Writing Advice

Finding Fans, One Fan At A Time

Finding fans is hard work, so I wrote a flash-fiction piece to embody it. Enjoy, and if you feel like posting one of your own, feel free! Just remember that because I write everything from middle-grade to horror and back again, people of all ages read this stuff, so let’s not get overly bloody, crass, or sexual.



Because why not! To be eligible, though, the story has to POSTED IN THE COMMENTS BELOW.

Everyone tells me I should just focus on finding one fan at a time, one fan at a time, one fan at a time. It’s harder work than I originally thought it would be; but each time I get a fan, it makes me feel special. I know they love my work, because they start screaming in horror from the start. Some of them don’t even make it to the first page, just lost in the terror of the back cover copy that I read to them as I nail their feet and one hand – the other has to be free to turn the pages! – to the floor of my basement.



Thanks to everyone who participated. A lot of them were creepy, some were downright awful (in a good way), and ALL of them were fun!

Posted by mbc@writteninsomnia.com in Humorous, Writing Advice

Writing is Magic

I’ve been scarce on social media (including this site) as of late… building up my identity as a Western Romance writer has been much more time-consuming than I thought it would be. Which is probably funny for most people, considering the assumption of most is that I already have at LEAST seven or eight other personalities rolling around in my little brain, so what’s one more?


I thought it would be tough to shift to that from a position in the “darker arts” of horror and other spec-fic. But it turns out I’m a sappy romantic at heart. Or maybe not… I just got told for the tenth time that my writing reminds folks of The Man From Snowy River and its sequel…


And oh, boy, will I take that thankfully. Because I can remember standing up and CHEERING as a young kid when I first saw The Return Of The Man From Snowy River. And remembering that, I also remembered how AWESOME it was when the hero of that movie faced folks down in Old West Tyme Australia with a FRICKIN’ BULLWHIP.


And guess what the hero in my first Western Romance has instead of a gun?


All this goes to show you how important stories are. They become more than entertainment, they become the stuff of our lives… part of our laughs, our cries, our shouts of triumph and tears of despair. They meld themselves to our DNA, and make us into new – hopefully better – people.


To the writers out there: remember that. The first job of a storymaker was to create community. To turn Many into One, and to give that One the tools to imagine marvelous things… and then turn those marvels into reality. You now hold that mantle, and I always plead that you will wield your powers in ways that make the world better, more beautiful, more MAGICAL.


To the readers out there: remember that you change every time you read. You cannot choose otherwise. But you CAN choose the works you patronize, the people you support with your time and money. Not all story has to have a happy ending – indeed, some of the best tales are cautionary ones, and you can’t caution anyone without showing the danger that threatens – but they should all MAKE the world a happier place overall. They should bring smiles, either in the moment of reading, or in the moment of satisfaction when the reader (you, me, and so many others) realizes there are things that are WRONG out there… and then fixes them.


Write. Read. Live.


And make that life magical.

Posted by mbc@writteninsomnia.com in Life Advice, Writing Advice

AN MbC MUST-READ: Ten Steps to Overnight Success…*

So you wanna be a writing success? Then let’s just dive right into the nitty-gritty, shall we? And no, I’m not talking about the “writing” part.


The top 1% of members of the Writers Guild of America — the folks who make between $600,000 and the “big money” (seven figures) number in the mere dozens. Of the rest of them — members of a group that as a rule has to get paid to even join — only the top 25% make $62,000 a year or more. And the average age of a person who actually makes it into the Guild — meaning they got that sale, or finally optioned enough screenplays to make it — is 35 years old.


Let’s talk now about some other averages. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median income for salaried writers hovers just over $50,000. Only the top 10% of salaried writers make over $95,000. And it must be emphasized that these are “salaried writers” — narrowly defined by the BLS as people like salaried journalists, or professional technical writers. Fiction writers are, for the most part, freelance writers whose annual takes — even if they are “professionals” (i.e., occasionally paid) — is
much, much lower.


In other words, “the big payoff” of becoming a “real, published author” may have more in common with the salary of your average janitor than it does with the sixteen bizillion dollars J.K. Rowling makes every time she writes a postcard.


Of course, the chances of making money go up greatly if you are signed by a large publisher — Scholastic, or Bantam, for instance. However, this itself has an inherent earnings inhibitor built in: most of the larger publishing houses require that submissions be “exclusive.” This means that a writer is only permitted to submit his work to one large publisher at a time. The average wait time to find out if the work has been rejected or accepted can range anywhere from a few weeks (if the writer already knows someone “on the inside” who is in a position to fast-track the review) or, more likely, several months to a year and a half. Then, even if the book is accepted for publication, the large publishing houses will typically take, again, several months to a year and a half to actually roll out the book.


