Shining the RMFW Spotlight on Kevin Paul Tracy

KevinPaulTracy HeadShot1. Kevin, tell us what you do for RMFW and why you are involved.

I am a regular contributor to the RMFW Blog and I host a critique group called Dynamic Critique which isn't exactly RMFW sanctioned, but we are all RMFW members. At one time or another I have been Critique Chair, Webmaster, Anthology Chair ("Tales From Mistwillow",) Gold Contest judge, and critique group moderator. It's entirely likely I've forgotten one. Sometimes I held these positions simultaneously.

I've been actively involved in RMFW for a couple of reasons. First, I am a steadfast advocate of the truism, "You get out of it what you put in." That applies to everything, especially life in general, but for our discussion here, particularly to RMFW. I have learned more by being an active volunteer for the organization than I would ever have learned merely attending workshops and conferences. I've met more people and made more friends, and I've gotten more personal and professional exposure, too.

The other reason is that, as a near-charter member of RMFW, I love the organization like family. I have a vested interest in seeing it continue to thrive and provide its unique services to the local writing community.

Oh, and the Golden Nugget awards are neat, too.

2. What is your current WIP or most recent publication, and where can we buy a book, if available?

I have three current works in progress. By the time this article posts my latest thriller, Presence of Malice, will have dropped and will have made quite a splash. It's about a hired killer, an ex-Navy SEAL who may or may not have been driven mad by eight years of torture in a Chinese prison; two plastic surgeons who used to be friends and partners now at each other's throats; and an unlikely romance between an earnest young woman and a paraplegic hacker, both caught in the cross fire of a conflict turned bloody

I'm also currently working on a sequel to my most popular Thriller, Rogue Agenda, and a third in my Kathryn Desmarais vampire decology (10 books.) All of these books are/will be available anywhere books are sold, or you can email me for a signed copy.

3. We've all heard of bucket lists -- you know, those life-wish lists of experiences, dreams or goals we want to accomplish-- what's one of yours?

I'd love to see one of my books made into a movie. I just think that'd be so cool!

4. Most writers have an Achilles heel with their writing. Confess, what's yours?

That's a hard one. I would say it's that I love happy endings, except not all my books have one, not to mention that I know many who don't view that as a flaw. I might also say that I love over-the-top action which many people think stretches credulity, but I'm told by readers that's one of the things they like most about my books.

I supposed my great vulnerability as a writer is my self-confidence. I've already written about how I grew up being told I could never make it as a writer. My self-confidence is way too fragile. An editor's rejection, a bad review on Amazon or GoodReads, these things can send me into a tailspin of self-doubt that can actually make it hard to keep writing. But I've powered through and I must say the success I've experienced has gone a long way toward shoring up my confidence against future pokes and jabs.

5. What do you love most about the writing life?

In writing, I can make reality work the way I think it should. In a thriller, you can't change the laws of physics, and if you introduce a little fringe science it better be rooted in enough actual science to not totally insult your readers. But what I mean is, in the world I write in, bad guys lose and good guys win. Maybe not right away, certainly not without plenty of obstacles and setbacks along the way. And victory may even cost the good guy something by the end, sometimes something dear enough to leave the reader wondering if that sacrifice was worth it. Still, I get to leave readers with a fulfilling and satisfying end to a story, the kind of closure we almost never get in real life.

6. Now that you have a little writing experience, what advice would you go back and give yourself as a beginning writer?

Easy: Never give up. Write and write and write, and completely shut out the doubts and the setbacks. In my opinion the only difference between success and failure is where you give up. If you give up after a setback, then you failed at being a writer. But if you never give up, then you never fail, you only continue to grow and learn. And when has personal growth and acquired knowledge not led to success, eventually?

Kevin Paul Tracy workspace7. What does your desk look like? What item must be on your desk? Do you have any personal, fun items you keep on it?

Right now my work area is constrained by space - I am taking my familial turn caring for a disabled relative. My computer occupies a folding TV tray in a bedroom not much larger than most storage sheds. I have all my reference materials close at hand, but none of my usual inspirations or comfort items. Usually (and again very soon) my desk is designed to fit facing into a corner, to shut out distractions. I have paintings and posters on the wall I find inspiring, some of which might seem rather non-sequitur to an outsider. For example the picture of a beautiful woman, bare leg exposed through a hip-length tear in her long skirt, hand out as a majestic white unicorn eats from it. Why does a thriller writer find inspiration from a page torn from a fantasy calendar? It's hard to describe, but I love how real the painter makes a scene of pure fantasy look and feel. It reminds me that a writer's job is to make a story about something that never happened feel real to readers.

