Monday, October 5, 2015

What Are the Qualities of Good Fiction Writing?

By Quora Contributor


Can anyone be a good writer?
This question originally appeared on Quora, the best answer to any question. Ask a question, get a great answer. Learn from experts and access insider knowledge. You can follow Quora on Twitter, Facebook, and Google Plus.
Answer by Graeme Shimmin, author of A Kill in the Morning:
Anyone can be a good writer. Most people have imagination, and most people have an idea for a story. What most people can't do is tell the story in a way that people want to hear.
Unlike a lot of writers, I take the view that anyone can be taught to write at least reasonably good fiction, because getting to that level is largely a matter of avoiding “schoolboy errors” that are easily understood. It takes a lot of work, but if you're prepared to work hard and listen to feedback, then you can be a good writer. If you aren't prepared to work hard and listen to feedback, then you may as well stop reading.
I tend to divide writing that I review into four levels: beginner, amateur, intermediate, expert. To me, if your writing is at the expert level, then you are good writer, though that sure as hell doesn't mean you don't make mistakes or you've got nothing to learn.
I'm going to try to distinguish in practical terms what makes a good fiction writer stand out from a beginner or amateur—and it's all down to what kinds of mistakes they make. 
Beginner-level mistakes 
Beginner-level issues are things like not being able to punctuate properly, overusing exclamation marks, shifting tenses, and not formatting paragraphs properly. I won't consider these further. When I see issues like that in someone's work, I normally advise him that he needs to get Self-Editing for Fiction Writers or a similar guide to grammar and editing. 

Amateur-level mistakes

These are the kinds of issues I often see at my writing group or on YouWriteOn. They're easily done and pretty easy to fix. They include:

  • Unclear speaker attribution
  • Using clichés and hackneyed phrases (e.g. "knife through butter").
  • Run-on sentences
  • Too many adverbs and weak verbs
  • Strings of adjectives
  • Too much internal monologue 
  • Too many passive sentences
  • Using obscure tenses
  • Unnecessary explanation ("As you know, Bob ... ")
  • Using superlatives rather than more precise descriptive words
  • Not controlling point of view
  • Commonplace dialogue ("Hi, how are you?" "Fine.")
  • Telling not showing ("Bob was a funny guy.")
  • Too much dialogue, not enough description
  • Flowery writing or overwriting
  • Repetition of words or phrases
  • Mixed, forced, or jarring similes and metaphors
  • Too visual or audio, not enough of other senses
  • Authorial intrusion or bald exposition

Once you've got past those kind of issues, you can write stuff that at least some people will want to read. The writing will flow to an extent. The reader should be able to suspend disbelief and engage with the story without being stopped by the writing.

Intermediate-level (and above) mistakes

The next step is to take your reader on a worthwhile journey. Here's a list of possible problems to check your story for that might make that journey an unsatisfying one for the reader:

  • Too much backstory before the inciting incident (this is the No. 1 problem I see in otherwise good stories)
  • Protagonist too eager or things being too easy.
  • Lurching tone ("Is is a comedy or a thriller?")
  • Loose ends ("What happened to Joe? He just disappeared in Chapter 10.")
  • Saggy second act
  • Digression
  • One pace (nonstop action)
  • Relying on deus ex machina to resolve the plot
  • Plot unfocused or the premise is unclear
  • Characters don’t change.
  • Weak themes
  • Weakly defined characters
  • Stakes too low or characters too dull
  • Setups not handled correctly ("Where did his radio come from?")
  • Plot too obvious ("I saw the ending coming miles off.")
  • Plot too convoluted
  • Believability ("It seemed a bit crazy.")
  • Character motivations not personal enough
  • Plot and character not entwined
  • Lacks emotional highs and lows
  • Unoriginal or clichéd plot
  • Stereotypical characters.
  • Plot holes

At this level, the issues are a bit subjective. For example, the line between being “too obvious” and “too convoluted” is more about the reader than the writer and more of a question of what audience you want to appeal to.


You can find the original article at:

Monday, September 28, 2015

Dealing With Editors and Mentors


First four words about editors and mentors...They are not God...