In other words, even assuming your book is picked up by the first major publishing house you submit to — and the odds are against you — you are looking at somewhere between half a year and three years before you start really seeing any money. And if your book is not accepted by the first major publishing house, then you are once again in a sort of voluntary limbo, consigned there by the “no simultaneous submissions” rule.


What to do?


The reality is, most authors have “day jobs.” I am considered an anomaly. I have optioned screenplays and done rewrites for major Hollywood production companies. I have numerous television shows in development. I have written over a dozen novels that have spent time on Amazon’s major genre bestseller lists, and have spent the better part of a year as one of Amazon’s Most Popular Horror Writers.


I make a living writing.


Now, to put this in perspective: I began writing at the tender age of four. I made my first “sale” of a short story to a local newspaper at the age of 15. I earned creative writing scholarships in college. I hold the record as the person who has had the most screenplays go to quarterfinals and semifinals in the history of the Nicholls Screenwriting competition. And in spite of all this, it took me fifteen years of rejection letters to actually start making money.


Still, through it all I have learned some things about writing, and about how to become a “successful” writer, particularly in genre work like fantasy, sci-fi, and horror. Following is my “road-map for success.” Which is not a guarantee that it will make you a millionaire…but it is a guarantee that you will never fail so long as you continue doing these things.


1) Write. This may seem obvious, but the simple fact is that if you wish to make a living as a writer, you MUST WRITE. Constantly and without letup. Write your books, your screenplays, your stories. And when you are done writing those, write about them. Start a blog. Issue press releases. Have a Facebook page. The “writing muscle” is one of the most easily atrophied muscles in the human body.



Posted by mbc@writteninsomnia.com in Life Advice, MbC Must-read, Writing Advice

Epub vs. Tradpub

There are a lot of articles across the interweb (and if it’s on your computer, it must be true!) about which is better – traditional publishing or epublishing.
Oddly, they seem to come down across party lines: people who are traditionally published, or who work for large publishing houses, tend to say that trad-pub is the way to go; people who have their work primarily on Kindles and Nooks and iPads and Smashwords scream about the future of epub and the death of print.
I know. Weird, right?
I wanted to set the record straight.
First of all: I am primarily epub myself. I have a few olde-tyme print books, but I’m one of Amazon’s Most Popular Horror Writers, a #1 Kindle bestseller, and a repeat bestseller on almost every one of Amazon’s major fiction genre lists (sci-fi, horror, fantasy, etc.). I write everything from kids’ books about magic to grown up books about evil things that go bump in the night. My most recent novel, Strangers, has spent months on Amazon’s various horror bestseller lists, and I anticipate my next book will do even better.

I make a living writing, and a huge chunk of it is digital.

I also used to be a lawyer. And in good lawyerly fashion, I will render my verdict. Which is better, epub or trad-pub?

It depends.

Awesome lawyer answer, huh?

But it’s the truth. Because the reality is that each offers goods and bads. So let’s talk about each:


The Good here is that you have complete control. You get to do whatever you want, whenever you want.

The Bad here is largely the same. You have to do everything. Which is why there are a lot of drecky, poorly-edited books with ugly covers on epub.

I spend a lot of time and effort working on my books. Not just the drafts, but the edits, the layout, the covers… everything. I taught myself image manipulation (meaning, Photoshop-type stuff) so that I could produce good covers. I taught myself conversion principles so that I could make sure I did a good job getting my book to your Kindle without sacrificing layout. A lot of writers aren’t willing to do this; they slap a product together… and it shows. I would invite you to check out the differences between my covers (just go to michaelbrentcollings.com) and the ones at my friend Nathan Shumate’s lousybookcovers.com. Sadly, you often can judge a book by its cover.

Now, if you’re looking for “fast” then epub is the way to go – you can write fast, put a cover together fast, and get it to market fast. You might also hear crickets chirping exceedingly quickly as there is a concerted rush of absolutely no one to buy your book. And that’s not because the audience is bad. It’s because (more often than not) your book is. The cover is lousy, the layout is unprofessional, the story is been-there done-that.

Listen up: I firmly believe that everyone – everyone – has great stories in them. Stories worth telling. Stories people will gladly buy. But I also firmly believe that everyone has to practice to get to the point where they know how to tell those stories properly.

Think of a doctor: how many of you would go to a doctor who, when asked about his qualifications, shrugged and said, “Well, I went to a doctor once. And he sucked so I was, like, ‘I can do that!’ And then I, like, became a doctor. And stuff. That’ll be a hundred dollars.”?

No, you want a doctor who a) studied, b) graduated top of his/her class, c) practiced at an amazing hospital/medical practice, and d) preferably has been doing this for at least a decade. And that last is important, because practice and experience matter. No matter how smart the doc is, until he’s been around the block a few times, he’s not going to be all that good a doctor.

Writing is the same way. Most writers just suck until they’ve treated their writing with the seriousness of a PhD program, spent years honing their skills, years more practicing before trusted audiences, and then maybe they’ll be pro-level.

