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Marshall Moore

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End of an era. [Nov. 16th, 2013|10:30 pm]
Marshall Moore
I've migrated to WordPress.
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More love for Bitter Orange! [Aug. 31st, 2013|08:11 am]
Marshall Moore
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In which Book Cover Justice says Very Nice Things about my latest:

Have you bought it yet?  You know you want to.
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On all that chummy smiley obligatory writing advice... [Aug. 31st, 2013|08:08 am]
Marshall Moore
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Somewhere along the way, maybe around the time I joined the North of 40 Club, I became a bit of a curmudgeon. The time has come for a cantankerous moment. If I see another one of these blog posts made up mainly of recycled platitudes about writing, I’ll reach through the Internet and carve an Oxford comma into the offending party’s cranium. Here’s a link to the post that broke the camel’s back:

The author, who is probably a delightful person and whose books probably sell a thousand times as many copies as all of mine multiplied by each other, lists the following as ways to make a self-published book sell:

1. The cover
2. Buzz
3. Website or blog
4. The cover… or not?

Hasn’t this particular bit of intelligence been floating around since roughly the time that the Earth cooled?

Yes, a good cover will help sell a book and an ugly one is likely to make a reader not want to touch it. We hold these truths to be self-evident. We’ve all seen books with embarrassing hand-drawn covers and cheesy fonts. But there’s another way to look at this issue, and the writer of this piece seems to have skipped right over it: today, book covers need to balance looking good as thumbnails on your computer, smartphone, or tablet screen as they do on display tables in bookstores. Even though bookstores remain (perhaps the most) important places where readers meet books, the Internet has caught up fast. Details that make books gorgeous in real life are imperceptible online. This means that cover-image designers have to approach the task differently. As a publisher, my rule of thumb is that the design needs to look good at 200 x 300 pixels. The title and author’s name have to be legible, and something about the cover has to draw the eye. So yes, it’s a very good idea—even essential—for a self-publishing author to review the covers of the bestselling books to get an idea what the reading public considers attractive these days. But don’t forget that tastes change fast and the publishing industry moves slowly. Think realistically about how long it’ll take for your book to be finished and published. By then, the trends may have shifted. Just as you want to think ahead when you’re planning to have plastic surgery, you will want to make similar preparations for your book. You want it to age well, and—ideally—to keep selling. Just as it’s a good idea to have a beta reader for your book, it’s also a good idea to solicit second opinions on your potential book covers.

On to buzz. This is the recommendation (to use the term loosely) I have the most trouble with. What is buzz and how does an author generate it? I think buzz is one of those words we all understand but have trouble defining. It encompasses reviews and word of mouth. It implies enthusiasm and momentum. Fine, we get that, but doesn’t that also mean it’s not exactly an evolutionary leap beyond the more old-fashioned notion of just getting your book reviewed? This verges on being beyond an author’s control. The author and/or publisher (and/or, for the lucky among us, the publicist) should work together to market the book. However, as a publisher I can assure you that a lot more potential reviewers accept books than actually review them. (I keep track of this and stop contacting the ones who take multiple books from Signal 8 Press without ever writing a review. Other publishers may not be this organized, but we are.) Quite a lot of potential reviewers don’t even deign to respond to emails. I get it: they’re overwhelmed. Which is why we also make a practice of following up a month or so after our initial inquiries.

To actually generate buzz for a book, I believe you have to invest quite a lot of time in researching potential reviewers: bloggers, journalists, and even readers whose reviews on Goodreads and Amazon predispose you to think that they might like your work. One of the better pieces of advice I’ve seen is to befriend these people in order to predispose them to (a) reading your book and (b) saying nice things about it (or saying nothing at all in case they read it and hate it). At the same time, this piece of advice makes me uneasy. It smacks of insincerity. If you feel a genuine affinity for someone, by all means reach out to them and let them know you appreciate what they are doing. People tend to respond well to this kind of thing. But if you just want a review, isn’t it enough to send a polite, professionally written inquiry?

Then there’s social media. I spend a lot more time tweeting than I used to, and one thing that puzzles me is when writers do nothing but tweet about their own books. To the extent that Twitter etiquette exists, I tend to see this as a breach of it. Frankly, if all you do is broadcast the same Thrilling Six-Word Synopsis of your book along with a truncated buy link, I’ll unfollow you. Facebook is a fickle forum as well. I have almost 1300 friends on Facebook and the overwhelming majority of them are content to click Like when I have a new book out. They don’t actually buy them. Because I’m also the publisher, I have access to the sales data; I know exactly how many copies have sold and roughly where they went. (Mysteriously, my books sell better in the UK than in my native USA.) So you can’t assume that having a certain number of friends or followers is enough to make people want to read your work. Trust me: it’s not. If anything, self-made buzz is to me about dogged persistence over a long period of time and planned far in advance—with one caveat, which is to avoid being a nuisance.

