Goat Bones

I had been trying to meet Neil Gaiman for a long time. I admired this  genius of a man for many reasons. One being his work, of course. I found such wonderful things in a Neil Gaiman story, but truth be told, more for his career. Oh, what a career. Yes, the Rock Star of the Literary World, but more than that was the fact that he had made his own brand into a kind of genre all by itself. 

Nothing quite like a Neil Gaiman book. 

So, being a fan I wanted to meet him and being a writer I hoped for some of the magic to rub off. A “Look, Andy, I believe in your story telling so much, that I’m going to endorse you.” Or, “I’ve decided that you and I should write a book together!” 

When I lived in Chicago I went to “A Night with Neil” to celebrate the release of the Graveyard Book. There he read chapter three from the stage and delighted one and all. Ever the showman, his thick mop of black hair, his deep English accent and of course, the wondrous prose. 

Well, there the cost of admittance was one book and the book came autographed. No line up for autographs because when Neil does a signing too many people line up and he is there until 5 o’clock n the morning. Damn! 

Anyhow, after the reading, he did a Q and A with questions from the crowd, he pulled the questions out of a hat that were written before the show started, because if he were to take them directly from the crowd, we would have been there until 5 o’clock in the morning!

Someone (not me, I didn’t put a question in the hat, because I almost never do what everyone else is doing, since birth I am like this) asked him what the secret is. You know “the secret” to being, well, like Neil. He said “Goat bones! Goat bones! Propitiate the gods with goat bones.” And we all had a wondrous laugh and then he, of course, said, “to write and keep on writing and to start with short stories because you can complete them and when you complete things, you see how they are to be done and then after awhile, you can complete bigger things and see how they are to be done, too.”

At the end of the night, I walked away feeling like I had just had a very nice time with a great writer and great speaker. And I had. 

But, I had already written short stories AND novels, and so, not being like anyone else, I endeavored to meet Neil for real. Not just a member of the crowd, but really. 

Some time passed when I saw that Neil was going to be in Montreal for World Con. Holy Moses, I packed my things traveled three thousand plus miles and went. 

Aside from Montreal being a fantastic city and me being thrilled just to walk its streets, I plotted and schemed on how to meet Neil face to face, up close and personal whereby he was sure to say something like, “You know, Andy, I’ve read your manuscript, and I have to tell you, its bloody good and what’s more, you’re bloody good and you’re going to be my new co-conspirator and write American Gods, The Sequel with me!”

Yes, yes, yes!!!

The problem was one didn’t just walk up and talk to Neil. Hell, no. There was protocol,

One morning I was walking, getting my coffee and scheming, when I happened upon a huge line for a Neil Gaiman book signing. Shit! Quick. What to do? Go and buy that Neil Gaiman book right there and jump in line and meet this demigod mug to mug. And that’s exactly what I did. With Unread Neil Gaiman Book tucked under my arm, I got in line. Waiting and waiting.  And then the guy in front of me turns around and says “what number do you have?”

“Number? Number? Ah, what number?”

“Well,” he says, “you gots to have a number, you see like this. And I don’t know if me number is small enough to get into the signing before Neil has to be at that panel discussion.” 

“Uh…”

“Don’t you have a number?”

Nope. The Big Dork didn’t have shit. And no raffle number = no signing by Neil. 

Crappola. 

That’s fine. I got schemes and I got plans and I got backbone. 

When Neil entered the panel room, standing room only, but I was lucky enough to get a seat, everyone clapped. I remember watching him walk up, shaking his mop of bushy black hair and I thought–no, actually said to my friend who I had dragged along, “Maybe that’s what I have to do, get a big head of bushy black hair.”

Anyway, the panel was very Neil of course and all very charming. 

But, time was running out and I had yet to get my personal meeting with Neil. Oh, you could have coffee with him! But no, you had to win that too. 

No, no. That wouldn’t do. I need a sure fire thing, I needed an inside track. 

The night when the Hugo was given Neil won, of course, for The Graveyard Book and gave a speech wherein he said, “Funny that I won this, because I don’t even write Science Fiction” and of course, no one cared! Anyway, with that night came all the after event parties. So many parties and so many opportunities to meet Neil. 

My friend and I wandered the parties, one hotel room to the next, looking for the one with Neil in it. After a good hour, we finally got the punch line, Neil isn’t at these parties, dude. 

Then came the big question: where’s the real party? You know, the Neil party?

It was fated, a fortuitous stroke of amazing luck, that shortly after that, we got onto the elevator and told the guy operating it that we wanted to go to the “real party where Neil was” and he took us. 

The bottom floor. Ding, the door opened and here was the gala. 

Ah. Yes, where all the New York editors were, yes, oh, hello, that’s a luminary in the literary universe, oops there’s another one. I tried talking to a girl who was happy to talk with me the night before at a common party and who very purposely and visibly stuck her nose in the air when she saw me at this party. 

Yes, my dear, I see how its done now. 

