My History and Future as a Writer
Recently, I got a one-star review that called Prince Elashor "amateurish," and it has this to say: "There were moments when the story seemed to be going in a good direction but it was spoiled by lazy writing and an author who does not understand world building. At the same time I feel as though they could become a better writer with just a bit more practice."
I thought I'd take this time to actually explain my history as a writer. My quick bio doesn't do it justice.
This is not meant to be some sort of bragging. I know my writing is not the best in the world. I'm no Steinbeck or Hemingway or David Foster Wallace. I continue to work on and improve in my weak areas. I'm just as insecure about my writing as anyone.
But in light of the above review and my plans as a writer in the future, I thought I needed to explain that I actually know what I'm talking about.
Malcolm Gladwell popularized the idea that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become an expert in anything. The following is an accounting of my 10,000 hours. I've done the work. It's questionable whether a majority of the most popular MM romance writers have even done 100 hours of deliberate practice.
I began to take writing seriously around ten years ago. I started a blog under an internet alias to document my thoughts and attempts.
I started my studies with many classic books like The Elements of Style and On Writing Well. I tended to do a lot of essay and personal writing back then, so these books really gave me a handle on tightening up my prose style in the first few years. This was enormously helpful, and I'd say that the most common writing mistake I see in MM romance these days is sloppy prose style.
When I started fiction, I got really, really serious about my studies. I started taking craft books and digging deep. Sometimes I would take a single book on plot structure or character, and I'd write an entire novel as if that element of craft were the only thing that mattered.
This type of intense training helped me internalize what those authors were saying. When I went back to writing normally, I could draw on this information from my experience of using it and seeing what worked and what didn't work.
For plot structure, I did this with Coyne's The Story Grid method and McKee's Story and for romance, in particular, I used Haye's Romancing the Beat.
For character development, I used Truby's The Anatomy of Story and McKee's Dialogue.
I continued to read other books on craft less intensely. Some of my favorites that I keep returning to are Delany's About Writing, Snyder's Save the Cat, Maas's The Emotional Craft of Fiction, and many others I'm sure I'm forgetting.
I listened to podcasts on writing and worldbuilding all the time during this period (and continue to do so). So even when I wasn't doing focused work, I was still absorbing information to get better.
I read around 70 books a year with a critical eye. I would break down their structures, development, themes, subtext, and prose style to figure out how to improve my own.
Throughout all of this, I continued to blog about these methods. I put my work out there and received feedback. My blog took off, and I turned into something of an authority. I changed over to helping other people improve by taking their writing samples and showing how to make them better. I did long-form analysis on the prose styles of great writers and famous plot structures.
It's a blog that continues to have success to this day.
This brings us to current day. I was writing literary fiction and fantasy under a different name. Needless to say, literary fiction is not the best way to make a living, and as an independent writer/publisher, fantasy is hard to do well on the fast timescale it takes to make it worthwhile.
I'm a gay man, and I've always loved the romance novel. I looked to MM romance as the perfect genre for me. I looked at what was selling well, and to be frank, it was "amateurish" at best.
Let me explain what I mean by this. It isn't intended to be cruel. It's a fact that if you sent these manuscripts to ten agents, all ten of them would stop at the first page and cite the exact same reasons for rejection. They read like beginner writers.
I won't name names, but the current #1 spot on Amazon in a certain related category has the following problems on the first page: weak verbs modified with adverbs, excessively long dialogue tags, overwritten descriptions, passive voice, run-on sentences, sentence fragments, valuing sound over sense, unintentional alliteration, inconsistent point-of-view, and on and on.
I saw a place I could fit in. I'd write books with a better sense of craft. Instead of sassy caricatures, I'd develop real characters. Instead of static plots, I could create emotional resonance and payoffs by having the main character have a deep flaw that they learn to overcome through their arc.
I'd create more complex characters by taking the long verbal dumps of emotion and internalizing it into subtext.
Characters would not merely fall in love, there would be a grand gesture to actually demonstrate their love. These are all standard writing techniques I found lacking in the generic MM sphere.
I thought I could fill a hole with quality writing, and over time, if I stayed patient, it would naturally rise to the top.
It turns out I was wrong.
On Interpretive Communities
I'll digress for a moment. It's partly my fault, since I knew better. It's also not the above reviewer's fault. There's no way for her to understand what's really going on here. Since I've actually formally studied this stuff at college, it is very clear what's going on.
