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Sunday, February 22, 2015

I've Moved!

Please visit me on my new website:

Hope to see you there!

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Bad Book Reviews: Not About Your Book, But About Your Readers’ Expectations

Several months ago, when I was planning the promotion for my first book, On Hearing of My Mother’s Death Six Years After It Happened: A Daughter’s Memoir of Mental Illness, I decided to publish some free e-books in order to attract attention to my work. I therefore released a handful of short stories and essays, as well as a self-contained excerpt from my memoir itself.

My strategy was a strange combination of successful and disastrous. My free e-books definitely succeeded in promoting my work; however, as the reviews clearly demonstrate, they also seem to have ticked off a number of potential customers. And this is what’s interesting. Because when you sit down to analyze the reviews themselves, it becomes clear that poor reviews are often unrelated to the quality of the work itself. Bad book reviews are, more often, a result of a failure to meet a reader’s expectations.

Understanding this is crucial to achieving success as an author. We’ve all read book reviews in which we simply disagree with a reader’s opinion. But for authors, it is, to a certain extent, irrelevant if we are right and a reader is wrong. It may not be our fault if someone misinterprets our work. But it is most definitely our problem.

I want to begin here with what I think is a highly illustrative example. Back in November, I released my short essay entitled “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: A Critical Analysis” as a free e-book. I described it as “a lighthearted analytical look at the most beloved Christmas special of all time.”

It’s a humorous essay. In fact, it’s the most popular blog post I’ve ever written, so I can say with assurance that the writing is good and the subject compelling. The e-book, however, although it earned a few high ratings on Goodreads, only received one review, and it stunk:

Rudolph December 23, 2014 (One Star)
Not quite what I was expecting when I had looked for a Christmas book to read to my five-year old daughter the night before Christmas eve.

Clearly, this is someone who saw my free e-book and decided to download it without even looking at what she was getting. Somehow she failed to notice that the cover includes the words “a critical analysis.” There is a school of thought that suggests that you should never offer books for free for just that reason – because it will encourage people to download them who would never be interested in reading them otherwise – and this is a perfect example. This woman didn’t leave me a one-star review because my book was bad – she left it because it ruined story time with her daughter.

That isn’t my fault. I had categorized my essay as humor, not children’s, and my keywords were mostly related to Christmas. However, when I was looking at the book’s page just before I unpublished it at the end of the season, I happened to notice something. In the section marked “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought” I saw nothing but children’s Christmas stories. She was not the only reader who made that mistake. Which makes you wonder if I was somehow at fault, after all. Perhaps by including keywords that were related to Christmas, I virtually ensured that the people who found it were parents seeking stories to read to their children. Perhaps I would have been better off using keywords that were related to humor – which is what I will try if I decide to release the book again next Christmas.

Here’s another example. I published an essay entitled “Is Your Anxiety Real? One Woman’s Experience with Mental Disorder.” The description read “Read my story of how I was misdiagnosed with anxiety – and what the problem really was.”

The piece was exactly what it said it was. Several years ago I was misdiagnosed with anxiety and was treated by my doctor with a prescription. Nearly a year later, I realized that the problem was an excess of coffee! Now I didn’t pretend to have some magical solution for true sufferers of anxiety. In fact, the story makes it clear that I never even really had anxiety. But consider this two-star review from Amazon UK:

No help to millions of people who like me suffer from anxiety every day - without the ... 28 August 2014 (Two stars)
One woman's experience. No help to millions of people who like me suffer from anxiety every day - without the help of branded coffee.

This review is not about the value or worth of my little book. This woman downloaded it seeking relief – hoping to find something that would help her with her own anxiety. It didn’t do that, so she was disappointed. The book did what it set out to do – but it wasn’t what she wanted from it. Yet who pays the price for that? I do. Could I have avoided this problem? Probably, yes. I had left the description intentionally vague because I wanted it to be a bit mysterious. But if I had described more fully the point of my story, the narrowness of readers to whom my situation might apply, then some readers might not have gotten the impression that my book would offer them solutions to their own mental health issues. The book “sold” very well, and I wonder now if the title was a bit too compelling in the manner in which it suggests the possibility of misdiagnosis.

