WSW Chat – Progress Report and A.I. : Threat or Menace?

The latest WSW chat is up! We discuss progress on our latest projects, as well as our thoughts on what AI means for writers.

(Apologies for some technical issues. Edited most audio-related issues out, but the result is that Lucinda moves around the screen a bit.)

Offensive Content

Mark Paxson

Do you worry about whether your book has offensive content? I’m going to bring up a specific example, but I’m sure this could apply more broadly. (For instance, a friend from high school that I reconnected with a few years ago, read one of my stories and didn’t like it because of some foul language.)

No … my example today is the n word. Hopefully, I don’t need to spell it out for you because it truly is an offensive word and you should know what I’m referring to. A word I never want to say, but … I have written a couple of stories in which the characters have. Because it’s who they are. To me, the art of fiction, while fictional, also must reflect the reality of the human existence. Unfortunately, there remain among us many who are racists and who don’t hesitate to use that word, or other offensive words. So, a couple of my characters have, in ways that I think are appropriate to their character and are not egregious, used the n word.

In connection with a conversation I was having on Twitter about another topic, I asked whether me using the n word in my fiction made me a racist. The response I got was that the person I was talking to couldn’t answer that question since she is white. That I would have to ask that question of people who are more directly impacted by the word.

In response to that, I reached out to an African-American writer that I know and asked her the following:

Does the use of the n word in fiction bother you?  In any instance, or as long as it fits the character and the context is it okay?  Does it matter if the writer is white or African-American?  Or is this something that doesn’t matter to you?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. While I believe that fiction is fiction, it also reflects reality. And humanity has a whole lot of ugliness. At the same time, I don’t want to be too offensive. 

Here is her response. And I’ve removed certain details to ensure that her identity is unknown. Other than that, I’ve left it unedited, complete with the n word fully visible and there.

Hey Mark, I think that we cannot hide from these words, nor pretend that these characters don’t use them. I do have a serious problem with excessive usage. But sometimes I’m in the middle and think that it’s time to move on, with violence on their rise and people who they have proven themselves to be. 

[Deleted] … for years I could not bring myself to go see “Showboat,” because of the opening song lyrics. “Niggers all work on the Mississippi, Niggers all work while the white man play.” I knew the story, but just couldn’t sit in the audience and listen to that word being used over and over. On the other hand, I also couldn’t handle the whole miscegenation part of the story.

“Showboat is one of the earliest musicals to focus on serious topics and occupies a very important place in the history of the musical.

Then, I pulled it together and went to see a production because I realized that it could be a teachable moment. A few years later, I’d heard that a production in the 60’s had changed the lyrics to, “colored folks work on the Mississippi…”Then several years later, “Negros all Work…  and eventually, to honor the multi ethnic cast, “We all work here on the Mississippi…” That also seems to be absolutely ridiculous, the content is extremely important.

A recent production decided to create a high level, professional recording that included a prestigious African American choir, singing the ensemble numbers. They refused to sing the original words. I get it, I don’t think that I could sing them either. I think a lot of that comes from an individual’s experience with that word. 

I have never been called that word to my face, though I do believe it would trigger me. But I know that my dad had to endure it countless times and he was always demeaned by its usage. It’s a complicated issue and I don’t think that I have a great solution. I might say something different tomorrow, especially if I think that the usage is gratuitous.

A funny solution that I once read in a short work of fiction told the story a group of homeboys who had a white boy who was a part of their crew. The hommies all called each other, “Nigger, but would not allow the white boy to join in, in what they called a term of familiarity and love.  The white guy could not figure out how to get them to let him use it, so he adopted the term, “my zigger,” which they were all very comfortable with, and I thought was a clever way to make a point. 

Once a friend asked me if she could call me “Nig.” I said no. She wouldn’t let it go. We are not friends today. Although there were several other issues.

Although not directly connected, I once received a call from a former clarinet teacher of mine. I had not spoken to this guy in over 20 years and he wanted to know if I thought OJ did it.

In short, I do believe that the intent and the context is so important.