Now a few more words...Working with editors and mentors (E/Ms) can be confusing and on occasion filled with frustration. I've worked with good and bad E/Ms, and - thankfully - one great E/M. 

Good E/Ms are the most common of the genus éditorus rex. These, generally kind examples of the species, understand what you are trying to accomplish with your novel/story, but only work with you if your manuscript is - short of a copy edit - publication ready. They are pleasant enough, but harried and easily distracted by their own problems or workload. They are like parents who raise free-range children, allowing them to run wild, hoping they will eventually turn out okay.

Bad E/Ms are like weeds in the flower beds of your prose. They are noxious, prevalent, and can choke the life out of your manuscript. Sometimes, you can feel as if this species of E/M is reveling in picking your manuscript apart, insisting on changes from left field, and they can leave you having no idea what they are talking about (I did mention frustration above). In general, these sour individuals are simply not a good match for your particular manuscript.

Bad E/Ms may actually be good editors when working in their favorite genre or with important authors - as opposed to working writers. However, when faced with being assigned to edit a manuscript from a genre with which they are not familiar - or simply don't like - they can become as difficult as a four-year-old having a meltdown in the middle of the cereal aisle. 

They may even view your manuscript as beneath their own literary aspirations. They believe they should be editing Thomas Wolfe or F. Scott Fitzgerald - you know, authors worthy of their attention - instead of wasting their time with you. 

Yikes. If this happens to you escape while you still can.

The problem is, beginning writers often confuse the above editorial species. You have to be objective when working with an E/M. Are they helping you make the manuscript better, or are they undermining the power of your words? 

Some beginning writers have a hard time overcoming the blinkers of their own writer's narcissism. They are like mothers who believe their fat, spotty, rude child - otherwise known as their manuscript - is perfect, and woe be to anyone who doesn't lavish praise or who dares to change a word. Writer's like this can't recognize when the suggestions and changes offered by a good E/M are pertinent and needed. Unable to distinguish between the bright plumage of a good E/M and the black belly feathers of a Bad E/M, they rant and rave and become their own worst enemy. Unless they really are the equivalent of Thomas Wolfe or F. Scott Fitzgerald, they will not find the welcome mat out next time they want to submit a manuscript.

There is another breed of beginning writer at the other end of the spectrum. They can't imagine ever disagreeing with an editor. They often end up butchering their fragile bonsai tree of a manuscript trying to please an E/M who may (good E/Ms) or may not (bad E/Ms) have the best interest of their manuscript at heart.

Great E/Ms are rare and magical beasts. They are actually able to see what works and doesn't work in your novel. They make considered and constructive suggestions, help you find solutions to manuscript problems, encourage you through the hard process of making changes, and become a true partner in the publishing process. If you ever come across a great E/M, protect them with your life. 
They will make you a better writer and a better person. They might not turn your manuscript into a bestseller, but they will ensure it will sell better than it would without their input.

But let's get back to the point of this diatribe - E/Ms are not God. 

As a writer, I've long believed the myth that most E/Ms are trolls living under their desks snatching at any winsome manuscript trying to pass across their desk. I am loath to give up that unreasonable impression, even though I now find myself turning into a troll as my role of E/M expands.

Remember, an E/M's comments on your manuscript are opinions. We may be wrong (but probably not). Comments on your manuscript are not judgements of you as a person or even as a writer. I wrote a lot of bad crap before the scent of my pros began to become more acceptably aromatic. 

Speaking for myself I am completely capable of getting things wrong. If you send me a historical romance to edit, my tendency would be to strip down your flowing prose, excise all of the yucky moony-eyed stuff, and editing you by the standards of another genre with which I am more familiar. 

Hopefully, I have evolved as an E/M to the point where I don't do this. I have grown to understand the tropes of many other genres beyond my own. I could be a good editor for a historical romance or sweet romance or even an erotic romance - but I will never be a great editor in those genres because I have nothing to add to make a manuscript better other than the generic literary conventions. I could make such a manuscript better, but I most likely couldn't help make it sing.

So, what does all of this mean when you submit a manuscript or work with an E/M? First, when your chosen E/M makes comments and suggestions don't take them personally. Try to be objective about them. Do they make sense? Do they make your manuscript stronger? Don't be obnoxious, but neither be afraid to disagree. I personally am open to a back and forth literary relationship. I may not get what you are trying to do until you explain it to me. Once I understand, I can tailor my advice and encouragement. 

