The Attention Deficit, Part Two (Or Is This Really What We Want)

Last week, I discussed a few points about the problem artists in general, and writers in particular, have in getting anyone to notice their work. I don’t know whether this is a new problem born of modern, high-tech times, or not. But I know it is a problem for me and anyone else who would like the products of their hard work experienced by a larger slice of the public.

So we have identified the problem: next to no one notices our work when we put it out there in the world. Why is that? Part of the reason for this lies in the nature of the world. It is very, very big with lots of things happening. Our novel, painting, or poetry doesn’t even make a ripple when it is released. People are also very, very busy. In the modern world, a person is bombarded like never before with competing interests all clamoring for a bit of their time.

A third reason for not getting anyone’s attention just could be us.

Us. As in you and me, the creators of the works which are going unnoticed. We could be part of the problem. As in many facets of life, we could be a large part of the problem, our own worst enemy. To find out, we need to ask ourselves some questions. They are often difficult questions, but we need to answer them honestly if we want to get to our desired destination.

(The following was borrowed and adapted from an article by Bryan Hutchinson on the Positive Writer website. Many thanks).

Have you decided that you truly want the world to pay attention to your work?

We have to decide we truly want something before we can attain it. You didn’t write that book because you thought it would be kind of cool to have written a book. You decided you were going to write a book. You worked at it. When you were tired and felt like just camping in front of the television, you turned away and spent that time hunched over the word processor. You decided you were going to do what you needed to do to write a book.

Gaining serious attention for that book is no different. You have to decide you truly want it. Because gaining attention for your art is going to change some things in your life and it’s perfectly acceptable to decide you like your life the way it is. There’s nothing wrong with that. But realize that you have to make the decision.

Are you willing and ready to do the work needed to get that attention?

Gaining attention for your novel or short story collection is going to take some work. (Actually, it’s going to take a lot of work). Millions of people publish every day around the world and most of them capture almost no attention. They haven’t captured yours, have they? This doesn’t mean their work is not good. It could be fantastic. It just means that there is just as much work to do after the work is published as before.

You’ve worked hard perfecting your writing craft and then worked hard at creating a work of art. Now you need to work just as hard to bring it to the world’s attention.

Do you think it’s all about you and your work?

Hate to say this, but it isn’t about you and it isn’t about your work. Not everyone cares about you or what you care about. Only a very few people are going to read your book solely because you wrote it. And you will already know all their names. If you want anyone who doesn’t know you to read your work you are going to have to find good reasons for them to do that and communicate that reason to them. You see, if you want to get some attention from people, it has to be about them. Reading your book has to offer some benefit to them.

So the first thing you have to do is forget about you for the time being and concentrate on your potential readers.

Are you willing to make a difference?

You must be willing to be passionate, willing to make a stand. The world doesn’t pay attention to people who only go halfway, hedge their bets. You must be clear about who you are, what you are writing about and that you truly believe in your work. You must convince them that you truly believe your work is good; you’re not just saying that to get the sale. You must be absolutely ready and willing to make a difference.

The audience doesn’t want to hear from anyone who is not willing to stand for something; they don’t have time for it.

Do you think you and your work deserve the world’s attention?

You’ve worked really hard for five years on this book; you’ve earned the world’s attention, right? Sorry. You no more deserve attention than anyone else. You absolutely do not deserve the attention more than someone who went out and did the work to earn it. The brutal truth is that everyone worked hard on their book and there simply is not enough time to give everyone the same amount of attention.

You have to go out in the world and earn its attention.

Are you afraid of being criticized?

Everyone is afraid of being criticized. It hurts, particularly the occasional, vicious, personal attacks. However, if you create a work that matters and share it with the world, you will receive criticism. It’s inevitable. If you try and hide from the critics, you will be hiding your work from the rest of the world too.

When the hate mail and bad reviews start coming in, welcome them. They are compliments. It means your work mattered enough for them to remark about it. How often do you comment on something that simply doesn’t matter?

