Magic Number of the Day: Six

6.pngToday I saw two (count ’em) two contests, both of which asked people to write something in six words or less.

In the TreeHugger + Smith Six-Word Memoir Contest, Treehugger (blog) and Smith (magazine) “challenge you to define your green life in just six words.”

In my unhumble opinion, this is stating it all wrong. I don’t want to hear about someone’s green life; if they’re living green, or even trying to, more power to ’em. I’d rather direct my righteous impatience at all the ungreens:

  • Stop driving your f—ing SUV.
  • Don’t idle when dropping off kids.
  • It ain’t Christmas. Turn lights off.

And today I read in the Freakonomics blog, they’re running a contest to “write a six-word motto for the U.S. of A.”

I’m too tired to bother coming up with those. Besides, there were 1,025 responses to the post last time I looked.

All this hexalogomania (like that? it’s sorta Greek) stems from a rather clever book by the founder of Smith magazine, Larry Smith, called Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure. Freakonomics gives him props, despite his egotistically eponymous magazine name, and Treehugger’s cosponsoring.

(And while we’re digressing about names, it’s not actually “Smith” magazine. It’s “SMITH” magazine. All caps. The hubris! Don’t know if it’s a good magazine or not. But if it commits crimes against Standard Written English like that, here’s a hint: I’M NOT SUBSCRIBING.)

Nonethelessandsuch, I like the idea of boiling a message down to a tight word count. I used to do that as an editor, and found it excellent practice. The old adage “If I had more time, I would have written less” doesn’t exist for nothin’, y’know.

The Webby Awards made a name for themselves by limiting award acceptance speeches to five words, and in this age of information overload (my Google Reader has 1,000+ items), why not make it pithy?

Besides, I recently entered a writing contest where I entered 100,632 words, and we all know how well that went.

PS – The headline has six words (6)

Aren’t I special? No, I’m not. (6)

At least I’m not named SMITH. (6)

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Funniest Book Review So Far

In just two weeks I’ve had a bunch of reactions to my book, Between Clubs, on amazon.com. Those reactions included the Publishers Weekly review, which messed up the basics in its rush to start swinging the hatchet.

Then a friend sent me this, which he hasn’t been able to post on Amazon because he doesn’t have a US or Canadian credit card. Here it is:

Golf Swings

Speaking as a washed up barroom musician, I waste an awful lot of time.

John Ochwat’s novel about aspiring golf pros reminded me of what happens when you take what you do for pure joy and start to do it with money in mind:

Mike O’Hearn and Casey Blanton trying to out strut each other, Roberto Picarro in the unenviable position being the weakest player in the band and probably going to be dumped; the highly recognizable Paul Sloan, proof of the old adage that a player who becomes a band leader will turn into a prick; the calculating Stony who reminded me of one of those scum balls from the musician’s union; and the row caused by who bunks with Striver. Trying to maintain some equilibrium is the somewhat jaded Otis, whose mentality is obviously that of the rhythm section, the essential ingredient in any band.

Throw in some racial and cross border frisson – man!

I look forward to reading this novel while I scratch my ass between engagements.

Mr. Ochwat, he rocks.

The Amazon Contest Changes Its Look

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I’ve been obsessively checking my page on the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Contest, to see if any reviews have come in. Last night I noticed that Amazon has changed the way it’s presenting the contestants.

Prior to last night, the works in general literature were on 11 pages, and hard-coded as a table. Now they come out in rankings that can be sorted by bestselling, price, avg. customer review, and publication date.

Which is good and bad. Bad, because every time I gave someone a navigation path based on their former layout, it’s no longer valid.

But good in a way, because I had the somewhat heartening news that my book was ranked 55th out of 425 entries by customers. Strangely, I’m right next to a book called “Between.” What are the odds of that?

The Reviewing Demimonde

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Slate Magazine has a really interesting article about Amazon.com’s Top Reviewers, written by a novelist who became suspicious of his own 5-star review.

Turns out his Amazon Top Reviewer has reviewed over 3,500 books, CDs, and movies for Amazon. “In turn, he has attained a kind of celebrity: a No. 7 ranking; a prominent profile on the Web site; and, apparently, a following.” But the reviewer also has detractors, who accuse him of back-scratching, being unduly influenced by publishers, and of not reading the books under review.

The novelist calculated that Harriet Klausner, Amazon.com’s number-one reviewer since the inception of the ranking system in 2000, “has averaged 45 book reviews per week over the last five years—a pace that seems hard to credit, even from a professed speed-reader.”

He also notes that “John ‘Gunny’ Matlock, ranked No. 6 this spring, took a holiday from Amazon, according to Vick Mickunas of the Dayton Daily News, after allegations that 27 different writers had helped generate his reviews.”

