Tag Archives: Authonomy

RIP Authonomy

Pile of books

Somebody told me on Facebook today that Harper Collins is shutting down its online slushpile, Authonomy,  on 30th September 2015.

Authonomy. That brought back some memories.

Harper Collins started the site in 2007/8 and soon thousands of aspiring hopefuls swelled the ranks of members. Authonomy expected you to load up at least ten thousand words of your manuscript to enable other members to read and review your work. If they liked it, they would place the book on their virtual bookshelf, effectively one vote. The idea was that the five books which had accumulated the most votes as at the end of a month would be awarded a gold star, and would receive a ‘professional’ review from the HC editors, with a possible view to getting an HC contract. You can see why we all signed up with stars in our eyes.

At first, it was a wonderful website. I met many of my writer friends there. The late MM Bennetts was one. She helped me to hone my historical novel, To Die a Dry Death – and wrote the sonnet for Jeronimus, that being beyond my skill. Although she has left the planet, her wonderful wit, wisdom and knowledge of history stay with us at her website. Do take a look.

Diane Nelson was another. She published my first science fiction romance, The Iron Admiral: Conspiracy, through her now defunct publishing house. She’s now my good friend and editor – as well as being a talented writer  under the pen name Nya Rawlyns. I met and worked with Gemi Sasson Brickson, author of a wonderful Robert the Bruce trilogy and a heap of other books since then. Elspeth Cooper, who has been runner up for the David Gemmell fantasy award, was another.

I never won the gold star. But then I don’t think it ever did anyone any good. Sure, HC published a few books plucked from the slushpile. But I pretty quickly came to the conclusion that by the time you got into the top ten of any genre (which I did), the talent scouts would have had a look. Winning the gold star wouldn’t make any difference. At first, the race for the leader board was polite. I’ll never forget one memorable month when Pete Morin (Boston lawyer) and Charles Utley (London lawyer) both had their books hovering on the fifth spot. Each supported the other in a sportsmanlike manner, urging their own followers to vote for the others’ book. In the end, I think Pete’s got the gong first. The next month it was Charles’s turn. Or the other way around. But it didn’t matter – neither received an HC contract.

But it was too good to last. Pretty soon the gamers moved in. They realised before the rest of us that for HC it was never about the quality, always about which book was most likely to sell. People began to trade shelves. “I’ll back your book if you back mine.” Actually reading the book was an optional extra. One fellow clearly watched the screen showing who had just joined. He would soon “review” and back their book. The thing was he never read more than the blurb. I suspected as much when he reviewed To Dry a Dry Death, mentioning things that never appeared in the book, but are alluded to in the blurb. He was caught out when somebody wrote a blurb on a book that contained nothing but a few words, repeated over and over and over. One woman went even further -she backed the book as soon as it was loaded, and sent a message saying she would review later. Of course, both these people sent messages reminding you if you didn’t reciprocate quickly. The messages feature became an inbox for spam, with people offering swaps, or urging members to ‘back their books’. The forums, which had been lively places to exchange views and have some fun (while doing a bit of marketing)  became a bear pit of accusations, vitriol and back-stabbing.

The final straw, for me and many others of the old guard, came when a REAL gamer joined Authonomy. This fellow had a following of thousands in the online gaming community. He had also written a book. He created a Youtube video, explaining to his game followers how to join the website, and how to then back his book. His book soared into the top contenders virtually overnight. We were scandalised. Most people reached the top of the tree through real hard work, reading and reviewing at least the first chapter of hundreds of books to increase visibility in the hope people would reciprocate. (Mind you, as people neared the top, it was known for some to back every book they opened. After all, the prize was in sight.) Quite a few of us, muttering oaths about ‘fairness’, resigned then and there, and repaired to Facebook to lick our wounds. Many of us, now bitter and twisted, signed up with small presses, or self-published. Really, looking back, we were naive. The race was always about popularity, never about quality.

Still and all, I enjoyed my time on Authonomy. I met many friends all around the world who are still my friends, and I became a better writer. I learned a few lessons, such as don’t take advice from everyone, especially people who do not read your genre. Even then, beware of false praise. And beware of people who can do nothing more than spruik the “rules of writing”. I cringe when I think of some of the “advice” I offered. It was all with the best of intentions, of course. But nowadays I think advice is a bit like magic – given sparingly, if at all. There are other sites around. I joined a few, but none were ever like the Authonomy of old. These days I meet my friends on Facebook. If I need a critique, I ask a few trusted friends whose opinions I value.

Thanks for the memories, Authonomy. It was fun – but I won’t miss you.

Writing advice to take with a grain of salt

As a writer, I rub shoulders (virtually) with lots of other writers. On Facebook I’ll often see quotes from people like Stephen King, or Hemingway and others. Inspirational stuff. I think. But sometimes advice needs to be weighed and measured before it’s blindly believed. Here are a few I’ve encountered.

Read lots

Really? Oh, I don’t doubt you’ve read heaps of books. So have I – both for pleasure and as part of my university degree. Piles and piles, heaps of books. But reading doesn’t make you a writer. My husband is a voracious reader – and I do mean voracious. He isn’t a particularly fast reader, but he would go through a book or two a week. The prospect of him writing a book? Somewhere between Buckley’s and none. Reading may lead you to writing, reading may provide you with knowledge about a particular genre, it may cause you to think that you could write a better book yourself. But reading does not make you a writer.

