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REVIEW: Someone Else’s Skin | Sarah Hilary 27 February 2014

Posted by Camille Gooderham Campbell in Book Reviews.
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I knew from the first time I read one of Sarah Hilary’s flash fiction stories (“Lolita’s Lynch Mob“, back in 2007) that she’d be someone to watch. I was not surprised at all to hear that she’d got an agent and then a book deal — and I was thrilled to bits when an advance review copy of Someone Else’s Skin arrived in the mail.

book cover imageI was not disappointed. Rather, I was blown away. I knew it would be good, but it exceeded my already-high expectations; I was gripped from the first sentence, and barely glanced up from its pages right through to the last line. It’s one of the best books I’ve read, regardless of genre.

The prose is flat out gorgeous, but you don’t really slow down enough to notice it… on a first reading anyway — I appreciated the style and power of the language more fully on a second reading, once I wasn’t totally focused on finding out what would happen. There are no wasted words in this book; it’s as clean and fluid as the best sort of flash fiction, all the way through.

DI Marnie Rome is a protagonist with layers and staying power — I can well imagine that I’ll still be engaged with her and finding out new things about her through book after book. I also really connected with her partner/subordinate DS Noah Jake (and it’s refreshing to have a major character whose ethnicity and sexual orientation is a natural part of the story, without it being either a soapbox issue or tokenism). The suspects and victims are intricately detailed, as are many of the other law enforcement and social services officials — no cardboard characters here.

Someone Else’s Skin doesn’t shy away from difficult or uncomfortable subject matter; much of the story is set in a women’s shelter and deals with domestic violence in an increasingly multicultural modern London, the crimes are somewhat gruesome in nature, and the novel gets into some pretty dark and twisted places. None of it feels forced or done for effect, though; the story flows to an almost inevitable conclusion, one that had me cheering aloud. It’s also a book for intelligent readers, thankfully, and doesn’t spoon-feed information or telegraph the plot.

Bottom line, and my first thought on putting the book down after I finished reading it: I need the next book in the series, right now. It’s that good. Five stars, for sure, and a permanent place on my read-again-and-keep-forever shelf.

Thank you to Headline Books for sending me an advance review copy. Someone Else’s Skin is released in the UK today (get it HERE!) but won’t be out in North America until June. It might just be worth paying the overseas shipping so you don’t have to wait…

UPDATE (June 24, 2014): Someone Else’s Skin is now available in North America! Get it at Amazon, Amazon Canada, Chapters Indigo, Powell’s Books, or shop IndieBound.

Writing Tips Are Like Diet Advice 15 January 2014

Posted by Camille Gooderham Campbell in Advice For Writers.
4 comments

If there were a magic solution for dissolving avoirdupoids — a secret formula that really worked, for everyone, without other factors and regardless of life’s complications — we’d all have movie-star bodies. And if there were a secret formula for perfect, readable, saleable prose, there’d be no writer left behind. The fact is, no magic combination of kill-the-adjectives and active voice will automatically perfect your writing, any more than grapefruit-cucumber milkshakes or an all-protein diet will make you thin.

It’s a good idea to learn the rules before you break them, in the same way that learning about calories and nutrition and exercise can help you become healthier and stronger. Understanding grammar is good. Figuring out what said-bookisms are (and why modifiers should be used sparingly, and why the active voice is generally stronger than the passive voice, and what that show-don’t-tell thing means, etc.) is even better.

But then… you have to read. And read, and read. Read the best writing you can find, in as many genres as you’re willing to try. This is like eating good stuff. And all that great writing, and the techniques and style therein, are absorbed into your brain. It fuels your writing just like healthy and varied meals fuel your body. There’s no secret reading list that will set you right up, of course, any more than there’s one perfect meal plan for everyone. We all need to find our own way, with variety and balance and experimentation, and even occasional guilty pleasures — you won’t stick to reading any more than you’ll stick to a diet if it’s an unpleasant bore.

(Oh? Don’t have time to read because you’re “too busy writing”? Isn’t that essentially starving your writing rather than feeding it, sacrificing long-term development in favour of short-term gains? Sure, it’s fine in temporary bursts, but how many literary meals can you skip before you start losing writerly muscle mass and energy?)

And of course, you write. It’s like doing push-ups; you’re maybe in poor shape at first and can barely get yourself off the floor, but start doing more and more, regularly, and one day you realize that you’ve gotten all strong and toned and whatnot. There’s no substitute for doing the work.