Having a website and/or a blog… well, yeah, duh. If you’re a writer, there’s no excuse for not having at least a blog with links to your books. There’s no single magic formula for this apart from staying current with it. (Disclaimer: my own website is about to be overhauled, which is why it’s a little out of date.) But do you have to fill it up with chummy, smiley writing advice? My humble request would be to do anything but that, at least until you have the chops to offer something other than reheated received wisdom and retweeted how-to lists. No, you don’t have to write every day to have a career. Yes, there are other times of day than first thing in the morning when your creativity may be at its sharpest. Yes, your cat feels neglected when you’re writing instead of playing with him (or trying to, despite his indifference). No, having a couple of drinks to get your creative juices flowing will not necessarily send your work into alcoholic perdition unless there’s some specific reason why you should abstain. My point is that writing is an intensely personal act. You have to figure out what works for you. Your blog and your website can and will make a big difference, and you should absolutely set them up, but don’t make the mistake of recycling the advice that’s already been given in every issue of Writer’s Digest since it began publication however many ice ages ago.

To bring this full circle, you can have a stunning cover and you can work your butt off to get your book reviewed. And you should absolutely do both of these things. It ought to go without saying that you need a decent website or at least a blog. But is it absolutely necessary to cultivate a secondary writing career as a dispenser of writing advice? I think your time would be better spent simply writing. Try to become a regular columnist or contributor to a publication with a decent readership. Focus on regularly getting short fiction and/or essays published. Write about what interests you instead of merely regurgitating the latest writing-related Internet meme. This is what is known as building your author platform, and although author platform is not a term I’m particularly fond of (it suggests pigeonholing authors and permitting them to write about only one thing), there’s some sense in it. Even if you’re ticking all the boxes that writers are supposed to tick, there’s no guarantee you can make the magic happen. Which is why writing requires dogged persistence. It’s something you do over decades. It’s not just about one book, it’s about an entire body of work developed over a lifetime. If you’re not capable of taking the long view, of playing a long game, then you should ask yourself whether you’ve really got what it takes. No matter how pretty your words are, there’s more to it than that. You’ve got to stay in the race. And that, Gentle Reader, is the point you should take away from this if you only remember one thing.
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New short story: "Hell Is Other People" [Aug. 30th, 2013|12:42 am]
Marshall Moore
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I am enjoying a bit of a hot streak now that the first draft of Murder in the Cabaret Sauvignon is done.  (There were times when I thought I would never get the damn thing done.  And I don't even want to think about the editing job that lies ahead of me... not when I've got a dissertation to write.)  I've now cranked out three short stories, the latest being "Hell Is Other People."  Yes, it was partially inspired by the line from Sartre.  It was also inspired by a particularly unpleasant meeting that recently consumed an entire day but really only should have occupied about two hours max.  The idea behind it is that there's a bit more to dull meetings than just the suffering inflicted upon the participants.  Hell has overflowed and the Powers That Be need somewhere to stash all those condemned souls.

On a partially related (in terms of short stories, not suffering) note, if you're in Hong Kong on or about Sept. 9, you ought to check out the Liars' League HK.  One of the stories read/performed that night will be one of mine, "Blackwork and Flash."  It's pretty good if I do say so myself.

This image has nothing at all to do with anything I have just written.
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Bitter Orange: two new reviews! [Aug. 24th, 2013|11:24 am]
Marshall Moore
Bitter Orange has received two new reviews, both from the UK, one quite positive and one... full of swear words!

The positive one, from I Need That Book:

And from BookCunt:

If by now you haven't read it, here's your chance:

For what it's worth, my backlist books are marked down to US$0.99 at the moment.

There's also Never Turn Away, which is free!  Free!  Free!