I am certainly not the final word on the worth of a manuscript or even the changes I think should be made. No E/M is. This is about your writing, not a troll's editing. Still, as a writer, you need to be open and prepared to learn from an E/M's experience, while not allowing an E/M to derail your vision. 


E/M shopping can be a dangerous path. After offering advice, no E/M likes to be told be told, "But that's the complete opposite of what E/M so-and-so said." E/M shopping will only lead you to a cornucopia of conflicting advice, causing utter confusion and frustration for a beginning writer.
An E/M offers advice and opinions. Throwing up your arms and telling an E/M another E/M gave the total opposite advice is the quickest way to make the current E/M abandon you in midstream. If an E/M's advice is conflicting with what you've been told, keep your own counsel, consider the advice, and make a decision about which E/M is right. Then - most importantly - stop shopping around and stick with the E/M who serves you best.

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER: Novelist, screenwriter, and television personality, Paul Bishop spent 35 years with the Los Angeles Police Department, where he was twice honored as Detective of the Year. He continues to work privately as an expert in deception and interrogation. His fifteen novels include five in his LAPD Homicide Detective Fey Croaker series. His latest novel, LIE CATCHERS, begins a new series featuring LAPD interrogators Ray Pagan and Calamity Jane Randall. 

Friday, September 18, 2015

Kapow! The unstoppable rise of female comic readers


According to Facebook likes, the gender gap in comic readers is narrowing. With proliferating female writers and an all-girl Avengers A-force, has the stereotype of the lonely male comic nerd gone for good?

About 10 years ago there was a TV advert for men’s the deodorant Lynx that, in its own particular laddish fashion, presented a procession of beautiful “ideal women” who could be persuaded to display counterintuitive attitudes when confronted by a man liberally doused in a cloud of the brand’s macho, musky scent.

Thus we had a montage of women really not minding about being kept waiting in the rain, being completely forgiving about missed birthdays, appreciating the fact that their breasts had been scrutinised, and one who announced, with unalloyed delight: “That is SO funny! I collect comic books too!”

The implication was clear: like falling asleep after sex, comic books are supposedly a wholly male preserve.

Fast forward a decade, and how times have changed – at least in terms of comics. So much so that, for one glorious moment this month, female comic readers tipped the balance and outnumbered males – or so it seems.

Graphic Policy is a website that has run since 2008, initially looking at comics at the more political end of the spectrum and morphing over the years to encompass statistics and demographics about comic readers and sales.

Each month they publish a report that breaks down comic readers into gender, age, ethnicity etc, using a fairly complicated – and admittedly not very scientific or comprehensive – formula that takes as its baseline all the people in the US who list comics as a hobby or “like” on their Facebook pages.

Perhaps not an exhaustive survey, but it’s worth bearing in mind that, as the author of the report points out, the US Facebook “population” is pegged at some 36 million people – so it’s a fairly weighty control group from which to make an assessment.

And in the demographic report presented on 1 September, for the first time the gender split was in favour of women: 53% of Facebook users who “liked” comics, graphic novels and various other iterations of the term used for the statistics were female.
It was a brief moment, however, and was probably down to a Facebook glitch rather than a sudden swing. According to the report’s author, and Graphic Policy founder, Brett Schenker: “On 11 September the data was checked again, and the stats have returned to where I’d expect. There are 42m likes for the terms, with men accounting for 23m (54.76%) and women for 18m (42.86%). We can chalk up the below to a glitch with Facebook reporting at the time of data gathering.”

But still the statistics make for interesting reading, and even at almost 43%, the modern comic readership gender split is a far cry from Lynx’s stereotype of 2005.

Much of the growth in female comic readers can be put down to the fact that there are far more women working in comics these days – Gail Simone, Kelly Sue DeConnick, G Willow Wilson, Tula Lotay, Ming Doyle, to name a handful. And comic books from Marvel and DC featuring women characters are proliferating – for instance, the all-female Avengers A-Force, Captain Marvel, Ms Marvel, Harley Quinn, Batgirl, Catwoman, Spider-Woman and the forthcoming Patsy Walker, AKA Hellcat.