8. What book are you currently reading (or what was the last one you read)?

Most recently, out of some sudden nostalgic impulse, I've gone back to reread some of the books and novels that inspired me as a young writer: Lord of The Rings, Dracula, anything by Stephen King. Right now I'm rereading Ian Fleming's James Bond series. They are flawed and dated, but fun to revisit.

The Fruit of Your Labor

fruitGo buy a piece of fruit you haven't had in a while: a peach, a plum, a pear, a mango, even a carambola (starfruit, though they're not as good here on the mainland as they are in the islands.) Find a place to sit alone and close your eyes. Try to imagine you're a primitive human. Game is scarce, you've been living on insects and grubs, or bland roots. You're always on the verge of starvation, though never quite starved - a terrible state if you've ever lived through it.

You see this thing hanging from a tree. You've never considered eating it before because, well, it's on a tree. What part of a tree ever tasted good? Wood, bark, leaves... Still, finally hungry enough, you climb up, pull this thing down, you bite into it (bite into the fruit you bought now.) Try to experience what that starving primitive experienced as glorious sweetness and a flavor you've never imagined could ever exist floods your mouth and your soul soars.

Write that.

Many times I read work from writers who, in their jaded experience, seem to have forgotten that not all of their readers have read the same old tropes and traditions a thousand times. They sometimes neglect details that could enrich their story. How many times has a gun been fired in a thriller or mystery? So many times it is just accepted that readers know what it means to fire a gun, or have one fired at you. So why describe the way your nerves jolt at the sudden blast, the sound waves stinging your skin like electricity, the smell of expended gunpowder, the intense silence following the explosion, the heat you feel from the bullet as it leaves the barrel...or as it tears into your flesh?

Never forget some of your readers may be reading your genre for the first time, and you are their sponsor. Even if not, being reminded of details that often get glossed over or skipped because they are rote or common, can electrify some long-steeped and jaded readers, too. As you write such things, take a moment and close your eyes, try to experience the thing as your character would experience it (whatever it is, whether firing a gun, stealing a candy bar from a store, having sex). Is it their first time or they are old pros? How would that affect the experience.

Never let such things become rote or old hat in your stories. Always remember while you may have written/read similar scenes a million times, your character has not, and your reader is identifying with them. Always keep it fresh, as if this is the first time anyone ever wrote a scene like this. Never let the jade show under your skin.

Something wrong with you.noʎ ɥʇıʍ ʇɥƃıɹ ƃuıɥʇǝɯoS

Here is how I found out that there is something wrong with me.

Boy wearing dunce cap.I was 7 or 8 when, during a parent-teacher conference, I was asked to leave the room. I went into the coat room and found I could still hear everything that was said. My teacher told my parents about an assignment in which students were asked how to divide 2 apples evenly among 3 people. The correct answer, it seems, was to cut each apple into thirds and give each person 2 pieces. Most of the class got it right, but three people gave wrong answers. One kid said to tell one of the three people to leave, then give the two remaining people each an apple. Another kid said to just go buy a third apple.

And then there was me, a quiet kid who kept mostly to myself. My teacher was worried - I had said to give each person a sharp knife and let them take as much as they wanted. When asked how my answer gave each person a fair share of the apple I said, in effect, that the three people would either be generous and take only a little, leaving more for the others, or they would all fight it out amongst them, killing at least one of them, and then split the apples.

My teacher then proceeded to ask my parents if I'd ever been caught mistreating pets or weaker children. I laugh now, but at the time I was hurt and outraged. It was a different teacher who recognized my unharnessed imagination and set me on the path of channeling it into storytelling, but I still spent many years after that thinking there was something wrong with me because I didn't see the world the same way as everyone else.

As writers, we don't see the world like everyone else. If we did, there would be nothing interesting about the stories we tell, and therefore little reason to tell them. It is our own, individual skew on reality that makes our stories unique and fun and ultimately readable. If anyone tries to tell you what's wrong with you, own it proudly. Because what's wrong with you and me as people is very right with us as writers.