Do more writing courses

How many have you done? Lots or none at all? I’ve done a few. But at the end of the day, all you’re doing is training up for the real event. Would I suggest people do writing courses? Absolutely. Then go away and think about what you learned and how you might want to apply that knowledge (if at all). Writing courses are subjective, in a way that (say) basic physics is not. You can learn Newton’s three laws of motion – and if you’re writing science fiction, that’s not a bad idea. They are facts, just as 1 + 1 = 2. But writing courses will teach you how a certain person thinks the job should be done. Do you think Shakespeare, or Dickens, or Tolkien, did a writing course? You might as well have done lots of reading (see above).

Take lots of editorial advice

So you’ve written the first chapter of your masterpiece and you take it along to the local writers’ group for comment. Or, in this electronic age, you post it to to Authonomy or some other, similar, group. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a necessary step along the way. Float your little paper boat and see how long before it sinks. Some will say they love it, some will say they hate it. Whose advice do you take? If you’ve done the writing courses, you’ll recognise others who have done the same courses. But beware, take care before you take advice from people who don’t read the genre, or people who haven’t read the whole book. Consider opinions by all means, but don’t turn your book into a hippogriff by trying to pander to everyone’s whims.

It’s cool to collect rejection slips

Sure, it’s part of the process. But you know what? It doesn’t happen to everybody. I have a writer friend who sent the synopsis and first three chapters of her first book to five well-respected agents. Within two (2) weeks she had a contract for three (3) books, with a six-figure advance. The other four agents passed – but she didn’t much care. Sure, I know some will paper their office with rejection slips. It might be smarter to think about why you’re getting so many? Have you targeted the wrong agents/publishers? Do your queries stack up? And then (um) is your book any good?

Your work is good enough to publish

Maybe it is. If you’ve been through rigorous quality control. That’s what it is, really, getting a book ready for publishing – even if it’s self publishing. Find out if people enjoyed the read – and I don’t mean the people who will love anything you do, including those sausages you burnt at the last family barbie. That’s where critique groups are useful if you can find people prepared to read the whole book and give you fair comment. If they say the ending’s weak or there’s lots of loose ends that go nowhere, maybe you need to reconsider your plot. But for now, let’s assume that’s not necessary. A professional edit from someone who knows what they’re doing is still a very good idea. So is copy editing. Remember that husband I mentioned? The one that reads a lot? He’s no academic, but he knows ‘drug’ or ‘drugged’ is not the past tense of the verb ‘to drag’. He knows the difference between their, there and they’re. If you write “apple’s”, he’ll wonder “apple’s what?” If you don’t understand all of these, go and learn English.

So what do you think? What other “advice” would cause you to pause and think?

Before you take well-meaning editorial advice…

I finished reading a book a few days ago. The cover’s at left – A Darker Moon, by J.S. Watts. This post is not a review. Yes I wrote one, and it is on Amazon, but I want to talk about the danger of making changes to an MS because of comments someone makes on a partial read.

I first encountered this book on the Harper-Collins slushpile site, Authonomy. This was some time ago, during a brief revisit to what had been a great place for me in the past. For those who don’t know, authors post at least 10k words of an MS on the site and invite people to read and comment, maybe offer some constructive criticism. The hope is the HC pixies will notice your masterpiece and sweep it into publication. It doesn’t happen often.

Watts posted the first eleven chapters of A Darker Moon. It was one of those rare books which grabbed my imagination, well written, intriguing. Despite the klutziness of the Authonomy reading interface, I read all eleven chapters – a rare and wonderful event. The book is an autobiography and a mystery as a man tries to find out about his past and why his mother abandoned him  on the steps of a synagogue shortly after his birth. I always tried to offer some constructive suggestions when leaving a comment on a book, or at least an idea of my feelings as a reader. In this case I had little to offer apart from “I loved it – I would buy this book”. If I’d been an agent I would have asked for the full.

Some time later (still on Authonomy) I happened upon the book again and had a look at some of the other comments, posted after mine. One attracted my attention, written by a gentleman well known on Authonomy for leaving detailed criticism extolling the virtues of ‘show don’t tell’ and exhorting the author to learn the rules of writing offered in a certain ‘how to’ book. He panned the novel. Tell, tell, tell is all it was (he said). How much better if Watts had shown her readers what was happening? He gave many examples and many suggestions along those lines. And indeed, maybe that’s why the book hadn’t been snapped up by an agent or publisher at that stage, since ‘show don’t tell’ has become a mantra. I might add that I have absorbed that mantra and use it in my own writing (although I didn’t buy that ‘how to’ book).

Yet for A Darker Moon that approach would have been quite, quite wrong.

Abe, the main character of the book, tells the reader his story. He shares what he sees, his insights, what’s going on in his head as he meets the love of his life, as he doubts his sanity, as he’s faced with increasing strangeness. He also mentions things in passing, clues for the reader. He doesn’t join the dots – that’s your job. In a way the book ends up in the air, leaving the reader to draw their own conclusions. It’s kind of ‘this is my life – deal with it’.

If J.S. Watts had used the ‘show don’t tell’ mantra this would have been a very different book. Would it have been as good? I rather doubt it because the narrative would have lost that brooding psychological depth. At a few points, the reader is even directly addressed, told, effectively, to mind their own business. What’s more, right at the end the reader learns why this book was written in the way it was.

So – listen to well-meaning advice. Most advice is well-meaning, even if it’s delivered as ‘this is how you should have written’. But take all advice with a bucket of salt, especially if the person offering the advice has not read the whole book. Remember, the rules of writing – aren’t rules.

What about you? Have you received ill-advised advice to change a story? Please share.