And epub will not shortcut any of that process.

Epub is faster. Faster to market. But if you’re marketing crap, or if you’re marketing your unprepared skills, it just means a faster failure, too.


The Good here is that you have help. The Bad here is that you have to give up control. You will have editors, you will have layout artists and cover artists. You will have other people giving input.* You will then have to actually listen to that input. And you will have to wait on it. Epub is a matter of writing the book and then uploading it to the outlet(s) of your choice. Boom. With trad-pub you:

1) Write the book.
2) Send query letters to agents.
3) Wait for two to twelve months.
4) Have an agent request your book (this is best-case scenario; most often you get rejected and have to start again from scratch).
5) Send in your book.
6) Wait another two to twelve months.
7) The agent accepts your book (again, best-case scenario here).
8) The agent sends your book around to publishers.
9) Someone accepts it after two to twelve months (do I even have to say the best-case thing again?).
10) The book gets plugged into their production scenario for sometime in the next year (very fast) to three years (not unheard of).
Total wait time from end of book to book on shelves: one to five YEARS.

Yikes. That’s time you’re not getting paid, by the way. You’ll get an advance (see my footnote below – if not getting an advance, why are you doing this?), but no money being actively earned in that time. There’s also the chance that during production the editor who loved your book and championed it will get fired or quit and your book will become an “orphan” with no one to champion it and will never see the light of day (this happens), or the company itself will go bust or get bought and the same thing will occur (this happens, too).

The upside is that trad-pub books have a tremendous amount of access to the market: they get into bookstores, libraries, WalMarts, Costcos, etc. They are in airports and liquor stores. They get foreign market rights and sell movie rights more often. They are more likely to end up making the extreme big bucks than epub. That’s changing as epub becomes more and more of a force to be reckoned with, but as of now if you want to get to the very top of the heap, you have to work with trad-pub at some point.

Also, because you do have a lot of talent at the top, your books are more likely to look and be presented better. I like my books. A lot. Could they look better? Sure. Would I love to see them at the checkout aisle at my local supermarket? Heck, yeah!

But, for me, I would prefer to get my books to market, make my fans happy, and put money in my pocket. And that brings me to…

The choice

Be aware: you will be choosing. If you epub, that book is dead to the trad-pub world. No big traditional publisher wants to take Amazon’s sloppy seconds, unless that ebook has sold in excess of something like 100,000 copies at around five bucks a copy. Then they’ll talk. (But if that happens, why do you really need them?) So if you’re hoping to parley your ebook success into a publishing contract with Penguin for that book… yeah, good luck with that. In fact, for a lot of agents and publishers, the fact that you’re epublished at all will be a black mark against you. Because how dare you!

Silly? Maybe. But true.

It’s something to be aware of. I think that’s going to keep changing more and more, but then if you do make a successful career for yourself you run into the problem of outgrowing agents and publishers: I regularly have offers from publishers I have to turn down because they can’t afford me, and most agents won’t touch me because they won’t be able to meet my expectations for the next phase of my career.

Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to epub. I think Shakespeare said that.


Epub and trad-pub are both awesome. I have books – real and electronic – all over my house. I love them. Some are traditionally published, some are indies. There is a place for both. You can choose either.

Just know what you’re getting into. And have the sense and courtesy to do a professional job no matter where you go.

* And if you don’t, RUN. This is the type of thing you should be getting at a traditional press. A lot of newer authors I know are signing deals that basically make them do everything, and they end up signing away a percentage of their profits in return for someone basically submitting their files to CreateSpace. Why do that? If some “publisher” is just a glorified self-publisher and you’re going to do all the work yourself, you might as well cut them out of the loop and keep all of whatever profits there are! Read your contract, find out what they’re going to do, and hold their feet to the fire! (Back to text)

