Category Archives: Writing Tips

Erotica authors are getting screwed: Amazon censors sexy reviews

As an indie author, I fully embrace the fact that that nobody owes me shit. As per Chuck Wendig’s latest blog post, I completely agree that writing the best book you can is the best way to get noticed, and that since there’s a buttload of new books being launched every day, it really makes no sense to bitch and moan about how no one’s reviewing your books.

But, if I may put forth a counterpoint to this argument, I suspect that not all books are being treated equally when it comes to Amazon reviews.

Indeed, when it comes to erotica authors, we’re getting screwed. Not only do people tend not to want to write reviews of dirty books in general, but I’ve got proof that Amazon actively censors reviews of erotic books.

Yesterday I set out to do a favor for some of the erotica authors I’ve recently reviewed on my blog. I wanted to repost my positive reviews of their books at Amazon — a place where more reviews = more sales. Sounds simple enough, right?

Three of the four reviews I cut and pasted from my blog went through verbatim, no problem. They were posted to the site in a matter of minutes – and that includes my review of tentacle porn. The fourth was flagged by one of Amazon’s censors, and would not be posted to the site no matter how much I changed the wording, substituting ever more vague allusions to the sex scenes in a flagrantly erotic book – a book specifically listed in Amazon’s “erotica” category.

I submitted this review SEVEN DIFFERENT TIMES.

It was rejected SEVEN DIFFERENT TIMES.

The last review I submitted is surely the most inoffensive thing I’ve ever written in my life. It read, in its entirety:

This book is worth 4 stars. It is hot. It is about an office relationship that goes into some very not-work-safe territory. If you’re into office romance, this is the book for you.”

If you can explain how that review qualifies as either profane or obscene, I would really like to hear it.

After seven rejections, I figured I was just getting the same cranky person on the other end of the review line, and they were simply auto-rejecting whenever they saw my name pop up in the queue again.

So first, let me just say: Fuck you, Amazon Mystery Censor.

Secondly, I went back this morning and reposted the second-to-last incarnation of my review, which retained the basic gist of my blog review but substituted the word “saucy” for the word “erotic,” and ended by saying that I couldn’t give away the full monty, so you’d have to buy the book to decide for yourself.

That review went through in a matter of minutes and is currently live on the site.

Obviously I managed to bypass the cranky censor, who’d probably gone off duty to shit in an old woman’s cereal, kick puppies, steal pacifiers from toddlers, or whatever it is Amazon censors do in their free time.

So to make a long story short (too late!), my point here is this:

IF YOU WRITE EROTICA, DO NOT BE SURPRISED THAT YOUR BOOK HAS NO REVIEWS.

It’s not because your book sucks.

It’s not because your book scares off reviewers, who don’t want their real names associated with dirty books.

It’s because Amazon is censoring the way people write about erotic books.

After seven rejections of a simple review, even the most rabid fan is going to start feeling frustrated and give up on posting it at Amazon.

Personally, I think that stinks. Even though I don’t owe these authors an Amazon review, I find it appalling that once I’ve taken the time to write one up, Amazon is going to do its darndest to keep it off their site.

So for those of you who write erotica reviews at Amazon, I salute you. And for those of you who have written reviews and been rejected by Amazon’s censors, keep trying! It ain’t easy being an erotica fan, but I appreciate each and every one of you who have written a review, despite the odds. You are truly the cream in my coffee, the hot fudge on my sundae, the variable speed buzz in my vibrator.

Stay classy, reviewers, and keep up the good work!

Fuck you, Facebook: Why I’m giving this social media site the finger

Last week I quit Facebook.

That probably sounds insane to a lot of you, but it’s already improved my life. Not only am I no longer wasting time checking and posting statuses every day, looking for tidbits of news amongst the narcissism, but I’m also not compelled to waste my writing time arguing with morons who show up purely to start fights or troll the groups I belong to.

The social media gurus among you are probably flipping out, wondering how I will ever sell any books, but I’m quite convinced that Facebook has never contributed to a single sale of any of my books in the first place. In fact, it’s my opinion that Facebook has actively been diverting attention from my website and thereby destroying any possibility for sales, as it gives people no reason to click over and see what’s new or subscribe to my blog when they can simply add it to another list of items they’ve “liked” on Facebook.

So fuck Facebook. There, I said it.

FFacebook

In case you were wondering, here’s my list of beefs with the social media platform, and why I decided to give it the finger once and for all.