However, it was my memoir excerpt “Detention” that resulted in the greatest rending of garments and gnashing of teeth. The e-book did receive numerous four- and five- star reviews across the various Amazon sites, from readers who said very nice things about it like “I really look forward to reading the full book.” But it also yielded a number of poor reviews, mostly related to the fact that it was not a full book. But what really struck me were these rather bewildering remarks:

One Star, 8 Nov 2014 (One star)
Its ok but just getting into it then it ends. Did not realise it was so short.

Unexpected end 4 Nov 2014 (Two stars)
was very good to start with but became to an abrupt end was looking forward for more details but didn't enjoy

You see the irony here. These were people who enjoyed the excerpt – who wanted to read more. They left me lousy reviews not because they didn’t like my book, but because they never even figured out that it was an excerpt. This, in spite of the fact that I stated that it was an excerpt in the book’s description, on the title page, and again at the end without even inserting a page break. Three places I said it, and they just didn’t get it. In addition, Amazon shows, right in the description, how long a Kindle book is. No one had a right to complain that they had been misled. Yet somehow they were misled, and I think I know why. The only place I didn’t state that it was an excerpt? The book’s cover. And that was probably my big mistake. Because as seems clear from my other examples, people don’t always read the descriptions of what they are buying – and certainly not when books are free. Much of their expectation is based upon the cover, and if the book doesn’t deliver what the cover seems to promise, they’re going to be disappointed, even if the author didn’t do anything wrong. Disappointed readers lead to bad reviews – and potentially lost customers.

This shows that you have to be very, very careful, not just in how you describe and categorize your book, but in the look that you give it. You can have an amazing cover, but if it gives the impression that your book is sci-fi when it’s actually paranormal romance, you’re far more likely to wind up in trouble. And the same holds true if you’re publishing a series, as is, nowadays, so often done. You need to have “Part 1” or “Part 2” showing in very bold letters, because you don’t want your readers getting to the end of your book and being angry because it isn’t the end of the story.

Finally, I want to look at one last example. This is a four-star review for my actual memoir – not the excerpt – which has been bothering me since the day it was posted. It’s a very good review, as most of them have been. However, what she says at the end really ruffled my feathers:

“I would have liked to hear more about day-to-day life at home with her mother. She jumps between big events… without covering the middle ground… It feels like the author held back because these details are probably somewhat mundane but I have a feeling that they weren’t boring details – the fact that the author felt so hurt and angry that she left home and never looked back tells me that there was a LOT that happened in between… Unfortunately, it feels a bit like her inability to trust us as readers has kept her from being very open in her memoir.”

Now this last sentence, I’ll admit, I found rather stunning. The majority of reviews have commented on how deeply personal my memoir is, and how impressed readers were that I had shared such private experiences. Now here’s someone who is complaining that I haven’t been open, that I’ve held something back.

She’s wrong. In fact, I hadn’t left anything out. After reading this review, I wracked my brain for other incidents I could include, and finally came up with two additional paragraphs. That was all. If I hadn’t described much about my last year at home, it was because my mother, as I had explained in my memoir, had to have foot operations and was stuck in a chair for nine months. A woman who can barely get up to go to the bathroom is unlikely to be physically abusive, and is certainly incapable of controlling a teen-aged daughter. There was virtually no day-to-day life to describe. She sat in her chair, and I went back to school.

