Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Trust No One

As if I don't already have enough "required reading" I recently joined a book group, mostly for social reasons but also to force me out of the crime fiction bubble and give me an excuse to dive into something more literary. Although this month's selection, Suite Francaise, was deemed a must miss, the discussion was lively, the people were intelligent, and it was a lot of fun to sit and talk about a book for a couple hours.

Later on, I asked one of the members about some of the other books that they had read. One was, The Memory Keeper's Daughter, which is one of my favorite books this year. But saying this induced a grimace from my book club colleague and a "Really? You liked that book?" I know that grimace. I have given that grimace. But that expression got me thinking. In the subjective world of publishing, whose opinion can you trust? Can you even trust your own?

For every book that is loved by millions, there will be at least ten people who hated it. As a reviewer, it's not good to be one of those ten. I'll be honest and give an example: The Shadow of the Wind. Everyone I know loved it. I hated it. Why? I thought it was boring. That's all I could give. There was nothing wrong with the writing, the characters were fairly well-developed, but I, personally, did not enjoy it.

If I was reviewing that book, as always, I would be honest. But what would that mean for my credibility? Would everyone stop listening to my opinion because I clearly don't know what I'm talking about? Would it deter them from even reading the book? And the big question, would a review, good or bad, affect their opinion of the book, even after they had read it? The answer, to all the questions is, probably.

For instance: My mother recommends books and movies to me all the time. But she doesn't just say she liked them, she says, "Oh, it was phenomenal! You MUST watch/read it!" Some of her recommendations are good, some are okay, others are just bad. So what happens? She has lost credibility as a critic (sorry mom!). But when I mention a book and she says it was bad, it definitely deters me from reading it because, after all, this woman loves everything and if she thinks it's bad then I definitely won't enjoy it. Furthermore, any time my mother says anything, good or bad about a book or movie, it immediately affects my opinion. If she says it was bad, then I know it's bad. If she says it's phenomenal, then I'm still skeptical because she thinks lots of things are phenomenal. Or worse, when I think something is amazing and the says, "Eh, it was okay," I immediately start questioning my opinions and wonder if I'm becoming too lenient a critic. See how this works?

When it comes to books, movies, art, etc., everyone has their own opinion. The trick is finding someone who usually shares yours: a critic, a librarian, a friend. I believe that life is too short to read bad books, but sometimes you just have to find out which books are bad by reading them yourself. And while it's easy to be affected by other people's opinions, as a reviewer, I try to stay neutral and write what I honestly thought of a book, even if that puts me in that small group of ten.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Who's the Boss?

Self-employment is not for everyone. If you have difficulty initiating tasks, feel the need to report to somebody, or don't enjoy thinking about work outside the hours of nine and five, you're better off working for someone else. Me, I have issues with authority, like to set my own hours, choose my own dress code and work as much or as little as I want. Self-employment is my only option.

Being a writer, doesn't necessarily mean you have to be self-employed. There are plenty of companies and publications that will hire you as a staff writer. But most of us, the freelancers and the novelists, aren't punching a clock every morning, other than the snooze button the alarm. Here is where many writers struggle. If you're not reporting to a boss or going to an office on a daily basis, how do you stay on top of your deadlines?

The first step is to figure out how you work best. I'm a procrastinator. I work best under pressure. I crank out my articles in one sitting, usually one or two days before my deadline. Some people can't work like that; they crack under the pressure. Some like to work on an article gradually, writing a few paragraphs everyday until the article is finished. With books, I like doing drafts. Others revise as they go. Once you acknowledge your work habits, you can better formulate a plan to complete tasks and meet your deadlines.

Just because you set your own hours and don't have a boss breathing down your neck, doesn't mean you shouldn't have a work schedule. Every night, I mentally list the tasks I want to complete the next morning and prioritize them. It's difficult juggling the fiction and non-fiction; just because one has a deadline and the other doesn't, does not make one more important than the other. I allot myself a certain amount of time to work on freelance, work on fiction, and to read. Creating a realistic schedule with realistic deadlines is necessary to staying on track and focusing your attention.

Most of us work from home. Our homes are our offices. But the rest of the world doesn't see that. They see us in our pajamas, sitting at a laptop and playing Spider Solitaire, uh, I mean writing. It is important to create some boundaries. Try not to schedule personal appointments during writing times, and if you must, make sure you tack on an extra hour to your writing day. I personally, can't work well at night. After a long day, it's difficult for me to be creative. So if I know I have an appointment or something I can't get out of during the day, I wake up an hour earlier to get my writing done. I've also stopped answering the phone during my writing time unless it's writing related. If I was at an office my machine would get it, and when I'm writing, I am at the office.

The most important thing for a self-employed person, in any field, to remember is to plan ahead. If you're a career freelancer, you know the turnaround time from assignment to payment is comparable to an acorn growing into a tree. Some people would tell you to pitch something every day. I'm not one of those people. Know how much work you need to make rent and how much work you can handle without developing an ulcer and then access how often you should be seeking assignments. But do not wait until you've completed an article to start soliciting, or chances are, you'll have a month of no deadlines (and no money).

When it comes to self-employment, I'm still learning, so I welcome and tips and suggestions. It seems to be one of those things I learn as I go. Even though it has its disadvantages (no health benefits, no steady paycheck), for me, self-employment is the only way to work.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Friday, September 14, 2007

All Bad or Nothing at All?

Most of the reviewers I know, myself included, are very much a part of the literary world. We go to writer's conferences, we sit at bars and schmooze with authors, we attend readings and book launches. On top of being reviewers, many of us are aspiring authors as well. This is where things get a little sticky.