Well, needless to say. It was now or never. My friend had left shortly after stepping out of the elevator, because, he said, he didn’t want to be somewhere he wasn’t wanted. No bother, the road to Neil must be walked alone. Begone, traveling companion, you have served me well, but we are at journey’s end.

The golden chalice was near at hand and I carried with me the favor of the gods. 

After some more milling about, some eating of the food, I was feeling pretty good that no one was bum-rushing me, no bouncer kicking me out. Yes, well, like I said, the gods favored me this night. 

And then, as if a spot light shone down, I saw Neil. 

Amidst a flock of his Clarion students (missed that one) he posed for a photo. Yes, it was Neil alright. I waited just out of sight, lurking for the right moment. Plan? Pure bravado. Just walk up and stick out my hand and…

And…

And…

And what? Say, “I’m your biggest fan”, “Hi, I loved Neverwhere”, “Hey, sir, um, can we write a novel together?” 

No.

I’m not going to crash this party anymore. I’m not going to be “that guy.” No. What is he going to do for me, that I cannot do for myself?

Make me famous? Hahahahahahahhahaha. 

“Goat bones, Andy, goat bones.”

Enough. 

I backed away. I turned and walked out. I left the hotel. I left the con. I walked to my hostel, yes, hoStel, where the beds were cheap and the beer cheaper and I smoked a cigarette thinking, I didn’t meet Neil Gaiman. tonight, or today, or this week. No, but I met someone else. He doesn’t have bushy hair or an English accent, but he is someone who really can help me in my career and who really will write the next book with me.

I traveled all this way to meet myself. 

I’m still a Neil fan, but I’m a Anne Rice, Stephen King, China Mieville, Dean Koontz and Clive Barker fan, too. A so-many-others fan. And more importantly I am an Andy Schwarz fan. 

 

So You Got a Bad Review…

Yeah, we all get them. No matter how good you are, no matter how brilliant a story you have written, someone is going to give it a bad review. And though we try not to care, try not to think about it, try not to let it bring us down, we do and it does.

But why?

We have other reviews, perhaps lots of other reviews raving about what a wonderful book, and yet this one lousy one, just makes us think all the good ones were fake or those people writing the good ones were somehow embellishing their enjoyment and being somehow false in their praise.

Oh, woe and strife shall be thy lot.

Well, I will give my take on this horrible subject. It goes like this: reviews are nothing if they are not biased. I don’t really believe a single review means anything. Every author, the greatest authors of our time get bad reviews, one and two star ratings saying “Drivel!” “Crap!” “Hack!”

You say, yeah, that doesn’t help, I still feel miserable about my crappy review. Bear with me for a moment, this is a slow dig.

Someone might say to you this unhelpful statement: “Not everyone is going to like your book.” Yes, we already knew that, thank you. Or this fruitless advice: “Suck it up.” Sure thing, coach.

The reason those kind of statements or commands don’t help our Bad-review-osis, is because they don’t really get at the meat of the problem. As an artist creating something (a book) that book is a baby and that baby, no matter how ugly, is beautiful to its creator-mother-father. So, anyone calling your kid and ugly bastard is apt to get you down.

More to the point: if Mr. Bad Reviewer would just do this one little favor, just this: be specific, maybe, just maybe we could understand and let it go. Apparently this is too much to ask for, however. But if it could be done the review would read something like this: “I thought the characterization of the step-mother was too stock, falling into the old and tired cliche of the evil step-mother who is trying to ruin the family and I would have preferred a fresher more modern approach.” Well, at least you would be able to understand where this reader was coming from.

Instead you tend to get things like: “The step-mother was just a throw-away character” which leaves you with two hang-ups: 1) what is a throw-away character and 2) who says?

In other words you have two problems: a vague comment that is meaningless because it is vague and an opinion masquerading as a fact.

Now, maybe this all some Utopian view of reviews and is totally unreal to expect a reviewer to take the time to explain himself, and to you I say, you’re right. My point here is how to take these uncomplimentary reviews and figure out why they’re torturing you so you can get over them and back to writing.

Okay, so you have a big problem in reviews in that almost nothing in a review is an actual fact. Take this wonderful statement: “The book was uneven.”

Huh? If you could just get a specific, a “In chapter 3 the move from first person to third person jarred me out of the story” or “I felt the authors voice kept going in and out, from Old Time Story Teller to Radio Announcer style.” Something, anything to let you at least understand what the problem was, at which point you could a) decide if you care enough to change it b) change it or not.

It’s as equally bad to say: “this book was good.” I have actually gotten “good” reviews that I felt disappointed with because they didn’t really say why the book had merit.

One way to evaluate a negative review is on the basis of: is there a specific and is there an actual fact. One review I got, a two-star said they didn’t like this dark story, but if you did like dark stories with dark characters doing dark things, you will probably like this dark book. Yes! This is the truth! So, in a way it was a complimentary “bad” review, because if I were looking for a dark and sinister tale about evil and magick and some church lady told me that The Hellbound Heart by Clive Barker was a terrible, terrible book about dark doings, I would run out and buy that book right now.

What does it all come down to anyway?

