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On Writing

Filtering by Tag: books

Books are a better value than newspapers — and it's no contest

Stephen H. Provost

Authors and print journalists have one thing in common, and no, I’m not talking about writing.

Today’s “print” journalism isn’t so much about print. More and more, it’s about posting videos online, then finessing keywords and creating vague headlines to ensure they get hits, page views, visits or whatever. None of that has much to do with writing, and none of it does anything to help with literacy. Neither does laying off copy editors, line editors and staff writers (note the word “writers” in that last title).

We who write books still – gasp – actually write. Sure, we put out ebooks, utilize keywords in marketing and go after a “target audience,” but we don’t obscure or massage the facts in order to do so. Authors were never meant to be public watchdogs. Some of us are, but we take that mantle voluntarily, not because it’s part of our job description.

It is – or was, once upon a time – part of what it meant to be a journalist. Ever wonder why attacks on journalism as “fake news” have gained so much traction? It’s easy to blame ego-driven politicians, but not so easy for media companies to look in the mirror. The more journalists sacrifice their own credibility at the SEO altar (that’s “search engine optimization,” for the uninitiated), the less reason people have to believe them. Or to buy what they’re selling.

The fewer journalists actually attend public meetings, the less reason anyone has to believe they know what’s going on. You can’t be a watchdog if you ain’t watchin’!

We authors, meanwhile, are doing pretty much the same thing we’ve always done: Looking for interesting stories (in our own heads and in the world at large), and doing our best to entertain, inform and challenge our readers.

Shared struggle

No, writing isn’t what we authors have in common with journalists. Not anymore. What we share is a struggle to remain visible in a world that offers an explosion of media choices. Anyone who wants to can publish a blog and call himself a journalist, and anyone can self-publish a book at proclaim, “Hey! I’m an author!” Her books might be good – or they might not. But who has time to weed through all the pig slop to get to find that diamond in the trough?

In truth, we have less time than ever for such pursuits. And the world has catered to our increasingly frenetic lives by serving up fast-food information via iPhones and sound bites, condensing complex issues into Twitter-pated bullshit that can be spewed by anyone in 280 characters or fewer.

Journalists have responded by mimicking their own worst enemy: posting on Twitter, adapting their format to fit “handheld devices” and making news more disposable than it used to be when the morning paper got recycled at the bottom of a birdcage in the opening sequence of Lou Grant.  

By contrast, we authors are doing what we’ve always done: writing.

Journalists, faced with declining circulation despite their “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” embrace of social media, go out begging potential readers for attention. “You can subscribe to our online service for just $9.95 a month!” they declare. “It’s a bargain!”

Authors make similar pitches: “You can have hours of reading pleasure for just $9.95! You can’t beat that!”

Both products are worth about the same as a couple of cups of coffee at Starbucks or a ticket to a movie matinee. So, the question arises: If you only have $9.95, which one should you buy?

My answer is: the book. And I’ll tell you why.

More bang for your buck

Prices have gone up for both products. That’s inflation for you. But what are you getting for your buck?

Books are still about the same length as they’ve always been, with just as much content and just as much work put in on the front end.

The opposite is true for newspapers. With all those writers and editors being shown the door, the breadth and depth of newspaper content isn’t anywhere near what it used to be. Newspapers have become the fast-food burger of reading: The price gets bigger as the product gets smaller. And not just when it comes to the number of pages. If you’re not covering the city council meeting, the school board or the Friday night football game, seriously, what’s the point?

Yeah, local newspapers are still putting out some good content, but it’s a small fraction of what you used to find in their pages. And it’s nothing close to comprehensive. By contrast, a 340-page book in 1979 is still a 340-page book 40 years later. You’ll find as many vivid characters, as many twists and as much good information between the front and back cover as you ever did.

Newspapers are being made – and, it could be argued, have already been rendered – obsolete by the internet. That’s tragic, but it won’t do us any good to bury our heads in the sand and pretend it hasn’t happened.

But here’s the good news: Books are as robust and relevant as ever.

So, if you’re offered a choice between a monthly newspaper subscription and a book for that $9.95, my advice is to buy the book. Newspapers have already lost the battle to the internet. And, with their decision to abandon comprehensive local news coverage, they offer very little in the way of content you can’t find online. We authors haven’t given an inch in our battle to stay both evocative and relevant. That’s why I’m proud to be one. I’m still a journalist; I just find my stories in the past these days, digging up nearly forgotten nuggets to share in the realm of historical nonfiction.

And I’m actually writing. Imagine that! It’s a hell of a lot more fun than spending most of my day plugging in keywords, filming videos and sweating bullets in the increasingly desperate hope that someone out there is still paying attention.

For more on the decline and fall of journalist in the 21st century, check out my book Media Meltdown, available on Amazon.



Writing an Amazon book review: worse than a root canal?

Stephen H. Provost

Note: With reluctant apologies to J.K. Rowling, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, I following is a lighthearted look at why most writers not bearing those names find turning readership into Amazon reviews more difficult than transmuting lead into gold. Difficult, but not impossible: I’m immensely grateful for readers who take the time to leave reviews of my books. You are a rare and precious breed. I love you eternally.

