Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Reality of Echo Chambers

Let's start with a definition of echo chamber.

echo chamber
a room with sound-reflecting walls used for producing hollow or echoing sound effects

That first part of the definition is key: "a room with sound-reflecting walls".

Everyone lives in some form of echo chamber. We're only human, after all, and we can't know, understand, or process everything. So we can only see one segment, one sample population, at a time. And since like minds congregate, that sample population will likely share similarities that the bulk of people don't.

Case in point: Self-publishing.

I work with self-publishers. I self-publish, myself. I know several folks who are selling copies in the thousands (or higher)…but I only know a handful of people who own e-readers. Most of them (the few people I know with e-readers) have tablets, which they use more for movies or TV than for reading.

My friends who read a lot? Don't have tablets. Most don't even have ways to really read an e-book unless they want to put it on a family computer (that they don't get much time on). These friends are all still heavy users of the library.

So if I look at the people I know in person, e-readers and e-books are going nowhere fast (my own personal Nook Simple Touch and e-book use notwithstanding). But if I look at the people I work with online, e-books and e-readers are taking the world by storm, and print books are going by the wayside.

The question then becomes: Which of those echo chambers jives with reality?

Both do.

Obviously, considering they jive with my reality, but let's think about this a moment. Not everyone has a smartphone, in-home Internet, or even a computer or an e-mail address. That is pretty much an entirely separate segment of the population from the ones who have all the latest tech and have money to burn on e-books. Some folks literally don't have two pennies to rub together.

It's different audiences.

And that's what people tend to miss, when they're looking at reality though the lenses of their echo chambers. Just because you don't know anybody with a Nook e-reader doesn't mean nobody has one. It doesn't even necessarily mean that they're uncommon. It just means they're uncommon in the population wherein you hang out.

Now, it can be true, that the opposing echo chamber is tiny and insignificant, but any one of us can't really know that. Knowing it would require a worldwide survey of every person on the planet, which is impossible. We can suspect a viewpoint or situation is rare—among population types that we're observing, at least—but we can't know for certain.

For a religious example found in Christianity: Should people be baptised as infants (infant baptism), or only after they make a confession of faith (believer baptism)? (Note for any readers who don't know: Baptism can be performed by a sprinking of water or with immersion. The latter form isn't practiced with infants, so far as I'm aware, for reasons I think are obvious.)

To answer the question, infant baptism may be the most common practice worldwide, but popular evangelicalism practices believer baptism only. (Note that at least some denominations practice both: If you're born in the church, you're baptised as an infant; if you come to the church later in life, you're baptised as a believer. Practicing baptism this way stems from the belief that baptism is the New Testament version of circumcision. The believer baptism + immersion comes from believing that baptism is meant to symbolize death, burial, and resurrection.)

If a person grows up in a specific denomination of Christianity that practices one or the other, their personal echo chamber will tell them the other is uncommon or unheard-of, even when it's not the case.

As another example, consider the legality of first cousins marrying. I live somewhere where it's legal and not unheard-of. But I didn't even know that until I happened to meet someone who was one of those married cousins; and once I noticed it, I spotted more.

Why do I bring this up?

Because I not infrequently see echo chamber panic and rhetoric coming from people, about a variety of things. People get worked up about something—Oh, noes! The echonomy's tanking!—and panic, which only makes things worse for everyone. When the echo chamber contains outright misinformation, it can be even scarier—because the echo chamber riles people up and gets them to do things under the assumption the misinformation is valid.

Echo chambers exist. Keeping that in mind can help a person stay balanced rather than bending like a stalk of wheat under whatever way the wind blows.

What are your thoughts on echo chambers?

—Misti

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Where Is the Tact in Fiction?

As a return to my Where are the… series, here's something that I've been thinking about lately: What's happened to tact?

Are there still tactful writers, ones who tend to imply things more than they put them on the page? Yes. But they're not the easiest to find, and I suspect I know why.

Tact isn't chic.

See, it's not unusual for writers to ask about how much objectionable language is appropriate or how much on-page sex they can include in YA or even complaints about how they were using foreshadowing but their beta readers complained about it being too obvious. And the responses usually end up along the lines of "Any writer who refuses to use certain words in certain ways is shooting themselves in the foot." I've heard longtime professional writers say this, too.