Once you get past the opinions stated as if they were scientific fact and the ambiguous statements about quality, you are prepared to enter the next tier of enlightenment. Let’s face it. Reviews–all reviews, good and bad–are little more than biased, opinionated statements of one person’s tastes. And that’s not a slam on reviews or reviewers, it’s just that that is all any review can ever hope to be.

There is no “good review” or “bad review” because “good” and “bad” are not factual qualifiers. There are only reviews written by people who liked or did not like your book.

And then you must consider that tastes change with the culture. When I was fifteen, we used to pin the bottoms of our pants with safety pins and somehow, with our big feet being accentuated and our pants pinned to our skinny calves, we looked good. Now, I know that if I did my pants up like that people would think I looked really dumb and bad. So tastes can change.

So, now that we have dispensed with good and bad morality as regards reviews, we can see that we have people who liked the book and people who didn’t. Here’s where reviews start to have meaning, but it is a quantitative, not a qualitative significance. How may people “liked” or loved your book versus the haters. You should run somewhere along a 80% favorable (3 star and above) versus the 20% unfavorable (1 and 2 star) with some variance, but this is really what you should have and honestly, in the opinion of this author, what you want. Why? Let’s take a look:

All five stars? Really, every single review is a five star? Okay, so that’s not even real. Stephen King doesn’t get that ever and I’m pretty sure he’s good at what he does, so…bullshit.

Really, it must mean that the reviews are cooked or, more likely, the book doesn’t have enough reviews from the general public. So, in order to even get a picture of whether a book is (old system) “good” or “bad” you need quantity. Conversely, you can’t get one five star review and throw a party because you have written the best classic of the century. That’s pretty obvious how insane that would be. So, neither can you get a shit review and head for the Golden Gate Bridge. You need quantity and only then will you enter the next stage of literary Nirvana.

What are you looking for with this quantity? Whether the book is “good” or “bad?” God, no. We’ve already established that good and bad are meaningless statements of Puritan hypocrisy and a moralist based logic system. No, we want to see the only thing that matters. Ready for this?

What makes Twilight a wonderful success? The excellent prose? Nope. The amazing characters? No, no. What then? What makes Wool so wow-wow. Is it the author’s ballet videos? Nah ah. The fantastically realistic sci-fi technology? Not even.

One word to bind them: resonance.

If you got it, you have success, whether or not you write “good.”

It sucks, I know. What is it? Some could call it the zeitgeist. Heinlein did, about Stranger in a Strange Land when fans in the 70’s tried to actually practice the religion in the book. Twilight resonates with 17 year old girls everywhere, even if that 17 year girl is in your past or somewhere deep down inside. Twilight hooks you with Bella’s “voice.” Hunger Games, Wool and that new one, Divergent, all play on the fascination we humans have with our world becoming a dystopian concentration camp that we have to overcome and restore hope in.  Zombie stuff…somehow we love the idea of the end of the world coming by making everyone a soulless animal that we then have to blow holes in. Gothic vampires will never go out of style because the dependence on human blood with the eternal damnation makes for wonderful love stories that make us ponder the meaning of life and our role in eternity. Etc, etc.

Many things resonate with many different groups. Some groups love Rocky Horror Picture Show. The trick is to write something that resonates with the majority of people, but the REAL trick is to write things YOU LOVE that resonates with ENOUGH people to sell copies and pay the rent or buy that Aston Martin you’ve been eyeballing.

For me, I don’t like the big blockbuster books. They make me so bored. I read them to see why they’re such hits, but they’re soporific to me. Wool. It took me like 5 hours into the audio book to even get remotely interested, and then I admit, I did start really liking it, but I still haven’t finished it, because every scene in this Dean Koontz book stirs up the wildness in me. In other words, while Wool is a beloved masterpiece of the masses,  it doesn’t resonate with me like a good dark fiction fantasy story, like a 800 page Anne Rice back story, like a Weird as all get out China Mieville story, like a–you get the idea.

So, we now have a yardstick by which to rate the ratings and review the reviews.

1) Any facts in this review?

2) Any specifics in this review that you can actually grasp?

1 & 2) No? Dismiss as taste and preference. Yes? see if you agree or weren’t aware of the issue and whether or not there is something to learn from it.

3) Do I have enough reviews to even see a pattern? Or do I need more exposure before I can see an overall picture?

4) What is the ratio between favorable versus unfavorable reviews? If it’s swinging outside of the 80 “good” and “20 bad” you can:

a) review to see if multiple people are saying the same thing.

i) fix or not fix as you see fit or (better)

ii) don’t make the same mistakes in your next book.

4A) If you’re getting nothing but 5 stars, double to check to see if you really did just write the newest classic of the century, or if you need to send your book to people who don’t know you and don’t give a crap if they make you sad today.

5) If its something like 80 to 70% “good” then don’t pay attention to the haters. It didn’t resonate with them, because their head is wrapped around and fascinated with the zombie apocalypse, or  Bigfoot erotica, or vampire saints, or quirky girls who can’t stop shopping or solving crimes with their dad or, or, or ad infinitum.

Now, do you feel better? Get back to writing!