“The Idiot Plot”

I recently read a review of the new TV series based on Terry Brooks' classic epic fantasy Elfstones of Shannara when I read the following precis that made me laugh: "The elves' magical protective tree, the Ellcrys, is dying. Lethal demons are slipping back into the world. To banish them again, someone must take the Ellcrys' magical seed to Safehold and bathe it in Bloodfire. Problem is, no one knows where Safehold is, or what Bloodfire might be. These requirements have the weight of prophecy and doom, but they're also faintly amusing, as though the elves lost their car keys centuries ago, and don't have the faintest idea where to look for them." (article)

This made me think of the pacing and plotting of a story. Too many times I've read books (or seen TV shows) where the plot seems to move forward on the slimmest possible impetus, leaving me to wonder why the characters are even following through with it, rather than just catching a movie or running errands. This reviewer also invokes James Blish (iconic author of speculative fiction books, including many Star Trek episodes) who first coined the phrase "Idiot Plot", a story that only moves forward because none of the characters will stop to ask obvious questions or exchange crucial points of information. For example, keeping pieces of information secret for no apparent reason except that it prevents the conflict from being resolved too soon.

Rube Goldberg MachineA Rube Goldberg machine uses a complex, sometimes improbable, chain reaction to accomplish a simple task, for example cracking an egg into a bowl, which is much easier done by hand. Your plot points can be like parts in a Rube Goldberg machine, or they can be girders in a bridge. It's a subtle thing, to be certain your plot is moving forward intelligently, and not stupidly.

At any advancement of your story (plot point) be sure your characters are asking all the right questions, looking under all of the obvious rocks - and even some of the not-so-obvious ones. If someone is keeping something secret, make sure they have a reason to do so, and make it a damn good one. (Some old and tired cliches to avoid: "I kept this secret to protect you!" "I kept this secret until you were ready to hear it." "I kept this secret because you didn't ask.") Make sure that the reasons your characters got into this adventure to begin with remain the reasons they stay in it, or give readers new solid, plausible reasons to make this conflict even more crucial to the characters, personally, than before.

It is certainly important that every cause have an effect in your story, but even more critical is ensuring that every effect has a cause. Not just any cause, but one that proceeds from a prior plot point. It should proceed not only logically, but precipitously, causing the stakes to rise and the urgency to mount. And it must propel the characters headlong into the next plot point, almost against their will. At no point should the readers be left to ask, "Why?" If you have done your job correctly, they should have the answer before they even think to ask.

Avoid the Idiot Plot. Leave it for soap operas and sitcoms (and the TV show "The Arrow"...oops! I didn't say that! Except, they expend so much energy on the noble goal to "save my city" no one stops to explain just exactly what's wrong with the city! But 'nuff said!)

A SURPRISING SOURCE OF INSPIRATION YOU MAY NOT HAVE THOUGHT OF

When I define myself, I don't call myself a writer. I call myself a storyteller (in point of fact I like the term raconteur.) The distinction, to me, is an important one. As a writer, my entire world is the written word, fiction or non-fiction, novel-length or short subject. As a storyteller, I embrace all forms of fiction, not just written. I read, yes, but I also watch TV unabashed, enthusiastically rush to the movie theater, and even admire some television commercials. And it doesn't stop there: I love live theater (yes even musical theater, I know and can sing many show tunes from memory,) I get a major kick out of old-timey radio shows, I can even sit for hours watching the extemporaneous play of children. Many of my dreams are cinematic in nature, quite dramatic, with beginning, middle, and end. Some music, notably country music, is an entire master class on tight and concise plotting in a single two-to-three minute song (Tie a Yellow Ribbon, The Wreck of The Edmund Fitzgerald, The Coward of The Country, Ode to Billy Joe, etc. ad infinitum.)

As a raconteur I have learned so much from embracing all of these forms of storytelling. But recently I have been exposed to a unique form of storytelling that has absolutely astounded me with it's surprising depth, complexity, and ability to draw one in and thoroughly entertain. Please bear with me, here, I think you might find these insights worthwhile.

XBOX CONTROLLER

When is the last time you played a video game? I'm not talking about Pacman or Super Mario Brothers. Recently I bought myself a top of the line gaming console and a few of the most popular games: Disney Infinity, Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto V. To be honest I was a little intimidated by modern gaming consoles, assuming as I suspect many adults assume, that they require hours and hours of valuable time to master, and besides are really rather silly and juvenile. I had so many better things to do.

Well, I was not prepared for the experience. First, let me get the misunderstandings about modern gaming out of the way. These games are not difficult to master, for the most part. The controllers are designed in such a way as to make interaction with the games easier, not harder. While you will have to exercise concentration and develop some hand-eye coordination that may have gone rusty, the games give you unlimited tries to get it right, and you will find yourself adapting and mastering the controls much quicker than you think. Second, most games are episodic in nature, broken up into vignettes (in some games referred to as missions), between which you can save your progress and walk away. So you are not obliged to play for hours on end. You might feel compelled to, but with a little self-discipline you can limit yourself to only an hour a day, or a couple of hours a weekend. It need not become the giant time-suck you fear.