I didn’t put my memoir in non-chronological order so that I could skip over events that I was reluctant to share. It’s because in many cases I don’t remember the order in which different events occurred. People sometimes seem to believe that because you’ve had a traumatic experience, that your recall of it must be flawless. It isn’t true – at least not for me. A lot of things happened in a very short space of time, and rather than pretend to the reader that I could tell the full story from beginning to end, I chose to assemble it as a series of segments telling what I remember. Yes, it is a bit fractured – but that also perfectly reflects my experience of my mother’s psychosis.

But, to be fair, I did not make this reasoning clear to the reader. The two poor reviews that the book has gotten have been from people who were simply unable to cope with it not being in order. And now that I’ve spent some time analyzing reviews, I think I understand why. Because people expect chronological order. They expect my memoir to be written like ninety-nine percent of personal memoirs on the market, most of which are not written by writers. They expect a traditional narrative structure.

I can’t provide them with that. But if I had explained in the introduction why the story jumps around, why there seem to be gaps that aren’t really there, then no one would have read it expecting it to be chronological, or expecting it to be complete in every detail. Would I have lost some customers because of that? Possibly. But I think it’s more likely that those readers would have gone into it with a more open mindset, more willing to accept a nontraditional narrative, had they been forewarned that that was what they were getting, and knowing that there were solid reasons why it was written that way. Ultimately it would have provided all readers with a more fulfilling experience – which is precisely why I’ve now added a foreword.

When I first read this review, I was also annoyed that this particular reader seems to feel that I didn’t experience enough trauma – that having my mother beat and imprison and threaten to kill me was insufficient reason for me to leave home and never look back. But then I took another look at her final paragraph:

“I hope that someday she writes a more complete story. I would be very interested in reading all of the ‘in between’ scenes and hearing about her final year at home. Not as a ‘looky-loo’ but as someone who has experienced something similar, it’s always a comfort to know that you’re not alone. That someone else has experienced the ‘spies in the attic’ delusions but also the general embarrassment of being in public (in high school!) with someone who is clearly unstable.”

Ultimately, this review isn’t about me at all. It’s about the reader, about her experience. She expected my story to be like hers, the way, perhaps, she would have written it had she been the one telling it.

There is absolutely nothing that I can do about that. I can’t make my story fit what every reader expects, nor should I try to. But this merely emphasizes the incredible importance of setting up proper reader expectations. Because if you can minimize the effect, reduce the instances of not meeting reader expectations to cases like these, which are entirely personal reactions, then you truly can eliminate a large percentage of one- and two-star reviews.

So when you are releasing your work out into the world, remember this always. Because it may not be your fault if your book is not what your readers expected. But it is always your problem.

Bad Book Reviews

My Mental Illness Memoir Featured on Free Kindle Books and Tips and Bargain Booksy Today!

On Hearing of My Mother's Death Six Years After It Happened: A Daughter's Memoir of Mental Illness is featured on both Free Kindle Books and Tips and Bargain Booksy today as part of my $0.99 promotion. If you get a chance, I would appreciate it if you could go in and "Like" the related Facebook posts. Evidently it helps with the algorithm or something - you know how that stuff works ;)

Thursday, February 12, 2015

SALE! On Hearing of My Mother's Death Six Years After It Happened Just $0.99 through February 17th!

On Hearing of My Mother's Death Six Years After It Happened: A Daughter's Memoir of Mental Illness is on sale for just $0.99 for Kindle through February 17th. I'm happy to report that the promotions I scheduled seem to be working:


 I've also temporarily reduced the price of the paperback to $5.99. What a steal! ;)

Monday, February 9, 2015

The Courage to Share Your Story

I have a new guest post up at Wow! Women on Writing:

I think I'm probably in the minority opinion here, but the longer I think about it, the more passionately I feel that I'm right.


Saturday, January 31, 2015

What Are People's Reactions When They Find Out You Write Erotica?

I Write Erotica

My author interview with Guy Hogan of The Pittsburgh Flash Fiction Gazette is online at the following link. (Note: As always when visiting The Gazette, expect to see pictures of naked ladies. Lots of naked ladies.)

