Perception vs. Reality in Fiction

If you’re going to write fiction at some point in time you’re going to have to tackle the accuracy conundrum. And I call it a conundrum because oftentimes it’s not actually about what’s true, it’s about what readers perceive to be the truth.

For example, someone recently posted a rant about medieval novels that include breakfast in them. I didn’t actually read their link, because I didn’t care, but the implication was that people who mention breakfast in novels set in medieval times are just money-grubbing hacks who don’t appreciate true historical accuracy.

As a reader of fantasy for thirty-plus years I don’t care if my novels mention breakfast. At all. I want a fun, action-packed story where the character confronts danger and overcomes it. Preferably with some good friends or a stalwart animal companion to keep them company. And, honestly, the less accurate terms there are, the better. I don’t want to have to keep a dictionary of medieval armor at hand while I’m reading.

That’s me.

For other readers, one little misused word ruins the experience and shows you as the hack you are. “How dare you call that a dirk? A dirk was a short dagger used in the Scottish Highlands and didn’t come into use until the 1600s and clearly your story (although it involves dragons and flying horses) is set in the 1400s because of the way you described the village.”

(And now queue someone coming along to correct that example, because that was pulled from a five-second review of Merriam Webster and Wikipedia and a true scholar would see at least three errors in what I just said about dirks.)

The best approach of course would be to be 100% accurate in all of your information and descriptions but to do so in a way that doesn’t alienate readers who aren’t highly knowledgeable about your subject.

That’s not going to happen, though. There will be times when being 100% accurate means that only a small group of your readers thinks you actually got it right. Because common misperception is so wide-spread that most people have wrong information on that subject.

And there will be times when what you said is true but that one reader will miss what makes it true. Or where what you said is technically true but not commonly true and that one reader will want to point out to you your failures.

I would recommend learning and taking to heart this phrase when those moments occur: “Not my reader.”

If you’re highly accurate and people say it’s impossible to read your novels without a dictionary at hand, they’re not your reader. Those people who love completely accurate novels are.

If you’re a little loose with the facts and someone complains that it’s not possible for that to have happened in Chapter 6 because of x, y, and z, they’re not your reader. Those people who value action over accuracy are.

Find your happy place and stick to it. And when you get that review or that email that mentions the flaws in your book, just repeat “not my reader” and go read the reviews or comments from the people who did love your book.

 

It’s Going to Happen With or Without You

I’m seeing less comments along these lines recently than I was a year or so ago, but I remember about a year ago when authors would make comments along the lines of “Well, I used to pay 10 cents for AMS clicks, so I’m not raising my bids.” Or, “I used to get sales without advertising, so I’m certainly not going to pay to advertise my books now.”

And I would always sort of shake my head when I saw those comments. Because they were missing a key point. And that’s that the business environment in which they were operating had shifted and that it didn’t matter what they’d been doing before, they needed to understand what to do now.

Of course, the world being what it is, I had to grapple with this one recently myself and I wasn’t very pleased to have to make that adjustment either. I’d been enjoying some very very nice profit margins in one of my publishing areas and someone decided to come in and take those away by being more aggressive than me.

This meant I was faced with a choice. I could either change what I was doing and give up some of my profit but maintain sales. Or I could keep doing the same thing and lose those sales. What I couldn’t do was keep doing the same thing and expect the same old result.

So I chose to adjust. It didn’t make me happy. I look back at six months ago and think, “Oh, why can’t I get that back? Why did that [“person”] have to ruin my little world?”

But looking back at what was doesn’t change what is.

I was reminded of this when I was reading a recent Knowledge@Wharton article, How Pattern-Based Thinking Gives Companies an Edge. Search for Mike and you’ll find the section that caught my attention.

I’m going to now butcher a paragraph from there to broaden what they were discussing. Words in brackets are my substitutions and are not necessarily accurate representations of what was there before the brackets.

The world is going to change either way; the status quo is going to vanish. The real question isn’t whether [we can keep doing what we’ve been doing]; that world is going to be gone. [This development has] changed the world forever. The real question is whether [doing this new thing] is better than not [doing it]. Getting the revenue is obviously better than not getting the revenue. But understanding that the world [has] changed, and that we need to ask different questions, is [the key].

Apply that to publishing.

KU is here to stay for the time being. You can’t wish it away. It exists and has a profound impact on all authors, self- or trade-published, wide or KU.

AMS is here to stay. You can’t wish it away. It too has a profound impact on all authors. Amazon is too much a piece of the pie these days for AMS not to be relevant.

Tomorrow something new will come along that shifts the game again. (If B&N gets their ad platform straightened out? That could be huge.) Whatever it is, that won’t be going away either.

Burying your head in the sand and pretending that change hasn’t happened doesn’t work. You have to look at the new reality, forget the old one, and make your decisions based on the now and where you think we’re headed in the future.

Holding on to what was can ruin you. (A nice cheerful thought to see you into the weekend…Haha.)

