Friday, December 18, 2009

How To Write The Best Critique Ever

If you've ever belonged to a workshopping writers' community and have made your work available for critique, you're probably all too familiar with a certain type of singularly insulting and useless feedback. And you've probably wondered why the authors of condescending and mean-spirited critiques are so...well, condescending and mean-spirited.

At last, I've found the answer in the following little-known and closely-guarded set of instructions to which only the most self-important reviewers are made privy. If you've ever been on the receiving end of one of these more-writerly-than-thou types, I'm sure you'll recognize some or all of the instructions given.

As one of the more accomplished members of any of a number of writer community sites, you are no doubt aware that there are a bunch of barely literate boobs who post their so-called “manuscripts” online in hopes that worthy experts such as yourself will see fit to magnanimously drop a few pearls of wisdom on them, thereby helping them to elevate their work from absolute tripe to mere garbage. While it may seem a terrible waste of your precious time and rare gifts to offer these bumbling idiots your wise and insightful critiques, you must do it because keeping your peerless views to yourself is virtually a crime against humanity. Think of it as charity work.

The rank amateurs who seek your advice are like little children who don’t know when they’ve done wrong, and must turn to an authority figure such as yourself for a firm hand and guidance. Don’t make the mistake of addressing them as equals to yourself, thinking perhaps that as impossible as it may be for them to actually be your equal, adopting a friendly or informal tone will put them at ease. You don’t want them at ease, you want them at full attention, respectful of your status as their superior and perhaps even a little fearful of you.

With respect to the content of the review itself, disregard whatever you’ve read in the sample reviews provided by the site to which you wish to post. As we savvy experts know, such samples are only there to deflect litigation. These sample reviews would have you mention the bright spots in each manuscript, and perish the thought, even compliment the author wherever possible. Remember, dear reader, that regardless of what the writer wants, what he really needs is to be told, in painstaking and tortuous detail, what you think is wrong with his work. And note particularly that I’ve said ‘what you think’; forget about Lajos Egri, Joseph Campbell and other supposed “experts” in the field, the only thing that matters here is your opinion. While such artsy-fartsy, lit hippie types may encourage writers to cultivate a unique "writer's voice", you know there are rules for a reason and rules must be followed.

When reading through a sample, pay no attention to such trifles as tone, plot or characterization. You're on a search-and-destroy mission to identify each instance of rule-breaking and mock it mercilessly. As you undoubtedly know, adverbs and flashbacks have no place in a professional-grade manuscript, nor do shifts in point of view (however purposeful), nonlinear time, or vampires, among countless other things. Don't hesitate to berate the author thoroughly for his inclusion or use of such hallmarks of the novice.

Choose your words carefully. Don’t gently prod the author with a tactful note indicating that something in his manuscript does not meet industry standards or for that matter, your own, better standards; limit yourself to saying that his work “screams amateur”, or accuse him of failure to do his “homework”---this is a particularly good choice of words since it reminds the author that his proper place with respect to you is like that of a child with respect to an adult. Use the most inflammatory and provocative language possible in your reviews. Don’t say that action passages are ‘unclear’, say they’re ‘inept’. Don’t say that dialog ‘doesn’t sound natural’, say it’s ‘laughable’, ‘backward’, or even better, ‘lame’. If there’s one thing these would-be novelists must learn and learn quickly, it’s that Trade Publishing is a cruel and faceless mistress; it is your solemn duty, dear reader, to acquaint your charges with feelings of rejection, self-doubt and despair. As the song goes, you must be cruel to be kind, so try to make your reviews as pointed and hurtful as possible.

