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Story and Book Reviews: Do They Really Make a Difference?

As a long-time author of fan fiction, and a writer of original material – plus now having my first book, “TAKERS,” published by Plotfish Press as a Kindle eBook – the subject of reviews has come up quite often over the years.

For people who write fan fiction (aka ‘fanfic’) – which are works of fiction based on existing universes and characters created by other people, and can be for any type of work from novels to movies to television shows and beyond – there is nothing to be gained. At all. At least, not financially.

Fanfic writers don’t get paid to write their stories – or at least, they shouldn’t, because that’s illegal, since they don’t own the characters to begin with. Fanfic writers can’t outwardly benefit their careers by writing their stories. In fact, in many cases quite the opposite happens, in that when someone admits to writing fan fiction, they’re immediately labeled as a wannabe…or worse. (See my previous blog posts for more on this.)

Evidently I’m one of those people who marches to the beat of my own drummer, because I am both a published novelist and a writer of fanfic, and I decided a while back that I wasn’t going to hide it. The fanfic writing, that is. Why? Because fan fiction was (and still is) a proving ground for me. It’s literally my practice field, and a place where I can get real, live, sometimes immediate feedback from readers about what I’ve written. And it’s a variety of readers I get to hear from, too, not just those who happen to like the one particular genre I’m writing in.

As a pro football coach, would you let a brand-new quarterback into your starting lineup if he hadn’t run through scrimmages with the team on your home field beforehand?

No.

As a professional opera singer, would you step out onto stage to star in Puccini’s Madame Butterfly without practicing all the songs and warming up your voice first?

No.

As dog trainer, would you let your Blue Heeler compete in the Cynosport World Games without even trying him out on a single obstacle course first?

No.

For me, the world of fan fiction became my home field. It became my warm-up. It became my obstacle course. And what helped me immensely were the reviews left for me by my readers and fans.

I also, of course, have used what the world of fanfic calls “beta readers” over the years – these being the fanfic version of editors, more or less – for dry runs before posting my stories to the World Wide Web. And their insight, as with any editor’s, is always invaluable and oftentimes keeps me from really screwing up a plotline or veering off into left field with whatever I’m writing.

But the real test for a fanfic writer is what they hear from the public. And what a variety of ‘public’ there is! Every single age group from children to seniors. Every single ethnicity, race, type of person that exists. Any sex. Any sexual preference. Expatriates, people native to dozens and dozens of countries, not necessarily still living in those countries. People who speak different languages. Professional everythings. All walks of life. All income levels.

You literally have the world available to you as a fanfic writer, and what better place than that to test your skills?

Before the days of the internet making other people so readily available to you, all you had were typewriters, spiral notebooks, looseleaf paper and yes, sometimes word processors and computers. But you didn’t have the ability to share what you’d written with anyone except in hard copy format. So if you didn’t have anyone near you to hand your work over to for a look-see, you were left having to mail it to one or more persons, wait for them to get it , read it, make comments/corrections, and then mail it back to you.

And even then, those checking out your book before you sent it to a publisher were a limited number of people, giving you only a very narrow segment of your potential audience to get feedback from.

In the world of traditional publishing (meaning hard cover and paperback books that sit on bookstore shelves), you can spend years going back and forth and back and forth and back and forth with your editor and/or publisher. Years of nobody seeing that book, nobody who’s your potential audience telling you if you do okay writing present tense or really suck at it. Nobody from your potential audience saying, yeah, we don’t like vampires so much anymore, especially not the kind that change into werewolves. (Or whatever.)

All you had was one or two jaded individuals who had to do this for way more people than just you, doing whatever they could to change the book to fit their standards, their ideas for what they think will make them the most money.

Nowadays, someone like me who isn’t writing fanfic just to ‘play with dolls,’ but is truly using it as both a catharsis and a training camp, can get instant feedback from readers. “You were trying to write bromance? No way, that tripped over into romance, girl.” Good to know, if I wasn’t intending to write romance! Or “Oh, my, God, this was so moving.” Which helps when you wonder sometimes if you’re being too sappy. *grin*

I might have a person in England wonder WTH I meant by X, because it’s an Americanism of some sort, whereas an Aussie might say they got something, but that it also had a double meaning in their country that I should be careful about. I might have a teenager bouncing off the walls over an angst-ridden piece I posted, whereas a sixty-year old is rolling their eyes and going, “Really?”