The most entertaining similarity is that literary preaching is just as annoying as lifestyle-and-diet preaching. Think about it; in both of these areas — where no two people are the same, where the measure of success changes from person to person and even from day to day, where getting it right involves endless trial-and-error, learning, experimentation, hope, small successes and failures, and ongoing hard work — it’s intensely irritating to hear “you’re doing it wrong” and “if you’d only do it my way you’d get a better result”. (Also, anyone who doesn’t know the difference between preaching and discussing is probably beyond help.)

Ultimately, we’re all entitled to choose what our own goals are, and what means success to us, right? So I don’t get to tell you what your body ought to look like, what I think you should eat, what makes you beautiful to yourself and those who love you. I’m pretty sure that, likewise, your literary voice can be unique and awesome in so many ways that might not fit with what I currently see as perfection. If I choose to be judgmental about the way you look (and yes, that’s hypothetical… we all try not to do that, right?) or the way you write (um, possibly guilty, depending on who you are?), that’s on me. As an editor, I can tell you what I want and don’t want to see, but only with regard to magazine and book projects I control; as a reader, I can only choose what books to buy or not buy, and how to spend my reading time. But you’re still free to choose your own path.

A Unique Redefinition of… Something 26 July 2013

Posted by Camille Gooderham Campbell in Hall of Shame.
11 comments

We don’t ban people from submitting stories to Every Day Fiction often. Hardly at all, in fact. I could count them on one hand over the past… well, almost seven years now.

But when someone refuses to see the conflict between unattributed chunks of text quoted without permission (from an online non-fiction article about the story’s subject) and item 6(a) of our contract — “The Author represents and warrants that he/she is the sole author of the Work, that the Work is original and not previously published, and that the Work does not, to the best of his/her knowledge, infringe any third party’s copyright, trademark or other proprietary rights.” — we don’t really have any other choice. How could we ever trust any submission from this person who refuses to see that appropriating someone else’s text is wrong?

The reaction? Apparently a ban is “over the top” and we need to “get rid of what they taught you in school about literature, and start using you own minds.”

The justification we were given as to why it’s okay to use other people’s words? “I did not invent words either, so, according to your logic, whoever uses words is not a fiction writer.”

Also, this: “I do it all the time, it’s my definition of the 21st century writing, which I define, not the century.”

This one goes in the Hall of Shame, for sure.

Your Past May Be Out There 30 June 2013

Posted by Camille Gooderham Campbell in Random Thoughts.
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Today I discovered that I still have a MySpace profile. Remember MySpace?

It was under an old email address to which I no longer have access, so I’m lucky I was able to make an educated guess at the password and get in to sweep away the cobwebs and tidy the place up. A bit of dust gathers after seven years, you know?

So… do you have old profiles hanging around forgotten on the interwebs? And do they represent who you are now?

When the world moves on from a site or service, it’s easy to lose track of what might still be around. And as you develop in your life and career, you’re probably not the same person you were a decade ago (at the superficial level of profile pictures and status updates and bands you liked and so on). But if someone is curious about you — a potential employer, publisher, reader, fan, romantic prospect, new friend, or someone you admire — a tiny pinch of Google-fu can turn up all kinds of odd things…

And… I just found my forgotten first blog, not updated since 2007. Great.

(Now you’re going to go Google yourself, right? Tell me if you find any surprises…)

Here’s A Tip: Be Someone We Want To Work With 20 April 2013

Posted by Camille Gooderham Campbell in Advice For Writers.
10 comments

I’m not going to review the obvious here — reading guidelines, polishing and proofreading your work, etc. — on the assumption that you’ve already got it covered. This is about how to be someone an editor wants to work with.

Let’s start by assuming that you’re a good (or at least competent) writer, able to produce work at a level suitable for the magazine or publishing house you want to build a relationship with. No amount of schmoozing or game-playing is going to get you there if you’re not up to standard; there’s no secret way around that. And, fortunately or unfortunately, you still need to get noticed by the editors (whether with an acceptance, a revision request, or an “encouraging” rejection that indicates interest in seeing more of your work) on the strength of your writing. But from there, you can become a writer editors see as a pleasure to work with, or a kind of neutral entity who doesn’t trigger any thoughts one way or another, or a writer at whose name editors roll their eyes and shudder.