I have a podcast that I started a year or two ago. I read one of my short stories, or an opening chapter, and throw it into the podcasting void for a handful of people to listen to. I haven’t done anything on it for months. There are a number of reasons for that. For instance, I stumble over words a couple of times in each episode and I haven’t learned how to edit those out. But one of the biggest reasons is that I want my next episode to be one of those stories in which the n word makes an appearance. I’m concerned about that, and it would require me to actually say the word out loud and put it out publicly, instead of writing it on the screen and quietly publishing the story amidst a collection of other stories.

I wonder what you think of this. It’s a cousin to the idea of trigger warnings, I believe. Are there offensive words you would consider forbidden in fiction that you either write or read? Or are you open to anything that is on the page? Should writers take into consideration whether the content of their stories will be offensive to some readers? Should readers be open-minded about these types of things?

I’ve decided at this point that I need to do this. I need to read the story and put it out on my podcast. Why? Because it’s real and I’d like it to generate a conversation about this stuff. I fundamentally believe that fiction must reflect human realities, including all of the ugliness.

A Year of Audiobooks

A year ago I took Google up on its offer to convert the ebooks I had in their store to auto-narrated audiobooks for free. In the last year audiobooks have more than doubled my sales on Google, accounting for 65% of those sales. Their ratings match their ebook version. When I converted my newest novel at the end of March, the program was still free, but they had added the option of using different voices for different characters in the story. You select a narrator, and then select from the voices they offer to voice the dialog of the various characters in the story, giving you the option of having an ensemble narrate your story instead of one person doing accents.

Traditional publishers will not sign a contract with an author unless the author gives them the audiobook rights. It is that lucrative of a market these days. Google is a free way of getting a foot in that market, with the bonus of being able to offer audiobooks at a very competitive price.

Sales of e and audio books on Google accounted for 67% of my total book sales for my eighth year of publishing. There are a billion reasons for this. Millions of people read and listen to books on their phones. The Google Play Store is the built-in store on all Android phones outside of China, and there are billions of them. There is no bigger market for your books in the world.

Everyone’s books, audience, and goals are different, but I have to believe that if you are selling wide, and not selling on Google or offering audiobooks, you are leaving money on the table.

An Art Festival Recap

Mark Paxson

Over on my personal blog, I provided a broader recap of this than I will here. Two days ago, I participated for the first time in an art festival. I had booth that displayed, acrylic art, photography, and my books. I’m going to focus on the books here.

I had five books available for purchase. $10 for an autographed copy. Plenty of people glanced at them, or even picked up a book and read the blurb on the back. I also gave the thumbnail sketch of each book for people who lingered a little bit longer.

In the seven hours the festival ran, I sold about one book an hour. Or thereabouts. I haven’t looked at the actual numbers, but my memory suggests I sold six or seven books. If that was the only thing I was selling, it wouldn’t have been enough to pay the booth fee.

It wasn’t just me. The Elk Grove Writer’s Guild, of which I’m a member, had a booth also. They had different writers come in for two hour blocks to staff the booth and to sell their own books. The leader of the guild was there all day and had her books available. Towards the end of the day she told me she had sold only one book. I don’t know how the other writers did.

A booth next to me included a number of indie published childrens books. I don’t know exactly how many he sold, but I rarely saw anybody buying his books.

Maybe it’s because it was an arts festival, and not a book fair, that the books didn’t do very well. Or maybe it’s because people just don’t read as much as they used to. But after this experience, including the experience of other writers, I’m going to think twice about trying to sell books at an event like this.

On Publishing

The ten months of slumming in query hell looking for a publisher for my novel has taught me two things. The first is that I’m an author/publisher. No adjectives. Don’t need, or want, “self” or “indie.” Just the facts, madam; I’m an author/publisher.

While I mostly think of myself as a writer, I’m also a publisher. However, ten months ago I was a publisher of necessity, of laziness, of old age, and of writing out of fashion books. Not any more. I’ve come to realize that not only am I a real publisher, but I’m the best publisher for my work. I just need to work at it more.

Yes, we all know this. Certainly authors making big money, and those aiming to make big money know this. Indeed, they probably split their time between author and publisher on a 20-80 basis. They know that it’s the selling of the product, not the making of it, that brings in the money. But those of us who are, shall we say, more artisans than business people, likely pay far less attention to publishing than we had ought to.