But indirect dialogue, fade to black, and implications are all tools, too, in a writer's toobox. Yet when someone suggests or asks that writers use them, the response tends to be scoffing.

Which always makes me want to sit down and write a story that requires whatever specific technique is being scoffed at, because I'm ornery like that.

See, I look at writers, and I see people who have personal beliefs. Those beliefs should be coloring their writing. From what I see, those beliefs do color their writing.

Maybe the author believes Communism or aliens are of the Devil. That'll affect how the author writes about those things—or even if the author will write about those things. I've known people who believe all magic, even in fantasy novels, is Satanism, so it's evil and mustn't be thought about, read, seen, etc. (*dry tone* As you can imagine, I don't exactly tell them what I write.)

And if you believe the third commandment of the Decalogue, then you're going to be careful about how you use God's names, so as to avoid taking His name in vain. If you adhere to the fourth commandment, you might not write or work on Sunday.

All have writers have beliefs. And if we actually believe them, they'll affect what we write. Those beliefs might even affect which WiPs a writer chooses to work on.

And I believe a writer's beliefs should influence their writing.

Case example: Shanna Swendson. Her Katie Chandler series is a lot of fun. I'd even consider them appropriate for children. But they actually include things like a mention of the e-mail spam we all get, a roommate who (if I remember rightly) might be thought "loose", a situation wherein a motel manager is assuming the narrator's having a threesome…etc. But when she mentions these things, she says enough for you to know what she's talking about, then either leaves it or makes it part of a joke. (The "threesome" section is really funny. That's in book…five, though. I don't think it's six.)

I've read Shanna blog for years. I suspect she wouldn't care for my books too much, if only because my stories' atmosphere tends to be more…on the dark or gruesome side. (I do have a fairly morbid aspect in my sense of humor, which tends to make friends just smile and nod and change the subject.) And my stories aren't set on the backdrop of business-world professionalism, so conversation can go down roads I've not seen hers go. (Possibly pertinent note: From her blog, she's active in her church.)

Patricia Briggs has also used tact in a way I found interesting. In her Mercy Thompson series (the covers are way racier than the contents, I assure you), there's a character who comes across as misogynistic and foul-mouthed, even in book one. If you read through book three, there's a even scene that feels like it has half a dozen f-bombs in it. But if you go back and actually count what he says, there's very much such language actually on the page until that scene in book three, which has far fewer cusswords than it feels like, when you remember it later. I don't think he uses one female derogative on the page, but you know he thinks them and restrains himself from saying them. (He's working on it, though.)

(I'd list Christian fiction as an exception, but… I find it hard to find Christian fiction titles that don't get heavyhanded in other ways. I understand why, considering who that genre is targeted toward, but that does mean I often feel like throttling the inexplicably naïve characters.)

But as a Christian fiction example, you likely haven't heard of Kathy Tyers. I'm a fan of all her original fiction. (A providential encounter with her books as a kid was what made me realize that Christian science fiction did exist, right at the time when I was starting to bemoan the lack of it… And I just dated myself.) If you like space opera, I recommend her Firebird series.

Personally, I've made no secret that I won't take the Lord's name in vain, either myself or by proxy through a character. I also try to be careful with objectionable elements, because I prefer keeping such things to the minimum needed to tell the story. And yet…I somehow doubt that my own attempts at tactfulness have sabotaged my stories, in my readers' eyes. Sure, I have a story idea or two that might never come off the shelf, due to what writing those stories would involve, but it's not as though I'm hurting for ideas.

So you can find tact, if you look for it, but that's just it: Those of us who like tact often have to look for it, because tact is something that's often seen as a negative rather than a positive.

And then there's the detail that what's tactful for one person can sometimes be rude, crude, or worse to another.

So tact isn't in fashion, isn't respected, and isn't easy. Which explains where it's gone.

Now, what about seeking to revive it?

What do you think about tactfulness in fiction? Do you agree or disagree with me, that tact needs to make a comeback? Do you have some favorite examples of authors who are tactful in some way?

—Misti

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Beta Reading Etiquette: How to Take Critique

In looking over my previous posts On Beta Readers, I realized I'd forgotten an important aspect: how to take critique.