You Don’t Have to Share Everything

I’m reading a mystery series right now that is both addictive and fails me as a reader. And it was put on hold after the fourth book in the series, so I’m pretty sure it failed other readers as well. And I’m pretty sure I know why:

Great idea, bad sub plot that then shares way too much information.

Some of you will recognize this series, but I’m not going to specifically call out the author here because that’s not the point of what I want to discuss.

So the novels are mysteries. The main character travels the country and investigates various disappearances. All good so far.

But she travels with her brother. (Well, as it turns out, not her actual blood-relative brother, but her stepbrother that she spent the last decade thinking of as her brother.) In book one there are enough overly-intimate moments between them that it’s pretty obvious they’re going to become a couple at some point in the books.

As a reader, not something I would seek out. (Although there was a very big erotic romance trend around stepbrother romances about five years ago, so obviously many readers would.) So not my cup of tea, but I was willing to let it happen in the background so I could read the mysteries because I liked the premise of the books.

And then I got to book three and they finally got together and that relationship took over the books. There were sex scenes in book one but they were either alluded to without giving details or taken care of in a paragraph or two.

This time…

The author included more than one very detailed sex scene of the two of them together, one of which included the main character comparing the shape and size of her “brother’s” privates to those of other men she’s been with.

Ew. (It did not help that the main character continues to think of her new lover as her brother on a regular basis.)

But really. Any shift like that, without the relationship between the two to complicate it further, would be off-putting to a number of readers. You thought you were reading a gritty mystery and now you’re reading erotica.

I think this series highlights an issue many writers face when writing first-person novels. Because there’s no doubt that in new relationships that are sexual that the level of thought someone gives to sex and the amount of sex that happens become pretty central to that person.

So if you were really living in someone’s head there would be a lot of mental space given to sex and thinking about sex.

But it doesn’t have to make it onto the page. A novel is not a detailed accounting of every single thought a character has or of every single thing they do in a given day. That would make it incredibly long, incredibly boring, and provide way too much information about the character’s life.

As a novelist you have to pick and choose what you show to tell the type of story you’re trying to tell.

(By the way, book four was even worse. I had to start skimming. One because there were still these I-did-not-need-to-know-that sex scenes but also because the novel made the reader sit through the reactions of three sets of family members to this new-found forbidden love. Completely irrelevant to the plot, whatever the plot of this one actually is. I’m halfway through and still not sure at this point.)

This is a trade-published book so you’d think they’d have caught this issue. But no. The editor failed the author in this case, IMO.

So, to turn this from rant to writing advice…For all the authors out there, ask yourself, “Does this really need to be here? And does it need to be here in that level of detail? Am I keeping a focus on the story I’m actually supposed to be telling?”

(Especially when you take a left-turn from genre expectations like this one did.)

We Are Not All The Same

It seems I’m always blogging when I should be writing. But yesterday I figured out that the 13K words I’d written on the new cozy needed to be set aside because the book I was writing needed to be book three in the series, not the book two I was supposed to be writing. (Good news, it’ll take less time to write that third book.)

So this morning because I’m not in the flow yet on book 2 I was catching up with some old blogs. And I saw that an agent I used to respect had said something very disappointing. (After this comment and a post a few months back which caused me to stop reading their blog regularly because it was so full of vitriol towards self-publishing, I can’t say I do anymore. Which is sad to me. Because this person seems to be getting more and more narrow in their views. Or maybe it’s just showing more as time moves on.)

Anyway.

The comment was along the lines that anyone who writes three novels in two years must obviously be writing crap. It wasn’t quite that rude, but it was there. The post also included some comments about what a writer’s process is, like there can be only one writing process for all of us.

I have to say, as someone who has always worked faster than those around me, that I find that opinion very narrow-minded. My two hours of time is not someone else’s two hours of time. There are those who can work and create much faster than I can and those who need much more time. To say that the only thing that makes a good novel is the amount of hours spent with your butt in the chair is wrong.

We are not all the same.

And that comment forgets that different people have very different lives. That person this agent puts on a pedestal for taking five years to write a novel may have only spent a hundred hours on that novel over those five years because they had a family and a day job and other hobbies.

If someone has none of that, they could put in those same hundred hours in a few months. And that with downtime to think between drafts.

At the end of the day, it shouldn’t be about how long something took to write. It should be about whether the story in question meets the needs of the audience it’s meant to sell to. And different audiences have different requirements. Some people want the language to be as much a part of the experience as the story. Some people (like me) want the words to get the hell out of the way so they can enjoy the adventure without being distracted by the author.

(I used to love China Mieville and still love his ideas, but I stopped reading him after a novel that involved some very very specific word related to giant squid. It wasn’t the only word like that in the novel and I thought to myself as a reader, “Do I care enough to go look this up in a dictionary?” The answer was no. I could figure it out from the context. But for me each time I ran across a word that was one I didn’t know–and I know a lot of words–it threw me out of the story and stopped me cold. I’m sure there were other readers who thrilled with excitement to see each of those words. For me it was a “not my author” moment just like for many authors you have to say “not my reader” when someone hates your book.)