There is also the rise of digital comics, which can be bought from home without having to step foot across the threshold of the local comic shop. While the Android’s Dungeon stereotype of the foreboding comic shop from The Simpsons might well be dying out, there’s possibly still a perception that some comic shops are a male-dominated territory, coupled with the clinging dregs of the “fake geek girl” row of a couple of years ago, when it was posited that some women only pretend to like comics and nerd-culture to impress men.

Which is pretty much where we came in, and which is an equally outmoded bag of nonsense. However the stats are arrived at, if comics readership is indeed getting on for a fairly equal gender split it’s something – like a bloke soaked in Lynx – that’s not to be sniffed at.


You can find the original article at:

Saturday, September 12, 2015

How to Use Profanity And Other Raw Talk In Your Fiction


The expletive known in polite circles as “the f-word” was most famously used in a major novel, Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, published in 1948.

Except it wasn’t.

Mailer’s publisher prevailed upon him to change the common but crass four-letter description of sex to “fug,” so as not to offend readers. Given the fact that the book was about men at war, the word occurred a lot. This resulted in a cluster-fug of criticism and discussion in literary circles, and gave rise to the anecdote about Tallulah Bankhead (or in some versions, Dorothy Parker) meeting Mailer and saying, “Oh, you’re the man who can’t spell that word.”
Times change.

These days, the f-word has lost some of its shock value, and most people—though by no means all—are not deeply offended by it. Still, authors often debate the role of racy talk in contemporary literature.

How much is too much? How do you know when you’ve gone too far, or not far enough?

First, let’s consider the rich palette of risqué words available to us and clarify their technical differences, so we know what’s what. Once you can differentiate among profanities, curses, obscenities and the like, you’ll be better equipped to determine how, why, and if you should use them.


Although it is often used to denote any objectionable word, profanity literally means words that are considered profane—that is, words proscribed by religious doctrine. (Proscribed generally means forbidden by written order.) In the Judeo-Christian tradition, this primarily means taking the Lord’s name in vain (that is, not in prayer).

For the love of God, stop complaining.

Jesus Christ, look at the size of that thing!


A curse calls upon a deity, or fate, to visit harm on someone or something.
Mild curse: Damn this zipper!
Strong curse: Goddamn her!
To be “damned” is to be condemned to hell. (See the common root lurking in condemned/damned?)
“Hell” can also be used as a curse—
Go to hell!
—or as mild profanity—
Oh, hell, the Potomac’s polluted again!


To swear literally means to take an oath, or to proclaim an oath. (An oath is a resolution or promise, usually calling on the deity’s assistance in carrying it out.)
As God is my witness, I’ll never go hungry again!
By God, I’ll show you!
Swearing can also be used to bear witness:
I swear, you’re the best cook in Memphis!


Obscene means something disgusting or morally abhorrent, often connoting sex. The f-word is considered the most objectionable of these. (Adding “mother” as a prefix ups the ante.)

Non-objectionable variants of the present participle form of the word—besides “fugging”—include “fecking,” “freaking,” “flipping” and “fricking.” (To be honest, I really don’t know why that “u” is so important.)

“Screw” is a milder word. Notice that both the f-word and “screw” are used not just to literally describe the act of intercourse, but to connote “taking advantage of”:
Don’t go to that repair shop—they screwed me out of $500 for a brake job I didn’t need.
Words referring to the pelvic area, male and female, are also considered obscenities.


Vulgarism is a great word that covers a lot of bases. If it’s crude and objectionable and falls outside the aforementioned categories, you’ve got yourself a vulgarism.

Casting aspersions on the circumstances of a person’s birth qualifies as a vulgarism. “Bitch,” “son of a bitch” and “bastard” can be termed vulgarisms. Ditto for “jackass,” which is often used as a substitute for another two-syllable word that starts with “ass.”

Excretory acts and their results fall under this rubric as well. “Crap” seems to be the only one that’s acceptable virtually everywhere.