Getting reviews on fan fiction helps me really learn who my readers are, and what their preferences and tastes are. I will bet that the majority of those who enjoyed my Hawaii Five-0 story “If I Was Your Vampire” will absolutely love my original novel “TAKERS.” The people who read my fanfic and are kind enough to take the time to leave me a review, are my thermometer. My Litmus test. They are the voices of those who may potentially become people who will pay $2.99 to download my novel from Amazon.com.

So getting to know them, really, can only benefit me. And trying different things out on them, helps me grow and evolve as a writer. It teaches me things that I can then utilize as I proceed along my professional writing path. The readers of fan fiction are kind enough and generous enough to be my guinea pigs, and I love them for it.

I don’t make any money off my fan fiction. Never have, never will. I get paid in words of praise, words of criticism and words of assistance.

And while I’m really not in danger of making tons of money off my first novel yet (LOL), technically, it’s something I get paid for. But does that mean reviews aren’t just as necessary as they are for my fan fiction? Absolutely not.

Especially since “TAKERS” is my first published original novel, I’m really keen to find out what people think. I’ve taken the world of vampires and twisted it just enough to make it something nobody’s ever done before (to the best of my knowledge, and believe me, I searched!). This isn’t just a one-off book I’ve written; this is going to wind up being at least a trilogy, if not an entire series of who-knows-how-many books.

That’s why it’s important to me to understand what readers think of the world I’ve created. Of my characters. Of my version of ‘vampire lore’ – which in this case, would be called Taker Lore. Is it nice when you see someone’s purchased a copy of your book? Of course it is! That’s the whole point of putting it out there, after all!

But what I’d like even more, is to know how people actually feel about it. If they love it, if they hate it, if it’s confusing, if they’re surprised, if they’re appalled…whatever the case may be. Since my book’s selling on Amazon.com (it will be up on Smashwords soon, my publisher assures me!), that’s probably the best place to get a review at the moment. It may help others who are considering the book, decide if they think it’s worth their three bucks.

I’ve also got a place right here on my blog for people to discuss whatever they want to about the book. Look up at the menu bar and you’ll see a link for a discussion forum. You can also leave me comments on my posts (as long as you register first). And there’s always Facebook, Twitter and Email, all of which you can get to through the right sidebar of my site here.

The long and short of it is that reviews really do make a difference, at least to me. I pay attention. I may not actually change a critical part of my plot, or a character’s personality, or the way they interact with other characters just because someone says they don’t like the way I wrote it. But I will listen, internalize and consider the feedback – both positive and negative, because it’s the book-buying public I want to make happy.

For those who’ve either publicly or privately reviewed “TAKERS,” thank you from the bottom of my heart. And to all of my fan fiction fans who continue to wait daily for the next new thing from me and make me feel really good about life in the process, a big huge thank you for continuing to review and tell me what you think and how what I write makes you feel.

Because truly, there’s nothing like a review where a fan tells me about something very painful and personal that what I wrote is helping them remember and work through. There’s nothing like being told I’ve touched someone deeply because of a few hundred words I put out on the internet in the form of a short fanfic story. And there’s nothing like knowing I’ve made people laugh out loud, cry or have warm fuzzies, all because of something I wrote.

A writer feels good when they know they’ve touched another human being with their gift of words. And a reader gives an even greater gift to a writer, when they tell them so.