In a word? Graciously.

However, this is one point wherein the relativity of rudeness and politeness comes into play.

See, some authors find it polite to answer all reviews, thanking the reviewer for their time. (Frankly, I'm inclined that way, when I know about a review.) But from what I've read, a fair number of readers find that creepy or snarky of the author.

And most people get too emotional, either in the reviewing or in the reading of the reviews (or both, which tends to get very messy).

Apply that "Taking things personally" to critique received by betas, and that's another potential land mine.

Etiquette isn't exactly clear-cut for this—but then, it isn't really clear-cut for anything—so here are some guidelines to help you handle critique graciously.

  • Wait before responding.
  • That's right. Don't respond right away. Particularly if your first response is along the lines of "How dare they?!" or "What an idiot!" Take a deep breath.

    And if, once you're calmer, you still find yourself getting hot under the collar? Wait some more. And see the next point.

  • Assume the best.
  • Even if you know the critic and you know, beyond a shadow of the doubt, that the person's being a troll, willfully misread it. Because frankly, you might be misreading it—and even if you aren't, the person might have some legitimate points, and you don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

    Besides, when you keep your calm and don't respond in the expected manner—which would be ignoring them or losing your temper—people tend to notice. And if you're smart about it, you can even leverage it to, ah… Well. Not sure if I should admit this, but it's possible to make use of the adage "There's no such thing as bad publicity" in this situation.

  • Let yourself look naïve.
  • This goes along with the "Assume the best" thing. If you've followed my blog a while or if you've seen me around online, you might've noticed me letting spam comments through or engaging trolls. I do that intentionally, because I know some folks come across that way on accident.

    I'm not saying you need to do the same thing I do, but it's okay for someone to post a convincing but wrong review, like one that leaves a one-star review because their e-book file didn't load, when it's not your fault. Some folks will think it's you. (Great! They'll see that review and go harass someone else!) Others will see that review, think "What is that person's problem?" and ignore it.

  • Consider where the beta reader is coming from.
  • I admit, I've used a content editor over on Fiverr for a short story. I'd hire her again, too. But I hired her because I could tell my story wasn't quite right, and some sections were in the wrong spots, but I couldn't figure out the pieces. Her feedback let me see the pieces—but her advice was all wrong. For instance, she adhered to the belief that story-dating culture references are bad—a common belief—but a lot of classics have such pop culture references. Northanger Abbey comes to mind.

    Even when a person's advice is all wrong, you have to consider where they're coming from. People always make sense to themselves. For instance, the critic who says you need to define "revenant" in chapter one might not be all that familiar with urban fantasy. So that advice can tell you that you might want to define "revenant" in chapter one. So your critic has a reason for what they say—but in cases like calling "faerie" a misspelling, the reason could easily be that they aren't familiar with classic literature or archaic spellings, rather than any problem with your story itself. Which means your critic wasn't in your intended audience for the story—which in itself is useful to know.

  • Be polite.
  • Remember: Critics have taken time out of their days to write that critique. Whether they're wrong or right, they've spent their time producing that critique. Which is a compliment, if you look at it right.

    And if someone's completely off-course—or if they're harsh but right—then you know they weren't in your target audience. Maybe that means you need to reconsider your branding, maybe not. But at worst, you have character fodder.

  • Don't take it personally.
  • By and large, critique is not a personal attack (which are the ad hominem logical fallacy). It can be, in the case of comments like "You need to go back to grammar school." That comment can sting if you have grammar issues; it can be annoying if the person's being hypersensitive to a few typos; and it can be frustrating when the "problems" are just an issue of abiding by a different grammar handbook or dictionary than the critic believes to be the One.

    But don't take it personally. Such personal attacks are revelations of the reviewer's personality; and it could be something as simple as the critic himself is frustrated, because he's encountered several books with problems lately, and he's taking that frustration out on you. Rather than taking it personally, see if you can puzzle out what made the critic say that, and then you have character fodder for a later story. (As long as you sufficiently change the details, of course.)

  • If you can't handle it, avoid it.
  • Don't have readers, editors, proofreaders, betas, critics, reviewers, etc. But notice that avoiding critique entirely will mean you don't publish. So either you learn how to handle critique from others—because you need a first reader and a copyeditor, in the very least—or you don't publish.