Posted by mbc@writteninsomnia.com in Writing Advice

AN MbC MUST-READ: Success is BAD

I am often asked questions about the business of writing – how to self-pub, how to market, how to amass a group of loyal fans – but the question I am most often asked (in some form or other) is this: “How do I become a successful writer?”
For a long time I tried to answer the question, babbling about sales and marketing and hard work and blahblahblahblah. But then I realized what I should have been saying, and what I now say to you: if you’re asking yourself – or anyone else – how to become a successful writer, you’re asking the wrong question.
Success is an ever-retreating illusion. Like the end of the rainbow, it looks beautiful, laudable, something that people just over there clearly can lay their hands on. So why not you?
Well, because even if you manage to get to the end of the rainbow, even if you somehow contrive to grasp the edge of that many-colored illusion, you will find in the next moment that it moves away from you once more. And your version of “success” moves right along with it.
How many times have you said this in your life?
“If only I could get that promotion – then I’ll be a success.”
“If only I could buy that car – then I’ll know I’m a success.”
“If only I could afford the big house – then I’d know I was a success.”
And what happens? You get the promotion, you buy the car, you put the down payment on the big house… and like the rainbow, your measure of success immediately moves. You’re not successful unless you are constantly moving onward, upward, forward. “Success” is a beast with a relentless appetite.
So what do you do? Is the only answer to eschew success as a writer? Do you put all your manuscripts in a box and bury them somewhere, then go off and live as a hermit in a cave?
Not at all. But you must stop thinking in terms of being “successful,” and instead ask yourself this: as a writer, what will make me happy?
In other words, what is my goal, my aim, which will give me satisfaction once reached?
Is it to simply write a book?
Is it to win an award?
Is it to pay the rent on a regular basis?
Each of these is an attainable goal, but each is different, and each carries with it different responsibilities. Recently, the finalists for the Whitney Awards were announced. Several of my friends were among them, which was great.
My name, on the other hand, was nowhere to be seen on the list. I’ve sold oodles of books, my novels are consistent bestsellers on Amazon’s major lists, my most recent novel Darkbound is doing great and getting rave reviews.
But none of my books were there.
Did I break down crying over this? No. Because long ago I decided that my goal, my reason for writing, my “happy place,” if you will, was to write full-time, and take care of my family doing by doing so. So while it would have been nice to get on the list (if only to see the look on the judges’ faces, given the kind of books I tend to write), it mostly would have been nice inasmuch as it might have driven a few more sales my way. Because that’s my goal: to sell books.
Other people crumple into a fetal position when their names are missed for some honor or other. Not me. And it’s because I’m too busy achieving my goal – the thing that I decided will make me happy – to worry about incidentals.
How do you “succeed” as a writer? How do you “make it”? Beats me. But that doesn’t matter. Because more important is your determination of what will make you happy. The question is subtly different, but the difference allows you to focus on concrete steps that will aid you in achieving that goal. It also allows you to avoid the poisonous practice of comparing yourself with others, because no matter how “successful” other writers may be, their success is irrelevant to the question of your happiness.
What is your goal as a writer? What is your happy place? Answer those questions. Then push away everything else, and work to achieve those ends. And once you have achieved them, recognize that you have done so, and find joy in the attainment.
But oddly enough, you will most likely find that in the doing you achieve as much joy as in the accomplishing of them.

Posted by mbc@writteninsomnia.com in Life Advice, Writing Advice

What Good is Horror

I hear it all the time: why do you spend your time on horror when there are so many other “good” things you could be writing?
And it’s a legitimate question. A lot of people’s opinions on horror are shaped by the images they see on movie trailers, or confined to the vague idea that horror is something best kept on the back shelves of the book store.
Certainly the average horror novel cover doesn’t do much to dispel that myth, either: disturbing images, creepy figures half-hidden (if we’re lucky) in dark mists… about the only things they all have in common is that 1) they seem a bit less polished than, say, the cover for The Joy Luck Club, and 2) they are designed to elicit fear.
A lot of this is just economic realities: as one of the red-headed stepchildren of publishing, horror has often gotten less-than-prime marketing; has often had to settle for covers that were slipshod or second-rate. Not always, of course, and things are improving a lot as the years go by, but it’s no secret that for decades the covers of horror novels pretty much all involved blood, guts, maybe a bit of flesh peeking out of a torn dress, and a half-seen monster or two.
And even now, when there’s more money and care to be had, a lot of said money goes to things like Hostel Part 42 or Saw 18: The Last Gut-Wrenching. So again, no surprise that people have a concept of horror that often skews toward the obscene.
And the reality is that there is a lot of horror that’s designed (or so it would seem) solely to elicit a gag reflex. Some so-called horror writers think the secret to horror is guts, gore, and gobs of goo. But they’re not really creating horror.
They’re creating pornography: a series of visual or mental images devoid of any emotion other than the minimum required to elicit a physical reaction.
Still, horror – real horror – is different. It’s a special class of literature that serves to remind us that there is evil abroad in the world. That there is terror outside our houses… sometimes even right in our own bedrooms.
But that’s only half the story of horror.
The other half is just as important: because horror, at its best, serves not only to terrorize, but to remind us that we are better than our fear. It drags us to the depths, yes, but then lifts us up again… and in so doing, reminds us that though we have a near-infinite capacity to fail and to fall, so also we have the ability to rise above ourselves. We can survive, we can thrive.
Evil and tragedy are realities, both in life and in fiction. Avoiding them only weakens the stories we tell. I’m not saying we have to dive into the sewers of our darkest impulses for no other reason than because we can, but I do believe that it is only after surviving the darkest hours that we can truly appreciate the brightest days.
A final thought on the brightness that is only possible in horror:
I have a beautiful wife. And by beautiful, I mean stunning. She is so pretty that the first few times I saw her I could barely talk – not a normal occurrence for me.
Now jump to another thought (I promise, it’ll all link up eventually): my gorgeous wife and I lost a child. Years ago. It was – and continues to be – one of the hardest things that either of us have ever gone through. But juxtaposed with that memory, that true horror (one which I dealt with in later novels), is a memory of my wife’s beauty. Because the time I remember her being her most beautiful was not the first time I laid eyes on her, it wasn’t the moment I realized I was in love, it wasn’t our wedding day or the births of our healthy children.
It was in a hospital. There was blood on the sheets, tears in our eyes. Our child was gone. And my wife, through her tears, looked at me… and smiled. She held my hand and said, “It’s all right. It’s all right.”
She was so beautiful.
Horror takes us far beyond what is comfortable. It takes us far below what we feel we can endure. But on the other side of horror, there is light, and beauty, and peace.
And this, my friends, is why I spend my time on horror rather than on “good” stories: because horror leads, in the hands of the best writers, inexorably to the “good” stories. They are one and the same.