The Amazon book review. Authors covet them nearly as much as Gollum longs for his precious and Wile E. wants that Roadrunner. Short of the New York Times bestseller list, they’re the Holy Grail for writers. And they’re just as elusive, too.

For the longest time, I wondered why so few readers bother to leave them. But then I hit on something during a recent trip to France that I think explains it all better than even Clarissa could. I’ve never been to France, but that didn’t stop me from traveling there in my mind to visit the abode of famed alchemist Nicolas Flamel. As it happened, the door was unlocked and the place was empty when I arrived, which afforded me the chance to do a little snooping. And, while rummaging around in Flamel’s credenza, I made a notable discovery.

How did I obtain access to the famed 14th century alchemist’s credenza, you ask? Have you ever heard of the phrase “suspending disbelief”? Well, Flamel figured out how to do it: When I arrived in his domicile, I found disbelief suspended a good three feet above the aforementioned credenza. Its arms and legs were flailing madly in the air, a look of, well, disbelief on its face. My point is this: If Flamel can suspend disbelief, literally, you can, too!

“Why a credenza?” you ask? Because the word sounds damned cool, that’s why, and because I don’t believe I’ve ever used it on the printed page (or unprinted screen) before. So, if you would be so kind, please stop asking irrelevant questions and try a query that gets at the heart of the matter. Like – repeat after me – “What did you discover?”

Yes. Now that’s more like it. I think you’re getting the hang of this.

Within said credenza, the alchemist had deposited a caisson – another word I’ve never used in print – and within this caisson was a parchment scroll in a most delicate condition. Upon this scroll was written the following. No, not in English, in French, silly. I could decipher it because I had four years of high school French (actually three, but I skipped ahead to French 4 halfway through my senior year). Or perhaps because I’m making this whole thing up. I’ll let you figure out which. You might derive a hint from the fact that modern French is probably as different from 14th century French as modern English is from Beowulf. You know, that epic poem about the first werewolf that exhorted its readers to “be a wolf!” Talk about inspirational! I will tell you this much: I really did skip ahead to fourth-year French.

Flamel’s plot

However any of that may be, here’s my translation of what Flamel allegedly wrote: “I have discovered the key to immortality, the famed elixir of life!” This elixir, Flamel continued in scrawled, archaic French script, was in fact no elixir at all, but the written word. “It is through the written word that man shall transcend death and vanquish mortality! Thus shall his mind be known throughout eternity!” Flamel knew this, he said, because the philosopher’s stone (not the sorcerer’s stone, you dumbed-down Americanized Potterheads!) was inscribed with, yes, written words!

The stone was the source of all ancient wisdom and treasured lore. Kind of like the emerald tablet of Hermes or the collected scripts of Star Trek: The Original Series. If its secrets were to become known, anyone who might read them could live forever!

Flamel, however, didn’t want that. He was a jealous sort who coveted immortality for himself and himself alone, so he destroyed the philosopher’s stone and made it his sacred mission to limit the spread of the written word thenceforth, in perpetuity.

Being able, like Nostradamus, Agnes Nutter and Grandmama Addams, to see into the future with uncanny accuracy, Flamel deduced that, at the dawn of the third millennium (common era), a “river of words” would begin flowing from something called “the Amazon.” Flamel, like most men of his age, was a bald-faced chauvinist, so he dismissed the idea that this prophecy might refer to a powerful woman, such as, say, Diana Prince or her alter egos, Lynda Carter and Gal Gadot. There had to be another interpretation.

This being the 14th century, no European had yet visited the New World (which was really no newer than the Old World was old). Nevertheless, Flamel, foreseeing the future, knew that this would occur when, in the midst of a prophetic reverie, he penned the following: “Therefore shall the Amazon be dammed up, that no man may review its course, denying all men access to the font of eternal life!” (the “font” in question being Times New Roman).

Flamel did, in fact, speak of “men” repeatedly because he was, as noted above, a bald-faced chauvinist. (Whether the top of his head was bald, too, is unclear, as his famous portrait shows him wearing a hat.) Despite being an alchemist, he wasn’t particularly enlightened. But then, the Enlightenment was still a few centuries away back then.

It should come as no surprise, when this is considered, that no evidence was found in his credenza, the caisson therein or anywhere else that he foresaw the equal rights movement. Even prophets see what they wish to see. Moreover, Flamel was not, by any means, perfect (unlike Agnes Nutter, who was not a man and who was considerably more accurate – and nicer – in her prophecies). But he was accurate enough, if not very nice about wanting to hoard all of immortality for himself!

Yes, indeed, he was accurate enough, even though his prophecies had nothing to do with a then-yet-to-be-discovered river, as he imagined. For at the dawn of the third millennium, a river of words did, indeed, begin flowing from “the Amazon.” A virtual river, to be sure, but still a river, it must be admitted. And that river became dammed – or was it damned? – by Flamel’s curse so that men (and women) had a devil of a time reviewing the words that flowed from “the Amazon’s” digital headwaters. Swimming against the current, so to speak.

I speak, naturally, of the aforementioned book reviews on Amazon, which readers are so hesitant to provide that it became quite clear to me something supernatural was afoot – Flamel’s curse being the most rational explanation. Without even the most curse-ory reviews, fewer books would sell, and a greater share of the eternal pie (or pi) would be reserved for Flamel, who, even though long dead, would continue to benefit (don’t ask me how; I haven’t figured that part out yet) even in the form of his formless specter.