To Use or Not to Use

Authors are divided about spicy talk, which is not surprising because readers are divided about it. 
Some really popular tough-guy authors—Lee Child comes to mind—use no profanity in their books, and lots of readers don’t even notice. Why? Because Child, for instance, doesn’t even write the watered-down “dammit,” which would call attention to the fact that he’s not using “Goddamn it.” For the same reason he’s certainly not going to have his characters, who blow one another’s brains out at the drop of a hat, say “darn it.” On the other hand, Tom Clancy, another leader in the same genre, uses lots of profanity, and he sure sells books.

Some readers are turned off by even a single curse word, whereas nobody will buy your book simply because you use raw language. So the safest path is to use zero raw language, right?

Well, writing is a journey, and journeys involve risks. I’m certain there are authors who have been successful in part because they shun propriety. I remember being happily shocked by Holden Caulfield’s speech in The Catcher in the Rye when I was a teenager.

As you write, look for a balance involving what you feel comfortable writing, what suits the characters and story you are creating, and what might please or displease your hoped-for readers.

Why to Use

Humans get angry. They crave precise expression. There’s something about cursing or using vulgar language that acts as a release valve. Most of us have experienced a moment when a good old rule-breaking bad word just feels sublime rolling off the tongue, and so it is for fictional characters. Be true and honest to the voices of those characters. Moreover, if you want to write realistically about certain milieus, such as wharves, mines and battlefields, well-written raw talk can make your characters seem lifelike and more authentic.

How to Use

Spicy language generally works best when it’s used sparingly, or at least in moderation. That way, you preserve the element of the unexpected, which can be a pressure-reliever for both character and reader. Aside from conveying anger or frustration, raw talk can also be humorous, in that it reveals how a character truly feels about something. For instance:
I ate another doughnut.
I ate another goddamned doughnut.
You instantly get a clue about this character and her relationship with doughnuts.
You can also have a character who habitually uses profanity in contrast to others who don’t. That, in itself, is a good individualizer.

In the case of the wharf-workers, miners and soldiers, here’s a caveat to remember: You shouldn’t just throw in spicy talk willy-nilly. You have to make it sound real. Go and listen to the people who populate the worlds you’re writing about. Read about them, experiment, read their words aloud.
But even if real cliff-blasting miners use a vulgarism every other word, it’s unnecessary for you to make your characters talk exactly that way. Just as with dialect and accents, using raw talk wisely serves to keep the reader grounded in your imaginary world, while avoiding the potential fatigue of overdoing it.

Consider your characters and employ common sense. A suburban matron wearing a linen dress and pearls might never swear in public, but she might let loose in the principal’s office over a dispute between her kid and a teacher, or when she breaks a nail opening her prescription amphetamines.

How Not to Use

Shakespeare knew that raw talk is the spice of writing.

He wrote the mother of all literary cuss-outs (cuss
is simply a variant of curse) in King Lear, but interestingly there is no profanity or obscenity as we know it, merely terrifically imaginative vulgarisms, delivered with passion. Here it is, the Earl of Kent preparing to thrash the crap out of Goneril’s loathsome lackey, Oswald:

KENT (TO OSWALD): A knave; a rascal; an eater of broken meats; a base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited, hundred-pound, filthy, worsted-stocking knave; a lily-liver’d, action-taking, whoreson, glass-gazing, superserviceable, finical rogue; one-trunk-inheriting slave; one that wouldst be a bawd in way of good service, and art nothing but the composition of a knave, beggar, coward, pander, and the son and heir of a mongrel bitch, one whom I will beat into clamorous whining if thou deniest the least syllable of thy addition.
Knowing the historical references helps; for example, “broken meats” means leftover table scraps. But even without that, we can luxuriate in the rant. This is a beautiful speech for many reasons: It’s forceful, it’s unique, it covers many aspects of insult, it clearly communicates one character’s contempt of another, and—important for many in Shakespeare’s audience—it avoids serious curses and obscenities.
It’s a shining example of how a writer can invent insults way more entertaining than those found in the standard lexicon.
You can do it by brainstorming aspects of your characters and their circumstances:
He was as appealing as a baboon’s butt.
You are the worst thing to happen to the world since
call waiting.

