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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.

The Actors Aren’t to Blame

My publisher, who used to be a publicist with NBC a few years back, warned me this was coming. She saw the writing on the wall when I shared certain tweets and posts with her.

Sadly, she was right.

Back in my post entitled “So Much Lip Service – Part 2,”I mentioned that there have been cases where soap opera actors who portrayed villains have literally had fans of the show come up and spit in their faces because of something their character did to another, beloved, ‘good-guy’ character.

Well, I’m seeing this happen (virtually, not physically) right now to someone. She’s being ‘hated on’ for no other reason than because she’s trying to do the job she was hired to do, and it hurts to watch it happen. It hurts because I’ve known actors…lots of ‘em in days gone by…and it’s unfair of fans to rail against them for something they have zero control over.

Actors are people just like the rest of us. They have emotions. They have morals, scruples, quirks, kinks, faults and things they’re really good at. So to see someone get bashed, to the point where they feel like they have to apologize to fans? It’s just not right.

Maybe some of the fans don’t understand how things work. Maybe some of them do, but they’re just taking out their frustrations on the most obvious target – the actor who’s bringing something to the screen that those fan just don’t want to see.

For the benefit of those who don’t know, I’d like to point out that there are an awful lot of things that happen before what you see on the screen in a movie or on an episode of your favorite TV show. Things that the actor has absolutely nothing to do with (unless they happen to have written the script or directed the episode themselves).

Control is an illusion!

Those in control of the show – everyone from people at whatever network or cable channel it’s on all the way to the Executive Producers and Producers – are at the top of the food chain. Sometimes even EPs can’t do 100% of what they want if the network/cable channel says “No.” Sometimes the network/cable channel even makes them do things they don’t want to do, in a (sometimes misguided) attempt to steer the show in the direction they think it should go in.

Then you have the screenwriters. The people who write the scripts. In television, unless that screenwriter is also the Executive Producer who runs the show, the scripts are written to order. Like the EPs, the writers don’t get to do 100% of what they want to do.  And even while scenes are being filmed, scripts can change. Often dramatically. I’ve seen entire scenes completely thrown out in the middle of being filmed because the director said, “No, doesn’t work at all.” Which, of course, sends the writers scrambling to figure out what to do.

So an actor gets a script. And then revisions. And then more revisions. And then even more, sometimes on-the-spot.

Then there are the directors. The actor may try to do what they think is right for their character, whether it’s applying certain facial expressions or body language…figuring out the best way to deliver a line…interacting with those around them within the context of the scene…playing off the previous line or setting up for the next one. There’s a lot an actor can and does do to make a character their own, but there aren’t very many cases where they’re actually allowed to make it all up on their own without being told what to say by the writers, and how to execute it by the directors. Ad-libbing? Maybe, if the director’s generous. But not writing entire story arcs, entire seasons or – unless they happened to write one – whole episodes.

After all the scenes are shot, it goes to editing. Is it too long? What scenes aren’t crucial to the story the producers, directors and/or writers want told? Did the scene with these two characters not work very well? Does a scene not advance the story at all in the precious few minutes lurking inside of an hour that they have to tell it? There are so many decisions an editor has to make to splice together a bunch of scenes shot out-of-sequence into an episode of a television series.

And then music’s added, and anything else they think is needed. Sound effects, getting actors to come into the studio to re-record dialogue because maybe it got muffled or in the end they couldn’t find a recorded way a line was delivered that satisfied the director, producer and editor.

Eventually, an episode gets put together and shipped off to the studio to be aired.

It’s a complex process made up of a plethora of people behind-the-scenes. All fans really get to see – unless the show’s people are willing to expose behind-the-scenes action – is the finished product.

And unless an actor actually wrote and directed and produced and everything else’d on their own without anyone else’s input, you cannot rip them a new one simply because you don’t like a character, or a story arc, or the way something on a show is being handled.

It’s not the actor’s fault.

Let me repeat that.

It is not the actor’s fault.

This is another thing I have referenced in previous posts that I’ve really started to see becoming hurtful: people’s ability in recent years to immediately post everything they’re thinking and feeling on the internet without any sort of filter or time lag.