Testing my theory

It seemed a reasonable enough conclusion. Still, I had to be sure. So, seeking confirmation of my theory, I sought to interview a few random readers who had failed to post reviews even though they were known to have purchased books from Amazon. Here are some of the responses I got.

  • “I decided I’d rather clean the toilet.”

  • “Oh, my significant other offered to do the dishes, but I realized that would leave me no excuse for reneging on my promise to post a review. So, I did the dishes and two loads of laundry on top of that!”

  • “I spilled cod liver oil on my hands so I would have an excuse not to gum up my keyboard! Don’t ask me why I was drinking cod liver oil. I had my reasons. Besides, it was better than posting a review!”

  • “I got a written excuse from my doctor. Or nurse practitioner. Or next-door neighbor who happened to be wearing a white T-shirt that would pass for a hospital uniform if you saw him from the other end of a football field. It’s all the same.”

These responses were suspicious enough, but what really got me were the next few:

  • “It’s against my philosophy.”

  • “Dude. Chill. I was too stoned.”

  • “I decided I’d rather reread the last four chapters of my philosophy textbook.”

  • “I was afraid authors of competing books would stone me.”

  • “I’d rather have a kidney stone that write a review!”

  • “I got stuck at Phil and Sophie’s house.”

A definite pattern was emerging around philosophy and stones, and that could only mean one thing: Flamel’s curse was working. And it was working so well that readers would rather do anything except write a book review! Eat kale. Have a tooth extracted or even a root canal. Watch endless reruns of The PTL Club. Beat – or be beaten by – a dead horse. Anything!

(Among the excuses offered, tooth extraction seemed particularly apropos: Extracting reviews from readers can feel like pulling teeth!)

I looked at the parchment again and wondered: What if I were to burn it? Would that remove the curse? I struck a match and held it to the corner, which I was about to set ablaze when it occurred to me: This might be exactly what Flamel was counting on! I would be burning words on a paper, the very instruments of immortality he was trying to destroy (even if they were in French). I would be doing his work for him! I was damned if I did and damned if I didn’t. Or dammed. Probably both.;

Dejected, I returned the parchment to the caisson and the caisson to the credenza, hung my head and departed. It was plain that I would have to go back to begging and pleading for reviews, crawling to readers on my hands knees like some penitent medieval scribe, for all the good it would do me. Flamel was simply too accomplished an alchemist. I was beaten.

But I vowed, even so, that I wouldn’t stop writing. I’d even thumb my nose at old, dead Nicky Boy and write a little philosophy now and then. That would show him! I might not be able to beat him, but I could still grab a few crumbs from his precious pie of immortality for myself. Reviews or no reviews, I’ve still got a little bit of Harry Potteresque magic in my pen … er … keyboard, and I intend to use it!

Amazonus Scriptorus!

That’s got a nice ring to it. Now if I could just get J.K. Rowling to review one of my books! Who am I kidding, though. I may be a philosopher, but I’m no sorcerer!


A guide to Facebook friendships for authors: 15 dos and don'ts

Stephen H. Provost

I don’t attend church these days, but when I did, I noted a constant tension between “outreach” and what the numbers game, and I realized that all too often, the line between them was blurred. Motives were mixed, and sometimes it seemed like a church was advocating outreach to the poor and needy as a means of putting more rear ends in the pews (and, by extension, more money in the offering dish).

If this seems cynical, it isn’t meant to be. I’m just pointing out that pure and not-so-pure motives can work toward the same ends. But when the latter dominate, they tend to undermine the former – or overwhelm them entirely.

You can exhale now. This isn’t a blog about religion. It could just as easily be about elected officials and the tension between public service and political donations. Or corporations, and customer service vs. the bottom line.

It isn’t about those things, but it’s about the same sort of underlying tension, which is becoming more and more common in the world of publishing, often among independent and self-published authors.

Writing is a tough business: Not many are able to make a living at it, and it’s difficult to get noticed, even if you’ve got an agent or publishing house in your corner. Whenever something’s this hard, it’s natural to look for shortcuts. It’s easy to buy “how to” books and enroll in dubious workshops written by people who promise success. But most such people are merely hoping to line their own pockets by capitalizing on your desperation to somehow make things happen.

One of the things these books and workshops often emphasize is networking. Many of us, as authors, aren’t good at this. We aren’t social creatures by nature, preferring to wrap ourselves up in our next story rather than venturing out into the world at large. We’re not experts at self-promotion, by and large, and most of us tend to shy (or run) away from it ... which makes us even more prone to trying shortcuts. When it comes to networking, we don’t like to schmooze or make sales pitches, we stick our toe hesitantly in the water, pull it back out at the first sign of a chill – and, in the process, do more damage to our public image than we would if we’d jumped right in.

Instead of doing the work, we rely on shortcuts, which seem less painful in the short term but seldom accomplish anything in the long run.

One such shortcut is the Facebook friend request, which has become the online equivalent of handing out your business cards to strangers on a street corner. (Show of hands: How many of you keep a business cards someone thrusts into you hand on the sidewalk?) I’ve been getting an increasing number of friend requests from other authors online, which in itself is fine, but that seems to be as far as it goes. Few of these authors bother to follow up by posting on my profile, and some don’t share much of anything on their profile except pitches for their releases.