It’s not so much of an issue if you’re a brilliant master of the craft and rolling in awards and praise in all directions — editors will put up with a lot (though not everything or indefinitely) for the reward of genius-level work to publish (and hopefully profits to go with that, if we’re talking actual books for sale or paid subscriptions). It’s also true that nothing will save you if you can’t write.

But when you’re at a  journeyman level, working your way up from more-than-competent to potential-star-on-the-rise, you’re most likely submitting work to places that get more acceptable-quality submissions than they have publication spots. So it stands to reason that you want to have every possible advantage on your side. You want editors to see your name and smile, to think, “Oh, yes, I like working with that one.”

How to make editors smile

  • Regular, ongoing submissions are the best way to show that you’re really interested in being part of a magazine. Don’t give up after one rejection. Learn from the feedback you get, and keep trying. I can think of many instances where an acceptance came after four or five rejections, as the author got closer and closer to what we look for. By the time you get there, we feel like we know you, and we’re cheering for your success.
  • Have a professional-looking, genre-appropriate, up-to-date blog or website. This really is the first place most people will check for more information about you, and that includes editors who’ve noticed you and want to learn more. A polished website (especially one with a nice list of recent publications and updated news) goes a long way to cementing any positive first impressions you may already have achieved.
  • Our confidence in you increases when you consistently behave in a professional manner. This isn’t a one-time thing or a badge earned, it’s more of a growing assumption based on a past record — we know the plagiarism & previous publication check will come up clean, we know you’ll respond promptly to a revision request or other correspondence, we know if/how you’ll interact with readers once your story is published, etc.
  • Editors like to feel appreciated. Not in a fake formal-thank-you-note way, and I don’t think there’s any specific technique or set of instructions for how to “do it right”, but genuine appreciation makes a natural impact, so don’t be shy to show it if you feel it.
  • Social media groups and communities are a great way to get to know your editors and let us get to know you beyond routine correspondence, without the risk of imposing as you might with personal emails or friend requests that come too soon. It’s not wrong to send an editor a Facebook friend request or an email about something that isn’t strictly business, but there’s a very fine difference between slowly developing a connection and rushing forward at an inappropriate pace. Personally, I’m always thrilled to get to know writers at any level, but I feel better if I’ve had some discussion/interaction with you before I get that friend request or your quarterly writing news email.
  • Be a fan! It’s tried-and-true advice to read a few issues of a magazine (or a few books from an imprint) before you submit your work — but there’s an ocean of difference between having looked over a couple of “representative samples” and being a follower/fan/subscriber/reader/participant. When someone wants to be a part of our community and what we do, as opposed to just having us on a list of a few dozen potential markets, it’s only natural that we’ll want to help make that happen. It may mean extra feedback from the editorial team, or improved likelihood of getting a revision request instead of a rejection for something that might be close — these are the two biggest areas where fractional impressions can influence what we do: the amount of time and care spent on crafting editorial notes, and the moment of wavering between an outright rejection and a chance to rewrite.
  • We love our volunteers. Most magazines and smaller publishing houses depend heavily on volunteers, and no matter where you live or what your background and skills are, there’s almost always something you can do to help. It never hurts to offer your time and talents, and see what can grow from that.
  • Be (or at least act) sane and pleasant. All else aside, if you seem like a decent human being, we’ll probably enjoy whatever contact we have with you.

Now, I’m in no way suggesting that writers need to be all sweet and agreeable and self-effacing to be liked — “pleasant” basically means that we don’t walk away from a conversation with you thinking ugh, that was a bad scene. Editors aren’t infallible and good ones should be reasonable; if you don’t want to make changes to accommodate an editor’s opinion, you can be firm (and if publication is contingent on you making particular changes, you can always respectfully decline and take the piece elsewhere, with no harm done). The point is not to argue with your editor, but to explain your concerns and see if there’s a solution that will satisfy everyone.

A writing career is a long-term thing, and nothing is gained from short-term “victories” if you’re the only one feeling good about them.