    Oh, you can try to publish this way, doing all the editing and everything yourself—not reading any reviews or critique, that sort of thing. But you're unlikely to last long. (And to be frank, you'll likely end up among those giving authors a bad name, with others pointing to you as an example of what not to do. Just a warning.)

And yanno? I've gotten snide PMs on a forum or two, complaining about my typos on this blog, claiming those errors make me unprofessional or that they demonstrate that I don't know what I'm talking about, when it comes to grammar.

Um, this is personal, informal blog. There aren't that many errors—which in itself makes a point, but if you don't get it, the message isn't for you—and while I do endeavor to avoid typos, nobody's perfect.

And that's the key that so many people lose sight of: Nobody* is perfect.

*Except God/Christ/Holy Spirit, but that's a rabbit trail I don't need to travel down, here.

We can only do as good a job as we are able. That includes with writing, editing, proofreading, giving critique, and receiving critique.

And if we accept that we're fallible—while bearing in mind that the other people are fallible, too—things tend to go a whole lot better.

What do you think about my pointers on receiving critique? Do you have any further pointers to add?

—Misti

Thursday, February 7, 2013

What? New Kickstarter? New Cover? Oh, Um. Yes…

If you don't reach your goals on Kickstarter, you don't get any money. On the flip side of that, if the project doesn't reach its goals, donors don't get charged anything, either.

That's actually something I like about Kickstarter. Either you get all the funds to do your project (and deliver the goodies), or you don't get anything. (Can you imagine the mess that might ensue if you got partial funds, but not enough to get the bonuses folks have signed up for? Blergh!)

Any readers who remember my fiasco with a particular publisher (who's mysteriously failed to follow through on their promises, for the record) might remember the short stories involved, or that I went ahead and published them.

I've never really liked the cover. I had to do a different one for the e-book vs. the print book. I preferred the e-book over the print book—which I hated, but I couldn't figure out how to do what I wanted. I was relaxing last night and found a few good photos that, while they don't do exactly what I wanted, they produce a far better cover than what I had. So I fiddled with the source image, modified a few things that I thought had contributed to the suckage of the old cover, and…

(If you want to compare it to the photo I modified, that's here. It's by JD Shippel and released under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic.)

Not great, maybe, but far better than the original two covers. And the best thing about it? I can use it for the print version, too:

I'll be letting the covers sit a few days before I update the stories, to give me time to seek things to tweak.

So the Kickstarter's for the audio version of those stories. (I'll have to figure out covers for the two other stories, then, too! *gulp*) If funds go over, I'll apply them towards either production of the next collection or translation of this one. (Depends on how much funds go over. If they go over. Assuming I even reach payout.) I've been waffling over trying a Kickstarter for this, but what's it hurt? Worst-case scenario, things don't fund, and I'm just out some time.

If you're not interested in these stories, in an ARC of the next collection, or in an audio or Spanish version of this one, but you want to drop a few dollars to support someone, dig around Kickstarter to put your money on something you'll enjoy. Whenever I've wanted to donate to help someone, I've found someone whose project interested me.

Be warned that these stories have more gore and salty language than my Aleyi or Darkworld ones. (…Okay, so maybe not more gore than some of my Darkworld ones, but I think you get my gist.)

Note added 3/14/13:

The Kickstarter failed, but that's okay. It happens.

I used to have an otherwise as-yet unreleased flash fiction piece here, called "Thanks Taking", but I've since pulled it down. (But its former presence here explains some of the rest of the post and the comments.)

Note: Lyn ≠ me. I'm actually against euthanasia, for the record, but that would make me one boring writer if I couldn't convey characters with morals that differ from mine. ^_^

This story doesn't appear in the current collection, but Lyn (the narrator) is the MC of all the stories. If that's piqued your interest, head on over to Kickstarter and check out the project.

I don't expect anybody to donate. If you do, I'm grateful, but if you're uninterested or you can't afford it at the moment, please don't feel bad. I know the feeling. ^_^

Have you ever used Kickstarter, either to donate or to fund a project? Would you ever use it? What do you think of crowdsourcing? What'd you think of "Thanks Taking"? How do you like that new cover for "PRIMpriety"?

—Misti

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