You may suspect that modern games have better graphics than the last time you tangled with Donkey Kong and you'd be right. But baby, you have no idea! The detail and realism of the worlds these games open up to you is something beyond anything you could ever imagine. One of the most impressive is Grand Theft Auto V (GTA for short.) This game takes place on a vast island fashioned after Los Angeles, and I cannot express to you the detail of the world they've built, and the realism. It really is every bit as if Los Santos is a real place that you've stepped into. Call of Duty the same. There are still cartoonish games such as Disney Infinity but even these are well rendered and engaging.>/p>

But on to the most compelling part. The storytelling. For many of these games, you follow a plot through the game. These stories are every bit as well written, well-acted as a Hollywood production. Call of Duty centers around a veteran soldier sidelined by the amputation of his arm, who finds new employment with the private security firm owned by the father of his best friend, who was killed in battle. He is given a bionic arm and a chance to fight to defend the defenseless again, but soon he and his new friends begin to suspect a more nefarious motive behind the missions they are being assigned. While these games necessarily involve action, combat, explosions and the like, they are character-driven stories, compelling and engaging, with wonderful build-ups, conflict, and climactic conclusions.

In Grand Theft Auto V you alternate between the POV of three characters: a retired gangster in witness protection contending with boredom and a family who no longer has any respect for him, a street hustler looking to take a step up in the underworld and take part in bigger and more lucrative heists, and a psychopathic killer with anger-management issues. Together these three find themselves athwart some very powerful criminal and law enforcement types and must navigate a dangerous world, to somehow come out alive on the other side. This one is heavy on shooting and crime but the stories are still very well developed, character driven, and enthralling.

Now of course, as an action/thriller writer, I chose games heavy on action, and those are primarily the games one hears about the most. But there are other sorts of games for those who like more mystery and intrigue than shoot-em-up. For example, <em>Never Alone</em> features a little Inuit  (Eskimo) girl and her little arctic fox friend who must embark on a perilous quest across many dangerous obstacles to save her tribe from extinction. Along the way she encounters spirits, some of which she can enlist to help her, and others who wish to oppose her. The dialog is entirely in authentic Inuit - a soft, almost hypnotic language - with subtitles. This is a visually beautiful game, some of it looking more like an ethereal painting than a video game.

Look, I'm no gamer. But as a storyteller, these and other games I have played have caught my imagination every bit as much as reading Harry Potter or attending a performance of The Mikado, with the added dynamic of being interactive. No, I would not put them in the same category as Dickens or Hemingway, but in their own way they deal with very similar human dramas in an engrossing and thoroughly entertaining way. I would encourage those of you who embrace storytelling in all its forms to make these games a part of your research and inspiration. I think you will be blown away by just how satisfying they can be.

GET YOUR HEAD RIGHT

I struggle most with writing when my head isn't in the right place. What is the right place? For each person it's different. For me, it's when I feel good physically and when I feel good about myself, emotionally. Physically, it's just hard to write when you're not feeling well, when you're coughing or blowing your nose every five minutes, or making frequent trips to the bathroom...nuff said.

Stair MazeBut emotionally is where I'm most fragile. It's very easy for me to get down on myself. A very negative and mentally abusive father, though long dead now, still "lives rent free in my head," as they say. He's in there moving furniture around, leaving fingerprints on the glasses, changing all the presets on the remote. He knows where all my buttons are hidden, where all the worst things I can think about myself are stashed.

In truth, as is always the case, it's really not him, it's me. When alive he convinced me I'm not good enough, and even if I were, I don't deserve any success, because I am only bound to f--k it up eventually anyway. In what I'm told is a common psychological twist I still don't quite understand, after I moved out, instead of leaving all that behind, I've taken up his mantel and now do all those things to myself. That guy in my head is just an avatar of him - it's really me.

I've gotten to the point where I've managed to lock him in a basement room and, for the most part, ignore him. There are even times when I've had the pleasure of going down there and gloating over some success or triumph. Those are the good days. But it also doesn't take much for him to pick the lock and get out, running around up there wreaking havoc yet again.

A careless or off-hand hurtful word from a loved one or even a stranger; a moment of carelessness on my part, hurting someone else and making me ashamed of myself; even putting effort into a project and failing. All of these are the skeleton keys, not only to letting him out of his cell, but giving him access to all the past things I've tried to forget, dragging them out and parading them in front of me, making me feel even lower.