How to make editors shudder

  • When you receive editorial feedback on a story, whether accepted or rejected, email us to justify your choices, explain what we should have understood from your story, and show your disdain for any revision suggestions. I’m not sure which version of this is less appealing: the overtly arrogant challenge or the self-deprecating humblebrag.
  • Be precious about your deathless prose and strongly object to seeing the least punctuation mark or verb tense adjusted, even when it’s grammatically wrong. Dish out attitude to anyone who wrongfully corrects a misused semi-colon for you. Ferociously defend every adverb.
  • Submit previously published work as unpublished, especially if the original publication isn’t available online to be found by a Google search. If asked about it, lie: why, that review must have been written by a friend who was emailed the story, mistakenly thinking it had been published somewhere, right? For advanced credit, submit the same story to us multiple times, on the assumption that we won’t recognize it from the time before. If you can’t deliver previously published work of your own, consider plagiarizing from sources such as Moby Dick.
  • Ignore guidelines about no simultaneous submissions, and routinely withdraw stories because they’ve been accepted elsewhere, or wait until you receive a rejection or acceptance to let us know that actually the story isn’t still available. When the no-sim-subs rule is politely mentioned, rant about how refusing simultaneous submissions is being controlling and denying writers the opportunity to seek the best deal for their stories.
  • Send queries that completely ignore any nicety of salutation or courtesy: “When will I get a response about my story?” Don’t include any useful information such as the title of your story or when you submitted it. Don’t check the submission guidelines or FAQ page to see if the answer is readily available.
  • Respond to rejections with emails full of anger, swearing, denigration of the magazine or publishing house and its editors, threats, hatred, etc. For bonus points, make accusations of bias, prejudice, and/or cronyism. Then go gripe about us to your online writers’ forum.
  • Troll the comment threads of other people’s published stories, looking to start arguments and cut down other writers. Make cutting remarks about the editors’ choices and skills. Create sock puppets to agree with you and add to the fun. Learn the publication’s commenting guidelines so you can stay just barely on the right side of them, giving moderators no technical grounds on which to expunge your venom.
  • Be a loose cannon on your blog and social media, and don’t restrict your posts to just friends either. Make every disagreement public and unpleasant; name names, point fingers. Get into drag-out arguments on sensitive topics. Self-promote aggressively and offensively. Overshare personal drama and private business. Turn your “author platform” into a polarized battleground full of political and social minefields.

In terms of public persona, there are several successful writer-bloggers who take strong stances about various things and aren’t known for pulling their punches, and usually editors want to work with writers who are passionate, who are willing to stand up for issues that matter to them, who enjoy engaging with the wider community and aren’t afraid of a spicy debate. The thing is, spicy debate is elite-level stuff — if you’re still trying to work out where the line is between wit and vitriol, if you’re wondering why your public persona shouldn’t necessarily extend to your business communication, or if you’re not sure what makes a comment “inappropriate” or “offensive” instead of “daring” or “edgy”, you’re not there yet.

Finally, as to being sane… I believe it was F. Scott Fitzgerald who said good writers are “a whole lot of people trying so hard to be one person” (in The Love of the Last Tycoon), so I totally get that ‘sane’ may be a negotiable term at times. But you know, quirky is just fine. Eccentric is fine. Tortured and melancholic are unfortunate for you but fine for us. Just… don’t be a psychopath, okay? You know what chaotic evil is? Don’t be that. Then we’re good.

Squee! I Can Make Animated GIFs! 28 January 2013

Posted by Camille Gooderham Campbell in Happiness.
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Raygun-Chronicles-Make-This-Happen-Banner

Look at that! Stuff moves! It’s cool!

Seriously, though, I realize that everyone in the universe except for me can already make animated GIFs — there are enough of them out there to choke the internet, after all — but I’m a book designer and publisher: in my world, stuff stays still on the page.

Only… it doesn’t. E-book text reflows based on the e-reader’s screen and the requested font size, right? That’s movement. Plus, a fair chunk of what we publish is… online.

And today Jordan Ellinger pointed out to me that movement draws the eye. (I knew that; I just hadn’t thought about it in the context of animated ad banners.) Since I do up virtually all of our advertising and promotional material, I quickly realized that yes… this had to be figured out.

Turns out it was not difficult at all. All you need is Photoshop (I’ve got CS5.5). In case you too were with me in the Dark Ages of non-animation, here’s an excellent tutorial from Wired: http://howto.wired.com/wiki/Make_an_Animated_GIF (try the layer visibility method first, and then play with tweening once you’re comfortable).

So, do you like the speed my banner is animated at, or should I slow it down a little more?