May you be condemned to an eternity of weak coffee, warm gin and a driveway paved with roofing nails.
By now, I think you’ll agree that it’s useful to explore—and perhaps even challenge—your own comfort zone. Certainly if it’s not you, it won’t ring true. But whether you decide to write common curses and vulgarisms into your work or not, your characters do need a verbal pressure valve. Don’t use tacky asterisks to replace vowels. Just have fun with the process and remember that a fug by any other name might sound remarkably original.

Contributing editor Elizabeth Sims ( is the author of eight books, including the Rita Farmer mysteries and the Lillian Byrd crime novels, and the brand-new instructional title You’ve Got a Book in You: A Stress-Free Guide to Writing the Book of Your Dreams (WD Books).

You can find the original article at:

Monday, September 7, 2015

The Case for Reading Books that Offend You

Recent news that several students at Duke University chose to abstain from reading Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel Fun Home, part of the school’s summer reading program, comes in the wake of a slew of lengthy think-pieces attempting to analyze Millennial views on offensive language. The students’ stance is relatively straightforward – Fun Home, specifically the images, contradicts their religious beliefs.

The freshman who spearheaded this campaign via Facebook, Brian Grasso, has since written a relatively cogent explanation of his reasoning which appeared in the Washington Post, though I personally find his definition of pornography misguided (for more on that see this Daily Beast article).

Here’s the thing though. Is reading a book, as well as looking at imagery, that offends you, or goes against your belief system, such a bad thing? In his op-ed, Grasso argues, “without genuine diversity, intellectual dialogue and growth are stifled.” To me it would seem that, especially in the context of higher education, refusing to intake any cultural artifact that doesn’t entirely mesh with your beliefs would bring that dialogue entirely to a standstill.

While universities are often lauded as liberal arenas today, that doesn’t mean that conservative students aren’t kept in mind. They simply may no longer be the focal point. Assigning a graphic novel such as Fun Home isn’t designed to push an agenda against Christianity nor conservatism. It’s a decision to highlight diverse literary voices.

Moreover, keep in mind that this is an academic setting. Duke is one of the most selective universities in the country, and thereby should assign students challenging texts free of censorship with the confidence that they can handle the conflict between their coursework and personal beliefs. For some, reading and viewing media outside of their belief system may even strengthen it.

Grasso is clearly an intelligent kid– the respectful and mature tone in which he poses his argument is evidence of that– but there is a flaw in conflating art with pornography, and also a sense of youthful naivete in running away from your very first college assignment. It’s like throwing in the towel before the match begins.

Forgive the bombastic bro-ness of this reference, but in David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech “This is Water,” he argues that higher education is not designed to teach students how to think, but rather to give them the tools to decide how they think on their own. He notes that we all have “default settings,” or routine ways of thinking and living. Certainly not all the time, but often enough, the act of being offended is a default setting. It is a reaction to a lifetime of beliefs, whether religious, political, cultural or otherwise.

I will posit that when we can step back from our immediate feeling of offense, and examine the reasons why we are offended to begin with, it is an opportunity to learn more not only about our beliefs, but also about the beliefs of others. This is certainly not always a comfortable experience, and a lot of the time it only takes milliseconds to understand why we’re pissed off because another person’s viewpoint is the polar opposite of our own. But we can learn in these moments.

In Duke’s The Chronicle, Grasso is quoted saying, “Duke did not seem to have people like me in mind…It was like Duke didn’t know we existed, which surprises me.”

While I understand where he’s coming from, the reality is Duke is well aware he exists, but is choosing to bring other perspectives into the discussion. There has never been a dearth of praised literature written by Christian white men in the educational system, whether public or private. It’s not that these books no longer deserve to be taught (they’ve been canonized for good reason), but it’s well overdue that the table is not full of people with one perspective. As one of the most prestigious universities in the country, it’s Duke’s job to understand the diversity of their student body and provide resources equally.

The Duke story aside, reading books that one finds offensive can be an incredible exercise in intellect and tolerance. Whereas students on a college campus can create an open discussion about their sensibilities with relatively few consequences, such confrontations with morals are not always pushed aside so easily outside of this setting. Books, movies, music, paintings, etc., are mediums not only for continuing education, but also a lifelong means of creating a safe forum to learn about the beliefs of others. Personally, the longer I am removed from a university setting, the more I realize that most subjects can’t be innocuously approached and discussed with the same sense of freedom found in a lecture hall.