I don't know how much can be extrapolated from Smashwords' analytics, but it appears that Never Turn Away has become my most successful book since The Concrete Sky.  I used to think that I couldn't even give my work away.  Now it appears that I can.  I'm hoping that in the future, people will make the jump to the books you actually have to pay for, but one thing at a time...
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New short story (plus publication/performance) [Aug. 13th, 2013|12:08 am]
Marshall Moore
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Now it can be told: my new short story "Blackwork and Flash" will be published/performed by Liars' League HK.  I didn't mention finishing this one because I wanted to keep the judging process anonymous.  I'm actually one of the writing judges for LLHK, which means I'm one of the people who pick out which stories are read/performed each month.  We have an anonymous submission agreement for those of us who would like to submit our own work: the other judges can vote on them without knowing who we are.  That keeps nepotism out of it.  But the others liked "Blackwork," so there we go.  It'll be in the Sept. 9 event (theme: Gay and Straight), and I have reason to believe the awesomeness that is Hin Leung will be the actor who reads it.  For those who aren't familiar, do check out the website, both before and after.  If you're in HK, come to the performance.  It's good.

BTW, if you're a writer and interested in submitting work, the next theme (deadline: August 23) is Pain and Pleasure, which ought to make for some interesting stories.  Check it out!  Submit work!
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How to Write a Book Review (No, Really). [Jul. 30th, 2013|12:44 am]
Marshall Moore

There has been a lot in the blogosphere about the ethics of reviewing books lately, and I’ve been paying a lot more attention to this kind of thing than I used to. There’s a lot out there, so it’s likely I’ve missed something important; indeed, it’s possible someone has already written something similar to what I want to say here. But being both an author with a new book out as well as a publisher (the publisher), I’ve had cause to think about ways in which even reviewers with the best of intentions may sometimes be sabotaging books that they otherwise like very much and want you to read. This isn’t meant to be an exhaustive list (exhausting, perhaps, but not exhaustive), but I do want to point out a few things that reviewers seem to be resistant to thinking about.

The first question you need to ask yourself is very basic: whether you would recommend the book or not. I’ve heard it said that reviews exist in order to sell books. I tend to agree, and if you do too, then here’s the next logical thought: book reviews are not journalism (more on that in a moment). In today’s overcrowded book market, simply declining to comment on a book whose death you’d like to hasten is sufficient. However, if you have mixed feelings, or if you feel that some readers may like the book but others are certain not to, it’s also fair to point this out. What about straight-up eviscerations, then? IMnsHO, sometimes they are warranted. If a book is poorly edited or crassly conceived, or if the writer just can’t write, then why not say so? I have done this before and feel no need to apologize for it. But to come back to where I started, if you’re ultimately going to recommend a book—even if you’re not sure when you start writing your review—then you ought to go back over what you’ve written. Ask yourself whether what you’ve written serves your actual purpose or whether anything in it might be undermining what you’re really trying to say.

If you’re using Goodreads or another site that doesn’t mandate a star rating, consider not giving it one if you dislike it or are conflicted. Is it even fair to give a star rating to a book you didn’t finish? (I used to do that. I no longer do.) What about half-points? What if you’d like to award half a star? Sometimes star ratings can work against you as a reviewer. My new novel Bitter Orange got a one-star review from a reader who gave one and two stars to the likes of John Irving, Donna Tartt (The Secret History, not her unreadable second book), and David Mitchell. Once I’d seen that, I was flattered. The books he’d given four and five stars to... let’s just say they appeared to be a step above the ones with hand-drawn cartoon covers, but only one step, and then we can move on to the next paragraph.

In Western cultures, we learn to sandwich criticism between positives. What we tend not to learn is how to avoid inserting weasel words or raising red flags that may deter potential readers. I think this happens because of a journalistic impulse to provide balance. However, if you accept my premise that book reviews are not journalism, and if your ultimate goal is to recommend the book strongly enough (without gushing, of course) to inspire someone to read it, then you need to choose your words carefully. For example, saying you didn’t like the characters in a book you’re otherwise praising to the heavens, and would never want to hang out with them, is not going to entice anyone to pick it up. Unsympathetic characters are inevitable and desirable in literature, and they can be described in ways that still keep the tone positive. Unless you have very serious reservations about some dimension of a story, perhaps read and reread what you’ve written before posting or publishing it. I’m not advocating dishonesty, just discretion.

Lest it seem as if I’m bashing journalism, let me set the record straight: I’m not. However, the urge to balance a piece of writing sometimes shows that the writer is breathtakingly unaware of the bigger picture. As a gay man, my favorite example of this concerns mainstream news coverage of any legal advance for LGBT civil rights. Whenever a new anti-discrimination or marriage-equality law is passed, journalists inevitably weigh the last couple of column inches down with gibberish from idiot homophobes about how the world is going to slide into perdition if it suddenly becomes illegal to fire gay people from their jobs or legal for us to get married. There are times when the opposing side’s point of view is not meaningful. While I am not equating pointing out flaws in a book to wasting newsprint on bullshit from hicks, I don’t like it when reviewers sabotage books that they have basically liked.