Posted by mbc@writteninsomnia.com in Life Advice, Writing Advice

The Magic of Misleading

When I was a teenager, my mom used to like popping out from around corners and scaring me. I had to be super careful when I came home and the house was dark; just getting from the front door to my room was an adventure because at some point along the way, I knew she was going to get me. Sounds mean, but I actually loved it. And I still love that element of surprise in the stories I read—when I think it’s headed one direction and then, WHAM! Surprise! Something happens that I totally didn’t see coming, but when I look back, all the clues are there.
This kind of misdirection is magical, but like any good trick, it’s hard to pull off. There’s not a lot of information out there about how to effectively mislead the reader in a way that doesn’t make them hate you forever, but Michaelbrent’s here today with some great advice on the topic. So listen and learn, people. Listen and learn…
I’ve always liked magicians. Who doesn’t? For me, a kid who had trouble getting girls to even look at him, I was fascinated by any guy who could convince a girl to get dressed up in what more or less amounted to lingerie and then let him cut her in half, or throw knives at her, or stab her with a sword while she was floating in a water-tank full of sharks that had angry bees superglued to their teeth.
The magic was cool, too. But mostly it was the fact that the guy got his pretty assistant to do all that stuff, whereas the girls I knew probably wouldn’t call 911 if I took a bullet for them.
Then I realized that the girl was part of a magician’s act. That he counted on me watching her. Because while I was watching her, he was doing the magic. He was setting up the trick, he was preparing to wow me with the surprise.
It’s a lesson I’ve taken to heart and put to use ever since.

I’m a writer. I’ve written movies, numerous #1 bestselling novels, and am consistently one of Amazon’s bestselling horror writers. And one of the things I like to do most is surprise the audience. My novel The Haunted has spent almost a full year on Amazon’s bestselling Ghost Horror list, and my newest scare-fest Darkbound bowed a few weeks ago and is currently beating out folks like Joe Hill and Dean Koontz on Amazon’s Hot New Horror Releases. Partly (I hope) this is because the books are generally cool. But there’s no denying that a large part of their punch is packed into endings that catch the readers off-guard. They get to the end of the book expecting one thing… and when they get something completely different, they are not only happy, they are absolutely delighted.

So how does a writer go about doing that? How do you mislead your audience in such a way that when the final revelation comes, readers are caught flat-footed… and love you for it?
Well, let’s go back to magic. Remember when you were a kid and your idea of a magic trick was to hold out an object, then demand that your mom close her eyes and you would then run off and hide it? “Open your eyes,” you would say. And Mommy would clap and coo and shout with delight. But not because the magic was any good. No, it was because that kind of reaction is, I’m fairly certain, required under the U.S. Constitution. Mommies must love our tricks.
But non-Mommies? Strangers? Even (gasp!) readers?
They’re a bit tougher.
Readers demand a better magic show. The whole nine yards. Flaming pigeons bursting out of our sleeves, disappearing monkeys, and even – especially – those skimpy assistants.
Because those assistants are what makes the trick work. Great authors – like great magicians – know that the secret to misdirection isn’t withholding information, it’s giving extra information, and focusing the audience’s attention on that.
A pair of examples: I was recently driving to a conference where I was going to be talking authory stuff to a bunch of fans. On the way I listened to an audiobook, a suspense-thriller by a big-time writer. But I stopped listening rather abruptly when I started screaming because the author had, for the bijillionth time, said, “And then the super-spy told the other super-spy the plan. It was a cool plan, an awesome plan. And the two super-spies started doing the plan stuff, because they were super. But I, the author, won’t tell you what the plan was, because now you will be surprised when you find out. Mwahaha.” 
Okay, I’m probably paraphrasing. But it was pretty close.
Contrast that to the classic twist of recent times, The Sixth Sense. We’re so busy focusing on the ghosts, the scares, the plight of the little boy who we believe to be the protagonist, that we completely miss what was there the whole time (SPOILER ALERT FOR THOSE WHO HAVE BEEN LIVING UNDER A ROCK FOR THE LAST 15 YEARS OR SO): the fact that Bruce Willis was a ghost! Eek! But the clues were all there. The filmmaker didn’t hide them. He presented them all. He just gave us extra information, and made sure we paid attention to that instead of to the key stuff he planned on re-springing on us later.
As a reader, a good surprise can be one of the most gratifying experiences I have. But there’s a difference between a final revelation that ties together everything I already know and forces me to look at it in a completely new light… and a junky plot “twist” that the author throws at me out of left field with no warning whatsoever. One of them is a hoot, and makes me not only read the book again, but go around trying to get others to read it like I’ve just joined some kind of highly literary cult. The other just makes me want to hunt down the author and shake him/her until all the minutes he/she has wasted of my life are somehow tossed loose.
Authors are, by and large, solitary folks. We sit in our caves (we call them offices, but most of them are kind of dim and smell a bit odd, so “cave” is probably more apropros) and have only our own thoughts for company. That’s the bad news.
But the good news is that we can call up that attractive assistant at any time. To provide flash, dazzle, and interest. To give information we want our readers to have, so that the audience will not pay attention to the real information that will set them up for a surprise later on. Withhold everything and it’s irritating. But give a little extra, mislead properly… and it’s magic.

