Visit Homepage
Skip to content

Month: July 2018

When preachy messages overwhelm story and characters

Posted in Irritated Reviews, and Just for Writers

Image of movie poster for HostilesI recently saw the movie “Hostiles” (distributed widely 2018), and found in it a perfect example of how message fiction can completely kill a story. So, naturally, I had to write one of my Irritated Reviews™ to get the consequent rant out of my brain.

The premise is straightforward. It is 1892, and a cavalry captain in New Mexico is commanded, under Presidential order, to escort a long-captured Cheyenne war chief (who is dying of cancer) and his family to his old territory in Montana to die. The captain will then retire. The full synopsis is here.

Let me get a few unimportant things out of the way. The acting is quite good (to the limits of the script material) and the cinematography and costuming are well done. There — that's about it for the praise.

There are a handful of own-goals, pointless errors that could trivially have been avoided.

  • When a man defends his cabin from a raiding party of Indians, he leaves the shelter of its walls to stand out front pointlessly and be shot. (Because otherwise his wife and children who are watching from a short distance instead of running away won't get to see him die, for the benefit of the audience.)
  • When attacking Indians burn a cabin poorly defended by a family, they have no interest in raiding it for goods or burning any other buildings.
  • When coming across the horses of their dead enemies, this small group of riders has no interest in taking them along as spares to join their other pack horses, despite no shortage of water or fodder.
  • In one soulful moment, we see a white character playing a primitive musical instrument, clearly meant to be of local relevance. It is, in fact, a kalimba, an African instrument that few Americans knew existed before the 1960s, and certainly nothing to do with the local indigenes.
  • When constructing a cairn (!) for one of the dead Cheyenne, the characters find suitable rocks in the grass of one of those endless meadows that hasn't seen a surface stone since the glaciers last paid a visit.

These are the sorts of things that throw you out of any story, whether in a book or a movie, and make you question your confidence in the storyteller.

But no matter…  I wouldn't bother writing about the movie for things this small. No, this movie had much bigger problems.

You see, this movie had a message. And it was going to make sure that we heard that message, loud and clear.

The great Amazon reviews drought

Posted in Just for Writers, and Readers

Image of 5 product ratingsIt has seemed to me lately that I'm getting far fewer reviews on Amazon than I used to, considering the number of units I sell. The thought has been nagging at me for some time, and I'm not alone — others seem to be observing the same thing and speculating about causes.

So — you know me. Time to actually crunch a few numbers and try to see if it's true and, if so, why I think it might be happening.

I started running Amazon AMS ads about 15 months ago, and my units sold have shot up gratifyingly. But not my reviews. My ratings are stable and the reviews I get are much the same as they've always been, but there are just fewer of them than I would expect.

First steps — collect the data

I've been meaning to copy my reviews off the retailer sites, especially Amazon, lest they vanish in one of the periodic Amazon purges. So far I've been lucky and haven't lost any, but that can change. It's useful to have them available, not just for ratings on the retail sites, but also as sources of blurb and other publicity text from real readers.

I checked my retailers and confirmed that, yep, I have almost no reviews except on Amazon, and almost all of those on Amazon USA, of course. That made it easy.

I set up a spreadsheet like the one I use for tracking unit sales to track reviews: month/year, source, rating, product, retailer, headline, review text, etc. Then it was off to the races with pivot tables.

Do I have enough data?

I don't make any big push for reviews, just a modest suggestion in the backmatter of the books. I don't have a ton of reviews, but they do keep coming in (slowly), so I'm going to assume there are enough for some valid conclusions. In any case, I don't have any special marketing that might confuse results.

Next — connect the review data to the units sold data

I put a worksheet up with one pivot table for the reviews-by-month, and another with the units-sold-by-month. Then I ran out the data for a comparison from the date my first book came out, in October, 2012.

A model to compare data

The question I wanted to answer was:

Has the percentage of reviews per units sold been declining lately?

Plotters vs Pantsers

Posted in Just for Writers, and Plot

As always, I find it useful to write a post to clarify my own thinking — this time, about the creative process of writing a work of fiction.

Cartoon of outliningI'm 60% of the way through my current work-in-progress (Fragments of Lightning), and I was just rearranging my hints for the remainder of the book, since my subconscious last night was busy working overtime changing my conclusions about what was important about the events in the second half.

I was so delighted with the results that I wanted to take time out to write this post about how I understand the differences between the processes of outlining a book in some detail in order to write it (“plotters”) and not doing so, flying by the seat of your pants (“pantsers”). Your understanding may be different.

This is my 10th novel, so I'm beginning to get some insight into my own psychology and the creative process. That insight has changed over time, naturally. I spent a reasonable amount of my career writing software, which has to be planned from start to finish, and building companies, which requires understanding how systems are put together, so unsurprisingly I started as a plotter and outlined my first book in some detail. Even then, however, I was flexible about how the plot developed, and things I had outlined had a way of… shifting.

For books 2 and 3, the planned outlines got discarded or altered beyond recognition earlier and earlier in the process, until I was barely using an outline at all for book 4. By the time I started my 2nd series, I was a confirmed pantser. Not only did I not know when I started how the book would end, I didn't know how the series would end, even though it had a compelling quest running through the entire thing which would have to be solved in the end (over 4 books).

One thing about writing into the dark (pantsing) — you learn not to be frightened by uncertainty.

Different structural goals

Plotters are focused on control and a desired ending. There may be a structure that is appropriate for the genre (Happily Ever After (HEA) endings for Romance, as an example, or some of the conventions of Thrillers and Mysteries). There may be a need to keep the number of new characters under control in a long-running series. There may be particular goals for certain books in a series, to help keep the series from strangling on dead ends, or a need for a particular ending to entice the reader to the next book in a series. The author may have a theme he's developed that he wants to be illuminated by the choices his characters make.

The plot is a means of getting to the desired end.

Pantsers are focused on highlights, typically emotional ones. They have characters in an initial situation, and there are things they want to happen to those characters (“he's going to meet someone and fall in love”, “her best friend will betray her”, “he'll be left for dead on the battlefield”), but there may or may not be a particular ending in view at the start. In genres like ScienceFiction, the highlights might even be worldbuilding, rather than emotional — demonstrating the ramifications of an exotic setting, for example.

The plot is a means of holding the highlights together in a satisfying way.