How do I write on days when outside events have shaken my confidence? I have to be honest with you, I haven't found a sure way yet. For me, the only thing that works is just to force myself to write. Sure, the first few paragraphs I put on the page at a moment like this are, in the vernacular of my ancestors, pure shite! But if I can stick with it, sooner or later it smooths out and suddenly I'm in my other world, the world of my making, where I control all outcomes, where the good guys eventually win and the bad guys get paid back for all their evil. I can always go back later, after I'm feeling good again, and fix the bad parts.

Meanwhile, this doesn't just make me feel better while I'm writing. When I come up for air it's with a fresher perspective on all my problems, a realization that no problem is so great it can't me handled, somehow, and compared to some, my life hardly sucks. My writing isn't just a job for me, or even a hobby.

My writing is essential therapy!

KEEP IT TO YOURSELF, SOMETIMES

I remember one of my first writers conferences. I pitched a project to one of the visiting agents or editors, and I remember being so thrilled when he asked to see the first three chapters. Later, one of the more seasoned conference attendees asked me how my pitch went and in my excitement I told her. Instead of being excited for me, she said, "Oh he asks everyone for the first three chapters."

Sad PuppyI don't know what was in this person's heart, what the intent was of the remark, but I know the effect. I was instantly deflated. I was being told, whether in mean spirits or total thoughtlessness, that I ought not be so excited, that I was not so special after all, and that in spite of having an actively acquiring New York publishing professional ask to see an excerpt of my manuscript I was in truth no closer to being published than I had ever been. It was a cruel thing to say, whether it was meant to be or not.

For several years after that, when asked how a pitch went, I always dodged the question, whether the pitch went well or not. It is easy to dodge such questions, just ask the person something about their work and they forget all about the question they asked. Whether a request for pages, or even the entire manuscript, meant I was about to be represented or not, I preferred the boost it gave to my inspiration to think so, than to have someone again poke it with a pin.

We are so often thoughtless in our comments to others that we often aren't mindful of how it may affect the listener. Especially new members or first time conference attendees. So let me set the record straight.

Happy DanceIf the agent or editor you pitched to at September's Colorado Gold conference, or any conference for that matter, has asked to see pages, never mind how many, that is rare. Don't pay attention to how many others he or she may have requested from other people. The fact is each agent/editor will never request pages of something in which they are not interested, they just don't have the time for such foolishness, even to spare feelings. Remember that the agent/editor you spoke to was at the conference for a reason. They want you to be a good writer, they want your project to be the one they pick for representation, they are there to find the next great novel for their list, and they would not have requested pages from you if they didn't want you to be the author of that novel. They are actually rooting for you.

Be excited. Be very excited. And don't let any off-hand comment from anyone dampen that excitement. Enthusiastically polish that excerpt and kiss the screen before you email it out for good luck. Then, don't sit by the phone with baited breath and wait for that phone call. Use the energy from your excitement to finish the project, or start another one. Take the inspiration and run with it. If an agent/editor asks to see pages, you are that much closer to getting published. And don't let anyone tell you otherwise!

THE POWER OF RMFW

A fellow member of Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers did not see any immediate impact on the careers of those she witnessed working so hard on our all-volunteer staff, either at the annual Colorado Gold Writers Conference, nor throughout the year on our board and support positions. She asked me if I found participation in RMFW rewarding. Because of the context of the question I knew she wasn't asking whether I found it personally rewarding. What she was really asking was: Did I feel the effort and time I put into volunteering in RMFW translated in any way to book sales, or any other help for my career as a novelist.

Not at all a simple question.

You've heard, I'm sure, the term: You get out of it what you put into it. And I'm sure that's true, as far as it goes. The benefits of participation in RMFW as just an attending member are direct - E=MC2. But are the benefits for volunteering and actually participating in the operation of the organization even measurable in any instant or even short term calculation? I submit that one actually gets back much more than what they put in when actively participating in RMFW.

I post to the RMFW email loop (RMFW@yahoogroups.com) to keep members with whom I’m acquainted, but not necessarily on a direct-email basis, informed of what’s going on with me. I may not get any direct response to my posts, but doing so also helps to keep one's name out there on the loop. Your name also becomes prominent in other areas of RMFW such as the newsletter, volunteering for conference, submitting to the blog, etc. Keeping your name out there in the RMFW community does translate to your publicity, if not directly to sales, and opens doors that may not be open otherwise. Eventually guest publishing professionals – speakers, visiting editors and agents, etc. – will hear/read it. There are a million subtle ways in which this can benefit you. I’ve gotten a lot more attention (followers on Facebook and Twitter, name recognition when introducing myself at workshops and conferences, etc.) since I agreed to become a regular contributor to the RMFW blog, and I love doing it. You never know where this kind of networking might benefit you down the line.