Repeat after me: That’s not how networking works.

Real networking

Networking requires engaging with people, and getting to know them as human beings rather than sales marks who “maybe, just maybe, will buy my book” (or review it or share my posts with others). Such friend requests have less in common with actual friendship than they do with childish games like ring-and-run, or with superficial but sometimes guilt-inducing chain messages/emails. Still, this tactic has become so pervasive that I’m more hesitant to accept friend requests from other authors than anyone else except Nigerian princes or porn bots.

Some authors are encouraged to pursue this course because many people will accept their requests simply based on the fact that they’re “fellow authors” and that they have a fair number of friends in common. Then, instead of introducing themselves, they often immediately send you invitations to “like” their Facebook business pages, hoping that this in itself will somehow magically produce more sales. Hint: It won’t.

To return to our church analogy, it’s like passing the offering plate while parishioners are still finding their seats – before the first hymn or chorus is even sung. Or like demanding supporters make cash donations before a politician is even elected ... wait, they do that anyway, but you know how highly people think of politicians, right? ’Nuff said.

Good networking requires a lot more than this, and being a socially awkward author who feels out of his/her element when it comes to marketing will not change this fact, no matter how badly we might wish it.

But the beauty of Facebook is that authors can actually do networking – real networking – without ever leaving their comfort zone. If you’re on Facebook, you don’t have to meet anyone face-to-face (although occasional personal appearances are still a good idea). You can make meaningful contacts without ever leaving the comfort of your home office. If, like me, you’re a lot better at one-on-one interactions than mass marketing, do that! Take Facebook’s friend requests literally and make friends.

This requires, first of all, that you avoid the temptation to send off friend requests willy-nilly to any author who happens to share 50 mutual friends or more. Check to see if you have other interests, a hometown, a favorite band or something else in common – more than just writing in the same genre – before you approach someone. Facebook has tools to help you find these areas of common interest, so make use of them. Then, if someone accepts your request, interact directly. Respond to something on their profile. Engage. And not necessarily about books. About art, philosophy, history, music.

If they buy or review your books, that’s gravy. If not, you’ve done something more valuable: You’ve made a friend. And friends are more likely to read your work because they want to, not out of some sense of duty to a fellow writer.

Dos and don’ts

Here, in a nutshell, is my advice for dealing with other authors, and friends in general, on Facebook.

  • DO send friend requests to people with whom you have something in common in addition to writing.

  • DO engage with new friends on a personal level. Start conversations that have nothing to do with books and even less to do with selling them: Make pitches the rare exception, rather than the rule.

  • DO talk about writing as a craft; give your friends insight into how you work and let them share your excitement at your progress ... but because they’re your friends, not because they’re “marks” for a potential sale.

  • DO stay positive and encourage others to write, regardless of whether they’ve read a single word you’ve written or are ever likely to.

  • DO have a sense of humor, including about yourself. Post funny stuff.

  • DO share a variety of types of posts on your profile, from memes and polls to personal insights and photos to music videos and news stories.

  • DO respond to posts on other people’s profiles, not just your own.

  • DO let people know what you believe in; talk occasionally about your principles and how they’ve helped shape your life and work, but ...

  • DON’T spend too much time on partisan politics unless you want to spend a lot of energy fighting off trolls and risk alienating friends who are sick of hearing about it.

  • DON’T send out friend requests like mass mailers, hoping to put another notch in your gun.

  • DON’T immediately ask a new friend to “like” your Facebook business page. (Hint: You’ll attract a lot more page followers by actually posting interesting stuff there – imagine that!)

  • DON’T treat your Facebook profile as nothing more than a sales showroom for your books.

  • DON’T engage in author wars; no one wins when you presume start telling other authors how to write, and most people outside the author community don’t care.

  • DON’T spend a lot of space complaining about the industry. We all need to vent sometimes, and friends will understand that, but if you’re too negative too often, people will tune you out.

  • And, above all, DON’T get so distracted by all this that you stop writing. That is what makes you a writer, after all.

Facebook friends aren't notches on your "networking" gun

Stephen H. Provost

Dear potential online friends: I’m not a target in your networking strategy, and I won't be another notch on your gun. Even if you are authors.

There’s a weird trend going around among authors on social media. They hit up as many fellow writers as possible with friend requests, immediately invite them to “like” their Facebook page ... and never have any other contact with them.

Then, they call it “networking.”

Often, these authors only post about their books, sales milestones and positive reviews; they don’t bother to visit other profiles after their request is accepted, and they don’t manage to post anything much about themselves except for industry stuff.

It reminds me why I never liked cocktail parties, where the whole point of the evening is to make contacts, exchange business cards, and talk about inane subjects everyone is certain to forget five minutes after the party’s over – if not sooner.

I don’t know if the same thing happens in other fields, but I do know I didn’t get a lot of requests from fellow journalists when I was working in newspapers.

Common interests

Look, I like connecting with authors because we have something in common. I also like connecting with Star Trek fans, classic rock connoisseurs, old highway enthusiasts and people who are into mythology. But adding someone to your social media “stable” and then proceeding to ignore them isn’t connecting. It’s putting another notch on that Facebook gun of yours.