The second thing I learned is the value of owning our own work. Not just the copyright, but all of it. And always. Ownership gives us unlimited opportunities to promote our work on an ongoing basis. We need not abandon it after six months if it doesn’t succeed, which seems to be the case in traditional publishing.

There are some easy things to do as publishers to keep our books fresh. It costs nothing to revise our blurb every now and again. Or try new keywords. We can change our prices every so often as well as offer sales on a regular basis. Not to mention offering boxed sets and special editions. Little things like this may tickle the almighty algorithm into making our books a little more visible.

New covers are another way of keeping books fresh. Excellent covers can be made at no cost using the free app Canva which offers templates for book covers and plenty of free art to work with. And these days there’s AI generated art. Author/publishers are now using it to make their own covers. There are YouTube videos to show you how to use it, and I dare say, with just a month’s premium membership in Midjourney (at $30 a month) you could probably produce a dozen different covers for every one of your books, and then give each a try to see what one works best.

Trying different publishing strategies also keeps our book catalogs fresh; from going all in with Amazon to going wide, and back again. Nor should anyone overlook any platform. Barnes & Noble offers their own print on demand service for paper books, just like Amazon, along with promotional options for both ebooks and paper books that might be worth looking into. Google is going great guns for me these days, in both ebooks and audiobooks. Audiobooks alone have doubled my sales.

One of the great things about being an independent publisher is that there is a community of us. There are web forums, Facebook groups, and discord channels devoted to writers and publishers like us. Not only are experiences, both good and bad, shared, but things like mailing lists, newsletters, blog posts, and promotional opportunities can be exchanged. I’m not on social media, and my publishing strategy does not lend itself to this type of cooperation, so I don’t know any details, but I know that they exist, and I suspect they are at least worth looking into if you haven’t already.

You can also use social media to get to know people who share your taste in books. There are many book people on Facebook, Instagram, Tiktok, Twitter, and discord servers associated with YouTube channels.. Just trying to sell them your book isn’t likely to work, but becoming an active part of the community might lead to sales eventually. Of course, if you have a promotional budget you can run ads on Facebook, Amazon, or other social media that target the people with similar taste to yours

Alternatively, you can do what traditional publishers do. They court “influencers” on the various social media sites by sending them either paper advanced reader copies of upcoming books or the ebook version. If you can find popular book people on YouTube, and other social media in your genre, it might be worth spending some money to send them copies of your books. Many YouTubers either list a mailing address or have an Amazon wish list that you can use to send them a copy of your book. I know that hosts of YouTube book review channels have “book hauls” to show off the books they receive each month. At the very minimum your book would get some nice words in front of several hundred to several thousand viewers, plus they usually include a link to buy in the description below the video. And who knows, maybe even a nice review.

It may also pay to get the word out locally via calling on local bookshops, donating books to libraries and charity auctions, as well as setting up a booth at local events. We’ll soon see how Mark does with his booth at the art fair.

None of these techniques are likely to start an avalanche of sales, in and of themselves. Still, in every author interview I’ve seen, when asked about how they got published, they cite two reasons. The first is that they kept at it in the face of rejection. And the second is a stroke of luck. Their story reached just the right person, in the right position, at the right time for luck to strike out of the blue. Paying attention to the publishing half of our business is like flying a kite with a key in a thunderstorm – creating an opportunity for luck to strike.

Do you, dear readers, authors and editors have any tips to share with us? Comment below.

Is “Good Writing” Worth the Effort?

Have you ever been surprised to see many 5-star ratings and enthusiastically positive reviews for a book that’s poorly written? Meaning typos, clunky sentences, and weak or repeated words? I’ve seen this often enough to conclude that it’s not explained by authors’ friends doing them favours.

Then I read a post via a link from the blog of the estimable blogger who calls himself Chris the Story Reading Ape. He searches the blogosphere for posts of interest to writers. The one that caught my interest is titled What is “Bad Writing?” (And How Can We Avoid It?)

For a direct link to the post, click HERE.

Janice Hardy’s post prompted the following unvarnished thoughts which I decided to share here. Remember that word as you read: unvarnished. (And maybe a bit snarky.)

The post questions the idea that fiction writers absolutely must produce polished prose if they want their novels to be read and appreciated.

