazon, the writer was simply at the right place at the right time and got struck by the random (emphasis on random) lightning bolt that puts their book on some sort of fast track to getting noticed. It's not that they spent a lot of money on advertising. Been there, done that, got the merit badge but it didn't do squat to improve sales. It isn't that their book is actually good or even competent. In most cases, it's riddled with errors in the first 10 pages and only gets worse from there. It might be that the writer cajoled 500 of her very best friends to review the book on Amazon or Goodreads, but even books with 100 reviews or more are often very low in the sales standings.
So after having actively engaged in the indie writing circus for more than 15 years now, I can only conclude that it's like a random pull on a slot machine. Maybe the jackpot rolls up and you retire to some exotic beach where you sip mimosas by day and wear a corduroy jacket with fashionable patches on the sleeves by night while smoking a wretched clove cigarette and boasting your accomplishments to passing strangers in an affected writerly accent. But for most who play the game, that jackpot remains elusive, frustrating and - after awhile - rather like those sour grapes for which the fox wasted a lot of time and energy prancing about before realizing the game was rigged from the start. If you are lucky enough to finally see the leg trap (most never do) you stop desiring what you can't have and direct your energies toward something you can accomplish.
the business we own that does actually pay the bills and keep food in the dog's bowl.
Oh dear. Did I give anyone the impression that this was going to have a happy ending? I hope not, because if there is one, I haven't found it yet, and neither have 99% of the good writers I know personally. So don't bother writing to offer thoughts and prayers, or shake a finger of admonishment about my darkness and negativity. This isn't something that can be fixed or ignored - and that is the hardest lesson of all. When mediocrity becomes the new normal, there is seldom any 12-step recovery program to bring back the standards of excellence that got crushed under the relentless grind of the profit-motivated juggernaut.
You will either get struck by lightning or you won't. That's my experience from the desert - where the lightning is rare and not particularly interested in what's right or fair, or even what's good or competent. That's what it means when I say there's no secret.
It's all random. Just like the lightning.
And, of course, the next question becomes: What happens if you do get struck by the fickle finger of success? Who or what do you become and would you even recognize yourself in the mirror? To what extent does "success" spell certain disaster for your identity? Another rant for another dark night of the soul.
Della Van Hise is the best-selling author of KILLING TIME - without a doubt the most controversial STAR TREK novel ever published!