Posted by mbc@writteninsomnia.com in Writing Advice
Dealing With Bad Reviews

Dealing With Bad Reviews

Okay, so, you’re published. Your book is “out there.” It’s “in the world” and “up for grabs.” People can “read it” and “peruse it” at their “leisure” (I like quotation marks).


And at first, things seem all right. Fairly predictable. The book doesn’t become an instant bestseller, but it is selling. Your mom bought it, and your dad bought two copies, and so did that slightly weird person who sits in your closet and mumbles a lot. Or maybe that’s just what happens to me.


Regardless, your work is now on its own. Living, breathing, and (hopefully) being passed from hand to hand by readers who are — slowly but surely — going to become Your People. Your Followers. Your Army.


And then it happens. Among the four- and five-star reviews that have made you feel higher than a kite on meth, suddenly this rears its ugly head on Amazon:



I picked this boock up because of all the good revuews. But I guess the revuews were all dun by, like, the writers’ parents and stuff. Because the book stunk. It stunk a lot. It stunk like a dead skunk that has severe dysintary and then drowns in its own poop. Also, the author is a ca-ca doodie head and probably has lice and kix baby seals and stuff. Dont read this book, it will give you cooties.

– 1 star


You read it. And the questions start. Is my work really that bad? How could this reviewer have so completely missed the point of my book? Where did he learn to spell? What if I do have lice?


And, most urgently . . . how do I respond?


To that last, I have three little words: Ig. Nore. It.


Okay, maybe that’s four words, I don’t know. I’m a writer, not an accountant.


Seriously, though, when you get a review like the above, you must simply rejoice within yourself. Why? Because it means your book is being read. It’s getting out into the world, meeting new people, getting beyond the closed circles of your family, friends, and writers groups. It will inevitably meet up with people that hate it — because it’s not their style, because you did an objectively terrible job writing the piece (it does happen), or even for no good reason at all.


And like any good parent, you will have the urge to rush to your “child’s” defense.




There are really only two likely outcomes if you choose to wage war on the review or (even worse) on the reviewer himself.


1) You try to show the review is “wrong.” The reviewer takes offense and goes to war with you. You now have a dedicated enemy who will attack you at every possible turn, giving you low ratings wherever possible and urging his/her friends and family to avoid your work like a sack of rotten meat. You have just accomplished nothing more nor less than magnifying the effect and range of the viewer’s bile and hatred. Result: you lose.


2) You try to show the review is wrong. The reviewer takes offense and goes to war with you. You mobilize your friends and followers and fight back. A comment war ensues! You beat back the scummy, evil, poor-spelling reviewer. He/she is silenced forever. Huzzah! But wait . . . those comments are there forever. And you look like nothing more nor less than a prima donna bully. This will keep people from buying your books in perpetuity. Result: you lose.


Of the two, the second is gratifying to the author, but far more damaging. I am friends with a great many authors, some of them legitimately Famous People. And occasionally one of them will get their undies in a wad over some disparaging comment made regarding their work and will mobilize their fans to attack. The fans attack. Or some of them. Some don’t. Some become “un” fans, turned off by the author’s childishness. And though maybe Famous People can afford to lose fans, the average author just can’t.


An example: my most recent novel, Darkbound, just came out. It’s a deeply disturbing horror novel about six strangers who get on a subway train that turns out to go everywhere BUT where they want it to. When it was released, a very eminent horror review site called Hellnotes wrote up a stellar review. So did several other review sites. A friend who had received an advance copy sent me a note saying he was . . . well . . . less than enamored of it. It was too dark, too violent. Worried, no doubt, about typical author ego, he asked what my response would be if he posted such a review.