I’m interested because my manusript was reviewed, and because I found a blog post from another Amazon reviewer who was picked to judge the early rounds of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Contest:

Basically Amazon threw the contest open to the first 5000 excerpted-novel entries. Then, I believe Amazon must have asked every single reviewer if he or she would like to read entries and vote — bearing in mind that a lot of people would turn down this unpaid duty.

Despite this reviewer noting that he’s “not even in the bottom tier of reviewers who get such a designation printed under their reviewer names,” he is actually involved in reading and reviewing books more than just casually.

My Amazon Top Reviewer said in part, “This is okay. It might be better than okay if I cared about golf (or to a lesser degree gambling).” Thanks for the fly-by. Sorry you’re so busy.

I imagine the same thing happening at Publishers Weekly, where they have to weigh in on 836 manuscripts before making the cut to the final 100. There can’t be 836 people that PW has at its disposal, which means reviewers have multiple manuscripts.

Not only that, only about a week passed between the first cut (from about 5,000 manuscripts to 836) and the time the Publishers Weekly reviews posted. Thus, in all likelihood, the poor PW reviewers had only a week to review multiple manuscripts and write reviews. That would be too much for even the near-mythic pace of Harriet Klausner (a review every 8 days).

And so a lot of us who are semi-finalists in the contest got hastily written reviews based on skimming the book instead of reading it.

The reviewer whose blog post I quoted above thought the contest was a great idea, and hoped Amazon would do it again. After suffering with a factually incorrect review at the top of my page, one that’s largely going to determine the fate of my manuscript in the contest, I’m not sure I agree.

Crawlin’ from the Wreckage

great_car_wreck_5163.jpgSocial media and book publishing are starting to collide. Here’s the back-story: As you may know, my first novel, Between Clubs, made it to the semi-finals of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. (muted hooray)

That means anyone can download a free 5,000-word excerpt and write a review. To judge who goes to the next round, Penguin Books is rating all 836 books on the basis of customer reviews and reviews by an Amazon Top Reviewer, and Publishers Weekly. (As Slate pointed out, the Amazon reviews have always been a murky, politicized issue.)

This week, Publishers Weekly trashed Between Clubs, probably killing its hopes of reaching the next round. (muted groans)

That hurt, though not because I naively thought everyone would love the book. I knew I’d get dinged, sooner or later (though I had a nice honeymoon, when all the customers who’ve written reviews gave me 5 stars).

It hurt because the PW reviewer got so many obvious things wrong about the review, that I know he or she skipped entire sections of the book. I also felt that the reviewer based some of the negative things s/he said on the basis of not reading. Nor am I the only one who feels wronged. There’s even a discussion thread going on Amazon, Factual Errors in PW Reviews – Do we try to get them fixed?

One writer said of the Publishers Weekly reviews that “quite a few read like 8th grade book reports, (read the first and last chapter then write it up.)”

My first instinct was to fight back, citing chapter and verse to prove that the reviewer didn’t read the book. I even wrote an angry blog post, then deleted it. (Though I did callowly leave it up as an anonymous rant on Craigslist, which was quite therapeutic.)

The writer Patricia Cornwell is fighting back against nasty Amazon reviews, but with limited success and support. According to Tess Gerritsen,

The general reaction in the blogosphere is that Cornwell is rich and famous so why does she bother to fight back? People in her position should be immune to hurt feelings. People with money and success should be able to shrug off any and all criticism.

I think that’s a sort of straw-man argument, much like the charges leveled against Stephen Fry when he complained about how taking photos was ruining book reading (here’s my blog post about that).

Writers like Cornwell get upset and fight back because they’re sensitive and vulnerable to criticism. Tess Gerritsen is, Patricia Cornwell is, I am, and so is everyone who took umbrage at a bad Publishers Weekly review.

What I find interesting about this process is that social media allows people to write whatever they want about a book — and allows the writer to respond.

I’m just not sure whether a writer should. In the Amazon contest FAQ, one of the questions is

Can I vote for my own entry?
Of course! Stay tuned – if you are selected as a semi-finalist in January, we will be providing tips for promoting your book to customers in the coming months.

I’m tempted to review my own book, both as an exercise and to correct the record, but there seems to be an invisible part of the social contract that says not to do it. Part of the reason is that once the work of art is out there, it’s on its own … and if people interpret it one way or another (even if they misunderstand), well, that’s something you can’t control. But maybe I’m wrong, and Cornwell’s right.

What do you think?

PS – The title of this post comes from Dave Edmund’s brilliant song of the same name. This week, the chorus fits:

Crawling from the wreckage,
Crawling from the wreckage.
Bits of me are scattered in the trees and in the hedges

Postscript (June 2008): Just in case you’re curious, I finally did write my own counter-review. I doubt it made any difference, but it did make me feel better.

The Semi-Semi-Finals

genlit.jpgI’ve spent the weekend spamming my friends and relatives, telling them that my novel, Between Clubs, is a semi-finalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. (Like the lovely cover?)