Then there are the clichés. The ending was too rushed. What does this mean, exactly? Are the plot threads not tied up? Have questions been left unanswered? Pacing is important, but is it necessary or even desirable for the pace to be the same throughout the book? If the pace of the book speeds up, and you’re blasting through the pages like a Shinkansen train through the Japanese countryside by the time you reach the end, why use the too intensifier? Saying an ending is too rushed implies that the author was in a hurry to finish, which may be the opposite of the truth. Another one I dislike is the use of the phrasal verb fall apart when describing plot resolution. Again, what does this mean? Was something illogical or unconvincing? How does the plot fall apart? What does that look like? I seem to see these two a lot, but there are other review clichés out there. Read up on them, see what you find, and see whether any of them make their way into what you write about books.

Jumping to conclusions about the author is another really bad idea that perhaps more than anything else opens the door for a public take-down. You deserve no sympathy if you go down this road. Even though it’s supposedly Not Done for an author to confront a reviewer about a sloppy review, I’m in favor of it, and I think writers should stand up for our work. I once found a scathing review of The Concrete Sky on a blog. The reader (who was quite young and could perhaps be forgiven for her inappropriateness) hadn’t just stopped at her criticisms of the story (which were valid in the sense that she was entitled to her opinion, even if her lack of world knowledge disqualified her from commenting with authority on what was realistic and what wasn’t); she and someone else had gone quite far in their speculation about my personal issues and family relationships. The comments turned into a Marshall-bashing session. Amusingly enough, she had done this on Livejournal, which is where my own blog is located, so I could leave a comment too. I will go on record as stating that I did not drop the F-bomb. However, she crossed a line and I said so. Hate on the book all you want. But unless the book is a memoir or an autobiography, leave me and my family out of it. There is no circumstance under which this is okay.

I understand that sometimes there’s not a clear line between the author and his or her work. Stephen King made that clear in On Writing. In this day and age, the personal life of any public figure (even one as low on the cultural totem pole as a writer) is likely to turn up as Internet fodder. What I suppose it boils down to is whether or not you as a reviewer seem to know the difference between fiction and nonfiction. If you’re reviewing books, please attempt—for the sake of your own credibility—to sort out which one is which.

An extension of this admonition involves simply getting your facts straight. Are you familiar with the writer’s body of work? How about the genre in which he or she is working? Sweeping statements about the author’s failings can fall embarrassingly short when they lack context or just plain get the facts wrong.

My next-to-last point concerns language. As an editor (and as a friend with decent editing chops), I’ve worked with several writers of far greater stature. A surprising number of them really don’t grasp the whole punctuation thing, and sentence structure... not so much. I also think that there are a lot of editors in the Big Six who are, to put it kindly, in need of a couple of decades and maybe a master’s in linguistics. If you’re going to comment on the writer’s use of language, please (a) attempt to know what you’re talking about and (b) bear in mind that it is the editor’s job to clean that shit up. Yes, the writer should use language well; that’s a given. However, there are very talented writers whose manuscripts only turn into good books after a lot of editorial heavy lifting. (Others seem to pass through the editorial process unscathed, untouched, and unreadable.) Again, before you pull the trigger on a negative review of a book in which you criticize the writer’s use of language, give some thought to whose failing it really was. Really, check yourself here. Is your own writing good enough that you can credibly call professionals out on account of their perceived shortcomings?

To wrap this up, I didn’t mean for this to be an all-encompassing thesis on the failings of book reviews (mine in particular). I’m pretty sure I’ve made some if not all of these mistakes before. Full disclosure: at the beginning of my writing career (such as it is), I reviewed books for a couple of publications. That was about 15 years ago. I would prefer not to reread some of those. Somewhere along the way, I realized I didn’t know what I was doing and needed to shut up. I do reviews now, on Goodreads and occasionally elsewhere. I’m not Michiko Kakutani, but I also don’t want to be. When I don’t like some aspect of a book, I attempt to be as specific about it as possible. If I can’t help the book to sell, I can help the writer avoid making what I think are the same mistakes. I’m not an editor/writer/publisher/critic with decades under my belt, but I do have the chops to offer informed comment. Sometimes that means knowing what not to say. There is plenty of criticism—constructive and otherwise—you can offer without compromising your integrity and credibility. Ask yourself what your own limitations are. And what are your strengths? Play to those. You’ll be doing yourself—and the authors—a favor.
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A response to "How to Ask Someone about Their Ethnicity..." [Jul. 25th, 2013|11:24 am]
Marshall Moore
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First, read this essay at Jezebel:

When you live in Asia as an expat, the question of otherness is a statement. If you're white, you're presumed not to belong. (On the flight back from Japan last night, I ordered the fish. Unsurprisingly, a flight attendant came by to say "It is Chinese style. Is that okay?", presumably to make sure I wasn't going to give myself an accidental tracheotomy with a chopstick.) This leads to varying scenarios:

Very drunk ajosshi on the subway in Korea: "WHERE AHH YOU FROM?"
Me: "I'm American."