Adventures in Crowdfunding 24 January 2013

Posted by Camille Gooderham Campbell in News & Announcements, Publishing Industry.
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It’s like watching a kettle, waiting for it to come to a boil.

If you haven’t yet heard of crowdfunding, it’s essentially a means of raising funds for a creative or inventive project from consumers prior to creation. There are a number of websites making this not only possible but relatively easy, at least in terms of functionality (popular crowdfunding sites include Kickstarter and IndieGoGo, among others) — you set up a page for your project, create donation levels with rewards for your backers, and launch your campaign.

And then you wait. Promote it — but don’t be a spammer — make sure the word is out — without annoying anyone — what’s the balance?

This is Every Day Publishing’s first venture into crowdfunding: Raygun Chronicles, an ambitious anthology of space opera stories. Editor Bryan Thomas Schmidt is operating the Kickstarter campaign, and he’s managed to secure participation from some amazing pro-level authors. But crowdfunding is the only way for us to organize the kind of capital needed to acquire the work of authors at that level — a massive step up from the shoestring-it-and-hope-for-royalties model where most small publishers start out.

Raygun Chronicles cover image

I’ll lay it on the table here: I really want to make this book. I want this chance to work with cover artist Paul Pedersen (the greyscale image above is his concept sketch for the cover). I want to be the publisher of record for new stories by recognizable names. I want to take the step up from shoestring micro-publisher and truly go pro. And without crowdfunding, it would take years and years to inch our way upward, always scraping the next book’s advance out of the last book’s royalties. So this process is exciting, and nerve-wracking, and frustrating. I keep checking the campaign page, watching the number of backers and dollars raised creep up… and like a kettle coming to the boil, it feels like every minute goes on forever.

Of course, I’ve heard the argument that “real” publishers shouldn’t attempt crowdfunding: “If you don’t have the money, you shouldn’t do the project.” And given the fact that just about anyone with access to an internet connection and a basic smidgen of computer sense can set up a smart-looking website and claim to be a publisher, I understand why readers might want to see some capital investment before putting their faith in such a claim, so it’s easy to see why crowdfunding might look like an end-around to bypass personal investment. Consider this, though: if a publisher is already out-of-pocket as far as reasonably possible, is it so wrong to want to pursue a bigger project? If no one frowns on a business getting a loan in order to grow, why should crowdfunding be criticized?

Big publishing has for years been telling small publishers and self-publishers to stay out of their playground, so I’m not sure that “real” and “shouldn’t” are words worth listening to in this industry, and having money isn’t the only measure of competence. For those who want assurance that a publisher is “real”, may I respectfully suggest looking at the number and quality of books currently in print? There’s also transparency to consider — who’s behind the imprint or house — and what sort of track record the players may have in the industry. If anything, being able to raise funds via Kickstarter or IndieGoGo demonstrates a certain amount of market reach and connection, which in my opinion ought to instill more confidence than independently deep pockets.

The other advantage to crowdfunding in publishing is that it tests the market, particularly for an experimental or niche project. If there’s genuine interest from the reading community, enough to push the crowdfunding campaign through, that’s hard evidence that readers want the book to exist. Case in point: Raygun Chronicles is a space opera anthology. (Had you even heard of space opera before today? Even if you enjoy sci-fi? Pulpy, adventure sci-fi? Star Wars? That’s space opera.) Even if we could, somehow, come up with the capital to do this project in some other way, a misjudgement of the market could sink not just the book but our whole enterprise; we’re too small to afford that kind of loss. I believe, of course, that readers will/do want this book, and fortunately the early signs are suggesting that we’re right, but a business-drowning risk is not a reasonable move even when gut and heart are saying yes. Fortunately, crowdfunding allows us to propose the project to potential readers, and if enough of them (you?) are willing to essentially pre-purchase the book, we know we can deliver.

The challenge, of course, is providing satisfactory rewards at prices that permit fulfillment. Apparently, many projects are either crippled into failure by weak rewards at too-high pledge levels, or damaged after a successful campaign because the rewards cost more to deliver than the pledge levels counted on. Our strategy balances hopefully attractive premium rewards at the higher levels with economically-priced good value at the lower end of the scale, to try to appeal to as wide an array of potential backers as possible without risking a shortfall after the fact. Honestly, my favourite of our reward packages is the Corvus level (they’re all named after constellations!) because it’s economically the best deal — US $5 for the e-book, which will almost certainly have a higher sale price after release, and your name in the list of supporters, and a web badge to show our appreciation — but I also like the Scorpius level because it includes four hours of my publishing services (e-book formatting, pre-press formatting for print, proofreading, cover design, whatever the backer needs…). And then, different people have different preferences; if I were allowed to back it myself (which is against the rules, for obvious reasons), I’d go with the Cassiopeia level because I like nice hardcovers and I want the t-shirt!

