Know When It’s Controversial

You have this idea. It’s a great idea that you build a whole series around. Or maybe the idea that pulls the series together comes after the first few books are written. It doesn’t matter, because it’s such a great idea!

Wait. Stop. Think.

It is often the case that compelling ideas are controversial in some way or another. Before you really hone an idea and produce your story in full, you should be able to articulate the various shades of controversy that surround your idea and make at least a passing nod to the most salient of them.

Clearly, this concept isn’t a part of what most people mean when they say “marketing.” However, if you’ve followed along for long enough, then you’ll realize that when I say “marketing” I mean something a bit different than the general population. After all, I’m a professional marketer.

One thing professional marketers know that the general population doesn’t is that marketing starts when you’re first developing your product and carries through to the end of the sale. It’s a long process that ensures that you produce products and/or services that will actually sell.

And we all know that controversy sells.

BUT controversy, by its very nature, also pisses people off. If you don’t acknowledge the many complex and varied feelings different people will have about a controversy presented in your book, then a lot of people are going to turn against you, no matter how compelling your story is or how well it is executed.

Part of the thing that really bothered me about Veronica Roth’s Allegiant is that, when it came to Tris’s deviance of the norm, Roth did a really good job presenting the complex and varied feelings people have about conformity. But, when it came to eugenics, she dropped the ball. I felt like she didn’t even know what she was talking about.

I could list a hundred reasons why such a trite treatment of eugenics pisses me off. I could list a thousand! Instead, I will list three: Will, Alex, and Ben.

I am the mother of three children—Will, Alex, and Ben—who have disabilities and who are in danger of becoming the victims of eugenics. People who believe in eugenics, who believe that it’s a good idea, also believe that my children’s existence is a bad idea.

This danger is real, it’s present, and it pisses me off.

And Roth didn’t even give it a passing nod. As far as it was treated, eugenics is okay.

So, as much as I enjoyed Divergent and Insurgent and as much as the characters of Allegiant moved me and captivated me, the question remains: Will I ever trust Veronica Roth again?

Will I ever read another book or series she writes?

A compelling story isn’t enough when you’re touching on a controversial issue. You have to do the controversy justice if you expect your readers to trust you. And, if you want to build a long-term career, then you want readers to trust you.

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Allegiant: A Critique

Veronica Roth wrote Divergent, Insurgent, and Allegiant. I watched the movie and then got the books and I blew through the first two, becoming far more immersed in the stories than I should have been considering that I had a business to run and course work to do, not to mention a family to nurture.

Then, very early in Allegiant, what I read felt like a punch in the gut. If you want to read the book and haven’t yet and don’t want any spoilers, then stop reading; if, however, you also have adverse reactions to “triggers,” then you might want to consider reading anyway. I promise I won’t give away the ending.

There comes a point when the main characters learn what “this” has all been about:

A few centuries ago, the government of this country became interested in enforcing certain desirable behaviors in its citizens. There had been studies that indicated that violent tendencies could be partially traced to a person’s genes—a gene called “the murder gene” was the first of these, but there were quite a few more, genetic predispositions toward cowardice, dishonesty, low intelligence—all the qualities, in other words, that ultimately contribute to a broken society.

…despite the peace and prosperity that had reigned in this country for nearly a century, it seemed advantageous to our ancestors to reduce the risk of these undesirable qualities showing up in our population by correcting them. In other words, by editing humanity.”

Allegiant by Veronica Roth, emphasis added

I literally became sick to my stomach when I read that. The feeling persisted until the end of the book. And I was disappointed, because nobody in the book realized that the problems they were facing were an inevitable product of the original decision to mess around with humanity’s genes.

See, my problem with all of this, with the whole big mess, is that NONE of the characters react to what has been done in a way that it deserves. They react to what these scientists are doing in their own present in a variety of ways, which I sympathize with because these behaviors also deserve a strong reaction. The story’s present is the primary concern, after all. I understand all that and think Roth does a fairly good job presenting the variety of reactions.

But at no point does anyone even stop to wonder if they had the right to do what they did or whether the proposed goal is worthy or good or justified. We’re talking about eugenics! And, despite the disastrous consequences, nobody steps up to say, “You know, maybe you shouldn’t have been messing with humanity’s genetics in the first place and should stop messing with them now for that reason, if for no other.”

I have to wonder if it occurred to Roth. Did she realize that she was writing about eugenics, the same pseudo-science that the Nazis used to “excuse” the Holocaust? Did she realize that there would be a revolt before the country engaged in any mass eugenics project? Did she know what she was talking about at all?

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Trailer Time: Daring to be Different

I’ve been away for a while and while I was gone I read these books:

This is a teaser trailer. It is designed to pique interest. The assumption is that a lot of people have heard of the series and some will want to know what the hype is all about. They see this trailer and it tells them…nothing.

Well, almost nothing. You learn there is a woman—Tris Prior—in a broken city, in a broken future, and that she has a very important choice to make.

That’s all you learn. That’s enough to pique interest. It may be enough to spur a potential reader to learn more. It also tells avid fans (as if they didn’t already know) that the last book in the series is out. (The fourth book is something like a short-story addendum, but that’s a whole ‘nother thing.)