Are you riddled with doubt?

Join the club. All artists worth mentioning are filled with doubt. The only people who never doubt themselves are those too blind or ignorant to realize their own limitations. Self-doubt is a good thing.

The only question that’s important here is whether you’re going to let that nagging critical voice in your own head prevent you from achieving your goals.

Okay, now we’ve done some serious soul-searching and decided in our heart-of-hearts that we really want to earn some attention for our writing. It isn’t easy. It involves a skill set every bit as difficult as the craft we had to learn in order to write. Like our writing, it will become a work in progress, much of it learned through trial-and-error. For, as in everything else we do, we often learn more from what doesn’t work than from what does.

Next week we’ll examine some concrete steps we can take to earn the attention we want for our writings.

Marketing, Writing advice

The Attention Deficit

Recently I stumbled upon a website called Positive Writer, which from my brief visit, seems to be dedicated to helping overcome the discouragement that can so easily overcome those who are trying to make something good out of this writing gig. It’s an admirable project. The culture we live in is not kind to those who attempt to carve their life out of the arts. It is very easy to get discouraged. Even those many of us would consider “successful” find themselves getting discouraged.

I battle discouragement on a regular basis. Personally, I think everyone does (even those who don’t write) because there’s a human desire for more, despite however much we might already have. But it can be worse for writer, painters, musicians, all those who are interesting in learning and perfecting an art.

Part of that is the apprentice period. It can take decades to learn the art form well enough to produce work that is any good. And then, when you do learn your art and produce something you think is pretty good, the culture around us—how do I put this?—doesn’t give a damn. There are exceptions, of course, but generally speaking the average person on the street couldn’t name a living poet or landscape painter if their life depended on it.

It’s just the nature of the world in which we live.

One of the most frustrating and discouraging part of this gig is when you have finally created something you think is good. Maybe it’s a poem, or a short story, or even a novel; it doesn’t matter. You’ve created it. You’ve revised and re-written it until there is no flab in the manuscript. You send it out and—be still your heart—someone agrees to publish it. This is what you’ve been working for all these years. This is the Promised Land. Right?

But no one even notices. No one pays any attention. The work you worked so hard on and are so proud of dries up and dies of neglect almost as soon as it’s released. You get discouraged. What’s the point of working so hard to produce something beautiful if no one’s going to pay attention? No one that isn’t a blood?

It’s a legitimate question and a valid reason for discouragement. It happens more often than you might think. In fact, I believe it happens with most works produced these days and that is also discouraging.

But perhaps there’s a better question to be asked here. Why in the world should anybody pay attention when I publish a new novel? After all, they don’t know me, do they? Who am I? Yes, I worked very hard on this novel and yes I think it’s pretty good, but doesn’t every author work hard on their novels? Don’t they all think it’s pretty good? Upwards of 200,000 books are published every single year, fiction and nonfiction. Why on earth should anyone pay any attention to mine?

The brutal truth is that there is no reason. The fact that I published a novel called Deception Island warrants no attention at all from Mrs. Mary Smith in Everytown, Iowa. Why should it? It has nothing to do with her. The fact that I published a novel deserves her attention just as much as the slaughter of a goat in a village in Zimbabwe—not at all.

The brutal truth is that most works of art, whether it’s poetry, a novel, a painting, sculpture, or a song, fade away soon after they’re introduced to the world because there is absolutely no reason for anyone besides its creator to pay attention to them. No reason at all.

It can be very, very discouraging. Very discouraging indeed. Especially if your goals are not satisfied solely by the knowledge that you have created this work, or with the praise and/or admiration of your circle of friends.

If your goal is to have everyone in the English-speaking world read your creation, what do you do? How do you overcome this discouraging news?

Well, first off, take a sip of realism, because you’re never going to get every person who speaks English to read your book. It’s impossible. Sorry. Even the Bible—the best selling book of all time—hasn’t been read by everybody. Shoot for a more attainable goal such as being the number one selling book on Amazon. It’s a high target, but completely attainable. Someone has to be number one, after all, why not you?