I remember going to churches where pastors lamented the need to “grow their flock.” There weren’t enough warm bodies in the pews, and the way they talked about attracting new visitors made it sound like a numbers game. The focus wasn’t on getting to know the people as individuals, it was on adding more “souls” (who could put enough money in the offering plate to keep the church lights on and, of course, pay the pastor’s salary.)

Authors have more of an excuse. It’s difficult to support yourself putting out books, and marketing is as much a part of the job as writing – if not more. When book sales slump, people get desperate and start throwing “publicity” at the wall, hoping something sticks. I know what this desperation feels like: I’m going through just such a slump right now. But I also know it doesn’t work: When people start throwing random ads at me, I tune them out. It also alienates people who might be able to help you if you took a different tack.

Like, maybe, trying to get to know them.

What if you treated social media like a visit to a new neighbor’s home? You wouldn’t go over and knock on the door, wait for it to open, then just stare at the person for a moment and walk away. You’d introduce yourself, give them a bit of background on yourself, tell them it’s nice to meet them and maybe say something complimentary about their home.

Perhaps you find you have something in common; perhaps not. After a couple of minutes, you excuse yourself and leave. Maybe you leave it at that. Or, if you enjoyed the conversation, maybe you ring the person up a couple of days later and invite them out for coffee. Maybe then you start talking a little about your books ... along with other things you have in common. You forge an actual friendship.

One thing you probably shouldn’t do when you go over and introduce yourself is push your way past your new neighbor and into the house without an invitation.

Social protocols

On social media, that’s what it can feel like if someone immediately sends you a direct message. Somehow, we’ve had a hard time translating the social protocols we’ve developed in the real world to the online environment. Maybe it’s time we started doing so. (When sending naked or half-naked selfies to strangers has become common practice, that’s a pretty good sign we’ve lost our bearings.)

I’m friends with a good number of authors online – because they’ve let me get to know them, and vice versa, not merely because they’re authors. I’m friends with other folks who aren’t writers, too, and I feel more comfortable with some of them than I do with many of my author friends. Because, even though I’m an author, I don’t like to talk about writing all the time. I like to talk about music and history and science and politics and philosophy and a host of other topics, weighty and frivolous.

Lately, I’ve become increasingly more selective about the people whose requests I accept. I’ve become aggressive about weeding out potential spammers and scammers, and I’ve started watching new friends I do accept closely. Do they bother to comment on something I’ve posted? Do they post their own thoughts, or do they just repost links? Are they continually asking their contacts to buy this product, sign this petition or contribute to this cause?

Or are they people, authors or otherwise, who I can feel comfortable being friends with – even if it’s only online? I’m not trying to make people feel paranoid, as though I’ll drop them if I don’t hear from them for a week or a month. I won’t. I just want people whose company I can enjoy without feeling I’ve got a marketing target on my back.

We live in an era when the hard sell has collided head-on with a case of collective amnesia about how to treat others with respect and courtesy. That makes it even more of a challenge do real networking and cultivate real friendships. It also makes it even more imperative that we make the effort to do so. Not because we’re authors, but because we’re ... human.

Literacy on life support: The decline and fall of written language

Stephen H. Provost

Motion pictures didn’t kill writing. Neither did television.

We who love the written word took comfort in the fact that authors such as Stephen King, J.K. Rowling and Dan Brown could still use it to captivate mass audiences. Good writing was alive and well, we thought. Reports of its demise were premature and, we believed, greatly exaggerated.

Or were they?

Death can come suddenly, but far more often, it creeps up on us. It hides in the shadows of our own denial. Lurking there, it bides its time, numbing us to the signs of its looming presence. We barely notice that we’ve embarked upon a long, slow walk toward our demise. Our decline is subtle, our transformation gradual.

One day, we stop running. Farther down the road, we labor to walk … and then to stand. If we notice this regression, we do so reluctantly. Fatigue whispers in one ear and apathy in the other: “Accept it. Ignore it. It’s not really as bad as it seems.” And so forth. We acclimate to a “new normal” and forget what the old normal was, because it’s too painful to remember and even more painful to pursue — until, at last, it eludes our grasp entirely.

Movies weren’t the end of books, and television didn’t kill magazines or newspapers, but the regression from the age of literacy continues apace — indeed, accelerates. This is no seasonal illness; it’s become a chronic condition, and the symptoms are no longer just a few, but myriad.

  • We favor sound bites over policy proposals.
  • We accept tweets as our favored form of prose and elect their foremost proponent as our president.
  • We shutter bookstores, and we learn about novels only when Hollywood makes them movies; then we don’t bother to read them, because we’ve seen the ending on the big screen.
  • We value “keywords” over complete sentences.
  • When we go online, it isn’t to read; it’s to “game” or to veg out on YouTube.
  • Romantics used to send love letters by parcel post; now players send “dick pics” by email.
  • Editors? Who needs them when we’ve forgotten proper grammar? Who has time for them when we demand our information now.
  • Newspapers? Ink on your hands and waste for the landfill.
  • Magazines? Exiled online, if they survive at all, ghosts in the same machine that slew them.