…You Might Be a Project Manager (With Apologies to Jeff Foxworthy)

  • If you think someone asking, “When can you have this done by?” requires a Microsoft Project Schedule and a consultation with your online calendar before you can even begin to respond, you might be a project manager.
  • If your child asks you for extra help with their homework, and your answer is, “I’m sorry, but Mommy doesn’t have enough resources to cover scope creep,” you might be a project manager.
  • If the only way you can outline your next novel or screenplay is by creating a Microsoft Visio diagram, you might be a project manager. (That would be me.)
  • If your next family get-together requires a meeting invitation with a PowerPoint presentation attached, you might be a project manager.
  • If you handle finding out which movie your friends want to go see Friday night by sending out Microsoft Outlook voting emails with the choices Approve or Reject and a firm deadline for responding, you might be a project manager.
  • If you know more about how to manage scope, schedule, budget and resources than the contractor renovating your house, you might be a project manager.
  • If you can successfully implement a five million dollar project, but find the prospect of balancing your meager checkbook intimidating, you might be a project manager.

But here’s the most important one, and all kidding aside:

  • If you have ever had to do something that required even a two-step plan to accomplish, you ARE a project manager.

No, really, I’m not joking with that. Trust me, I’ve been a so-called “professional Project Manager” for over eight years now, and even have a Masters Degree of Project Management. No, really, I do! Colorado Technical University’s where it’s from. It means I get to put the letters MPM behind my name if I want to try and make myself seem more important than I really am.

Hence why you never see those letters behind my name. So why’d I get the degree? I don’t know. It seemed like a good idea at the time (back in 2004/05).

I found it highly amusing last night when I was speaking with my publisher about the timeline for my next two novels (which will be “TAKERS II” and “TAKERS III”) and my next two feature-length screenplays, that I was automatically planning out the timeline in my head, including estimating how long tasks would take to complete, analyzing dependencies and constraints (my writing time vs. my two editors’ availability, desired release dates, etc.), determining whether any up-front costs would be required and the implementation plan for each of those deliverables.

There, I just used a whole bunch of project management buzz words. Now, let’s talk to each other like normal human beings.

At its simplest, project management is nothing more than trying to figure out how to do something with the best possible chance for success. I am probably pissing off a whole community of project managers because they tend to take themselves way too seriously as a whole, but I’m a no-nonsense sort of person, and here’s what my no-nonsense wants to tell you: it’s not rocket science.

I can prove it. Know how? I never cracked a textbook open during my Masters degree program, yet aced it, top o’ the heap. Why? Well, mostly because the principles of project management are intuitive for me, much like writing is. Do I know how to break apart a single sentence and identify precisely what word is which technical grammar term? Oh, dear Lord, no, nor do I ever care to, thanks much. Can I tell you what a noun is? Yeah, that I can do. Can I tell you the first thing about the origins of the word onomatopoeia or what that even means? Sure, if I look it up on Google.

What I can do well, is slap a whole bunch of words on a page that actually do stick together and sound fairly decent, most of the time. This reminds me of a quote from Hawaii Five-0 that makes me howl because it’s just priceless. I love the writers of that show. They crack me up. One of these days I have got to interview them.

This is from the Season 1, Episode 7 entitled “Ho’apono.” Starring Alex O’Loughlin as McGarrett and Scott Caan as Danno, for those who don’t know.

Danny “Danno” Williams: Okay… Let’s say I am you, and you are the bad guy here. I would know that all the ways onto the ship are visible somehow. So, how would you outsmart yourself and get yourself onto that ship without yourself seeing yourself?
Steve McGarrett: Okay, was that an actual question, or were you just throwing words together and hoping they made sense?

I’m with Steve on this one. As much as groups of people like to get together and try to make what they do for a living sound ever-so-important and ever-so-difficult and this-is-why-you-should-pay-me-the-big-bucks-because-I’m-smarter-than-you-are-with-my-jargon…well, that’s not me. I don’t throw words together just hoping they make sense (unlike Danny, apparently).

So when I say to you that you are probably just as much a project manager as I am, let me ask you some questions that will also serve as examples of how and why I think that’s the case.