You can also read my interview in my recently released collection of erotic short short stories To All the Penises I've Ever Known: Erotic Shorts by Lori Schafer, which is FREE for a limited time on ITunes, Smashwords , and Lulu (coming soon to Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Kobo). For more information, please visit the book's webpage or subscribe to my newsletter.

white underwear on a string against cloudy blue sky

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Beach House

My romantic flash fiction story "Beach House" has been published in Romance Flash:

I’ll be the first to admit that this is a pretty sad story for a romance, but compared to the first version I wrote, this one’s all flowers and rainbows!

I originally wrote this piece in response to a contest prompt. Stories for the contest were supposed to feature a weathered beach house and a woman placing a key in an envelope. I confess I had quite a bit of trouble coming up with a storyline, and when I finally did, it was a doozy. The basis of the story was essentially the same as in the second version you read above, except that Susan actually is expecting Derek to arrive. However, in order to incorporate the element of the key and the suggested wording, I had to take drastic measures. This was the original (now the alternate) ending:

“The storm had passed when at last she arose; vanished into the house and emerged many minutes later wearing a clean, dry sundress and carrying a light backpack; a weary traveler yearning for rest. Struggling her way over to her favorite spot on the porch, she sat; took two pills from an orange bottle clenched in her fist and swallowed them whole. She tucked the bottle into her bag and then fumbled through its contents until she retrieved a pen and a crisp envelope creased neatly in half. Awkwardly she unfolded it; opened the flap and dropped a shining silver key inside it; the key to the oceanside home that they had once so happily shared. With trembling fingers, she inscribed the stiff white paper with six simple words and left them there for him to read; for him to try to understand.

Sometimes it does hurt to hope.

Hoisting her bag upon frail, fallen shoulders, she tripped clumsily away from the weathered beach house and across the weather-beaten sand, no longer having a point or a destination. No longer having a companion, to walk with her across the beach until the end.”

Now that is a sad story.

Besides being incredibly depressing, that version somehow never felt right to me, but I couldn’t figure out a way to fix it. Finally I had the bright idea of giving it a happy(ish) ending, and voila - my third piece in Romance Flash.

Beach House

Thursday, January 22, 2015

4 Things You Might Not Know About Queries

I have a guest post up on Savvy Book Writers that may be of interest to those of you pursuing traditional publishing: "Four Things You Might Not Know About Queries"

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Look, Ma - Two Hands!

So five weeks after dislocating my shoulder, I'm finally out of my sling. Sounds great, doesn't it? I just wish someone had told me that my arm wouldn't work for a while afterwards!

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Questions for Writers

Recently I read the following Q & A on Sarah Brentyn’s blog Lemon Shark. She, in turn, had found it on Little Lodestar, where writer Kristen had posted a series of questions entitled Nine Things I Wonder About Other Writers. Well, Sarah asked her readers to post their answers, and as mine, I thought, were too long to leave in the comments, here are my responses:

Do you share your work with your partner or spouse? Does it matter if it’s been published yet?

Very, very rarely. Every once in a while, I feel as though I need an opinion from a non-writer, usually pre-publication. My boyfriend will read my work if I specially ask him to, and he generally offers some pretty solid opinions. But he isn’t really a reader – his idea of compelling literature is homebrew magazines – so it’s unlikely that he’ll ever read any of my novels. To me, this is probably just as well. Some of my work might raise questions that I’m not sure I want to answer!

How much of your family and/or closest “friends in real life first” read your stuff…let alone give you feedback about it?

I somehow manage never to tell anyone when I’ve had something published, so it’s rare that this happens. In fact, up until a few months ago, when I formally announced that I was releasing a memoir, most of my friends didn’t even know I was writing. Somehow it just never came up. Again, to me, this is just as well, because some of my work might raise questions that I’m not sure I want to answer!

What do you do with the pieces that continually get rejected–post on your blog? Trash? When do you know it’s time to let it go?