1. Facebook Messenger. Whoever developed this mobile app, required to access your messages (which, by the way, are still accessible from within Facebook.com if you log in from your computer), should be flayed for a week before being fired. This piece of junk forces you to read your instant messages in a totally different app — thus negating the whole concept of an in-app messenger. It’s also been the target of much online brouhaha regarding privacy issues, though Facebook claims the allegations against Messenger are false. Even if they are, the fact remains that Facebook Messenger is an idiotic idea and a pain in the ass to use.

2. Facebook’s Mood Manipulation Experiment. It was (and is) unethical, illegal, and downright digusting: Facebook manipulated its users’ feeds this summer as part of an enormous psychological experiment. Do negative posts result in negative feelings – and more negative posts – on Facebook? Did you really need to fuck with my feed to find out the answer to this question?

3. Facebook Chat. Even before Facebook unleashed its idiotic Messenger app upon us, I was annoyed by Facebook’s chat feature. Not only were people suddenly able to start pinging me relentelessly every time they discovered I was online, but if we were having any sort of serious discussion in which documents or other vital info was being exchanged, if I didn’t IMMEDIATELY take action (i.e. write it down somewhere else, email it to myself, download the documents), all of this information would invariably become lost in the totally unsortable mess that is the chat “inbox.” Unlike sending a normal person a normal email, Facebook only sorts your chats by the most recently received messages, constantly displacing earlier chats and providing no way to categorize or archive items of importance. I was constantly telling people to send me emails of stuff they’d already sent me via chat messages, since these items would be lost in the flood of messages, and everyone got super annoyed. Even more frustrating, messages sent from people you’re NOT friends with go into a black hole called the “Other” folder. You will basically never see any of these messages, and therefore this folder might as well not even exist. Whoever is in charge of this function on Facebook should also be fired; it’s annoying as hell, intrusive and illogical. If I wanted to chat with someone, I’d get on Skype and be done with this mess.

4. Privacy Issues Galore. One of my friends has had frequent and persistent privacy issues with Facebook, resulting in her private contact info being made public. This is not only a violation of Facebook’s own TOS and a pain in the ass to have to keep checking (and double checking, and rechecking every time a goddamn update is imposed), but a clear and present personal safety hazard in a world where psychotic video gamers can decide to track down your home address, send you death threats and even show up on your doorstep with god knows what kinds of weaponry. Facebook basically doesn’t give a shit about its users’ privacy, and we’ve all known that from the start but chosen to ignore it. Frankly, with all this Gamergate hubbub, I don’t think it’s wise to continue ignoring the obvious.

5. Facebook Doesn’t Sell Books. You want to know why? Because it’s been actively turning down the reach on authors’ pages for quite some time now. Even if you have thousands of followers, you’re only reaching a maximum of 16% of them whenever you post. Depending on your numbers, you may only be reaching 2% of those people. How the hell are you going to keep readers interested in your books — much less aware of the existence of new ones — when you have to pay just to reach the audience you’ve already built? It doesn’t add up, and I’m not going to pay Facebook to talk to the people who are interested in what I have to say when I can email them directly through my own mailing list or post for the entire world to read on my blog.

So if you’re still here, I apologize for my intense Monday morning vitriol, but it needed to be purged. I’m off Facebook, for the forseeable future, and anything you read from my pages there is simply being autoposted from this blog.

Why not read it straight from the source?

You can subscribe to my mailing list if you’d like a weekly digest of everything posted here, and if you ever feel moved to respond to a post, I’m just a “reply” button away. No more Facebook middleman, no more online psychos starting pointless drama. Just words sent from me to you.

Have you quit Facebook yet? What were your reasons, and how has your life changed for the better?

Hump Day Reviews: How to review erotica without getting screwed

In an effort to read more erotica, my Hump Day Reviews have typically presented reviews of erotic books, or books with sexual themes in them, that I’ve recently read. But today I wanted to switch gears a bit and focus on the process of writing the reviews themselves, as I think there’s some confusion about what constitutes a good erotica review.

As an erotica writer myself, I’ve found it fairly difficult to find reviewers willing to take on the challenge of reviewing erotic books. The funny thing is that I can totally understand these readers’ hesitation. After all, writing erotica reviews comes off as a lot more deeply personal than reviewing, say, a cookbook or even another genre of fiction. People seem to equate reading and writing erotica directly with an author’s or reader’s sexuality or sexual preferences. And even though I know that reading tentacle porn doesn’t mean I’m attracted to squid, or that I want to be manhandled by someone sexually, I’m not sure that the average reader understands that.