So anyway. After seeing that agent’s commentI figured it was time for a periodic reminder to write however you want to write and take as long as you want to take. It’s the end product that matters not how the sausage is made. IMO, of course.

(I will add that ironically this same agent made another comment around the same time that authors should be able to write the second book in their series in six months. It seems you’re a hack if you write your first novel in eight months but you damned well better be able to write your second in six. Seriously.)

Big AMS Changes Ahead

In case you hadn’t logged into your AMS account yet today, it’s changed. Finally authors who access AMS through their KDP dashboard have the same metrics and display options as those who access AMS through an Advantage account.

This means you can see ad spend and sales for a period of time and not just the lifetime of an ad. (As someone who runs ads for years at a time I have to say this is a very very nice feature to have. Who knew I was up to almost 40 million impressions across all my ads? Not me.)

Also, if you ignored all my advice and focused on Product Display ads, those can no longer be created as of today and existing ones will disappear as of February 5th. (They’re being replaced with Locksreen ads which are one of the places that PD ads used to display. So looks like no more of that box right under the buy option on a book’s product page, at least not using that ad type.)

You can also now use product targeting with your Sponsored Product ads.

There’s a nice summary of the changes available here. (The link should also be available in your AMS account when you go in. Don’t be shocked when you see the new display. It may take some getting used to if you haven’t seen it yet.)

Anyway. Another day, another change.

I will say this makes the AMS video course and book less relevant. I’ll leave them up, but a lot of the mechanics section of both have now become largely outdated. I have no plans to update either one at this point.

Why Price Competition is Dangerous

The initial title for this post was going to be “Why Being an Asshole is a Poor Long-Term Strategy”, but I figured people might take offense at that for something they probably just consider good business.

Plus, my father wasn’t an asshole and I’m going to use him as an example here.

So…

Back in the 80’s my dad got into the sign business. (He’d previously been an accountant but when you need a job, you need a job. And he was one of those types of people who can pretty much do anything they put their mind to, so in a couple years he’d bought the place and then proceeded to be in the sign business until he died ten years later.)

Anyway. At the time he got into the business there were these lawn signs that most of the realty companies used. You may have seen them. They have a metal frame that sticks into the ground and are double-sided. Great for carrying around and putting in the yard of a house that’s for sale. Easy to install, easy to remove, easy to transport.

They were very cheap to make. Very.

But the sign companies at the time charged far more for them than they cost.

Which equaled opportunity when my dad entered the market, right? Hey, those can be made for something like 50 cents a pop and everyone is charging $10. If I charge $5, I’ll take all their business and still make $4.50.

(All numbers here are made up. I don’t remember them.)

Winning, right?

Until those people who’d just lost their very lucrative business undercut his $5 price. And then he undercut their $4 price. And then they undercut his $3 price. And then it got to the point where the last man at the bottom didn’t even want the business because there was no margin left in it.

Within a couple of years that entire market had collapsed and everyone was back to where they’d started but without that revenue stream.

See, this is why being the asshole is a short-term strategy. Because if your business is based on undercutting someone else’s price (or in the case that inspired this post, significantly overbidding your ad spend in a niche market), it only works as long as you’re the only one doing it.

If all other books are $7.99 and you price yours at 99 cents, you can suck up a lot of sales. Enough to make it worth it. But when everyone prices at 99 cents, then we all find ourselves in need of another job because the volume that made up for the low price goes away and all you’re left with is the low price and consumers trained to think that’s a fair price.

Same thing happens with ad bids on CPC ads. When you bid really high for ads but no one else does you have this perfect world where your ad is always at the top but what you pay isn’t near that mark. (Since Amazon at least only charges you a penny over the next highest bid.)

Problem is, that only lasts as long as you’re the only one doing it. Get three assholes doing the same thing and it’s mutually-assured destruction. Suddenly you’re actually paying that $10 per click. And when all you have is one poorly-written knock-off book to pay for that ad spend, well… Like I said. Short-term strategy.

Only question is how many people it takes out before it fails. And that can unfortunately be a lot of people.

A New Release: 50 More Excel Functions

I decided to start the new year off right with a new release.

When I originally wrote 50 Useful Excel Functions I chose those functions from a list of about 125 total functions I thought could be really useful to someone. I didn’t want to write them all up in one book because that’s just too much to handle for the average user in my opinion.

But it wasn’t easy to narrow that list down either, because which functions a user considers most useful will very much depend on why they’re using Excel. I also had to include in that book certain functions just for completeness sake. If I was going to discuss X function then I also really needed to discuss Y and Z functions, too.

Which meant that I was left with about a hundred functions that I didn’t cover in the first book but that I figured a certain number of users might want to know about.

Well, now I’ve covered another batch of them in 50 More Excel Functions.

This one really digs into some of the date and time functions and discusses the quirks of how Excel handles dates, at least one of which threw me a nasty surprise on a work project a few years ago. Hint: Don’t work with really old dates in Excel, it doesn’t turn out well.

Anyway. Happy new year. Enjoy.

50 More Excel Functions open sans