Friday, December 8, 2017

The New Mediocrity

Someone asked why I don't post much here on my writing blog. Simple answer - there's very little interest in my published books, so I would logically imagine there's even less interest in an obscure writer's blog that promised from the start to tell the ugly truth about writing, the publishing industry, indie publishing, and the sad and secret life of writers. Let's face it - not a lot of love and light, joy and cha-cha there, so rather than burden others (and myself) with those dark and nasty truths, I took a break from blogging and, to be honest, a semi-permanent break from writing in general.

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.

My grammar teachers were so strict that
they would say the word "Grandpa" should
be capitalized because it is a substitute for a
proper noun (grandpa's name). Then again,
we live in a different world now where we
 make up the rules as we go along and
ignore those that are inconvenient.
For starters, if you're at all serious about writing, you've honed your craft. You can spell, punctuate, create reasonably correct paragraphs, and you have a workable grasp of grammar and the English language (or whatever language in which you're creating your masterpiece). And if you don't, you'd best have a very good editor, proofreader and - at the very least - a spell-check device.

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.

When I've questioned readers about how they can tolerate this kind of blatantly bad writing, they generally tilt their head like a confused puppy meeting his first kitten and come up with some response that sounds vaguely like, "I just liked the part where the zombie was banging the dude's girlfriend and his dick fell off. That was really cool!"

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.

Don't get me wrong. I love sex. I even loved writing it for many years. Got nothing against it - not the act itself or the tomes of erotica (or outright porn in some cases) describing what goes where, how hard he shoved, and the resulting torrent of ecstasy and expletives following in the wake of the little death. Overall, my problem isn't with the genres of erotica, porn or various degrees of both masquerading as "romance." My problem is the quality of what is being cranked out without any manner of quality control whatsoever.

Seems to me that if Amazon (and others) can have software that can listen in on our cell phone conversations or monitor our email to see what brand of condoms and laxatives we prefer, they could perfect some sort of program that could detect atrocious writing skills and simply decline publication accordingly. If a writer can't (or won't) bother to learn his craft, perfect his skills, and produce a product that isn't riddled with errors, perhaps that writer doesn't deserve to be taking up space that would be better filled by someone else. After all, if a doctor prescribes heart medication for a raging bladder infection, or amputates the wrong limb because he doesn't know his left from his right, he's pretty sure to lose his license and end up in the unemployment line. Unemployment lines do exist for incompetent doctors and even buffoon lawyers. They don't exist for writers.

Point being - consumers hold providers to a certain standard, and when that standard isn't met or, worse, when it is ignored altogether, consumers tend to lose faith in the thing itself until, eventually, that thing disappears from the market. How many Ford Pintos do you see on the road these days? Would you like a prescription for fen-phen? The list is long, and in my opinion one reason the publishing industry is in the crapper is because the quality has been allowed to slip below what even minimally-educated readers would consider to be reasonable expectations. Even if a book is indie published, that's no excuse - and even more of a reason - to provide a quality product at a reasonable price. And to be fair, some indie writers do, but far too many simply don't.  Instead, I've heard newbie wannabe writers say they consider the indie publishing bandwagon to be "a way to make some bucks without doing a lot of heavy lifting." Apparently they should also include in that statement, "without doing a lot of heavy thinking."

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. 
My main gripe today is that my non-fiction books seem to be largely ignored, and whenever I've tried to determine why, what I keep coming up with is something that can't be easily fixed. I'm a woman writer in a field dominated primarily by men. In fact, I was joking around with a friend lately and made the comment that I'd have to change my name to Don Julio Carlos de Flores in order to be taken seriously in the world of shamanism, nagualism, and Toltec practices (a field in which Carlos Castaneda became the resident guru, whether he wanted the job or not). In reality, I've had more experience than most of the up-and-coming male writers in that field, but unless I petition the courts for that name change and pursue gender reassignment while I'm at it, I've had to accept that nothing I write in the field is going to be even remotely successful - not because of the quality, but because of the obscurity that comes with being a fish out of water in a pond dominated by sharks and leeches. As an example, I recently read a book by a male author in the same field (shamanism) that I considered to be sub-par at best, nothing more than a rehash of what's already been said a thousand times, and yet the book is receiving good reviews and ranks high in the Amazon standings. Trust me, folks, it's not because the book is good. It ain't.

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.

When I was still in high school, teachers and friends alike encouraged me in my writing. Some even went so far as to say it was my destiny. My own mother was fond of telling me, "Cream rises to the top." What she failed to mention is that turds are also notorious floaters.

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.

I see good writers trying to jump through hoops in some misplaced belief that the next workshop they attend will be the one that launches their career and brings them the accolades they so richly deserve. The reality, of course, is that most of these conferences & workshops only benefit the people running them, who collect thousands of dollars to provide naive, desperate writers with the privilege of staying at an expensive hotel for a weekend (an additional charge, of course) while attending panels comprised of "successful" indie authors (usually the promoter's daughter is among them) who do little more than talk about their own success, offer nothing of value to the attendees, and often conclude with the words, "I really can't tell you what I did to get where I am, but here I am and here you are listening to me blow smoke up your ass, and god bless us one and all." You really do need a barf bag, or at least a hefty dose of common sense to know your money would have been better spent on a cruise or even an ugly designer sweater. Most writers I know who go to these things are already good, solid, competent storytellers. And for the record, I actually can tell you what 99% of those "successful" writers did to get where they are.

Lean in. Want to know the secret? I'll tell you, but you have to promise not to pass it around.

Here goes...

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.

Yes, I'm older now, and a tad bit bitter. Can you tell? I'm tired of watching good writers chasing that jackpot with such fervor that it becomes their sole reason for Being. I'm tired of looking at book previews only to find myself wanting to take a red pen to the monitor. That's one major reason I quit reading almost entirely several years ago. Nowadays, I'll only read a book if it's recommended to me by someone I trust. And, no, I don't trust reviews by the writer's illiterate friends and inbred relatives. Basically, I'm tired of jumping through those hoops when it's plain to see the only thing on the other side is more hoops, more false promises, more roads leading nowhere, and more disappointment. So I pet my kittens, post meaningless crap on Facebook when I have spare time on my hands, and concentrate on 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!


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