But how do you do this? How do you make your book a best-seller (or even a good seller) if no one is going to pay attention to it? Well, you can’t. People will not buy your book (or other work of art) if they aren’t paying attention to it.

In order to sell, we first have to get their attention.

But we’ll tackle that next week.

Writing advice, Writing and Editing

Oh, The Profanity!

Last week I read a novel I’d checked out of the local public library. (It was very good, thank you, a thriller by Greg Iles. I’ve just discovered him.) As I read I noticed with more than a little disquiet that a previous library patron had taken it upon themselves to scratch out all the profanity with blue ink.

This upset me on several levels. First, I don’t write in any or my books, unless I’ve bought it specifically as a “study” book. In those cases, I have another, pristine copy. Books are valuable, to be treasured, not defaced. Second, this particular book did not belong to the person with the pen. They were defacing someone else’s property. Third, is the issue of censorship. I mean who are they to decide that I (or anyone else) should not be exposed to profanity?

It is the censorship issue that I’m most concerned with today. Obviously (because of this censorship incident) that profanity bothers a certain slice of the reading public. What does that mean for us as writers of fiction? Do we use profanity in our work? Do we make an effort to “clean” up our work to avoid the controversy?

There are a few lines of reasoning at play here. Perhaps the most important (I know it is in my case anyway) is Mother’s voice in the back of our head saying “it’s a sign of low class,” or “a limited vocabulary.” Though I have been known to use a bit of profanity in my speech, it is infrequent and mostly when I lose my temper. Let’s face it, when you’re really mad, nothing is more satisfying than a torrent of profanity.

And, to a certain extent, Mom was right. The standard image of the upper class in English-speaking society does not include the public use of profanity. One does not expect to hear a lot of cussing at, say, a Metropolitan Opera gala. “Polite” society does not talk that way. Not in our imagination, anyway. Now, switch to a poverty-stricken urban crack house and we’d be surprised if f-bombs weren’t dropping all over the place.

And that’s where it applies to our writing. Characterization. Writing a realistic scene involving an upper class gathering where profanity is constantly used would not ring true, but using such language in a scene at a crack house would add a touch of realism to the scene. Even if all the addicts involved are fallen Harvard literature professors, readers would expect a certain amount of gutter talk. As the saying goes, it goes with the territory.

Any reader who objects to the use of profanity in such circumstances has no business reading that kind of material. They really don’t want to know about it.

One of my personal pet peeves is when a fiction work (it most often happens in American network television, but novels and motion pictures are not immune) that tries to be realistic, yet has some under-educated gangster type speaking like a nun. It just doesn’t ring true. I am a pretty solid middle class guy and I have few friends that speak like a nun. Come on.

Another use for profanity is probably one of the most popular (especially for children in front of their parents and the counter-cultural types) is for shock value. In my newest novel, Deception Island, I use the f-word once. That is when the bad guys kill her dog and she’s hurt and very, very angry. It’s the only time in the entire book she uses such language. As such, I thought it a good way to express the depths of her fury. Precisely because it wasn’t her usual diction.

Just as in writing about sex, often with profanity less is more.

Above all, we writers need to write the story. Profanity should be like any other aspect of the story: it needs to add to the package. The story needs to be better with the profanity in it, than it is without it. If that isn’t true it should be edited out. That decision rest with the writer and the writer alone. She needs to take the advice of beta readers and editors, but ultimately the story is hers. It needs to be her decision.

That being said, the decision should never be made solely because the author is afraid of offending someone. You are always going to offend someone. If it isn’t your use of profanity, it will be your choice of subject matter, or your underlying political view. Nothing kills creativity like trying to please everyone. That is a surefire way to take the soul out of whatever you are writing.

And to all the readers out there. On behalf of writers and authors everywhere, I am sorry if something you are reading offends you. I can honestly say that was not our sole purpose. So we do apologize.