There is some disagreement among those in the know where using specific references to a given work sample in a critique is concerned. There are those on the one side who favor this approach, arguing that it provides much more opportunity to insult the writer while adding a personal touch. Then there are those others who prefer vagueness, arguing that the best way to keep the writer guessing is not to give him anything at all to go on. I leave the decision on this point to you, dear reader, but strongly admonish you that if you choose to cite references from the writer’s work, you nevertheless limit your remarks about that citation. For example, consider this excerpt:

“The car chase sequence on page 52 is about as exciting as watching my kid race his Hot Wheels. If you knew anything about writing action you’d know that you need to add more tension here. If you weren’t so clueless, you might have included more innocent bystanders, or maybe had the protagonist’s driver get injured so that the protagonist has to take the wheel of the limo. Try not to be such an idiot in your rewrite.”

At first blush, this excerpt seems like a fine example of the reviewer’s art. The reviewer uses appropriately harsh language and peppers his remarks with insults, but he also makes the unfortunate mistake of giving the writer an idea of how to fix the problem in question. How can we expect them to learn if we spoon-feed them the answers? Resist the temptation to share any suggestions for improvement, even knowing as you must that you are capable of wrenching any manuscript, no matter how awful, into a masterpiece.

Finally, don’t forget to share something about yourself in the review. Informing the writer that your enviable level of expertise and wisdom comes as a direct result of having placed third in the Busted Truck, Nevada Novel Derby is not bragging, it’s merely stating a fact of which the writer should be aware. Don’t let your ignorance about the writer deter you from asserting that you are undoubtedly better informed and more experienced than he. After all, by asking for your critique he’s already said as much himself, hasn’t he?

And don’t worry that being as yet unagented and unsold somehow detracts from your position of authority. As all of us on this preternatural wavelength of talent know, the small minds of ‘the industry’ are simply not ready for our caliber of work. Their shallow wants and self-serving agendas allow no room for a true visionary, and maybe if they’d answer a query or return a call once in a while they would have a chance at breaking the first real talent they’ve seen in their miserable little lives!

But, I digress.

In conclusion, too many reviewers mistake the workshopping process as a democratic support community when it is, in fact, a theocracy intended to provide a platform for we, the truly gifted few, to cut down the endless rows of talent-free hacks like so many stalks of wheat before the scythe, thereby discouraging any further progress by these also-rans who fancy themselves writers. Do not neglect your duty, and you are sure to be among the Top Five reviewers on any sites you frequent within a month.

(In case anyone reading hasn't yet picked up on it, this is satire. If critiquers would do the exact opposite of the instructions given here, I think aspiring authors everywhere could share their work a little more freely, and breathe a little easier)

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Death and Taxes

Ah yes, the only two things that are certain in life are death and taxes. While I hate to harsh anyone's holiday season mellow, this is something to which we U.S.-taxpaying authors need to pay attention, especially at this time of year.

Let me open by saying I am not a tax professional and nothing in this blog should be construed as professional tax advice. For that, you must consult a professional tax preparer.

I just want to share some information and get my readers thinking about tax issues now, before the end of the year, when there's still a possibility of making some changes to alter your tax situation and when the deadline for paying your personal income tax is still about four months off.

Is Your Royalty Income Being Reported to Tax Authorities?
By U.S. tax law, as of this writing (see Guide to Information Returns section), if you've earned $600 or more in income in a given tax year from a given source (e.g., employer, Createspace, Lulu, Amazon), the company or person who paid you that money must report it to state and federal tax authorities so the authorities can tax it as income. The minimum threshold for reporting at the state level may vary from state to state, so that's something you'll need to look up for your specific state of residence, and/or the state in which you do business as an author.

At the federal (IRS) level, if the amount of money from a given source is less than $600, neither you nor the payor MUST report it to taxation authorities, but those authorities prefer that ALL income is reported regardless of the amount. Again, we're talking "as of this writing"; since tax regulations are subject to change, this is something you'll need to verify on the IRS site or with a tax preparation professional if you're reading this post months after it was published.

Amazon, Createspace & Booksurge Reporting Policies: Here's The Scoop
Based on my experience with Amazon and Createspace in prior years, I've previously reported that neither entity will report the proceeds of your book sales on the Amazon or Createspace site(s) unless you've earned at least $600. Since Booksurge is now merged with Createspace, and Amazon has stepped up other reporting requirements and seems to be generally getting its federal reporting ducks in a row, I decided I should look into the matter once again.