So no, volunteering does not perhaps convert directly to sales, and I suspect that’s why things like the email loop aren't nearly as active these days as they once were. It used to be a very lively forum for discussion and debate, but lately most posters want to sell their books and that’s all. Well I assure you that while most readers of the loop scan over or even ignore ads for your books or promotions for your blog, they are eager to read other news and opinions of current events and hot publishing industry topics. The loop and other methods of keeping your name prominent in RMFW may not translate directly to sales, you never know what it might lead to indirectly down the line.

Likewise attending our free workshops and education events throughout the year. These are not just opportunities to look at an aspect of our profession from another colleague's perspective, something from which you are far more likely to learn than not, you also have the opportunity to network, to meet fellow writers and introduce yourself to them.

conference1The Colorado Gold Writers Conferences, sponsored every Fall by RMFW, is the Grande Dame of all networking opportunities the organization offers. There is no end to the openings you have to make yourself known to the organization at large, not to mention guest professionals from the publishing industry from around the country, and even, sometimes, other countries. From pitching a workshop, if you feel you have something to share with others, to volunteering to moderate workshops. You can volunteer to judge the contest, work the registration table, help in operating the pitch sessions, or just in general as a docent or information source for newcomers and other attendees. One of the best opportunities is to volunteer as a driver, to pick up and transport conference guests between the airport and the venue - here you have a good thirty minutes or more alone with one of the visiting editors, agents, or authors invited to the conference to chat with them and become acquainted. No better networking opportunity in my book.

In short, never pass up an opportunity to volunteer and participate in RMFW and get yourself and your name out there. Doors only open to you if people know who you are. And RMFW is one of the greatest local opportunities you will have to do so.

Oh, and when the doors do open, always be ready and never say no. Even if it doesn’t end up going anywhere, sooner or later one will.


Don't miss Kevin’s latest releases: the startling and engrossing series of gothic thrillers featuring vampire private detective Kathryn Desmarias, including Bloodflow, and Bloodtrail, the bestselling sequel to Bloodflow; also the wonderfully entertaining espionage thriller, Rogue Agenda.

Follow Kevin at:
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ONE OF THESE THINGS JUST DOESN’T BELONG HERE…

My ruminations today are on the delicate balance between presenting our readers with something they want to read vs. challenging them to read something that is uncomfortable and even Clasicsunpleasant but that might stick with them a little longer. It starts with the photo I've included with this post. While browsing blogs and online news articles about books and literature I came across the ad you see at right, and it struck me as blasphemy that Fifty Shades of Grey should be listed among such classics as Catcher in The Rye, of all things. It is outrageous that a book that, by all accounts, is barely more than poorly written Internet porn should find itself on a shelf, albeit an imaginary online shelf, with To Kill a Mockingbird.

Now, being an expert on web design and development I know ads such as these are rarely put together by humans any more. These days there are algorithms smart enough to detect the topic of the article or blog being read and assemble ads automatically that are aimed to draw the attention of a reader with similar interests. It is more likely that this ad was put together by what is called an ad-bot (short for advertisement robot) based on the content of the article I was already reading than by a human being. He doesn't know any better, all he knows is the criteria around which his algorithm was written. Which made me wonder what that criteria might be, that would list a universally panned piece of populist tripe amongst such literary gems. Artificial intelligence is still decades away from being able to program value judgments into computers, so it had to be some mathematically quantifiable metrics on which the ad-bot made the choice to include those particular books in this particular ad.

This got me asking what these books had in common. Emotionally I wanted to reject the notion the Shades could have anything in common with the other three. But I looked at them objectively. Since the article I was reading made reference to Atlas Shrugged, it made sense that it was this book which seeded the initial algorithm, which them searched for other books in common with Shrugged. For one thing, all four books are listed on most retail book sites as General Fiction. I would've though Shades would be Romance, but I looked and before Erotica it is listed on most sites as General. Next, each of these books had a profound impact on our culture when released. Again, a bot cannot make a value distinction as to whether that impact was good or bad, only that there was indeed a measurable sea change as a result of the release of each of these novels. For better or worse, each book was destined to go down in history as a classic, if by no other definition than that it impacted society in some significant way.