So far, I only have a few pieces that I’ve given up on all together. For the most part, I believe that getting work published is mostly a matter of finding the right market. However, for those that repeatedly get rejected, I do reconsider whether they’re just difficult to place because of their subject matter or nature, or whether they actually stink. Stories that I still think are good I might post on my blog or story-sharing sites. Those that I suspect are completely unusable I would like to one day post on my blog, and solicit opinions as to why they stink.

Are there pieces you write for one very specific place that, once rejected, you just let go of, or do you rework into something else?

This has only happened to me once so far. Very early in my writing career, before I even had any publishing credits, I wrote a very long article – nearly a paper, if you will – analyzing the marriage penalty as it applies to taxation in the United States. It was a subject in which I was interested, anyway, and I had hoped to be able to get it published in one of a handful of financial magazines. However, I never received a response to my first query, and in the meantime, I had moved on to other things. Well, in the interim, a new year rolled around and there were tax law changes that affected some of my numbers. I would have had to rerun numerous scenarios in order to update the article – which was heavy on figures – and by then, I was having work published regularly and was no longer so desperate to garner credits. However, I still wouldn’t say I’ve given up on the idea. I may still revisit it two or three or five years from now, when I feel like sinking my teeth into something more academic again.

What is your main source of reading-based inspiration (especially you essayists)? Blogs? Magazines? Journals? Anthologies? Book of essays by one writer?

That’s an interesting question. Reading it, I realize that I very rarely – if ever – read magazines or journals or anthologies or books of essays by one writer. Nowadays, I do read blogs with a fair amount of regularity, but I still wouldn’t say that those are my main source of reading-based inspiration. In fact, if I had to identify one, I would probably say that more of my ideas come from nonfiction. I very much enjoy reading history, and it’s actually quite rare for me to read a whole book of it without getting at least one new 

What tends to spark ideas more for you: what you see/hear in daily life or what you read?

It depends on the type of work. Most of my novels contain characters inspired by people I know in real life, and the settings in which I place them often mirror my own life scenarios. This is why my books’ pivotal events tend to transpire at beer festivals or while camping, because, evidently, I write what I know. However, for the other half of my writing life, in which I blog, write flash fiction and short stories, even essays, I tend to find more inspiration from what I read.

Who have you read in the past year or two that you feel is completely brilliant but so underappreciated?

Winston Churchill. Seriously, that guy was brilliant, and his writing is amazing. I’m very grateful that he played such an important role in history, and at a time in which voice recording existed. YouTube will keep Churchill’s words alive long after his written work has fallen deep into oblivion.

Without listing anything written by Dani Shapiro, Anne Lamott, Lee Gutkind, or Natalie Goldberg, what craft books are “must haves”?

Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. I also find the American Heritage Guide to English Usage to be extremely useful.

Have you ever regretted having something published? Was it because of the content or the actual writing style/syntax?

Not yet. I did, however, have a rather unpleasant moment a while back, when I first began having erotic work published. Most of my erotica is more humorous than dirty – or at least half-and-half. However, there was one piece in particular that surpassed the bounds of my usual work – the kind of story you would never admit to your mother or even your third cousin twice removed that you’d written it. Well, as it happened, I discovered around that time that my boss was reading my blog! Suddenly I felt very awkward about publicizing this particular publication. It wasn’t that I was ashamed or embarrassed about it, exactly – I was simply afraid of being subjected to questions. Somehow I just did not want to have that conversation with my employer – not to mention the fact that it probably would have changed how he looked at me from then on. Kind of a weird feeling. I still took ownership of the piece – in fact, it’s in my collection To All the Penises I’ve Ever Known – but even there, I didn’t want to comment on it extensively. That was when I first realized that I’m perfectly comfortable writing about things that I would never, ever say. So please, no follow-up questions – at least not if you meet me!

How about you? What kinds of things do you wonder about other writers? I know of one question that I’d add to the list.