I won't go too deeply into this, but a literary theorist named Stanley Fish theorized about something called an "interpretive community." If there's ever a perfect case study of this, it's the MM romance community.
An interpretive community is basically a closed system of demographically similar people who read and write for each other with minimal interaction with writing outside of the community.
MM romance came about as an offshoot of "slash fanfiction." It's written and read by mostly white women around my age. I saw the infancy of this community with my own eyes, because my two best friends in high school were girls who read and posted these things on the early days of the internet.
The strange thing about interpretive communities is that generally accepted poor writing can come to be seen as the standard of quality. Conventions get set by what the majority of people are doing, and then, because no one is looking outside of the community, people who do not follow the conventions are seen as bad writers.
Let's just say that the conventions set by untrained fanfiction writers (who were often using over-the-top anime characters) are not conventions I'm ever going to take on.
This brings me to a hard decision I'll have to make. It's a politically incorrect fact that women resonate with different writing than men. I get e-mails from men all the time saying how much they loved my books. Those are my glowing five-star reviews.
I get one-star reviews from women saying things like "this is why I only read women."
The MM romance world is 99% women, and ironically, this makes it almost impossible for a gay man to write successfully in the genre. Think about how crazy that is for a moment.
There are obvious exceptions, but I can't base a career on becoming one. Reviews like the one I got show that I'm not accepted in this interpretive community. Even worse, reviews like that have an exponentially bad effect on sales.
I don't want to get too deep into the economics of Amazon, but I don't think readers realize how bad it is to give a book with no reviews one star. The way books sell is by advertising using targeted keywords to show up as Sponsored Products on related books.
A potential buyer sees three things: the cover, a few words of a blurb, and the average review score. Amazon is full of trash books, so when someone sees a one star average, they're likely to think they have better ways to spend their time. A handful of lost sales early on leads to a lower Amazon placement which leads to less organic traffic which leads to lower sales and on and on the cycle goes.
After a few books in a series, these few lost sales from the one star review end up translating to hundreds of lost sales over the course of the series. I just wish readers were a bit more aware of the consequences of their actions.
I know I'm not owed positive reviews by anyone, but I have to wonder if that reviewer would have written their review if they understood the consequences. Was the book really SO incredibly bad that it's worth wrecking my income for the next six months? I mean, they finished it, so it couldn't have been at the level of a scam (meaning other 1 star books).
I'd hope they'd exercise a little more restraint if they understood that.
Here's the decision for my future: do I abandon Mark C. Wade and MM romance? I feel like starting over at this point. There are plenty of genres where I'd probably be a bit more appreciated.
The women of MM romance can keep patting themselves on the back with five star reviews as if the borderline unreadable prose is good. I'm not sure why I thought I'd be welcomed here. The cycle will go on without me just fine.
Roger Federer is one of the greatest tennis players of all time. Even he can have an off game and be made to look like an amateur. I've watched him and thought: what was that? Even I could have returned that!
Maybe Prince Elashor deserves the hate it's getting. Maybe it's an off book for me. It's too close to the publication for me to make an objective call on that. If it deserves two stars, then I have no problem with getting those reviews (it doesn't deserve one star). My guess is that it's actually quite good, though.
I'll reiterate that I'm under no delusion that I'm a great writer at this point. Even if I was, every creative produces duds at some point. Even directors and writers of billion dollar movies with a track record of excellent films can flop.
I just doubt that's what's going on here. For the reasons above, it seems like the community giving me poor reviews based on vague concepts like "amateurish" and "poor grammar" while giving 5 stars to patently amateur writing with poor grammar is sending me a signal: they want me out.
I'll probably regret posting this in a few days. It was a way to vent, and it's never good to let the public see you vent. But I figure, what does it matter if I leave the genre behind anyway? At least I can sleep after writing this (something I couldn't do last night).
I'm fully aware of how privileged and fortunate I am for a negative review to be something that can occupy this much of my time. I understand this post makes me look like a pompous, cocky ass. In real life, I'm a quiet, shy introvert. I don't send books out thinking they are God's gift to MM romance. I'm insecure and fear that each one is terrible.
But here's what the immediate negative reviews on the past several books feel like for me.
Imagine you go to your place of work tomorrow. Your boss comes up to you and says, "You will not be paid for the previous week of work."
You ask, "Why?"
They tell you a random stranger came in and informed them that your work wasn't of quality.
You say, "But it was! Who are they to judge such things? This isn't fair."
Your boss doesn't care. They aren't paying you for the work and that's that.