All things considered, crowdfunding seems to be a good fit for small publishers, not as a business model or an ongoing source of funds, but to stretch out from the regular order of business into ambitious or unusual projects. I don’t want to become dependent on crowdfunding; I just see it — this time — as a way to do something special and get a leg up to the next tier of my ambitions. Will you help me?

Reading Through Filters 28 October 2012

Posted by Camille Gooderham Campbell in Random Thoughts.
1 comment so far

We all read through filters of one sort or another.

Some filters are highly specific. There’s expert knowledge — the cop who rolls his eyes over procedural inaccuracies, the doctor who shakes her head over medical impossibilities — and there’s genre expertise — the avid science fiction fan who recognizes themes and plots that seem fresh to more general readers, the 18th century literature student who recognizes allusions and in-jokes that most other readers would miss. Without the resources to hire expensive expert consultants at every turn, there’s not much an editor can do but hope nothing too egregious slips by.

Other filters are recognizably subjective. When a dude dismisses a story as chick lit, or a “serious” reader with a preference for award winners and the literary elite dismisses a story as fluff, a subjective filter is being applied — the story is being judged in comparison to the reader’s preferences. The reverse can happen, too; a fondness for a particular theme or interest in a set of characters can cause a reader to overlook prose issues or plot holes, and even fill in gaps and ascribe depth to the material that isn’t there. Genre conventions sometimes permit and even invite elements that would, in a different context, be met with scorn.

The most subjective filters of all are, of course, filters of emotion. It’s virtually impossible to be purely objective when reading a story by a spouse, child, or dear friend. Nor is it reasonable to expect objectivity or even a rational response when reading a story that triggers some past personal trauma.

Personally, I don’t think anyone is capable of reading entirely without filters. The reading experience is a combination of what the author gives to the story and what the reader takes from it, and any time perception and interpretation and taste come into play, we’re automatically applying our filters to what we’re taking in — sometimes even to the point of not actually hearing what’s being said or absorbing what’s on the page.

The big question is where the responsibility lies for recognizing those filters.

One can’t say that the end reader “ought to” realize that s/he is reading through a complex set of preferences, biases, emotions, and possibly specialized knowledge. That’s not a reasonable demand, because the end reader (by which I mean someone who buys or borrows or is given a book to read for his/her own pleasure — the end consumer, in a reading sense; the general public) isn’t answerable to anyone for his/her reading. If I choose to pick up a random book and read it, I don’t have to justify that choice or provide a critical assessment of that book; it’s just… what I happen to be reading. We are all, sometimes, end readers and entitled to just enjoy (or, er, not enjoy) a story without having to explain ourselves.

On the other end of the spectrum, publishing professionals absolutely must recognize their personal filters and guard against them. When choosing and recommending reading material for others, it’s staggeringly important to be self-aware and to strive for an impartial, objective assessment. Particularly when it comes to rejections, for example, a responsible editor needs to make choices based on readership preferences rather than personal preferences. I’m not perfect, but I do my best, and it’s not unheard of for me to ask one of my co-editors for an additional opinion when it comes to a story that I recognize to be outside of my individual comfort zone (e.g., “guy humour” — sometimes I need to ask a male editor about those ones, because I *know* I’m just not appreciating all there is to be appreciated). I’m including professional reviewers and librarians in this category, with huge respect, both for their roles in recommending books to readers and because there’s an expectation of impartiality and having the best interests of the end reader at heart.

But what about independent book bloggers, commenters on stories at EDF, social reading enthusiasts connecting on Goodreads and LibraryThing? Somewhere between a public professional life in reading (editors, publishers, professional reviewers, librarians) and a completely private life in reading (someone who just reads for pleasure or self-edification and doesn’t talk about it), there’s a grey area of what one might call personal commentary. There’s no professional requirement or standard to start a book blog, to write a review and post it on a social reading site, to get involved in commenting on stories published online. And there’s absolutely no way that an external source could impose moral/intellectual requirements or standards on personal commentary, because it’s just that — personal. Websites can ask for courtesy and delete responses that fail to comply, block specific words earmarked as inappropriate, or hold comments for moderation until a staffer has a chance to review them for suitability, but there’s no way to make participants recognize or turn off their natural filters.