So let me just say…

The first rule of reviewing erotica is that your review does NOT need to reflect your preferences in bed.

Frankly, I don’t really want to know what your preferences are in bed unless we’re sleeping together. Which we’re not, because I’m happily married. But thanks for the offer.

Whatever you thought of the steamy parts of the story may or may not be tangled up in your personal preferences, but I feel that the important thing is to try to remember that this is a review of a fictional book, not a laundry list of your likes and dislikes concerning sex. You’re supposed to be presenting your opinion of the book, and while that obviously includes sex, it’s not actually about you having sex. Even if you did rub one out while reading the book. (Which, by the way, is totally flattering to writers of erotica, so thank you for mentioning it!)

So how does one review a sex scene, anyway?

Personally, I like to read reviews that give a “spice rating,” as these offer readers a more generalized reaction to the sex scenes. Even if the book’s publisher has given it a “heat level,” to indicate the type of sex involved (for instance, Siren uses sensual, steamy, sizzling, scorching and sextreme), readers will have different reactions to the scene based on their own perceptions of how hot they found the characters and their bedroom interactions.

hot

Some reviewers (like the Bangor Public Library) actually employ chili peppers to indicate how hot they found a certain scene, which I find both cute and apt. It’s slightly similar to star ratings, with more peppers being desirable, but doesn’t seem quite as negative if you only hand out one or two peppers. After all, tastes vary, and some prefer their dishes more mild than wild.

Other reviewers like to keep their reviews more focused, using rating scales for everything from character development and originality of the plot to the author’s sense of humor. Mary’s Ménage Reviews also rates an erotic book’s romance (“how they mutually react to each other, romantic, sweet”), equality (“in sex scenes, but also in the relationship”), credibility (“if I can relate to the characters and the story, if the story and characters are believable”) and BDSM levels, noting that sometimes what the publisher has labeled and what she has read differ. Mary also calls out typos and poor editing when it draws her out of the story, and will rate a cover if she finds it inconsistent with the character descriptions or is “plain ugly.” Preach it, sister!

Another thing I like to try to do in reviews generally is to try to focus on both the positive as well as the negatives. Even in books I’ve hated, there is usually something redeeming (with a few notable exceptions), so I like to give some credit for the bits I enjoyed, even if they were few and far between.

In addition, if my overall review is negative, I like to include suggestions for other similar books that a reader might prefer. Lots of people are currently writing lists of “books better than 50 Shades of Grey,” for instance, which I think is a good idea. After all, you may hate the characters in 50 Shades but really want to read more BDSM books. If you write a negative review of 50 Shades, then it makes sense to me to include two of your favorite BDSM books as recommendations at the end, leaving readers with something actionable they can take away from your review — as well as a short reading list to try out.

At the end of the day, I know that reviewing erotica will always be difficult, simply because people all have their own sexual issues and ideals, which bias their reviews from the get-go. And I certainly don’t expect — or want — the average reader to be able to write a totally objective review, either. After all, a review like “I came a lot in this book” is both hilarious and an awesome way of explaining just how much you enjoyed a work of erotica, precisely because you’re supposed to want to come when you read erotica.

Tentacle-MonstersBut even if you don’t, I don’t think that necessarily means that the work was bad, or poorly done. Pet to the Tentacle Monsters!, for instance, didn’t make me come. But it did make me ponder what I thought about it, and about erotica more generally, and how to review something that is supposed to turn you on, but didn’t necessarily get me off — and, indeed, rather scared me to read in the first place.

For me, reading erotica is about challenging taboos, combating stereotypes and clichés, and really getting out of my comfort zone. Sure, we all love to read erotica that hits our pleasure points, but what about the stuff we find uncomfortable? That’s just as important to me as getting off physically, because ultimately it’s a kind of mental stimulation I think we could all use a bit more of.

Much the same as with sex itself, there’s really no “right” way to review erotica — just do what feels good.

Make the most of your writing: join a local writers group

SDWritersInk

I recently took the plunge and joined a local writers group called San Diego Writers, Ink. They offer writing workshops and meet-up groups for writers, as well as regular “Room to Write” drop-in sessions that work great for keeping a regular writing date with yourself. I figured I needed the boot to the bum, as I’ve been neglecting my writing time recently, even though I know that I’ve got a bunch of projects I want to get finished.