If literacy isn’t dead, it’s on life support. You can’t read if there aren’t any writers, and there won’t be any writers if no one pays them — if they’re too busy marketing, posting and promoting to knock out that sequel you’ve been waiting for. The more time writers spend doing the work of agents and editors, publicists and promoters used to do, the less time they’ll have to actually write. The more rushed and the less robust their stories will be.

How can we create memorable prose when it disappears in the blink of an eye on Snapchat? Will any library preserve the tweets and texts of this impulsive generation?

Readers have it in our power to provide the answers. It is we who create the demand, or refuse to, and the supply increases or dries up in response to our decisions. That’s just the way it works.

Downhill trajectory

In the world we’re fashioning, we value tweets and memes and Facebook Live. Quality writing? Not so much. You might want to debate that point, but until you’re willing to do so with your pocketbook, it’s all just empty noise. Yes, there are exceptions. Some people still make a living by writing, even a comfortable one. This proves nothing. A patient with a chronic, wasting illness still enjoys occasional “good days” and periodic bursts of energy. They’re no proof that the patient is any less ill, the condition any less serious.

Such “good days” will become less frequent with the passage of time, until at last they’re whittled down from few to none.

Is that what will happen to literacy? Time will tell. It would be cruelly ironic if some hothead’s reckless tweets were to result in a catastrophic war — a war that might reduce our “information superhighway” to cyber-rubble. Such a tragedy would obliterate our carefully crafted virtual world of denial and convenience, and if that were to happen, we might need writing again, just to communicate.

Literacy is a bridge from misery to hope. ... Literacy is, finally, the road to human progress and the means through which every man, woman and child can realize his or her full potential.
— Kofi Annan

This is not to suggest that our only choice lies between a nuclear and literary wasteland. Far from it. With some luck and just a little restraint, the nuclear button will never be pushed, and we can avert a literary apocalypse, as well. There are, after all, alternatives. Most notably, we could celebrate writing again — something we haven’t been doing.

We denigrate reporters as purveyors of “fake news,” dismiss authors as hobbyists and degrade those who instruct us in the language by quipping, “Those who can’t, teach.” Is writing really a marketable skill? Shouldn’t university students be taking practical courses like business, engineering or computer technology?

Such thinking could lead us to a real-life Tower of Babel, that engineering marvel from the realm of lore that remained unfinished because all those talented architects and builders forgot how to communicate ... just as we're doing right now.

But what if, instead of devaluing the written word, we exalted it once more and encouraged those who sought to master it? What if we invested in the authors and reporters and editors and English teachers who have made it their passion? The more we value writing, the more people will aspire to fill these roles; the more accomplished those people will become, and the greater the rewards will be, not only for those who read their work, but for society as a whole.

That’s not fake news. You have my word(s) on it.

Why I don't write negative book reviews

Stephen H. Provost

I have a simple policy when it comes to reviewing books: If I like them, I give 'em props. If I don't, I keep my mouth (or my keyboard) shut.

There are a couple of reasons for this. First off, reactions to books are largely subjective. Some books are more popular than others, and that can speak to quality, but it also can speak to successful marketing, name recognition and other factors. A few highly praised works have bored me to tears, and some obscure volumes have been, to use my wife's term, "unputdownable."

(This is a great word, even if you won't find it in the dictionary, because it has two meanings: The book's so engaging you can't stop reading it, and it's so enjoyable, you can't find anything to criticize.)

Secondly, I like to support other artists. I know how hard it is to sell a book, and I also know how tough it can be to deal with numbing criticism from strangers who seem to take almost perverse glee in dismantling a work you've spent months or years creating. You put a big part of yourself into it, and it's hard not to take it personally if someone reams you over it. Having been on the receiving end of slow sales and (only occasionally, thank goodness) critical reviews, I know what it's like to feel that sting, so I strive to follow the Golden Rule and spare other authors any scathing rebukes from my pen.

From my close observation of writers... they fall into two groups: 1) those who bleed copiously and visibly at any bad review, and 2) those who bleed copiously and secretly at any bad review.
— Isaac Asimov

The Grammar Hammer

What about more objective issues? What if the book contains a ton of misspelled words, switches tenses in the middle of a chapter or treats subject-verb agreement like it's a temporary truce at best?

As an editor, these things drive me nuts, but what's even more galling is a review that consists largely or solely of grammatical critiques. Such reviews come off as holier-than-thou, and they tell me nothing about the plot or the characters. Reviewers: I want to know what you think of the story. I won't give you a gold star for digging up the most errors in some fanciful literary scavenger hunt. 

So, I won't blast an author by name in a public forum for using "it's" as a possessive or "comprise" instead of "compose," even though I may grind my teeth and roll my eyes when it happens. Those things aren't as important to me as the story, and no author can catch every mistake. (In fact, we tend to read right over our own typos, seeing what we think we've written rather than what's actually on the page. That's why we need editors. And it's why I'm more likely to hold an editor accountable for a slew of errors than I am to blame the writer.)  

If I have a criticism of a book that I believe is worth sharing with the author, I do so in private, not in a review. I may poke fun at grammatical mistakes on line, but I don't attribute them to particular writers. I like to say, as a professional editor, that I'm not getting paid to do that, but the reality is, I don't find shaming writers to be either fun or noble. I'd much rather encourage them.