If there’s any website or anything else a traditional book trailer would do to direct viewers to take the next step, then I missed it. This trailer assumes that anyone whose interest has been piqued will go to Amazon or wherever they prefer in order to buy the book(s). And, in this case, they’re right! That’s the advantage of being a bestselling series.

Now, we’ve seen in the past that a lot of trailers from less-well-known writers who offer the same kind of tease, with the same lack of information, and the same lack of direction. They’re emulating trailers like this.

So, why don’t they work?

Simply put, they don’t have the platform to pull it off. Roth has buzz. She’s known. Her books are known. People talk about them. You’ve heard about them. We all know there’s something there that readers like or love. The other trailers, the emulators, they don’t have that.

Instead of following in the footsteps of those that do, they need to dare to be different.

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Be Your Best Self

When you are marketing your work, you need to be yourself. We’re not talking about the overly flawed self that you see when you look in the mirror. We’re talking about the self the people who love you most tell you that you are. We’re talking about the self that your beta readers rave about when they read what you wrote. This is the self that people are going to be most attracted to and this is the self that you should be in your marketing.

You don’t want to be someone else. If you promise potential readers someone else’s writing and then deliver your own, they’ll notice the difference and they won’t appreciate the deception. This is one of the reasons why making comparisons between your work and the best of the writers in your genre is dangerous. Chances are those names mean something special to your readers. They may buy your book because of the comparison. They may even like your work. But they’ll feel let down if you don’t live up to what those names mean to them. And you’ll never know if you can do that, because you don’t know what those names mean to your readers. Even if you were to do a survey (which most people don’t), you’ll only get what those names mean to most people, but not specifically to the people who buy and read your book because you chose a work or author they love.

Don’t try to pass yourself off as someone you’re not. But don’t air all your personal hang-ups and insecurities either; except, perhaps, in your blog and social media feeds, where being human and flawed is appreciated. Be your best self. If you attract people that way, then the people who read your work are likely to be satisfied by it. If they’re not, then you know you did something that is either wrong or that didn’t go over as well as you hoped. (The difference there depends on whether you knew you were taking a risk by breaking one of the rules or not.)

The point is this: Readers who are attracted to you are going to give your writing a fair chance. Readers who are attracted by the promise of someone else are going to be disappointed that they didn’t get what they were promised, whether they enjoy your work or not. Are you willing to take that risk?


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Knowing Your Style

My style has been described in many ways, including quirky, professional, offbeat, punchy, and prolonged. My style differs, to some extent, depending on what I’m writing. When writing as a marketer, I tend to go more for the professional and authoritative sides of my style. When writing as a storyteller, my style tends to be more detailed and, yes, more prolonged. When writing as an advocate, I tend to play up the quirkier sides of my style. Among any of these I can be both offbeat and punchy.

As a journeyman writer, it’s important to know your style(s) of writing. You should be intimately familiar with your style, so you can see clearly when you’ve strayed from it. Ideally, you won’t stray from your style. On very rare occasions, it may be necessary to vary your style within a given piece. Of course, if you ghost write, then you’re not trying to write in your style, you’re trying to write in someone else’s style. Regardless, you should be conscious of your style and the style you’re writing in within, at the very least, the editing phase of a piece.

If you know your own style, then you have the choice to deviate from it or go back to it. If you don’t know your own style, then you don’t have that power. As a general rule of thumb, if you don’t know your own style, then you’re probably not really a journeyman writer yet. An understanding of style is one of those elusive professional developments that come with the transition from an apprentice to a journeyman writer.

It can be painful to read your own work. It can be wonderful, too. Sometimes, though, as you’re developing your skill as a writer, you’ll need to go back over old work and read what you’ve written. Don’t try to edit it, as tempting as that might be. Just read it. See the choices you made then, note that you’ve matured, and focus on the style of your prose. If you’re on track in your professional development, then you can trace the development of your style over time. If you’re not, then you may need to consider who you’re writing for.

At one level, you should always (with the exception of ghost writing) be writing for yourself. If you’re true to yourself, then it’s likely that you will be true to your style. When you betray your style, you betray one of the reasons that readers come back to read your work time and again. Your style as a writer is part of your identity. It is part of what makes your writing worth reading. It’s part of what makes writing worth doing for you.

Find your style and stay true to it, even if you can’t put it into words. Your style is part of the offering you make to your readers. The more authentic you are, the more you will be able to win readers who will truly enjoy your work.


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Trailer Time: A Quickie

This is a short book trailer for a short story:

The question I ask of you is this: Is it enough?

On the one hand, it’s a short story so a full-length trailer might be too much. On the other hand, you only seem to have a reason to care if you have an interest in government conspiracies. This trailer only uses plain text and music, with no visuals, so the text has to do all the heavy lifting. Does the text do enough for you? Why? Why not?

Do you think you could create a trailer like this for your work? Would you want to?


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You’ll Be Happy to Know

I didn’t fall off the face of the earth. I just got extremely busy between getting ready to start my school, getting the boys ready to start their school, and working for clients. With any luck, my regularly scheduled programming will return next week, but if that doesn’t happen please know it’s because next week is the first week of school.

Good luck to everyone on all their own endeavors!


Posted in Writing Lifestyle | 2 Comments