For readers seeking undemanding entertainment, “good writing” (whatever that is) takes a back seat to the combination of good enough writing and a great story that piques curiosity. Quite simply, readers keep reading if a compelling question is posed at the beginning of a story or novel. They really don’t care if there are a few typos, along with “filter” words, words ending in “-ly,” or too many instances of “was.” They may not even care if there’s telling instead of showing, as long as the story being told moves along briskly toward an answer to the burning question. Who is the stalker? What’s in the box? What will X do when Y’s secret is revealed?

Some readers do care about the prose, though. Editors, for example, or readers who are also writers. These people read a lot and pay close attention to what they are reading. They notice sloppy sentences, bad habits, and careless use of language.

Some writers may wish to be strategic with their writing efforts, tailoring them for their intended readers and not bothering with effects those readers don’t appreciate. For self-published authors, that means potential book buyers; for writers seeking traditional publication, it’s agents and editors.

A successful self-published author of genre fiction knows that the most important element to attract readers is the urgent question, irresistible puzzle, or imminent threat. Plot is king. Next in importance is an amiable main character or engaging narrative voice. Less important are detailed descriptions, and possibly unimportant is artful prose, otherwise known as “beautiful writing.”

This author would direct their primary effort to devising irresistible situations and setting them up in the first few pages. After that, it’s a matter of structuring the plot in such a way that the reader is always thinking “What next?” And an ending that elicits a gasp or a sigh pretty much guarantees a five star rating.

The writer who intends to engage in querying traditional publishers must think in terms of creating a saleable written product. That means being aware of both current and recent trends. What might be about to peak, or what’s ready to make a comeback? Or what story elements push the envelope just enough that the gatekeepers will see it as potentially the next big thing?

In theory, the author aspiring to be trad-pubbed doesn’t need to worry much about honing and burnishing their prose, because if a publisher takes on their work, it will be put through the editing mill. What the writer absolutely does need to demonstrate is a willingness to be edited. That’s why a track record of publication in magazines, anthologies, and similar vehicles is advised.

At the same time, the writer’s submission must not irritate the people who read submissions for a living. Consider how many typos these folks see every day, not to mention eye rolls, shrugs, and raven-haired heroines. Clichés, excessive modifiers, typos, and tired tropes are not the best accessories in which to dress one’s original and edgy creation for its trip to the publishers’ gates. Spare and underdone might have a better chance than florid and breathless.

Except in the case of literary fiction, where some form of beautiful writing is definitely required. What that is depends on the tastes of the reader, which is why getting published is a crap shoot. Luck is definitely an element. To help tip the scales, the ambitious writer may find it worthwhile to direct their efforts as much to making personal connections with published authors as to polishing their prose. This is where pursuing an MFA in creative writing may pay off, or at least superior schmoozing skills deployed in carefully chosen workshops, courses, or retreats.

Setting aside all those tedious considerations, what about the personal standards of the indie author? Should we not aspire to produce gripping plots, relatable characters, intriguing settings, and artful prose? Aren’t these all necessary elements of good writing?

Yes, they are. And most authors at least intend to incorporate them all in their works. Exceptions may include successful authors who crank out several books a year to satisfy the many readers for whom they are an auto-buy. Their brand sells enough books that they don’t need to twiddle with every sentence.

To sum up, good writing isn’t always worth the effort, but often enough, it is. The wise writer will recognize those situations and act accordingly.

Fellow writers and authors, do you ever decide that “good enough” is good enough, or do you always strive for perfection in your published works?

On Writing

I went in. The room beyond was large and square and sunken and cool and had the restful atmosphere of a funeral chapel and something of the same smell.”

I don’t know what, if anything, I thought about that last sentence when I first read it many years ago. But when I read it a few days ago, as an author, I was blown away by it. It is an amazing sentence. The author wrote a clunky, awkward, and ugly sentence to describe an unpleasant room using plain, bland, and ordinary adjectives. The structure of the sentence rather than the words convey the image, the meaning. I have to believe that someone could only write a sentence like that if that someone was completely confident in their ability as a writer. If they knew what they were doing. If they didn’t care if anyone else did. Ram you, damn you, they were good even if you, and everyone, thought otherwise. This level of confidence in one’s talent, skill, and vision is what is needed to be a great writer. I think that you have to find that confidence within yourself – or perhaps in a bottle. In any event, you’ll not find the real vein of confidence in critique groups, beta readers, editors, or reviews. It has to have been there before that feedback, and perhaps, persist in spite of that feedback. You have to know you’re good and accept that not everyone will get it. What “they” think doesn’t matter. What you know does. And you do know, and are good. That’s what art is about.