As an added bonus, my husband is also happy about this development because now he gets to have Friday mornings to himself for composing music in his studio — without having to use headphones to keep it quiet.

DSCF0982

The sign I made for my husband’s studio door

In addition to SDWI’s other programming, this weekend they’re holding their annual “Fall for Writing” conference. At just $120 for members ($140 for non-members) to take up to 10 sessions, it’s a steal of a deal. I’m tempted to drop in for a few of the classes, like “Low Cost Ways to Promote Creative Projects” with Janene Roberts (no relation) or “Flash Fiction and Short Stories” with Lisa Kessler to help improve my short game and start winning more Iron Writer challenges.

If you’re interested in a free online class that’ll help you learn to write flash fiction that doesn’t suck, I would also recommend Holly Lisle’s aptly named “How to Write Flash Fiction That Doesn’t Suck” class. I just started on the week one exercises, and it’s been super helpful so far.

I’ve also been accepted into MJ Kelley’s virtual writer workshop, starting this October, so it looks like I’m joining writers groups left and right! This should be just the motivation I need to keep putting my writing higher up on my daily To Do list, even when it’s not paid work. Plus it’ll be awesome to read work from my fellow critique partners and get a chance to see what other people are working on.

So now I’m curious: do you belong to any writers groups — local or virtual — and if so, what attracted you to the group?

Author meltdowns and the FAQ page: How to handle dumb questions with grace

A certain indie author — someone whom I’d personally never heard of before a member of one of the indie groups I belong to on Facebook posted about her — has apparently been having a very public meltdown this week. This author, who shall remain nameless to prevent further bad behavior on her part, apparently posted to her Facebook page something to the effect that she was sick of getting incredibly dumb questions from her readers, and that people ought to look to Google before shooting her any more ridiculous emails about Amazon products or her own book series.

NUCLEAR MELTDOWN!

NUCLEAR MELTDOWN!

As someone who regularly receives some really odd (and even flat out dumb) questions in my inbox, I thought I’d give this angry author a bit of helpful advice.

  1. You don’t have to reply. There’s this amazing receptacle included in all email programs called “the trash.” You just select the offending message and drag it to the virtual wastebasket and voila, problem solved! For repeat offenders, there’s another invention that comes in handy: automatically redirecting all further messages straight to the trash, totally bypassing your inbox. In Gmail, it’s super easy to filter messages by email address, so you never even have to see the offender’s name again. Works wonders for your blood pressure.
  2. If you do reply, you can use a form letter. If you seem to be getting a lot of the same questions over and over, from different people, write a response once and then save it. You can cut and paste it (or just call up the saved draft) and send it off to anyone who asks you that question in the future. Saves tons of time and typing.
  3. You don’t have to write a(nother) book. Hey, you’re an author — you already wrote a book, congrats! And now people are curious about it. Great! But there’s no reason you have to write a second tome just to reply to an email. Keep it short and sweet, maybe send the person to one of your blog posts? Sure, we authors are busy, but that doesn’t mean we need to be rude.
  4. Pre-empt obvious questions with an FAQ. This particular author was apparently most bent out of shape by the fact that readers were asking in what order her book series was meant to be read. This calls for the handy dandy section of any website known as the FAQ: Frequently Asked Questions. For instance, if someone wanted to know in what order they should read Naked Montreal, I would tell them that part one is called Naked Montreal: Sex and the Underground City, while part two is titled Naked Montreal: Porn Stars and Peccadillos. I’d load this info in my FAQ, along with some other questions I get a lot (“How do I reach you for an interview?” maybe, or “Will you review my book?”), and answer them politely. In fact, I’m writing up my FAQ this afternoon, because seriously, why don’t I have one already?
  5. If you’re really that upset, seek help. Guess what? As an indie author you ARE in customer service. Your customers are your readers, and you need to be nice to them and help them out — even if it’s Amazon’s screw-up, not yours. Shit happens; roll with the punches. Maybe look into hiring a virtual assistant to help answer your emails, or even a real-life personal assistant that’s eager to interact with your fans. If you can’t handle the pressures of the celebrity author lifestyle, you should probably seek out a refuge in the woods with no internet access — a place where you’re totally unreachable except to the most intrepid of fans or trespassers, and where you can shout “Get off my lawn!” while shaking your shotgun in the air. Or, you know, maybe look into getting some therapy for those anger issues? Fans ask questions because they LIKE YOU. Don’t make them regret their decision by acting like a douchecanoe.