This got me to thinking about the books I've read that I enjoyed, and those I did not. Oddly enough, I found that there was a much greater number than I wanted to admit that I found uncomfortable or unpleasant to read but that stuck with me, that I could not shake. These were not necessarily badly written books, in fact most were quite well written, but books that forced me to confront things I usually avoid, or made me see things in ways that made me uncomfortable, or even changed my outlook on life against my will. Books like, for example, The Rules of Attraction by Bret Easton Ellis, a very dark look at attraction and rejection that includes the most detailed POV description of a suicide I ever read; or A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess in which a young man's love of Beethoven is stripped away from him as a casualty of an experimental behavioral modification procedure (read torture); or Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs which I'm still not entirely sure I understood but that contained some of the most disturbing images I've ever read.

What surprises me is, arguably, these books that I profess to dislike have impacted my life to a greater degree than any book I read that I liked. I say arguably because there are some neck and neck.

And that brought me to an assessment of my own writing. Even as a small boy I aspired to write books that people don't just enjoy, but that they cherish and want to keep in their libraries to read again and again. I still go back and read Charlie and The Chocolate Factory, The Hobbit, and Dune. And you can have my original hardcover copies of the Harry Potter series when you pry them from my cold dead fingers!

But I ask myself, is it better, for my own immortality, to have written a series of dearly beloved books, or to have instead left a legacy of disturbing, uncomfortable, haunt-you-in-your-sleep books that nevertheless impact people in a significant and long enduring way? I waffle on this occasionally. I still have no answer, except that in the end I write whatever I write the best way that I know how, leaving it all on the court, so to speak, and let others decide where my legacy falls. If you, dear reader, have an opinion on the matter, I'd love to read it in comments, below.


Don't miss Kevin’s latest releases: the startling and engrossing series of gothic thrillers featuring vampire private detective Kathryn Desmarias, including Bloodflow, and Bloodtrail, the bestselling sequel to Bloodflow; also the wonderfully entertaining espionage thriller, Rogue Agenda.

Follow Kevin at:
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TAKING CRITICISM

By Kevin Paul Tracy

Some of the most respected classical writers throughout history did literary criticism as either a sideline or as a career before they sold their own novels. From Edgar Allen Poe to Oscar Wilde, then great writers would often decimate their peers in papers and writing journals, eviscerating them in public treatments. Today, when two or more people get into heated, venom-laden, often imaginative insult wars in emails loops or chat rooms, we refer to it as a "flame war," but this sort of thing is not new to the journalistic world. Often quite famous writers would go back and forth in periodicals, attacking and counter-attacking each other's works in the most colorful and often personal ways. The public loved it, so it sold a lot of papers, so the editors loved it. Back then, there was a certain poetry to the insults exchanged. Poe once wrote of Ralph Waldo Emerson that he "...belongs to a class of gentlemen with whom we have no patience whatever — the mystics for mysticism’s sake." Because profanity was much more taboo than it is now, writers had to really challenge themselves to come up with original and imaginative ways to dress each other down that would both make their point and entertain the reader at the same time.

One could make a very convincing point about the lack of efficacy of such frontal assaults, popular as they were to the readers. It stands to reason than our best efforts in any endeavor are going to become intimately intertwined with our ego and self-esteem. This is our attempt to accomplish something intended for public consumption. We are expending effort and strain in its creation, and we want to do it correctly and in good form. We want others to not only read, but to enjoy it. No one sets out to fail, not on purpose. The man who does not care about whether others appreciate his attempts to create is a man better off dead - he is not truly contributing anything to the human condition, but stroking his own ego, little more than public masturbation. We are better off without him. Frankly I submit such men do not exist, or if they do, they are too rare to care about. So understandably we are going to feel attacked on a personal level whenever something we have created is attacked, and when that happens, any truth or lessons to learn from the criticism, however deeply buried under hyperbole and colorful language, is bound to be lost on us. We don't learn much from such criticism.

On the other hand, couching criticism in too much pillowy language to soften the blow often risks obscuring the points one wishes to make, or to blunt their importance so much that a very critical point may be ignored as less important. Saying, for example, "I love your writing. Just one small thing, for what it's worth, when you have a one-page character like the patrolman, who is very colorfully written by the way, discover the blood on the baseboard, no offense but you are not utilizing your protagonist, my favortie character in your book, in the most proactive manner," the point is so well couched in diplomatic rhetoric it could be lost. Ego and self-esteem of the writer aside, the best way to make a point is still the most direct, pointed, even blunt way: "You waste an opportunity to show your protagonist's sleuthing genius by having a minor cut-out character find crucial clues instead. And you do it repeatedly through the book." There can be no mistaking the point being made, and also the importance the critic places on that point.

