Friday, July 20, 2012

Book Review: Evertaster

I decided to take some time away from authoring and do a little book consumption. I almost mean “consumption” literally, because the book I just finished, Evertaster by Adam Glendon Sidwell, was good enough to eat. In fact, I dare you to read it without a wealth of snacks in front of you.

The hero of the story is a scrawny little kid named Guster, whose mom is so frustrated by his picky eating habits, she drags him into the dark alleys of New Orleans just to find something that he’s willing to eat. Guster’s true problem isn’t simple pickiness. He’s actually an evertaster, someone who can taste the tiniest molecules of everything that is put into food.

"Guster could taste the dirty corn fed to the chickens Mom used in her casseroles, or the foul rain that fell on the almond trees.”

He’s reached the point of near-starvation, because eating ordinary food (especially his mother’s casseroles) is intolerable to his poor little stomach. When they get to the city, a mysterious chef tells them about The One Recipe, which is the recipe for a food that is so delicious, it will end all wars. Guster, his mom, and his three siblings set off on a global adventure to seek out The One Recipe so Guster can finally fill his empty belly.

It was such a fun story, so absolutely ingenious, I had to share. The Johnsonville family traveled all over the world, fighting gorillas and giant chickens, trekking through the deep dark jungles and frigid arctic lands and remote islands, all the while running from a deadly mafia of evertaster chefs. Sidwell’s storytelling is magical and made me want to hop a plane and head off for an adventure of my own. He created such culinary visuals, I was ready to eat raw eggs or entire tubs of butter. I don’t think I’ll ever touch a casserole.

I first discovered the book on Facebook, funnily enough, on Sidwell’s author page. I loved the cover art so much, I shared it on my own page. When the book was finally released, it made the best seller’s list on the first day, which is unheard of for a first-time author.  Also impressive was the excerpt reaction of Orson Scott Card on the back cover. I stumbled across a book review from a blogger I’m following. The review convinced me to buy a copy of Evertaster for myself. I’m glad I did. I completely lost myself in the story and was curiously hungry during the whole adventure.

I would absolutely recommend Evertaster to everyone, no matter what genre you normally read. It’s a welcome getaway for all ages, and if you are an avid foodie, all the better for you. Kudos to Adam Glendon Sidwell for an excellent literary experience. I wouldn’t be surprised if Evertaster become the next classic fairytale, a book that lands in every nursery and every school library in the world. It was just that tasty.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Are you a writer if you're just pretending?

Years ago, a client asked me to rewrite his book for him. He said that the book, which was about small business planning, was outdated and needed a good refresh. He asked me to write the same information but using slightly different wording. I guess a red flag should have gone up right then, but I was still quite trusting at the time. The client sent me all the documentation and I got to work. Not more than a couple of chapters in, something just didn't feel right. The book manuscript he gave me was terribly inconsistent in style and language and sometimes didn’t make sense at all. For example, my client was Australian, but I noticed that large chunks of text were written in U.S. English, while some parts were in British English. The tone and voice of the pages weren’t consistent either. At one point, I noticed some text that referred to U.S. government offices. That’s when I stopped. I pulled various excerpts from my client’s manuscript and ran a little Copyscape check. The results should come as no surprise. The man did not write the content at all. He stole it from three books published by the American Small Business Association and from another book that was published by an Australian business organization. What he wanted to do was to take these four popular publications, reword them, and put his name on the final product. When I called him on it, explaining that it’s considered plagiarism to copy someone else’s work, he tried to convince me that he wasn’t doing anything wrong. He said that he purchased the books and then tried to return them, but the seller would not refund his money. In his mind, that meant he owned the books and could do what he wanted with them. I lost a lot of money by walking away from that job, and I don’t regret it one bit. I know people plagiarize, but I did think that this was an extreme case.

Not so. Years later, I still come across clients (and I use the term loosely) who want someone to “edit” a book that they hadn’t even written yet. They have an idea and want to make a book out of it. But they can’t write or they’re too lazy or for whatever reason, they are incapable of being a true author. So they hire a writer to edit their non-existent book, or they come right out and ask for a ghost writer.

I do understand ghost writing to an extent. If you’re a celebrity or someone who’s been through a newsworthy trauma, it’s perfectly okay to hire a writer to write your autobiography. I mean, it’s your story. You lived it, so you own it. But in my opinion, it’s quite different to hire someone to write your fictional idea into a book and then expect to get byline rights for it. It’s misleading and not fair to the readers, who all think Mr. Byline is a great author. It’s also not fair to the writer who, in many cases, does all the research, story building, writing and formatting. As a writer, I don’t understand the logic behind taking such a job. If you can write a best seller, why not do it for yourself instead of some bonehead who’ll pay you a hundred bucks for it? Admittedly, I am often willing to write articles and not take the byline. The reason is that I’m not interested in the subject matter and don’t need or want my byline associated with it. But a book is another matter altogether. A lot of a writer’s heart goes into a book. How do you part with that?