Ask yourself: of all the jobs available to literate people, what monster chooses the job of “telling people how bad different books are”? What twisted fetishist chooses such a life?
— Steve Hely, How I Became a Famous Novelist

What makes a good review

So, how do I go about writing a constructive review? Here are a few things I try to include:

  • What's special about the story? What makes it stand out from the crowd?
  • You'll enjoy this book if you've enjoyed ... (fill in the blank with one or more similar titles you've enjoyed.)
  • Who was your favorite character, and why?
  • What did you like about the writer's style? Did the description stand out; if so, how? Was the dialogue crisp and realistic? Was there a twist you didn't expect?
  • If the book was "unputdownable," say so!

If I do include any critical info, I build it on a positive foundation. For example, "I enjoyed this character so much, I would have liked to see more of her. I hope the author considers telling readers more about her in a sequel."

And, of course, no spoilers.

But wait, you may say, "If you never leaves a negative review, how will potential readers know if the book isn't for them?"

That's easy. The descriptions you give might be positive, but if you mention elements of the book that appeal to some readers, these same ingredients might not interest others. If you describe the story as fast-paced, readers who don't like to feel rushed through a story line might pass. If you highlight a passionate relationship between the two main characters, that might flag those who aren't into romance to steer clear. If you label it "dark and brooding," that might not appeal to readers in search of an uplifting tale. And so on.

Believe it or not, eliminating readers who wouldn't be interested in a particular book benefits the author, too. It means that those who do read the work as the result of a review are more likely to enjoy it ... and leave a review of their own.

A bad review is even less important than whether it is raining in Patagonia.
— Iris Murdoch

A lousy review isn't the end of the world, which should come as good news to authors and bad news to self-important critics who think of themselves as king-makers and book-breakers. S. Kelley Harrell calls online review sites "the slushpile of feedback," and Iris Murdoch said, "A bad review is even less important than whether it is raining in Patagonia."

If you're an author with a leaky roof who happens to live in Patagonia, that might be a concern, but otherwise ...

A positive review probably won't make you a bestselling author, either. Still, I love getting them; most authors do. If you don't have time to leave a review, but you like a book, just rate it. That's great, too. It shows that you've read the book and (hopefully) that it kept you interested enough to reach the end. 

Speaking of the end, I've gotten there myself. At least for today.

Thanks for reading, and happy reviewing!

Writing: The Great Escape

Stephen H. Provost

Over the past five years, I’ve written nearly a dozen freestanding books of various lengths, a couple of short stories, dozens of newspaper columns and more blog entries than I can count.

Why do I do it? Why pursue an occupation that many find daunting to consider and grueling to pursue?

Because I can? No, because I must.

I don’t have any choice. “Writer’s block” to me is nothing more than an excuse not to get started (most often) or not to continue (occasionally). It’s a phantom menace, the voice of the wolf inside my head that I don’t feed very often because the other wolf is a lot hungrier.

George Orwell posited that, putting aside the need to earn a living, there are four great motives for writing prose:

Sheer egoism: “Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc.”

Aesthetic enthusiasm: “Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement.”

Historical impulse: “Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.”

Political purpose: “Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after.”

Guilty on all counts. Orwell’s “1984” left a lasting impression on me as a young adult, both for its creativity in fashioning an alternate universe and for its insights into the human condition.

I share each of the four motives he mentioned, but all of them together aren’t what keeps me writing. One thing does: Like Orwell, I’m able to create an alternate universe. And, to be blunt, I like it better there.

New worlds, old worlds

Novelists create new worlds; writers of non-fiction revisit old ones. I’ve had the privilege of doing both. As an author of paranormal fantasy/science fiction, I get to imagine what life would be like if the rules were different, if the world were more vibrant, if the challenges less mundane and the means of answering them more noble. Who wants to worry about paying bills, going to the doctor or attending some pointless meeting when you can imagine yourself slaying a dragon – or, far better yet, befriending one?

As an author of historical nonfiction, I get to travel back in time and visit worlds that have passed into memory. I wrote a book about my hometown as it was during my childhood and another about the history of a long-traveled highway. Sorry, H.G. Wells, but I don’t need your time machine. I can research and write my way back into a world that might otherwise have passed to oblivion. Talk about power. Talk about responsibility.

It’s not that I don’t like this world. I have a wonderful wife, two stepsons who are maturing into proverbial “fine young men,” a father who loves me and two cats who provide unconditional affection (they do demand a bowl of kibble and a rub behind the ears, but that’s beside the point). I live in a beautiful town where I don’t have to choose between the beach and the forest and the foothills, because it’s got all three. What’s not to like?

In response, I refer you back to the earlier reference to bills, health concerns, meetings … you get the picture.

I write because, in doing so, I can escape such mundane concerns. I write because I have the audacity to believe that I can create a world more exciting, more honorable, less bitter and less tragic than the one in which I live. A world where whimsy and nostalgia vanquish bigotry and heartache and disease – maybe not every time (a good story has to have conflict, after all), but enough to keep hope alive that I’m headed for a happy ending.

Writer's Paradox

There have been times in this life when I’ve lacked that hope, and it was then that I started writing, first in the angst of teenage isolation, then in the aftermath of job loss and divorce. I suppose that means there’s something to the old cliché about affliction stoking the fires of creativity, which makes this musing something of a paradox: Torment set my pen in motion, a chariot upon which I can escape that self-same torment.