In my original post about it, I missed one fact. According to the Penguin Blog (Penguin Books … not flightless birds), the current batch of 836 semi-finalists

will be narrowed down to 100 semi-finalists on February 19th , and Penguin editors will then select the top 10 contestants who will enter the final round, their decisions informed by the ratings and reviews conducted by Publishers Weekly and Amazon.com critics.

Two observations: First, the Penguin Blog is actually a Penguin Press Release Archive. That’s not social media, that’s PR! But hey, any promo is good promo.

Second, the Amazon contest home page makes no mention of the Feb 19th date:

From now until March 2, we’re inviting Amazon.com customers to download, read, and review excerpts from our semifinalists and help decide who will make it to the Top Ten. Penguin will select manuscripts to read from the semifinal round based on customers’ feedback and Publishers Weekly reviews.

But it sounds like if you’re going to write a review (maybe … for Between Clubs?), it would be most effective if you did it before Feb. 19th.

Author Hunting

Stephen Fry (the actor and author) has a blog, and on it not long ago he complained about the way that cameras on cell phones have ruined literary readings (here’s an excerpt from Paper Cuts, the NY Times books blog).

His complaint is that people want him to pose for photos, so they get someone else to try and operate their cameras or cell phones, leading to hapless photographic attempts and a lot of standing around and grimacing instead of “agreeable exchanges and chats with the readers.”

Really, go read Fry’s lament and then come back. He does a marvelous job of describing it, far better and more detailed than my hasty summary. In the meantime, here’s a sample photo-with-the-author:

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Grin and bear it!

In the comments to the Paper Cuts blog post, some jackass says the following:

My god. Be thankful you’re well-known enough to want other people to take pictures of you. You sound like a spoiled dilettante; you don’t know how many of us would kill to be inconvenienced by “200 hundred versions of the awkward and excruciating performance.” Spare us – quit yer whining!

For the sake of argument, let’s pretend jackass is actually making a valid point. I mean, you’ve got to be really successful before randomfolk come and want to be photographed with you (and jackass is clearly jealous he isn’t successful). Besides, there’s that implicit noblesse oblige of celebrity, meaning that part of being a star is the obligation to pose for photos.

Right?

I went to see the author Carl Hiaasen speak not long ago. The talk was part of Wordstock, an annual book festival. Hiaasen, who lives in Florida, flew all the way out to Portland to speak, explaining that he likes to go to good “book towns,” and for this reason (and for a presidential one), entirely avoids a certain flyover state that sits due south of Oklahoma.

After Hiaasen’s talk there was a book signing, and I bought a copy of Nature Girl, and had him sign it. As I worked toward the front of the line, I saw person after person hand their camera to someone else to take a photo. Hiaasen sat down and signed, stood up and posed, had his eyes blasted with a flash, sat down, stood up, smiled, etc.

Hiaasen was clearly tired. After all, his body was still on Florida time, so to him it felt like 1 a.m. … and he’d been on a jet for probably five hours that day. But instead of coming up and talking to him about books and writing and stories and life—the reason he said he’d come to Portland in the first place!—people were more interested in taking along a little image of themselves with him.

Maybe because Stephen Fry is also in movies and on TV, the jackass who left the comment thinks the rules of the game are different. I disagree. If you go see an author, the discussion should be about stories, and writing, and books … not about digital cameras. And when Stephen Fry is doing a reading of his book, that’s what the discussion should be about then, too.

The reason you write is to connect with people in some way, whether it’s to entertain, inform, amuse, persuade, or some combination thereof. True, there’s a perverse irony in the system, that to write you have to hole up alone in a room for a few hundred hours to produce a good book, which then gets shipped around the country and/or world, and read by people in their homes … in other words, to connect, you do so in one of the most lonely, disconnected ways imaginable.

Think about it from the writer’s point of view: Yes, it’s gratifying that people are buying, reading, and seeming to enjoy your work, but wouldn’t you want to talk to them? Get feedback? Find out all the surprising ways something you wrote touched or amused them? That was a big reason—maybe the main reason—you went through all that trouble in the first place.

And if you’re a reader, once you’re finally face to face with someone who’s written something meaningful, wouldn’t you want to talk to them?

Apparently not. Instead of a writer making meaning for a reader, or the reader making meaning out of a story, and coming together to share in that, people would rather hunt celebrities like big-game animals, nabbing a digital memento to put on their wall as some sort of testament to their egos.

If you agree with jackass, just by virtue of the fact that you’re a successful writer, you should not only not complain about being prevented from actually connecting to people on a human level, (because your image is all that matters), but you should be thankful for it.

The Barenaked Ladies have a song, “Celebrity,” which sums this up in a tidy, biting little couplet:

And all that you will see is a celebrity
All that’s left of me is my celebrity

When I got to front of the line at the Wordstock reading, I asked Carl Hiaasen for advice about writing novels, and he gave me a really good answer. I didn’t take a picture, but what I took away from the evening was something a whole lot better.