Random very handsome Filipino-looking guy in an office building: *German*
Me: "Erm... sorry?"
RVHFLGiaOB: "Oh, I thought you were German."

Same very drunk ajosshi on the subway in Korea, later: "WHERE AHH YOU FROM?"
Me: "Germany."
SVDAotSiK,L: "Oh."

Typical HK person: "Are you British?"
Me: "American."
THKP: "Really? You seem kind of... British."

Typical expat: "Are you... Canadian or American?"

My favorite response to this question, overheard: "I have a French passport."

In other words, being asked -- often within the first five minutes -- is inevitable. I think it's human nature to want to know. The problem is, it doesn't always play out well in the US, where people who aren't white are constantly -- and sometimes unpleasantly -- reminded that they aren't white and therefore must not belong.

I agree that it's generally a good idea to save whatever version of the "Where are you from?" question until it's germane, or at least until you know the person. On the other hand, in Asia, where people are more direct in their questioning (even with other Asians), the question is going to come up. One thing I appreciate about being here is that you can then get the ethnicity/nationality/identity question out of the way and move on.
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A scathing book review, for your delectation [Jul. 15th, 2013|11:06 am]
Marshall Moore
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I give up on books.  Life is too short to read bad ones, or even almost-good ones that lose their way and wander around in pointless circles.  In this case, the book in question is James Salter's much-hyped All That Is.  Here, for your delectation, and with minor edits, is what I posted on Goodreads:

I am not going to give this book a star rating because I quit reading it. (I have done this in the past; now I feel differently about that.) Like others, I bought the book because of its hype. I wanted to read something that lay outside of my usual tastes. Now I wish I had chosen a different book.

What is it about Salter's prose that people find so beautiful? I don't understand. It isn't. There's this thing called punctuation, and apparently Salter and his editors know very little about it. Well-crafted sentences have a rhythm. We understand, or should, how much to pause between phrases and clauses when we see a period, a semicolon, a dash, or a comma. Salter's sentences are hard to read because the piss-poor punctuation creates imbalance. Paragraphs with arrhythmia are unsatisfying, and anyone who thinks that comma splices are a hallmark of good writing needs to go back to elementary school and stay there for as long as is necessary.

Salter also has very little flair for sensory description, preferring redundant abstractions over specific details. Although he clearly has an excellent eye for detail, his dull verbs crash around on the page knocking many of his observations over on their sides. He can tell you what he saw or felt, and he may even have noticed some very interesting things, but he appears to lack the ability to make you see or feel those things for yourself.

As for the characters, they seem to be bouncing off the ceiling like balloons that are all the same color and have no strings tied to them. There seems to be a narrator, and he likes women, and he does things in publishing, and then some things happen, and who are these people again and why should I care?

When I (attempt to) read a book by an author of Salter's statue, I want to feel as if I am learning from a master. But this was like seeing your grandfather with a pee stain on the front of his pants. His editors are really the ones who should be blamed for this, for not at least reining in the sloppy sentences. If it were up to me (I run a small press, which I daresay entitles me to comment), I would fire whoever was responsible for this book being released in its present form. It does a disservice to Salter and to American letters in general.
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Weird Fiction Review on Bitter Orange [Jul. 9th, 2013|01:45 am]
Marshall Moore
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Bitter Orange got a mostly favorable but slightly meh review from Weird Fiction Review. Honestly, I'm just flattered to have even rated the attention from them. The reviewer liked the premise and the set-up but wasn't crazy about the ending, finding it rushed.

This reminds me of some of the reviews of The Concrete Sky: the same thing has occasionally been said about that book. For what it's worth, I knew exactly what I was doing in both cases, and why. No matter, the overall review is positive enough and the criticism is not unfair. (Considering some of the astoundingly stupid shit that has been said about my work in the past, I'd like to think I've grown a sense of perspective!) This is also a good review in the sense that it is clear that the reviewer had thought deeply enough about what she was reading, and was immersed enough in the story, that the shift in tone and pace at the end didn't work for her. And it's positive in the sense that it's not mindless squee.

So. Another good review, albeit not one without some reservations!
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