But that paradox no longer matters. I’ve fallen in love with writing, and now that life is good again, I’m not about to quit. This is one of those “till death do us part” things, with one singularly fascinating caveat: My writing will survive me, and will carry a portion of me into the afterlife of the printed page.

That’s something Orwell touched upon in his nod to egoism: Writing offers a taste of immortality achieved through memory preserved – of "memortality," if you will. (I like how that sounds.) And though it’s a taste and nothing more, it’s enough to whet the appetite for what lies beyond. In the next line, on the next page, in the next chapter.

To visit worlds where I’d like to live – and worlds that will outlive me.

This is why I write.

This is why I’ll never stop.

7 Tips for Becoming a Successful Author

Stephen H. Provost

What does it take to be a successful author? First, you might want to ask yourself what it means to be a successful author. Since writing's about communication, Job One is to communicate with your reader. If you can do that, everything else is likely to follow: good reviews, a publisher and yes, maybe a few extra dollars. But ignore those things when you're writing or you'll never get there. To get you started, here are seven tips on how to go about it. 

1. Know your craft.

You can't write a book if you don't know how to write a sentence. Don't tell yourself, "The editor will fix that." Two simple facts: No editor will know or care as much about your work as you do. If you use your editor as a crutch, it means you're limping along, and you need to be in the best shape of your life to do this. If your editor is anything but a last line of defense, you're using him/her wrong. You are the expert on your story, so act like it. Care enough to understand language and how to use it. This doesn't mean following your eighth-grade English teacher's rules religiously. Dialogue, for example, should be true to your characters - the rules of grammar be damned. But here's Tip A1: You need to know the rules so you can know when to break them. 

2. Think like a journalist.

Yes, some journalists get lazy and rely on a "paint by numbers" approach to writing. Too often, they fall into the habit of relying on the same clichés passed along to them by police chiefs and public information officers. But they have one advantage most other writers don't: a hard deadline. They can't take the day off because they have "writer's block" or feel like sleeping in. They can't tell their editors they "don't feel like writing today." I asked bestselling author John Scalzi how his background in journalism helped him in his career as an author. This was his answer: The deadlines he faced gave him the discipline to write consistently.

3. Inhabit your world.

Remember when Chevy Chase blindfolded himself in "Caddyshack" and hit the golf ball onto the green? Maybe you don't. (After all, the movie came out in 1980.) His character's advice was to "be the ball." This doesn't mean you should blindfold yourself while you're writing. That probably won't work too well. But it is a good idea to block out distractions and put yourself in the middle of the action. Imagine you're the protagonist or, if you're writing nonfiction, one of the people affected by the events you're describing. The more you're a part of the story, the more invested you are; the better you can describe what's happening and, even more important, the what the characters are feeling. If you like living in your world enough to stay there for eight hours straight writing about it, chances are your readers will, too.

4. Write conversationally.

This is not the same as "writing the way you speak." If you were to do that, the result might not even be coherent. You're a storyteller, so tell a story. Spin a yarn. Don't write a thesis or a form letter. You're not trying to impress people with your vocabulary or talk down to them like a second-grade teacher. You're trying to grab and keep their attention. If you start writing like a bureaucrat or a textbook writer, no one's going to want to read your stuff. Even other bureaucrats fall asleep reading small print, and students have to read textbooks, but they don't want to, do they? Reading should be fun, so have fun with your writing. Your attitude will come through.

5. Don't write a memoir.

Seriously. Is your name Oprah Winfrey or Michael Jordan, Kennedy or Reagan? If not, most people probably aren't going to want to read about your life. Even if you're the best writer since Stephen King, few people outside your immediate family will want to read about the time your Aunt Mabel fell asleep in her mashed potatoes at Thanksgiving dinner when you were 7. Nothing against you or your Aunt Mabel, but subject matter matters. Readers want something they can relate to (yes, that's a dangling modifier, but see Tip 1A). Too many writers use the tired admonition to "write what you know" as an excuse to write about their own lives. The trick is to infuse your writing with what you've learned from your experiences, not relate those experiences verbatim and call them a story.

6. Write like an explorer.

What's around the next bend, over the next hill? Write like you can't wait to find out, and you'll give your readers that same passion for your story. You've heard the advice to "write like a reader," which is good as far as it goes. But go further. If you're reading a good story, you'll want to be an explorer, too. The writing will pull you along, and you'll be eager to turn the page to find out what happens next. Write with that same desire, with a passion to learn about your characters and the world you're describing; your readers will pick up on that and go along for the roller-coaster ride.

7. Write with abandon.

Be fearless. Don't worry about what happens if your manuscript doesn't sell. There aren't agents or publishers, queries or rejection letters in the world you're creating for your readers. You can be whoever you want to be, and that's the beauty of it. Your last book didn't catch on? So start the next one (you should have started it already). Stop thinking about your boss' demands, your favorite video game, the dirty dishes, your Facebook friends or the big game on TV. The minute you pause to let the "real world" intrude upon your creative process, you'll lose the flow and find yourself out of the zone. That zone is your gateway to success.