The paragraph goes on:

Tapestry on the blank roughened stucco walls, iron grilles imitating balconies outside high side windows, heavy carved chairs with plush seats and tapestry backs and tarnished gilt tassels hanging down their sides. At the back a stained-glass window about the size of a tennis court. Curtained French doors underneath it. An old musty, fusty, narrow-minded, clean and bitter room. It didn’t look as if anybody ever sat in it or would ever want to. Marble-topped tables with crooked legs, gilt clocks, pieces of small statuary in two colors of marble. A lot of junk that would take a week to dust. A lot of money, and all wasted. Thirty years before, in the wealthy closed-mouthed provincial town of Pasadena then was, it must have seemed like quite a room.”

– The High Window, by Raymond Chandler.

Ram you, damn you, he didn’t even care if all the sentences were even sentences. And trips you up at the end. He was a great writer.

Just say’n.

AI — Should we be worried?

— Mark Paxson

There are corners of the internet abuzz with news of artificial intelligence. The most well known variation is ChatGPT, which will answer just about any question you ask it, including asking it to write a paper or to write a story.

Yesterday, I asked it to write a piece of flash fiction about a unicorn eating a muffin. I then asked it to write a Stephen King style flash fiction about a unicorn eating pizza. Then, I clicked on the “regenerate response” button and it wrote a different version of same.

A few weeks ago, my first Chat GPT experiment asked it to write a paragraph in my style. Instead of writing a paragraph in my style, it wrote a paragraph describing what my style was.

There is apparently evidence that Chat GPT (or its cousins) are being used by students to write papers. A blogger I’ve followed for years and years has written about artificial intelligence (AI) and the benefits it can provide. One example he used was that it could help people write letters. I practically keeled over at this benefit because I still don’t get why things like this are so difficult. And what the world is coming to if people need AI to help them write a letter.

Then I was at a UPS Store yesterday and somebody didn’t quite know how stamps worked and the store employee and I bemoaned the fact that people don’t even know how to address an envelope or … write a letter … these days.

Back to my experiments and what I’ve heard from other people as well. What Chat GPT came up with was so incredibly generic. For instance, the paragraph about my writing style really didn’t say much of anything and I doubt that Chat GPT had any way of knowing what my style really was. It was just some buzz phrases that sounded good.

As for yesterday’s flash fiction experiments, the results were more or less the same. Very generic. Very generic. The piece about a unicorn eating a muffin read like a very simplistic fairy tale. The two versions of a Stephen King story about a unicorn eating pizza weren’t really very Stephen King like. Just a bit darker and ominous.

So … should we be worried? Some of the places where this is a topic of conversation suggest that creative types will no longer be needed. Somebody can just tell Chat GPT or its cousins to write a story and they can read that story any time they want. At some point teachers and professors will no longer be able to tell the difference between a student-written paper and an AI-generated paper.

That may come at some point, but I’m not worried about it happening anytime soon. And I may not worry about it ever really happening on a large scale. What I think AI will always miss is emotion and sarcasm and humor and loss. I may be wrong, but I just don’t see these things being able to generate some basic elements of humanity. Unless and until that happens, AI may be able to engage in some rudimentary communications and other things, but it won’t be able to replace human creativity.

Put another way … AI may be able to perform the basic math type skill of writing a letter or a snappy jingle, but I question whether it will ever be able to produce the calculus-level effort needed to write an authentic story of the human experience. One that leaves the reader feeling something.

Are you worried?

Are you being followed?

Amazon has a tab on your author page that readers can hit to follow their favorite authors to get alerted to new releases. Do you know how many readers are following you? I believe that until recently, this number wasn’t shown to authors. But it is now, if the number is more than 20. To find out if you have any followers, you need to go to your Author Central page. There you can:

Click the “Reports + Marketing” tab

Go to the “Reports” section.

You can then see the number of your followers under “Amazon Followers.”

If you dare.