I recently came across another freelance writing proposal that was so outrageous, I laughed for ten minutes before sharing it with all of my friends. A man posted on a freelance site that he was a member of an internet marketing forum, posing as an expert in internet marketing. He wanted to hire a writer who was a true expert in the field to write hundreds of posts to this forum, using his name, so that he’ll look like a real expert and get credit for all the posts. Oh, and get this: He’s willing to pay a whopping 35 cents per post. No doubt this man will be paid highly for these posts and will establish himself as a guru of internet marketing. The writer, who is the real expert, will get 35 cents and a severe case of writer’s cramp. If the writer is smart, he’ll bypass the lowballing client and find a way to monetize his posts directly from the website.

It’s frightening how perfectly comfortable people are pretending to be something they’re not. I think it’s admirable when someone wants to write a book, or if they want to be a professional blogger or forum poster. A noble ambition. But if you’re not already a skilled writer, then the logical first step would be to learn. Take a class, read a book, practice. If you decide one day that you want to be a writer and then hire someone else to do it for you, are you truly a writer? I suppose I could say that I want to be a programmer and then hire someone to write code for me. I could declare myself an architect, then hire someone to design my house. I could do that. Maybe I could even make lots of money like these pseudo clients on the freelance boards. But it wouldn’t feel good, and that is the very thing that makes me write. It feels good to do what I love. It feels good to earn even a few pennies a day, because the words come from me. The language, the sculpture, the art. It’s all mine. There’s something gratifying about having a true skill and making it work for you, much more than having an idea and making someone else work for you.

I guess writing means different things to different people. To some, writing is a job. To others, it’s a way of life. The pretenders probably think of writing as a resource rather than a skill. But if you don’t have the skill, can you be called a writer?

Monday, July 2, 2012

Stop and Go, Switch Direction – Writer Needs vs. Reader Needs

I hate stopping a writing flow in the middle. It happens to writers a lot. I have stacks of half-written manuscripts, articles I never finished, and ideas that never even make it to the page. This is one disadvantage of self-publishing and freelancing. In a traditional writing job, you write what your client, publisher, or company wants and are paid for that work. The work is assigned to you ahead of time, along with an agreement for pay. When you self-publish and freelance, you write what you choose to write, typically what you love to write, and then hope to sell it later. You work on your own time, so it’s risky. Today’s topic follows along the lines of my post from October 2011, “The Real World.”

I have been working hard on my next book, which is teen fiction somewhere between funny and demented. Book sales for the previous two books are slow as are freelance gigs. I have to make a living, right? And I only have this one skill, writing. So I am toying with the idea of halting my fiction book temporarily and cranking out one or two non-fiction titles. I noticed a lot of non-fiction writers who write books based on their opinions or one experience that they feel makes them an expert. I think I have more to offer than that. People want to read books by truly qualified authors. I am qualified to write books about writing, not because I write this blog but because I have an education in writing and I have many years’ experience. My experience has not only been to write for people but also to teach them and to set up writing procedures and templates. I have style guides memorized (though I admit I do overlook a few rules when writing casually).

So I know I have the expertise. I have the qualifications. I need a niche. Lots of people write about writing. Why would my book stand out above theirs? I actually know the answer to that and it has to do with the readers’ needs.

Writers often write what they like to write. They write their opinions, their feelings, their experiences. It’s easy to write when you have that passion. The problem is that they don’t always write what the reader needs. Or they write what the reader wants but cannot produce the magical results that the reader expects. You can’t make someone else a great writer. You can’t make someone else a best-selling novelist. You can teach people grammar, but that topic is a little touchy since adults are aware that grammar is something they should have learned in grade school and are hesitant to relearn.

My aim is to teach potential writers exactly what they need to get through a task. In technical writing, for example, which is my primary area of expertise, there are various forms of technical documentation. It is very common for someone to be assigned the task of writing, say,  a Request for Proposal and have no idea what one looks like. It sounds like it would be a simple letter, but in fact, RFPs are typically 30+ pages long and are very detailed. If you miss a detail, your project could be disastrous and costly. This is just one example, but this is the sort of thing people need to know, how to do a specific task and what it looks like in the end. It’s all about need. What they need, not what I need, although it does feel good when you can help people out.

I do hate switching gears, even temporarily. But it’s a consequence of an occupation where you do what you want to, until you have to do what you have to do. It'll be a short break. I promise.