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.

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.

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?

Embracing the Wide Approach

Mark Paxson

I’ve written several times in recent months about my experimenting with “going wide” in my publishing efforts. For those not in the know, this is basically using publishing platforms that distribute your books widely, as opposed to publishing through Amazon’s KDP with its limitations and monopolistic tendencies.

What I believe are the biggest names in publishing wide are Draft2Digital and Smashwords. They are in the process of merging, but it appears that, while merged, they will keep separate features. Most notably, Smashwords has its own store for books published through its service. Draft2Digital does not. But D2D recently offered all of its authors the opportunity to be included in Smashwords’ store.

Another well-known wide publisher is IngramSpark — which is actually the granddaddy of them all. Some of the other publishers basically piggyback onto some of IngramSpark’s services. I did not go with IngramSpark because of customer service issues I had with them. Instead, I opted for D2D. There are some odd quirks about D2D, but I have found the process to publish both ebook and paperback on D2D to be easier than doing so through KDP.

As I’ve written before, I published a novella and short story collection via D2D. Those were published in August – October of last year. According to the stats on D2D, I’ve sold a combined 100 copies of those two books since then. While a lot of those sales are still through Amazon, there have been sales on Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Apple, and a couple of other platforms.

I have no idea how things would have gone if I had limited these books to KDP’s options. Would the few sales I made through other retailers have been made up by pages read through Kindle Unlimited? Are there other ways that Amazon pushes books published through them that we writers don’t see? Ways that they don’t utilize for indie authors brave enough to buck their monopolistic tendencies? I don’t know.

Here’s what I do know though. I like the idea of having my books more widely available and also the idea of it being easier to put my books in local bookstores and libraries if I try to do that — something that is very difficult with the Amazon-only approach. Whether I make more sales this way or not may not be the most important factor.

As a result, I’m in the process of re-publishing my older books on D2D so that they can also be available more widely. I started with my first novel, am in the process of finalizing a short story collection that combines my first two short story collections, and will be wrapping it up with a novel I published in 2021.

Will any of this make a difference? Who knows. But I prefer this approach. So I’m sticking with it. Here’s one reason … Draft2Digital informs its readers of promotions the various retailers are running. You can apply, typically including only one book at time as long as it meets the promo’s requirements, and then … well, that’s the weakness. Some of the retailers don’t bother to let you know if your book is included in the promo and it’s also not entirely clear to me how these promos actually work. But … at least it’s something. Other than Kindle Unlimited, nothing Amazon has offered has done anything for sales for me.

If you have any questions about D2D or going wide, ask away in the comments. I also recommend a Facebook group called Wide for the Win filled with authors who have way more experience with this than I do.

Next up for me … uploading all of my books into Google Play and then trying a few Facebook ads.

We Interrupt Our Regular Programming

Mark Paxson

Stepping away from posts about writing and publishing and the like, I want to share a book I just finished.

Regular viewers of our video chats will know that several of us are big P.G. Wodehouse fans. That does not include me. Just as evidence of my lack of fandom, I originally typed P.D. and thought that was correct until I looked it up.

In our most recent video chat, which is still going through editing and should be posted soon, after more discussion about P.G. Wodehouse, I agreed that I would read one of his stories and asked for a recommendation. And that is how Right Ho, Jeeves appeared on my Kindle.

I finished the book a day or two ago and here’s what I think. First off, I appreciated that unlike may books written way back when, it was not dense. It was not filled with pages of unnecessary description. No, instead, there was a lot of dialogue and things happening. While the narrator, Bertram Wooster, occasionally wallowed in his head at times, it was not excessive. I actually found the story enjoyable and easy to read.

That said, and Berthold knows this about me, I simply don’t get comedy in stories. I rarely laugh while reading. Nary a chuckle rumbles from within while I’m reading something that is supposed to be funny. It was the same with Right Ho, Jeeves. I believe I slightly chuckled one time while reading it and I think that one incident related to something I interpreted as a comment on the art and challenge of writing, more than what was going on within the story.