Crying at The ComputerIn receiving a critique, I prefer the blunt approach to being coddled and swaddled and fed treacle. And still, other writers can get their hackles up and throw a glass of wine in your face for saying it.

There are those whose opinion, no matter how qualified, we as individuals do not respect, for whatever reason. I submit that the level of umbrage we take from a criticism increases exponentially in reverse proportion to the amount of respect we bear the critic: the less we esteem his opinion the greater offense we take at it. For this I'm afraid there is no remedy. As writers, we must merely bite the bullet and take it.

I further submit that to engage a critic on any level is folly. It doesn't matter that you can explain away his point, that you have a greater knowledge of writing craft than he, or that you are right and he is wrong. Engaging him can only make you look bad on a multitude of levels. One, you come off as insecure about your own writing. No matter how well reasoned or skillfully worded your retort, any retort at all smacks of defensiveness and lack of confidence, like you feel you have something to defend. Second, you can come off as petty, especially if anything you say can be interpreted as a personal attack on the critic. Reacting to a critique can sound like you are only reacting to the critique, and any personal opinions you express about the critic were only formed as a result of his critique, not based on any other independent knowledge or observation. Thirdly, you can appear quite arrogant in a retort, as if you consider yourself above any criticism at all, and not just this one critic or critique.

A lot of criticism, especially on the Internet, isn't worthy of response. It is in vogue these days on the Internet to launch attacks on someone who has put themselves forth in the public eye if only because it is so easy to do so. Fifty Shades of Grey author E. L. James recently underwent just such an ordeal, setting aside time to answer questions from fans on Twitter, only to be attacked by a collection of online thugs who found it funnier to lance and humiliate her publicly than to permit any serious dialog about her books. The only way to protect oneself from such a basting is to maintain some control over those permitted to participate - charge a nominal fee or issue invitations to the event without which one cannot participate. At any rate, the kinds of flaming criticisms to which she was submitted has been quite aptly described by many as appalling and uncalled for. These sorts of attacks aren't even worth a response, they are just ignorant and mean-spirited.

The only effective response to criticism is no response at all. Utter and complete radio science. It can be very difficult, but as I've already said, there is no way to indulge in the alternative with any sort of success at all. It is simply professional suicide to try.

There is a mind set to taking criticism gracefully, and while it isn't easily adopted, with practice it can make hearing harsh criticism much less sharp and damaging to our ego. First, always remind yourself that this person, whatever else they may be, is a reader, just like every other reader out there in the world that you wish to reach. In the end, his reaction is the reaction of a reader, which means out of the millions who potentially might read your book (and let's face it, none of us dream of a small audience) there are those out there who will have the same reactions, thoughts, and objections as him/her. You must decide whether you believe that number to be great or small, but in the end you are not going to be there, reading over their shoulders, ready to defend yourself against their reaction to your novel. So to the degree that they are honest, his criticisms are valid, not matter how they are worded, merely due to the fact that he is first and foremost a reader, your audience.

Second, if the critic is a colleague or fellow writer, be grateful that this particular reader, the critic, has himself writing chops, the skills himself to recognize flaws in prose and story craft, and the language to describe it in such a way that makes it very clear to you where you have gone wrong. Thirdly, especially if the criticism is badly worded, or deliberately worded to be insulting or to get a rise out of you, keep in mind that such personal attacks say much more about the person leveling them than they do the person at whom they are leveled. In such a case, leaving such caustic criticism unanswered tends to bring out in even greater relief and clarity the pettiness and arrogance with which the criticism was written/given.

And lastly, always remember that no matter the criticism, in the end you choose to accept it or not. If the project is still in development, you still get to decide whether to take the criticism and make the requisite changes to your work or to ignore it and leave it as it is. If already published, then you are limited as to what you can do anyway, and so it accomplishes nothing to take such things to heart. Even as you take the criticism of those whom you respect and admire, retain your faith in your own talent and skill. In the end it is your project, ultimately your offering to the world, and it must feel right to you, or you are not being true to yourself.


Don't miss Kevin’s latest releases: the startling and engrossing series of gothic thrillers featuring vampire private detective Kathryn Desmarias, including Bloodflow, and Bloodtrail, the bestselling sequel to Bloodflow; also the wonderfully entertaining espionage thriller, Rogue Agenda.

Follow Kevin at:
Kevin's Amazon Kevin's Blog