My response: “Do it!” People have a right to know others’ thoughts. The fact that this reviewer didn’t like Darkbound as much as he had liked other books I’d written was a bummer. But it didn’t mean the end of the world, and insisting that he love everything about my work, all the time, would be not merely ridiculous, but counterproductive.


The reviews of our work will at times be insightful, helpful, warming. And sometimes it will be shallow tripe that looks like it was probably written in crayon by a five-year-old struggling against some weird form of Tourrette Syndrome. Both are part of being a writer. Don’t respond to either (even the good ones — that can be a bit “stalky” and can also mess with your fan base). If you want to interact with fans, get a Facebook page, a Twitter account, or stand on a box in Hyde Park.


But leave the reviews — and reviewers — alone. Ig. Nore. Them.*


* It is three words. I counted with my fingers.

Posted by mbc@writteninsomnia.com in Writing Advice

Typing Down and Dirty

Something I’m often asked about is how I manage to write so quickly. I’m also often asked about how I manage to murder with a smile on my face, and why Honey Boo-Boo is so popular with the American public. Two of these questions are Deep Mysteries, only answerable by God and perhaps certain network television execs. One of them, however, is within my grasp and understanding.
And no, it’s not the “murder” one.
It’s the writing thing. For those of you who don’t know me, I’m a full-time writer. I’m a bestselling novelist and produced screenwriter who has had the great honor of having major Hollywood studios butcher his screenplays for borderline obscene amounts of money. I’m one of the bestselling horror writers on Amazon.com: my latest horror novel, Apparition, has been sitting pretty on the bestselling “ghost horror” books there pretty much since it came out, and my YA series The Billy Saga has been doing great business for two years straight.
So I write. That’s my thing. It’s what I do. And I do a lot of it. In the past two years, I’ve written over a dozen books, plus an additional dozen screenplays. That’s on top of countless articles, guest blogs like this one, and basically a caboodle (that’s classy talk for “a buttload”) of other writings, short and long. That sandwiched in among conventions, author signings, and other promotional events. Plus I occasionally try to show up and be a good dad and husband. ‘Cause that’s how I roll.
It’s not unusual for me to crank out 10,000 words before dinner. Sometimes closer to 15,000.
Now, I know it’s the middle of NaNoWriMo as I type these words, so some of you might be looking at your computer screens and wishing you could reach through them and throttle me via the magic of the internet. Luckily for me you can’t. And for you, too, because my point in all this isn’t to brag. It’s to bring a message of hope, and a statement of belief: I believe that most of YOU can write that fast. I think that many people sell themselves short when they write; that they believe less of themselves than they are capable of.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think that you’re going to finish this article and start instantly blasting out thousands of quality words. I’m not magic. You want that, you go to Tony Robbins. But I do think I can whisper a bit of a secret to you, the elusive secret that so few writers seem to know, the secret to writing fast, and writing good stuff fast.
The secret to writing fast is… writing fast.
Okay, don’t get out your special Mob Kits (only $49.95, patent pending) and come looking for my blood. There is a method to this madness. What I mean is this: very often on the best days of writing, the more you do, the better you write, and the better you write, the more you do. It’s the opposite of a vicious cycle, it’s a “happy cycle,” for lack of anything better to call it. A lot of authors look at it as some rare visitation of their muse, but in reality it is just them getting out of their own ways, letting themselves do what they’re already good at.
So you… let’s say you do an average of 3,500 words a day during NaNo. So tomorrow when you type, worry less about quality than quantity. And yes, you read that right. Go for 4,000 words. Even if it’s crap. Crap is okay, that’s what God invented the delete key.
But here’s the thing: if you start writing, if you just let go and start “feelin’ it,” just movin’ and groovin’ and letting your fingers do the talking, I bet when you hit that 4,000 word mark you’ll look back and be amazed at how few words need serious revision.
There’s a lot of craftsmanship to writing. A lot of practice, a lot of effort. But like most things, once you’ve learned to a certain level the secret isn’t concentration, it’s getting out of your own way and letting yourself perform at the level you’ve trained for.
10,000 words? Bah. Watch me hit 15,000 tomorrow. The only real limit is how fast I can type. And I’m not even so sure about that one.

Posted by mbc@writteninsomnia.com in Writing Advice

A Snowball’s Chance in Marketing

One of a potential reader’s biggest “sell” points is your book description. Sadly, it’s also one of the things that I most often see get mangled by authors. But fear no more! I’m going to give you a quick rundown on the elements you need for great cover copy.



To establish my bona fides: I’m an internationally-bestselling author in everything from horror to science fiction and fantasy to (I kid you not) Western Romance. I’ve sold tens of thousands of eBooks on the strength of my back cover copy. I have literally had Hollywood producers call me with variations on this conversation:



Producer: Hey, are the rights for [cool Michaelbrent book title here] available?