Although I receive most of my review books from the editors, I do get quite a few mailed to me directly, most including a note, "It was great to meet you at (insert conference/bar/reading/launch here) and I wanted to make sure you got an advance copy of my book, etc." One of the main reasons I started writing reviews is because I wanted to help launch the newbies. I wanted to discover a great debut novelist, or a little known restaurant or some Indy Colombian film that no one had ever heard of and give them some press. I try and read everything that is sent to me, but I do admit that when books are sent to me personally, somehow they find their way to the top of the stack.

But what if the book is not good? What if I do not like the book written by the author that I sat at a bar with who took the time to think of me and send me their ARC? Do I write an honest review and just hide when I see them at writer's conferences? Do I not review the book at all and just make up some BS about why it didn't make the cut?

I feel that there is still no consensus among authors and publishers as to whether it is better to have a bad review than no review at all. If it was up to me, I prefer writing no review at all. Why would I want to finish a bad book?

However, books that are assigned to me by editors get a review no matter what. A good example is a book I reviewed for Time Out. I really didn't enjoy the book and, if it had been sent to me privately, I would have put it down. But since I was assigned it, I plowed through and wrote a brutally honest review. In the moment just before I saved and sent it, I did envision the author, running to the news stand to check out her review and feeling crushed by my words. After all, I'm an author myself. I know how it feels to have someone dog your hard work. But in the end, the author did come away with something, managing to take the one line of praise and use it as a blurb.

My advice for authors is this: think about what you really want when you, or your publicist, send out ARCs. If it comes to me first, it will either get a good review or no review at all. The upside to it is if I REALLY like a book, I'll be its biggest advocate, pitching it around to different publications, trying to get some feature articles. But if I don't like it, I'm putting it down and there won't be any bad press for you. If you send books to an editor, two things could happen. If it's a big publication, it could get lost in the stacks and not get reviewed anyway. Or, it could get assigned to a freelance reviewer, like myself, and definitely get a review, but you take your chances whether it will be positive or negative.

I think I speak for most (good) reviewers when I say that we got into this business for our love of reading and nothing makes us happier than praising a book. We don't want to hate the books we're assigned, we don't want to write scathing reviews. But, just like the authors I try and promote, I am trying to make a name for myself as a credible critic, and I can't do that if I'm positive about everything that comes across my desk.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Just Say No

When I began freelancing, I got into the habit of never saying no. If someone asked me to write an article, even if I knew nothing about the subject, I would say yes. If my editor asked if I can make a deadline, even if it was close to impossible, I would say yes. If I was offered a gig, even if my plate was full, I would say yes.

In the beginning this was a good strategy: it showed that I could work under pressure, that I was a writer editors could depend on, and I was able to gain lots of experience. But is there a point when you start being more honest? Do you ever say, "No I cannot make that deadline" or "I'm really not qualified to take that assignment?"

The day I got back from Israel, I received an e-mail from a prospective agent asking for a synopsis. I, as I loathe writing such things, did not have one, but of course said I could write one over the weekend. It was a reflex, a force of habit. Someone wants something, you give it. But, if I had looked at my schedule over the weekend, I would have seen that Nicole was moving into my apartment on Saturday, I was working on Sunday, and that I had a lunch and dinner plans on Monday. So in between unloading the truck, teaching kids how to swim and eating at the Labor Day festivities, I was at my computer drafting my assignment. I would say that this is an instance where it would have been okay to say, "No, I cannot get you a synopsis by Tuesday. How about the end of the week?"

Some times it is okay to say no:
  • When the deadline is not realistic. It's much better to turn down an assignment than it is not to make your deadline. If the article requires research and/or interviews, just because you can work under pressure doesn't mean your subjects can. If completing your assignment is dependent on the input of others, make sure to give yourself plenty of time to work around their schedule.
  • If you are not qualified. If you do not speak French, know how to fix a car, have twins with juvenile Diabetes, don't claim that you do! With libraries and Internet, it's easy to become an expert on anything, but becoming that knowledgeable, again, takes time. In a job interview, don't say you know HTML if you don't. Don't write a theater/music/book/film review if you have no experience in that field. If you are not qualified to complete an assignment, it is perfectly legitimate to turn it down.
  • When it is a conflict of interest. I have discussed this on previous posts, but when you begin freelancing on a regular basis, often times you are faced with conflicts of interest. Take my advice: play it safe. If your editor wants you to cover an event that you already covered for a rival publication, turn it down. Don't review the same book for two rival publications, or any publications without clearing it with both editors first. Again, it is much better to turn down an assignment than to risk burning bridges by demonstrating a lack of loyalty.
  • Not enough compensation. In the beginning, we all had to work for free. We had to take on whatever assignments we received just to build up our resume and put together some clips. Beggars can't be choosers, but after a few years, you are no longer begging. This may be the hardest part for writers, but it is okay to turn down an assignment if you don't think there is adequate compensation. No one will think you're a bad person. Of course, you should be realistic. If you are a newbie, you won't be paid a dollar per word for a thousand word feature article. But then again, if you've been in the industry for a while, you should expect a higher wage for your services. Ultimately, you have a decision to make. Is it worth your time and effort? If the answer is no, it's okay to decline the offer.

Feel free to add others as you see fit. I'm still in the habit of always saying yes no matter what, and man, it is a tough habit to break. But if you slow down a bit, look at what your editor is asking and deem it not feasible, it is better to turn down an offer than to write a sub-par article or worse, not make your deadline.