But please, if you are offended, do us all a favor. Close the offending book and walk away. Return it to the library, or give it to someone who might appreciate it. Please do not cross out the offending passages. Do not rip pages out of the volume. This is a book. It is the result of many hours of hard work and many sleepless nights.

Just move on to something you do like.

Just have some respect.

writing, Writing and Editing

Storytelling With Collage

Last February, I told you I was interested in the concept of “collage storytelling” and would be taking a workshop on the subject at the South Coast Writers Conference to learn more about (and maybe how to create) it. Well, I did. Now I will attempt to pass along what I learned to you.

First though, what is “collage storytelling?” It is a manner of relating events (does not have to be fiction) that dispenses with the normal, more traditional, narrative structure of “A happened, then B, followed by C,” etc. Instead, the structure (yes, it is still there) is much more subtle, shadowy.

The example we were presented as an illustration was from the visual arts. When an artists paints a still life of an apple sitting on a table, her message to the viewer is fairly straightforward. This is what she sees and this is what she thinks of it. The viewer is left only to decide whether he agrees with her and likes how she expressed her idea.

With collage, the artists might have assembled twenty images of apples in different places, varied states and assorted relationships to each other. Now the artist’s message is still there. It could even be the same message. It just isn’t as obvious as in the traditional painting. The viewer has to expend some effort in order to see and understand the message.

With collage storytelling as in visual collage, the audience is asked to participate much more in the process. They cannot be a passive observer. Collage is a challenge.

So how does one tell a story with collage?

The exercise we did involved taking a word—in our case the word was “blue”–and brainstormed every thing we associated with the word blue. Everything. We probably had fifty or sixty terms listed on the board, everything from “baby blue” to “feeling blue” to “black and blue” and “blue heron.”

The assignment was to then select five or six of the terms that resonated most deeply with us and write a short passage illustrating each. We would then have to decide in which order to present them. When finished we had a short impressionistic piece centered around the term “blue.” That was the underlying structure of the work.

It was left, however, to the reader to figure this out.

Or perhaps they would find some other underlying structure the author was unaware of creating.

The example we used was pretty basic (which, of course, made it much easier to use in a large group) but the principal can be used in many other ways. Instead of the word “blue”what if we used “loneliness” or “fear?” Or what if we used “good dates?” Or “robots?” The technique of brainstorming associations, then picking the most powerful and rendering them can be used for any type or genre you wish to write.

Writing advice

Who are We Writing For?: Audience.

Who, exactly, is your audience? Who do you write for?

It’s a question worth considering because the nature of your audience should influence the way you write. The stand up comedian probably won’t perform the same routine in front of a group of college students as she would for a religious convention. The audience must determine the material in some way.

The same concept applies to our writing. Every genre has its conventions, assumed rules of design and conduct that the reader expects when he picks up the work. It does not matter what the genre is, romance, sci-fi, detective, mystery, western, every reader has certain expectations when he picks up that work. Mess with those conventions at the risk of forever losing the reader. (Or being rejected by a risk-wary publisher). For a strict set of genre guidelines, check out the Harelquin Romance site sometime at

Can you have the protagonist of your western be a gay pacifist? Certainly. But be prepared for some backlash.

That being said, not all genre conventions are iron-clad. Fifty years ago there were few, if any, female leads in detective fiction. Now they are common. The conventions are flexible and change with the times. Whole genres such as steampunk and cyberpunk didn’t even exist a generation or two ago. The rules can and should be bent. The boundaries need to be pushed.

The danger in writing to the conventions in any genre is that the work starts becoming formulaic. How many times have you read three or four books by an author and found each had basically the same plot? In my opinion, that is not what we, as writers, are shooting for.

The solution to the entire problem is relatively simple. The audience that must always be in the forefront as you write, the one you should be striving hardest to please, is yourself. Know the genre in which you’re writing. Read every example you can find until you know the genre inside and out. Then write a story in that genre you would like to read. Write a story you find interesting, thrilling and compelling.

Do that and the rest will take care of itself.