Other than that, however, I read the thing with a straight face and … well, while I could see people being amused by the some of the shenanigans, even laughing at the events and dialogue and the names and all that, it just doesn’t work that way for me. So … I did not laugh. Instead of seeing humor in the story, I saw silliness. Which, I admit a lot of humor derives from silliness. I mean, one of my most favorite movies is The Holy Grail – a monument to silliness.

I guess I just don’t see silliness and feel it when I’m reading.

I asked the others during this last video chat if I was weird because of that. Fortunately, Richard came to my defense and acknowledged family members who have said the same thing.

What about you? Do you find humor in what you read? Whether the humor was intentional or not. And if not that, is there some other hole in your ability to appreciate what you read. Some other genre or trick of the trade that simply doesn’t work on you?

Before I forget, in case I don’t blog anything else in the next week or two, may you and yours have the most joyous of holiday seasons, regardless of how you choose to celebrate. And in 2023 … write on!

Road Blocks to Reading

Mark Paxson

Over at her blog, Audrey put up a post about what makes her close a book before she reaches The End. Her list of four includes: animal abuse; graphic violence or grossness as the point of the book; a hateful main character; long sections of action unrelieved by dialogue, description, or backstory.

I thought I’d bring that conversation over here because it’s an interesting topic for writers to consider as they write their stories. Not that I think one reader’s view of the road blocks is determinative. No, definitely not that. And Audrey mentions in her post how reading a book is a complex thing, an interaction between the writer’s imagination and the reader’s imagination. The result of that interaction is that the experience, the outcome, may just be different for every reader.

But, still, there are good reasons a writer might want to consider the possibility of road blocks. Each of Audrey’s road blocks is legitimate and likely held by a lot of readers. People don’t want to read about animal abuse (or child abuse), and endless graphic violence can turn off a lot of people. And, of course, one of the rules of writing is that there has to be something appealing about the main character. Right?

I commented on Audrey’s post about one of my road blocks and decided to post a few more here. But … before I do that, let me first acknowledge that I almost never have a “did not finish” on books that I read. I almost always power my way through to the bitter end. Although, I did one time stop reading a book with less than ten pages to go because … I. Just. Didn’t. Care. Anymore. Nope. I didn’t care what happened to the characters. I didn’t care how the author wrapped things up. I just didn’t care. So I stopped reading.

And that’s the first road block.

  1. Characters and/or a story line that I don’t care about. Yes, that’s vague and very specific to me. What am I going to care about? How can the writer know? I have no idea and I can’t really explain what it is that I’m looking for, but I’ve got to care about what I’m reading. Good luck writers of the world!
  2. Too many characters introduced too quickly. This really is at the top of my list, and it’s what I mentioned over on Audrey’s blog. If ten pages in, you have introduced 15 different people to me, I’m not really going to be very happy. Even worse, is if they have similar names or similar relationships. You know, like Andrew, who has four sisters — Ann, Anna, Annie, Annalisa. And Andrew’s best friend is Anthony. Stop it already!
  3. Taking too long to expose what the story actually is. I’m not sure how I select books to read, but frequently I do so without reading the blurb. Or, if I read the blurb, I don’t immediately start reading the book. It may sit in the stack for a month or two before I crack it open and, by then, I have long forgotten what the blurb disclosed. As a result, frequently, when I start reading, I have no idea what the story is actually about. And it absolutely pisses me off if the author doesn’t get into the story line and disclose something that gives me an idea pretty early on. Seriously, if I get to page 50 and I still have no idea what I’m reading and why I’m reading it, I’m going to start wondering why I’m bothering when there are other books in that stack.
  4. Too much description. How much is too much? I don’t know. I just don’t need or want a lot of description in what I read. See above about the importance of the reader’s imagination contributing to the outcome of the story for that specific reader.

The thing about this list, as I state above, is that none of these things typically rise to the point where I close the book and don’t finish it. And it’s a good thing in some instances. For example, the first time I read Kite Runner, I wanted to close the book after the first 20 pages or so. I read the first chapter (or was it two?), and I had no idea what I was reading. But I didn’t, and that book is now in my list of favorite books. I’ve read it several times since and still enjoy it.