  • Have you ever had to get a 2-year old up in the morning, and get Her Royal Highness bathed, fed, dressed and safely to day care all before the time you have to be at work?
    • I will bet you a McDonald’s large coffee that fathers and mothers familiar with the ‘joy’ that this process can bring are nodding vigorously over the difficulties inherent in such a daunting undertaking. And they do it daily.
  • Have you ever had to take a trip somewhere by car, boat/ship, airplane, helicopter or any other means?
    • Where are you going? What’s the best method of transportation? How do you secure that transportation? Do you have to borrow or rent a car? Buy an airline ticket? Book passage on freighter? Wait, you have to book passage on a freighter? Call me next time, that sounds like fun.
    • Do you need to pack clothes? Toiletries? Food? Something to drink? Is anyone coming with you? What do they need to have brought with them? Do you need a book or two? Your Kindle? A magazine? Your laptop? Your iPad? iPhone? Blackberry? Android? (No, not Lt. Commander Data, ST:TNG fans.)
  • Have you ever written a story, book, script, screenplay, poem?
    • What’s your subject matter? What genre are you writing in? Who are your characters? What are their personalities? What is your story about? What do you want to happen? Where is it set? If it’s a poem, is it going to rhyme?
    • Indie filmmakers are kick-ass project managers, by the way. Especially if it’s a movie they wrote, they are producing, they are directing and, sometimes, they are even starring in. I cannot imagine what it takes to pull something like that off, and yet so many people do!

Let’s get back to something no quite so entertainment industry-related.

  • Have you got more than one child, and they all have to be at different fields on Saturday at the same time for different sports games/practices?
    • In this case, I would seriously consider looking into getting you and your family vehicle cloned.
  • Do you have two essays to complete, a mid-term to study for, five chapters in a textbook to get through and a documentary you have to watch all by Monday morning…and it’s Friday night?
    • Students everywhere, don’t despair…college isn’t nearly as hard as real life. Enjoy the pretend stress as much as you can before you get to the real stuff!

I could go on forever with examples, but I won’t because you’re probably already bored. Suffice it to say that while I will tell folks yes, I am a project manager, and yes, I have been a project manager for several years and have those silly letters that I can stick after my name to boot, the fact is that we are all project managers.

Just like we are all writers.

These days the term ‘writing’ is used much more loosely in that we’re technically ‘typing’ more often than we are actually sitting down with pen or pencil and writing. I get a cramp in my hand penning a single sentence fifteen times, so no, longhand and notebooks and I don’t get along too well.

But just like we can all manage projects on some level, so, too, can we all write on some level. Ever written a note in a Christmas card? Ever typed an email to a friend? Ever posted something to LiveJournal or Facebook? Ever left a comment on someone’s blog? (hint, hint)

Then you’re a writer.

Are you a novelist? Well, I don’t know, have you ever written a novel?

Are you a screenwriter? Not unless you’ve actually sat down and written a screenplay of some sort, whether good or bad.

Are you a poet? (Roses are red, violets are blue, this doesn’t count, but it’s writing, too.)

My point is that while I’ll happily sit here and give myself all sorts of names and titles like project manager, journalist, screenwriter and novelist, the fact is that I’m stuffing myself into predefined definitions because it’s the only way I can get taken seriously in any of those professions.

I’m not a snob because I’ve got a book published. I’m still just me. I will never become pretentious or unavailable to listen to what people who spend their precious time paying attention to anything I say or do want to tell me, good or bad. I may be busy as hell sometimes, and so it might take me a while to respond.

But no matter how busy I get, I will never forget that I’m just a normal Jane/Joe like the majority of the rest of the world’s human beings, and that I am a one-time cubicle dweller myself who’s had to work for Corporate America (and Corporate Canada, while we’re at it), too.

(Why do you think I want to make writing my full-time job??? Hello.)

I’ll leave you with one final thought:

If you think that because your job gives you the ability to:

  • tell other people where to go;
  • how to get there;
  • what to do when they get there, and
  • crack the whip when they don’t do what you told them to, then

you might be a project manager.

But consider this: while the fact is that the job description I just gave is definitely for a project manager, it’s also exactly the same for a mother, father or a BDSM dominatrix.

If you’re wondering how many risks I might be taking treating such serious subject matters with this much irreverence, then you’re either a project manager or you’ve been in the business too long, my friend.

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    The book series "Takers," the screenplays contained on the "Screenplays" page and the screenplays discussed and contained on this website are copyright Chris Davis. Novels are published by Plotfish Press, and screenplays are registered with the Writers Guild of America (WGA) West.
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