Back in the 80s – which was my favorite time period  for television shows until recently, when the new Hawaii Five-0 reboot appeared – if there was something I didn’t like on a television show and I had felt compelled to complain about it, I would have had to hunt down the network’s mailing address, spend time handwriting (or typing) a letter, find a postage stamp and an envelope, and mail it off.

(No, I never did that, by the way. I was between the ages of 8 and 18 inthe 80s, and while I loved to watch the TV shows of that decade, I never felt the urge to brain anyone over anything they did on them.)

Nowadays, you can tell the entire world in the space of a few seconds how much you don’t like something or someone, without any sort of brain-to-fingers filter required.

Actors take it personally, just like writers.

This one is important. Even if you’re careful to say you hate the character, the actor portraying that character tends to take that personally. Just like writers take it personally when you say you hate the stories or the books they write, even though writers themselves obviously aren’t their creative works.  If you think about it, pretty much any worker would take it personally when someone tells them they suck, especially if that worker’s just doing what their boss told them to.

The job an actor is hired to do, is bring a character to life. A character created by someone else. The actor can’t help it that the people who are in charge are having that character do or say things that the fans don’t care for.

Should I say it again? Yeah, I should.

It is not the actor’s fault.

Hate is a very harsh word.

It’s also sad that so many fans will actually come out and say they “hate” a character or “hate” an actor. Hate is such a strong word, and you’ll only ever see me use it loosely when referring to phrases like I did in a previous post. (I will always always hate the phrase ‘team player’ – too many years spent in cubicle farms! But that phrase can’t get its feelings hurt like a human being can.)

The bottom line is this: If you do not like something that’s happening on a TV show, send a well thought-out email to the network, for starters. Explain what it is you don’t like rationally and intelligently. Spitting out things like “We hate X!” or “Y is horrible!” or “Go home, X!” really doesn’t help anyone. Those types of comments are too vague and personal in nature to explain what your problem with the whole thing is.

Second, if you have a way to contact the production company – either by snail mail or email – do the same thing. Write the letter rationally and intelligently, and explain your grievances like a grown-up. Not like a six year-old who’s throwing a tantrum because they’re not getting their way.

Third, if you have access to the show’s producers, especially the Executive Producers, do the same thing again. Explain yourself. Tell them what you don’t like about the story, or the character(s) you have problems with. Above all, tell them why. And for crying out loud, don’t threaten them! (I can’t believe I actually have to say that, but it’s already happened in this case. WTF?)

You also have to remember that there’s an unfortunate side effect of publicly establishing yourself, via tweets or other methods, as favoring one of the actors, or a particular real or potential pairing in a show.  Those in charge will then dismiss your quickly tweeted “hate hate hate” messages not just because they sound infantile, but because they figure, “Oh, he or she is just not happy because I’m not giving their favorite character or actor more screen time/doing it the way they want me to.” That’s why it’s really important to state your case logically, rationally and intelligently.

I know I keep repeating those words. But I kind of have to, because a lot of people seem to have lost their common sense. But that’s a rant for another day.

Give them a chance to fix it, already!

Just as you are able to instantaneously tell the people in charge of a show that you don’t like something, you have to remember that dozens, maybe even hundreds of other unhappy viewers may be doing exactly the same thing. Therefore, the show runners may very well be thinking, “Oh, oops, my bad. Shouldn’t have done that, shit!”

But here’s the problem. The actual filming of a show is usually four, five or six episodes ahead of the one that you’re sitting there watching. So even if the producers or the networks want to “fix” whatever they’ve done that the fans are screaming about, the fact is that you won’t actually see those “fixes” until maybe four, five or six (or more!) weeks down the road. There’s nothing anyone can do about that.

Breathe. Give it time. Express yourself kindly by making your points without attacking. Then sit back and wait to see if you were listened to.

And please try to remember, in the spirit of the television show that actually got me interested in television shows again, that ohana means family. No matter what, we shouldn’t be hurting each other like this.

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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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