The question is, do readers engaging in personal commentary have any responsibility within themselves to recognize and/or acknowledge that there may be filters involved in their perceptions?

I don’t know.

On the one hand, I want to recognize every reader’s right to have a genuine and natural opinion without worrying about what it means or whether s/he should feel that way. On the other hand, as soon as one engages in expressing an opinion in public and to strangers, isn’t there some responsibility to balance that opinion with an acknowledgement of the factors that might influence it?

And then, I suppose that’s the funny thing about responsibility in general. You can’t make someone else take it. It has to come from within.

Podcast Chat With Robert Swartwood 13 September 2012

Posted by Camille Gooderham Campbell in Uncategorized.
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I recently had a lovely Skype chat with Robert Swartwood about flash fiction, Every Day Fiction, e-books, and other related things — here it is as a podcast on his blog:

http://www.robertswartwood.com/podcast/in-which-camille-gooderham-campbell-and-i-discuss-flash-fiction/

Of course, I ramble rather a lot, as I usually do when I know I’m being recorded. But we covered some interesting ground, and it was a pleasure to have that conversation. Also, Robert has one of the nicest podcasting voices I’ve ever heard. He sounds like an old-time radio show host, and I mean that in the best possible way.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect 21 April 2012

Posted by Camille Gooderham Campbell in Advice For Writers.
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I’m not making this up.

From Wikipedia:

The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than average. This bias is attributed to a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their mistakes.[1]

Actual competence may weaken self-confidence, as competent individuals may falsely assume that others have an equivalent understanding. As Kruger and Dunning conclude, “the miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others” (p. 1127).[2]

I have no doubt that this interesting effect applies to every area of life, but I was particularly struck by its relevance for writers.

Given the grey area where formal grammar and creative licence intersect, and the degree to which each reader’s perspective colours the reading experience, there’s no objective and measurable way to define what constitutes “good” or even “competent” fiction writing. We tend to “know it when we see it”, and when we read the work of others — especially published work or in the context of a critique group — consensus can validate our impressions. Even then, there’s debate: select your choice of wildly-popular novelist reviled and sneered at by at least half the writers you know on Facebook… is everyone who loved those books wrong, or is it a matter of taste?

I’m not saying that all fiction is good if you just look at it right. Mediocre-to-poor writing does exist. But would you recognize it, if it were yours?

When it comes to assessing one’s own writing for quality and skill, there’s no grid or checklist to apply; even writing-class “rules” are only general advice and current fashions. Killing all the modifiers and avoiding the passive voice doesn’t automatically produce great writing, and being structurally on trend for 2012 doesn’t guarantee popular appeal now or in the long term. So is that glowing feeling of I-just-finished-writing-the-most-awesome-thing-ever the satisfaction of a job well done, or the Dunning-Kruger effect?

Apparently Dunning & Kruger and some other psychologists did some further research, and came up with this (again from Wikipedia):

They conclude that the root cause is that, in contrast to high performers, “poor performers do not learn from feedback suggesting a need to improve.”[4]

So, first, find some feedback. Join a serious writing group/critique circle (not a mutual-praise-and-smoke-blowing club). Pay a reputable editing/critique service to assess your work. Submit stories to publications that provide editorial feedback. Participate in a workshop or go on a writing retreat that includes an instructional/critique component.

Then learn from the feedback. Don’t be That Writer (everybody knows one) who refuses to hear anything but praise, argues with editors about why a piece was rejected, takes offense at suggestions for improvement, and generally thinks every last comma and modifier and dialogue tag was divinely inspired and embodies perfection.

Above all, for your own sanity, try not to spend a lot of time thinking about how your abilities stack up against everyone else’s. Writing is a solitary pursuit — in the dark hours, it’s easy to project imagined levels of competence (or lack thereof) onto one’s perceived competition, and assess one’s own skills accordingly.

The good news is that if you’re about to burn your latest manuscript on the assumption that you’re totally outclassed, you’re probably wrong.

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