In that sense, reading offensive books is an opportunity to find out what you truly believe in, what you’re willing to fight for, what you’re willing to lose. If an author’s words or an illustrator’s sketches are enough to make you question your belief system, then you learn something about yourself in the process.

Backtracking to the idea of intellectual dialogue being stifled – there’s no good way to open an honest discourse if both sides don’t respect one another enough to truly learn the other side of things. From an academic standpoint, ignorance is more often than not the biggest enemy in a debate, and from a social and cultural standpoint ignorance is undoubtedly one of the biggest catalysts of fear, hate, and intolerance. Fearing a book so much as to not read it will only make a person ignorant of its contents.

Lastly, it’s worth noting that the act of reading offensive books is something that applies to everyone equally. Somehow this static misconception endures that the push for diversity is an expectation specifically pushed on conservatives–often white men– especially when it comes to literature. Yet, everyone is offended by something (most of us by many things), and we can all push ourselves to read, view, and listen to media that make us uncomfortable, offended, angry, and confused. Reading books outside of our moral and ethical codes can be universal. This act challenges us to look past our preconceptions and embrace humanity more holistically.


You can find the original article at:

Monday, August 31, 2015

Online Reviews Are the New Word of Mouth

Founder & Chief Executive Officer, American
Homeowner Preservation LLC and Author of Burn Zones: Playing
Life's Bad Hands

If you still find it possible to fathom that there was a time before the Internet, you may recall the days when books were either New York Times Bestsellers or not. That was it. But in our modern era, you're likely to read a friend's Facebook post crowing that his or her book is "Number 432,896 on Amazon!" and asking you to go on the site and boost it a little with a review.

Book reviews aren't only crafted by tweedy, professorial types in their wood-paneled libraries. Everybody's a book reviewer now, just as the Internet has made everyone a food critic, a medical expert (thank you, Dr. Google), and a sports analyst. As the writer of a new self-published book, Burn Zones, I've been learning that reviews are the breath and blood of Internet book sales. 

It's a key characteristic of our Internet-infused era. Rent vacation lodging through Airbnb and not only will you be asked to review the accommodations, but the host will get a chance to review you as a guest, for the reference of future hosts. Uber drivers and passengers have the same symmetrical relationship: they review one another, each helping or hurting the other's profile for future uses of the service.

Reviews--positive or negative--are critical to your online profile. Just look at what happened to the Minnesota dentist who was identified as the killer of Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe in July. People who were opposed to what he'd done inundated his dental practice's Yelp page with scathing comments about him, his hunting, and even his skills as a dentist. 

Positive reviews and postings on social media are just as powerful. Witness the love that the Internet lavishes on Rosa's, a Philadelphia pizza place that encourages patrons to buy one slice for themselves and one for a homeless person. Scroll through its Yelp reviews for a few minutes, and your faith in humanity will be restored, if only temporarily. 

About 88 percent of online shoppers read reviews, according to a 2014 study by BrightLocal. That was an increase of three percentage points from the group's 2013 study. On top of that, according to the survey's more than 2,100 respondents, the most common number of reviews read is four to six. Almost a third of respondents said they read that many reviews. 

Here's an intriguing finding in the study: while in 2011, 33 percent of respondents said they didn't trust online reviews as much as personal recommendations, by 2014, that had dropped to 13 percent. The share of people saying they do trust online reviews as much as they trust their friends' recommendations has been growing. Online reviews carry more weight now than we might have imagined just a few years ago. 

That's why I emailed 166 of Amazon's top reviewers to offer a copy of Burn Zones in exchange for an honest review. I got 21 responses, of which five said no and 16 said yes. I sent the books in June, but so far, only one of the 16 has reviewed Burn Zones

However, one of the reviewers shared a more potent response. She wrote that she loved the book and proposed two options: First, she could pitch reviews of Burn Zones to some magazines and journals. That's the slower route, because print vehicles take longer to produce and would insist on having first rights to the review, meaning it couldn't be used elsewhere for as much as a year. Also, she opined that self-published books are often ignored in magazines, so there was a decent chance that no one would publish her review. 