Me (in needy tones, because Author): You bet. Did you like the book? My mom liked it and she says I’m handsome and talented and –

Producer: What, you think I’ve read it? [Sharp, barking laughter.] No, I just read the description. That’d make a great movie tagline! So is it available or not? Answer quick, ‘cause I have to go for a swim in my McDuck-style pool of ducats.



This should clue you in on how critical back cover copy is.



But too many authors don’t know how to do it. In fact, when I go to comic cons and writing conferences one of the first things I notice is that few authors know how to sell a book. They know how to tell their story, but guess what (and this is important): no one cares about your story. Not yet.



Your story is the equivalent of baby photos by that obnoxious coworker you barely know. Sure, they’re kids. Sure, they probably have some level of worth. But you don’t know them. You don’t care about them. You have no stake, and just want the microwave burrito calling your name in the break room.



But what if that same coworker sidles up to you and says, “So Little Timmy’s face spontaneously caught on fire yesterday.”



Now you’re in. The coworker can say, “The story starts with Little Timmy in his mother’s fallopian tube,” and go through every day of Little Timmy’s life in agonizing detail and you will hang on every word because HOW DID LITTLE TIMMY’S FACE CATCH FIRE?!



Note that the thing that worked wasn’t the story. It was a) the hook, and b) the emotional attachment that created.



That’s good back cover copy, which does three things:



1) Establish what the hook of the book is – that thing that makes your story utterly unique.

2) Provide an emotional(not cerebral) response.

3) Show that you know how to write, because holy crap look how invested I am in this back cover copy and if you know how to do that in 100 words, then I. AM. SO. IN.



A quick example:



You wake up in the morning to discover that you have been sealed into your home.

The doors are locked, the windows are barred.


A madman is playing a deadly game with you and your family.

A game with no rules, only consequences.



So what do you do? Do you run? Do you hide?


The above is the entirety of the description to my novel, Strangers. It immediately shows what the hook is – a family that’s been sealed in their home with a killer. It draws in the reader emotionally, both by providing a quick snapshot of the stakes (“DO YOU DIE”) and also, in this case, by the sneaky, underhanded author making the story about the reader (not only is Little Timmy’s face on fire, but it turns out Little Timmy is your secret love child! Oh no, poor baby! Poor me!).



62 words, and I’ve got ‘em.



A lot of authors don’t want to reveal their hook, because they’re “giving away the coolest thing.” But that just means you need to retool your book/story, because your hook should not be the only – or even the most important – twist and turn in your story.



With Strangers I’ve told you the most basic part of the first hundred pages of the novel. But you don’t know the mechanics of how the killer got in, or why he chose this particular family, or whether they get out, or, or, or, or…



Your hook isn’t the story. What it is, is the thing that tells your reader that there’s something in it for them. That they can plunk over five bucks and get a good value, because in here is something they’ve never seen (or never seen done this way).



Then you set that hook good and tight by making them feel. You don’t have to write the story as actually happening to them to do this. The tried-and-true way is to describe the characters in a way that makes them important/sympathetic/relateable to the reader. Another example, this time from my book Predators:



She is one of the only animals
who can chase a lion from its kill …

Evie Childs hoped the all-expense-paid trip to Africa would give her a chance at adventure. Maybe it would even let her forget a past that haunts her, and find safety from a husband who abuses her.

Her jaws can crush bone to powder…

But when a group of “freedom fighters” kidnaps her safari tour group, intent on holding them for ransom, the adventure turns to nightmare.

She knows no mercy, only hunger…

Now, Evie and the rest of the survivors must travel across miles of the harshest, most dangerous environment on Earth. No food. No water. No communications.

And they’re being hunted.

She is the only animal alive
who laughs as she hunts…

A pack of Africa’s top predators have smelled the blood of the survivors, and will not stop until they have fed. Because in this place, you can be either one of the prey, or one of the…




Again, it’s short (167 words). Again, it sets a hook (“What kinda scary animal can chase away a lion?”), then invests the reader emotionally (a woman with an abusive husband and secrets from her past, we’re already torn between rooting for her and being curious). It then sets the hook even tighter (“You mean they got kidnapped and then things got bad?”), and gets us further invested when it talks about Evie and “the survivors” (a phrase we are hard-wired to root for and you bet I used it on purpose!).



Too many authors resist “giving away the good parts” without telling the whole story. So at those comic cons and conventions that I mention, I’ve run through descriptions – a quick hook, a brush stroke of the characters and stakes – of all forty or so of my books before the author at the next table has gotten through chapter one.



Who do you think gets the sale?



I’m not boring them with baby pictures. I’m quietly setting Little Timmy’s face on fire, then pointing out the blaze.



Set the hook. Make it matter to the reader.



And sell that book.

Posted by mbc@writteninsomnia.com in Writing Advice