That’s why I think I finish almost everything I start. I may miss something spectacular if I put a book away before it’s time. Yes, FOMO is a real thing!!

One final comment regarding Audrey’s list. I totally get people who don’t want to read about abuse and violence, particularly if it feels egregious and unnecessary. Those things, however, are not on my list of road blocks to reading. Instead, those things frequently draw me into a story. It’s like with movies — most of my favorite movies are intense and dark and, yes, violent.

Sadly, violence and abuse are a part of the human condition and I don’t want to shy away from those things when I read or watch. In my current stack of books to read the next couple of months is A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. I read it a few years ago. I will never recommend it to any other reader. It is the most brutal book I’ve ever read. Over 800 pages of the most horrendous stuff I’ve ever read. One of the main characters is absolutely beaten and brutalized throughout his life. But … here’s the deal for me … buried in those 800+ pages of brutality is the potential for hope and for love. And I need to read it again to see if my memory is correct about that — to remind myself of how it ended and that hope and love are always there.

So … if you haven’t commented over on Audrey’s post, now that you’re here, what don’t you want to read when you’re reading? What do you shy away from when you’re writing? Do you think about the reader’s experience and imagination while you’re writing?

No More Promo Sites!

Mark Paxson

When I published my first novel back in 2012, I ran several promos on EReaderNews Today. Some were free promos, some were .99 promos. the end result of those promos was that thousands downloaded that novel and I actually made a couple thousand dollars on the book.

When I published a YA novel in 2021, I looked forward to running a promo on ENT and watching the sales soar. Well … that’s not what happened. My promo produced 11 downloads of the book. At .99, that meant I didn’t even reach $4 in earnings for a promo I paid someting like $40-50 for.

In August, I published a domestic thriller novella. I published it on Draft2Digital, as I’ve discussed here several times. D2D provides access to various promos the different e-book retailers and I’ve signed up for those. Unfortunately, D2D and the retailers don’t always let you know if you were selected for one of their promos. So … I have no idea what, if anything, has happened with those promos. Except that I haven’t seen any uptick in my sales.

Somewhere along the way, I read something about Written Word Media — another paid promo option. Like most, they have an email list and promise to include your book in an email that will go to hundreds of thousands of readers. So … I decided to try again.

First up, on November 30, my new domestic thriller novella. The promo cost $65 and promised an email to over 200,000 readers. The day the promo ran, I got about a dozen new downloads. In the days since, there have been more, bringing the downloads for that book since November 30 to about thirty. Meaning, I may make $20 on a promo that cost me $65.

I also ran a promo for that YA novel. This one was only $25 and promised to be sent to over 100,000 readers. As of this writing, that promo produced 4 downloads. So … $25 produced about $1.30 in revenue.

This simply is not a workable concept anymore. (I’d love to hear if other writers out there have experienced better success with these.) I’m convinced that the problem is that the market is just absolutely over-saturated at this point.

And, of course, there’s the other dynamic … do people actually read these emails and buy books from them. Well, obviously, a few do, but is it a meaningful number who do so? It’s not looking that way. I also wonder just how many people on their email lists are other writers, who signed up so they could run their own promo.

Anyway, I’m done with getting sucked into these promo sites. Next up is that I’m going to try some Facebook ads and see what happens. Oh, and I’m also going back to my earlier books and will be publishing them through D2D, to get away from the Amazon monopoly with those as well.


Mark Paxson

In response to Berthold’s post, I have thoughts.

When I first started writing, I was a regular on a website called Toasted Cheese. It’s still around and produces one of the best literary e-zines there is. But, back then, I remember posting something about whether stories have to have “a point.”

So … let me back up a bit more. Back to high school. I hated English class because we were always asked to analyze what the writer meant. What their point was. And all I thought was … maybe the writer wrote the story or the poem simply because they wanted to write a story. Must every story have a point?!

I still feel this way. But when I asked this question on Toasted Cheese, the response I remember getting was something like “yes, every story has a point even if you don’t think there is one.” Yes, even my stories … had a point, whether I intended a point or not.