On the other hand, she advised that "if you want the reviews posted immediately and everywhere, I can hit Amazon US and UK, Goodreads, LibraryThing, Shelfari, Barnes & Noble, and whoever else carries it, as well as talk about it on Facebook, my website, and Twitter. That could be done by this weekend."

In a sweep of posts, she would get Burn Zones onto about nine different platforms. Nevertheless, I tend to swing for the fences in life. Thus, I agreed with her that attempting to get a magazine review published would be the way to get the most exposure for my book. 

In the meantime, I'd encourage everyone who has read Burn Zones to review it on Amazon, and maybe even on Goodreads and other sites. Because that's what we do now: review one another.


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Monday, August 24, 2015

Is it the beginning of the end for online comments?

Vibrant online communities? Or cesspools of abuse? Have comments had their day?

The debate about comment sections on news sites is often as divisive as the comments themselves. Recently outlets such as The Verge and The Daily Dot have closed their comments sections because they've become too hard to manage. And they're far from alone. Moderating comments is a full-time job (or several full-time jobs) at many news organisations. Officiating comments on a BBC News story requires knowledge of more than a dozen different disqualifying categories. Alongside shouting, swearing and incivility, comment sections can also attract racism and sexism. BBC Trending recently found evidence of the latter when looking at live streaming app Periscope.

That's the downside. But it's also worth remembering that many news organisations - including the BBC - have used comments sections to make real connections with audiences, find stories, and turn what was once a one-way street into a multi-headed conversation. 

So are comments on news websites still useful, or have they had their day? Trending asked The Daily Dot editor Nicholas White and Marie Lyn Bernard, aka Riese, of the LGBT website Autostraddle for their, um, comments on the issue.

Nicholas White, editor, The Daily Dot

In our experience, our community hasn't evolved in our comments. It's evolved in our social media accounts.

To have comments, you have to be very active, and if you're not incredibly active, what ends up happening is a mob can shout down all the other people on your site. In an environment that isn't heavily curated it becomes about silencing voices and not about opening up voices.

For us, it's partially a question of where to put scarce resources. I can't point to any specific comment and say it's the straw that broke the camel's back. There was no point at which somebody said something which was so vile and horrendous that we said: "That's it, we're done!" It was more that we weren't seeing the conversation happen on our site. It wasn't bad comments rather than a lack of conversation. 

Our "favourite" type of comment is from people who clearly haven't read the article. When our users start trolling us, we gently troll them back. Although our guideline is that you should always act as a journalist. So if someone is saying something that's absolutely wrong, we'll answer back with something like "If you observe in paragraph three, the point that's made there directly contravenes what you said." We try to be journalistic trolls and we do it with a bit of a wink.

That said, there is a line, and there are people who are absolutely vicious, who we ignore and block and don't engage.

Riese, co-founder and editor-in-chief, Autostraddle

Comments have been a big part of our community from the very beginning. I started out as a blogger and so did many of the founding team. For us, comments were always key to what we were writing.

For our community, a lot of what they go online for is to connect with other people like them. The comments section is a place where people make friends, and where we get valuable feedback and build community among our writers and readers. From the start, we never considered not having comments. 

I completely understand why The Daily Dot wouldn't want to have comments - or in fact why most websites wouldn't want to have comments. I think 75% of the time they're more trouble than they're worth, and for us it's still a lot of work to keep up on. 

Not all of our users are necessarily on Facebook or are out as gay on Facebook, or are comfortable talking about queer stuff on Facebook. We keep comments on the site which is a safe space for people to exchange ideas - and that's a big factor for us.

Conversations about comments sections seem to concentrate on the most awful trolls who say things like "You're fat", "You should die" and that sort of thing. But actually those are easy to deal with, because you can just delete the comment, and block the person. There's another category which is more difficult, which is people who didn't read the article, but have some sort of personal agenda and a point to make. There's always going to be people who have things to say which just aren't productive. 

Nicholas White and Riese were in conversation with Anne-Marie Tomchak on BBC Trending radio - if you want to hear more about this story stream the programme or download our podcast.


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