Hey, I get it. I’ve been asked “What’s a PDF?” and wondered whether I was being punked. I’ve been asked if I would personally tutor someone in the bedroom (for free, no less), just because I write sexy books. There will always be dumb questions, and there will always be dumb ways to handle them. Let’s just try to remember that behind even the dumbest of questions lies a human being who’s trying to understand life, the universe and everything – and if all else fails there’s Hey Let Me Google That For You.

How do YOU handle dumb questions? (And please, don’t say “There are no dumb questions.”)

Why reality TV is great for writers

Some people hate reality TV. They complain that it’s the downfall of civilization or even humanity itself. Personally, I just have to laugh.

Grammarly even thinks reality TV kills books. Calm down, drama queens!

Grammarly even suggests reality TV kills books. Calm down, drama queens!

For one thing, there are so many different kinds of reality TV shows that it’s impossible to say they’re all categorically bad — or even that you refuse to watch them. Reality shows aren’t just the voyeuristic kind like Big Brother or The Real World, where they throw a bunch of strangers in a house together and watch the drama unfold. Not all of them are about gossippy Real Housewives or celebrities with first-world problems. In fact, you probably watch a lot of reality shows without realizing they’re considered reality TV. Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares, for instance, is a reality show. So are most modern-day contest shows, like The Biggest Loser, Dancing With the Stars and Cutthroat Kitchen. And if you’re into adventure and excitement, you’ve probably watched some survivalist reality shows like Doomsday Preppers or Bear Grylls’ Man vs. Wild - or maybe even that old favorite, Survivor.

In short, reality TV is everywhere. And though some view it with disdain, I have to admit that I love reality shows.

Why? Because reality TV is great for writers!

dirtyjobs

Not only will you learn a lot about all different kinds of human behavior, but reality shows can also give you a crash course in just about anything you’d ever want to write about. Mike Rowe’s Dirty Jobs, for instance, is an amazing resource for writers in search of unique, unusual and often underpaid jobs that real people do. But just about every reality show I’ve watched has given me great glimpses into other people’s careers, which is priceless for developing realistic characters.

For students of human nature, the histrionics of more dramatic shows like Basketball Wives and Jersey Shore can help inspire over-the-top characters and great off-the-cuff responses to just about any situation. (Or even The Situation!)

If you’re looking to perfect your dialects, reality shows are a goldmine. You’ll find Louisiana drawls on Swamp People, exotic accents and cooking jargon from around the world on Top Chef, and both east and west coast slang on The Real Housewives franchise.

Even when they’re bad, they’re good. Think, for instance, of the Duck Dynasty brouhaha. Whether you love or hate the Robertsons, their redneck comments really got people talking.

And perhaps you caught PBS’s spoof posters, parodying the “sad” state of TV? Their fake reality shows included Married to a Mime (“She’s got plenty to say”), Bayou Eskimos (“Their life is heading south”), Knitting Wars (“It’s sew on”), Bad Bad Bagboys (“Cleanup in every aisle”) and The Dillionaire (“Life’s a pickle”)?

fake-reality-shows

Frankly, I’d love to see some raging grannies duking it out in the yarn aisle, or a show about a pickle king. After all, that last one’s just ripe for puns — another tool in the writer’s arsenal.

The bag boys, however, may be pushing it. Then again, wouldn’t you be curious to know more about what really goes on in the produce aisle after your neighborhood grocer’s automatic doors slide shut for the night? My husband used to work for a local supermarket — and boy does he have some scary stories!

In the end, I believe reality TV is as good — or bad — as you want it to be. Personally, I’ve learned a lot from reality programming, and maybe that’s just because I’m a naturally curious person. But I also agree with reality TV producer extraordinaire Troy DeVolld, who says “Life doesn’t just tumble through a lens and spill out the other side of a cable as a series of engaging stories any more than a potato left to its own devices is likely to magically transform itself into potato salad.”

The stories you see on reality shows are still written by writers who have to focus your attention on something interesting and entertaining. If they fail, the show flops. If they succeed, it keeps on going as long as there are people willing to watch it.

So what do you think of reality shows now? And will you admit you’ve got a favorite — if only as a true student of the writing craft?