What is your lifetime goal for your writing? You know, not the hard-headed, realistic version that you tell other people, but the starry-eyed, big dream scenario that you’re too scared to share?

"Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few."

Friday, January 9, 2015

Reviews Wanted for "The Hannelack Fanny, Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Rump"

Are you a blogger or book reviewer who likes humor in your erotica? I am offering a free read-for-review for my newly published funny and sexy short story The Hannelack Fanny: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Rump.

A young woman's life is changed forever when she discovers what everyone around her has known all along: that a renowned family characteristic has re-emerged in a most unfortunate location - her own backside. Follow her journey from embarrassment to acceptance to unbridled joy as she learns to appreciate the wonders of going through life with the Hannelack fanny. And don't forget to look for my commentary on the real-life inspiration behind this glorious tale of a glorious behind - me!

6,000 words or roughly 27 Kindle pages.

NOTE ON CONTENT: The Hannelack Fanny, while in large part a humorous piece, contains explicit sexual scenarios and is therefore inappropriate for readers under the age of eighteen.

If you're interested in reviewing my story, please comment on this post with your contact information or email me directly at lorilschafer(at)outlook(dot)com. I look forward to hearing from you!

Thursday, January 1, 2015

How New Year’s Resolutions Weaken Our Resolve

It’s the first of January again, and all over the world, people are making personal resolutions for 2015. Amazing what a date can do, isn’t it? Millions of humans scattered around the globe, all simultaneously attempting to better their lives by altering their own behavior in positive ways. For many, a new year offers an incentive, a reason to push towards self-improvement or greater satisfaction with one’s life and one’s being. And what better day to feel as if you’re starting over than New Year’s Day? It’s a day of reflection on the year gone by and on the year yet to come. It’s a day in which to consider whether we’re moving towards the goals we’ve set for ourselves, or whether we need to change the paths we’re on in order to come closer to achieving them. And the making of resolutions is perhaps the vital final step of this process, because there’s little point in evaluating the state of our lives if we don’t then utilize our conclusions to bring us one step closer to happiness.

The trouble with the New Year’s resolution is that, by its very nature, it doesn’t take effect until after the end of the current year. And in a backhanded way, this encourages us to wait to act upon our resolve. We don’t exercise in December because we’ve decided to get in shape after the holidays. We don’t quit smoking in October because, without the motivation of the New Year’s resolution, we’re afraid we’ll fail. We don’t start tucking money away in August for that dream vacation we’ve always wanted to take, because there’s school clothes shopping to do, and then the holidays are coming up, and once again, we’ve postponed that project to another year.

And then what happens when we, as we inevitably must, fail to keep some of those resolutions we made in so much earnest? We wait again. We try again – the following year. How much of our lives are wasted waiting for this imaginary turning point to roll around so that we can make those changes we believe are so vital to our well-being and sense of fulfillment?

This is the core of the problem with marking time in our lives by special occasions – it causes us to neglect all of the everyday occasions that would have served us equally as well in helping us to attain our goals. Maybe your sweetheart expects you to present her with flowers on Valentine’s Day, but she’ll be much more impressed by the bouquet you bring in November. Chocolate cake is sweeter when it’s not baked on your birthday. Why wait until New Year’s Eve to have a beer and hang out with your friends? Won’t your mom be more pleased if you call her in March just to chat, then if you wait until May to wish her a Happy Mother’s Day?

I don’t ever want to wait until January 1st to change my life. I might want to quit my job on July the 15th, or start writing a book on September the 24th. It doesn’t need to be the first of the year or the first of the month before I decide to move forward with my resolutions; any given Monday will do. I’ll derive just as much joy from turning my life around at 3 o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon in June, as at midnight on a Thursday in January.

So that’s my New Year’s resolution. Never again to wait for a new year to arrive before I make my resolve. Never again to pretend that January will be soon enough for me or my life to change. It isn’t.