And that just continues to rankle me. With one exception, I haven’t stories with the intention of making a point. I just write stories based on an idea and to see what I can do with that idea.

Which brings up Berthold’s question. Depth. I feel like this is related to whether or not a story should have a point. Sure, some stories have a point. That doesn’t mean all stories have a point. Nor do all stories have to have “depth,” which, to be honest, I’m not sure what that actually means.

I now this. My first novel was what I believed was a simple story. Since then, my ideas have got more complex, more layered. But not necessarily more “depth.” At least as I understand the term.

One of my current works in progress is a dystopian take on the U.S. in the near future. It has some complexities to it, but ultimately is a simple tale. Recently though I read Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents, which are also a dystopian tale. They provide me with some ideas for even more complexity, and more depth to the story I’m working on. And I think about that and wonder if I want to go there. Do I really want to write something other than the “simple” story I thought of when I started this thing? Do I really want to include within the story ruminations of human nature and how people can get to the point where they get to in my story? Or do I just want that stuff to happen organically.

That’s where I have a difficulty with “depth” in stories. Frequently, I feel like the author uses a chain saw where a scalpel would have done. The “depth” or the “point” becomes so oppressive that it destroys the story that is really what I want to read. My preference is that a story be the story and that readers take from it what they will. Even if one reader says “ah, yes, the moon is made of green cheese,” while another reader says “now I understand the Pythagorean theorem.”

This is the beauty of writing. Of fiction. A writer writers. Readers read and take from it what they will. There doesn’t have to be a point. There doesn’t have to be depth. Except for that which the reader gets from the words on the page.

The Future

— Mark Paxson

When we started this blog a few years ago, I had an idea of creating a community of writers that helped each other. Something much larger than it has become.

I had big plans for having resources that helped other writers, writing exercises, chats, and posts that invited conversation and a give-and-take, not just between those of us who write here, but including other writers who stopped by now and then.

It hasn’t quite turned out that way. I blame myself mostly because I haven’t done what it takes to make this a destination location for writers. I’ve been derelict in sharing its contents on other social media platforms. I’ve been derelict in posting regular writing exercises. And I’ve been derelict in expanding the resources page and sharing resources more regularly via blog posts as well.

I’m wondering at the moment whether this is an effort worth continuing. I enjoy our video chats. They always end with me motivated to keep plugging away at both writing and helping other writers. I enjoy reading what other writers have contributed to this blog. But the conversation and interaction have not been as broad as I had hoped.

So … I’m pondering the future of this blog. What are your thoughts?

What’s Your Dream?

— Mark Paxson

I was thinking about this today and came up with a bit of a different response to this question. Sure, I have the normal dreams. A bestseller. A whirlwind book tour. Seeing one of my stories on the big screen. I mean, seriously, I rarely go to the theater anymore, but when I do, there invariably comes a moment when I visualize one of my stories up there. And I kind of like that idea.

But today, a completely different idea came to mind. When I was a kid, I re-read a lot of books. As an adult, however, I don’t re-read books that much. I’ve re-read Everything Matters by Ron Currie, Jr., a vew times. I’ve read Racing In the Rain by Garth Stein a couple of times. I’ve read one of Wally Lamb’s books two or three times. I’ve read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road several times.

I’ve gone back and read some of my early favorites. Like Man O’ War, a book I read repeatedly as a child. It’s about the greatest racehorse that ever stepped out on the track. I went back and read it a few years ago. I re-read Dune recently because of the remake of the movie. I don’t know, though, that I’ll ever re-read Lord of the Rings again. I have re-read some of Stephen King’s books over the years — The Shining in particular.

For the most part now I don’t go back and re-read a book. It’s steady movement forward, trying to find the next diamond in the rough. The next book that will make me cry. The next one that makes want to never stop turning the pages.

And that’s my dream. For one of my books to be the type of story that readers want to re-visit over the years. Not just a one and done story, but something that sticks with them. That makes them feel something that they wouldn’t mind repeating every now and then.

What’s your dream?