Thursday, September 22, 2011

Of Book Reviews and Sock Puppets

For authors who do not sport household names, life's eternal quest is for ways to get your work in front of readers who enjoy the genre you write in but who may not have ever heard of you. I'm no exception, and for months I read and heard that spending time on Kindle Boards was potentially valuable in terms of building exposure.

Well, I've recently been more active on Kindle Boards, not just as a way to raise my profile, but also because there are some truly interesting discussions taking place twenty-four hours a day there, and it's a place where authors and readers can gather to discuss issues surrounding the thing we all have in common - books and the written word.

And it's been pretty enlightening. The subject of book reviews is always one that generates enthusiastic responses, both from authors and readers, but sometimes not in the way I would have expected. Case in point: Sock puppets.

Up until a few weeks ago, if I saw the words, "sock puppet," I would have pictured a Muppet or maybe a Fraggle. But in the world of Kindle Boards, a sock puppet is not a good thing. It refers to an author who convinces his friends and family to write flattering reviews - or even worse, who generates accounts under false names and writes reviews for his own work - on Amazon or Goodreads, with the intention of artificially inflating the book's appeal and hopefully gaining increased sales.

The practice is distasteful and dishonest and pretty much universally decried by both authors and readers alike, and for good reason.

The thing I find interesting, however, and which I've wondered about in the back of my mind as the reviews have come in for my newest thriller, THE LONELY MILE, is the fact that many posters on Kindle Boards feel they have a sharp eye and are quite skilled at picking out "sock puppet reviews." It's easy, they say. Find a book with universally good reviews and there's a decent chance many, if not all, are sock puppet reviews.

Here's why I've wondered about that: The reviews for THE LONELY MILE have been universally good. On Amazon, to this point, the book has received nine five-star reviews, with four four-star reviews mixed in, and no threes, twos or ones.

And I can't help wondering, is that fact costing me sales with people who have never heard of me? Has anyone checked out THE LONELY MILE's Amazon page because he was considering buying it and then shaken his head, clucking and smug, and passed on trying it out because the reviews are simply too good?

I hope not, and not just because I would like to sell as many copies of my books as I can. I believe in doing things the right way, and I hope you won't think I'm hopelessly naive when I tell you it would never have occurred to me to open multiple Amazon accounts for the purpose of reviewing my own book. My mind doesn't work that way.

In fact, I've expressly discouraged my family and close friends from reviewing my work precisely because I wanted to avoid any hint of dishonesty. I believe in my work and I'm confident that most people who try it, assuming they enjoy a good thriller, will feel they've gotten their money's worth when they reach the end.

Now, this is not to say THE LONELY MILE hasn't received reviews from people who have been introduced to my work either through FINAL VECTOR or POSTCARDS FROM THE APOCALYPSE, my short story collection, and enjoyed them so much they went on to read my other work and then review it.

Also, I'm nearing the end of my second blog tour hosted by Pump Up Your Book Virtual Book Tours, and many of the reviewers of THE LONELY MILE are the same book bloggers who reviewed FINAL VECTOR when I toured for that book. They enjoyed my first book so much they were anxious to review my second, and I'm not about to apologize for that; just the opposite, in fact. I'm proud that my work prompted people who read books all the time to want to read more of my work!

But sock puppetry? Not here. I wouldn't even wear socks except it gets darned cold here in New Hampshire.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Writer's block? We don't need no stinking writer's block!

There are a few things I get asked a lot when people find out I write books. Probably the most common question is, "Are you making any money?"

The answer, of course, is "Yes." The minute I sell one book I'm making money. A better question would be, "How much money are you making?", but most people are too classy to bring themselves to ask it.

And that's good, because I wouldn't answer anyway. At least, not until I'm making a shitload of money.

Probably the second-most common question I hear is, "Where do you get your ideas?"

That one's a little tougher, because in most cases, it's not the sort of question I can answer with one word, or even one sentence. Most of my plot ideas come from a mish-mash of sources, some of which I don't even understand.

Sometimes it's a song lyric that strikes me and gets my imagination racing. Sometimes it's a real-life situation, although when that happens, my story usually strays far from the actual situation that inspired it. Sometimes it's a dream, and I know that sounds silly, but I've gotten more than one idea for a kick-ass story that just popped into my head in the middle of the night.

Most often, though, the honest answer is, "I have no idea." A hint of a thread of an plot takes hold inside my head and begins to grow, like a plant. Or a cancer. In most cases, the idea has to simmer for awhile before I do anything with it. I mulled over the initial idea for my Derringer Award-nominated story, "Independence Day," for months - over an entire winter, as I recall - before I ever wrote a word on it.

But the question I really wanted to talk about today is the one that I would estimate I get third-most often: "Do you ever get writer's block?"

Easy answer: No, because I don't believe writer's block exists. Bestselling author Vincent Zandri wrote an outstanding blog post that included this subject a couple of weeks ago, one which I agree with wholeheartedly.

The gist of that blog post is this: If you're serious about selling your work, writing is a job. It's a fun job, to be sure, and it's a job where you can make your own hours and work in your underwear and take as many breaks as you want, but at the end of the day it's still a job.

And if you approach it as a job, you begin to realize that what many people view as "writer's block" is really nothing more than either laziness or a reluctance to put in the time at work. I suppose you could consider those two things to be one and the same.

Writing fiction is the act of stringing words together in entertaining ways while telling a story, so an unwillingness to put time in at the keyboard is the kiss of death if you consider yourself a writer. There are days when the words flow with an almost ridiculous ease, and there are other days when writing anything that makes even a minimal amount of sense is like pulling teeth, but at the end of the day, under either condition you need to sit at the keyboard and do your job.

As Vincent Zandri says, "If you're a writer your job is to show up at work every day and write...If your dad was a lawyer, did he ever get lawyer's block? If your mom was a nurse, did you ever hear her complain, 'I've had absolutely nothing to nurse about for the last six months'?"

That answer is perfect. Of course, it's also kind of long-winded to give to someone who really doesn't care that much, anyway. So most of the time when I'm asked the question about writer's block, I sort of mumble my way through an answer, saying something about working hard and continuing to write my way through it when it happens.

Okay, maybe I'm being just slightly less than honest, but, hey, I can only stay on break for so long; I've gotta get back to work!