I just spoke to a Createspace representative, and an Amazon representative, regarding their IRS reporting policies. If you sell your books on the Createspace site or on Amazon's U.S. site, this information is applicable to you. If you sell through other outlets, such as the Lulu store, or another bookseller, you will need to contact that outlet directly to get clarification on their tax reporting policies. Here's what I was told:

Amazon and Createspace (which now includes Booksurge) will both report ALL your earnings on book sales through their online stores to the IRS as income, regardless of whether you meet the $600 minimum reporting threshold or not. They are within their rights to do this, and the IRS prefers that payors report ALL payee income regardless of the amount, so don't go hating on them for it. They will report this income on a Form 1099, also known as 1099-misc (for miscellaneous income). 1099 income is income that has not had any tax withheld, so you must be prepared to pay tax on this income when you report it on your annual tax return (both state and federal).

What If They've Reported Less Than $600?
There's a bit of a wrinkle here though, in that if the income shown on a given 1099 is less than $600, as of this writing IRS rules don't require you to report it on your tax return. This puts anyone with a 1099 form for less than $600 in a tax quandary. Theoretically, by law, you are not required to report it. But the tax authorities will learn about it when they get their copies of the 1099. You have two options here: either report the income on your return and pay the income tax on it (the safest, most conservative route), or consult a tax preparer for further, expert guidance.

I've always reported all my 1099 income, regardless of the amount, because I'm terrified of getting into trouble with the IRS and when in doubt where such matters are concerned, I always go the most conservative route. I may very well be paying taxes I don't have to, but this is just the way I've chosen to handle things. In discussing the matter with my CPA, he's agreed with me that while I'm not strictly required to report the income on a 1099 if it's less than $600, doing so helps to validate any write-offs I wish to take for writing-related activity in a given year.

Why Report A 1099 That Shows Less Than $600?
If you've got one or more 1099s that each show something less than $600 and opt not to report any of them on your tax return, but you're attempting to write off expenses related to your authorial activities, this may well raise a red flag in the tax authorities' analyses because you're writing off expenses without reporting any income. This makes it harder for you to prove you're running a legitimate business and are entitled to expense write-offs, and generally makes you look suspicious in the eyes of tax authorities. Red flags can lead them take a closer look at your return. And at your prior returns. This is why I choose to report everything, but your tax preparer may advise you to handle your situation differently.

Improving Your 2009 Tax Picture
As to the matter of changing your tax situation before the end of the year, there are two major things to think about here: maximizing your legitimate expense claims, and minimizing your reportable income (where it's both possible and legal to do so).

Maximize Expenses
Maximizing your legitimate expense claims just means that if you're intending to invest in some goods or services that constitute legitimate tax writeoffs for you as an author (check with the IRS or a tax preparer for guidance on what constitutes a legitimate tax writeoff), doing so before the end of the year will increase your reportable expenses, thereby decreasing your net income and the tax you must pay on that income.

So if you plan to hire a professional editor, buy more promo copies of your book, book travel or pay registration fees for a writer's event you'll be attending next year (like the Author Workshop Cruise - shameless plug!), or something similar in the near future, you might want to consider paying for those things by December 31 in order to include the expenses in your 2009 tax return. It's generally a good idea to book travel and pay event registration fees as early as possible anyway, since doing so usually gets you a discounted rate.

Minimize Income
Options for legally, legitimately minimizing your reportable royalty income are not as numerous, as you don't have total control over how many people buy your books or when. However, you do have some degree of control, at least where promotion and marketing campaigns are concerned.

If you've been planning a big launch for new book, or a renewed promo push for an existing book, delaying your plans till after January 1 will put all the income you earn as a result of such activity solidly into your 2010 tax year. Of course, you must balance the desirability of minimizing your 2009 reportable income against the desirability of jumping on the holiday shopping gravy train at a time when you know lots of people are doing lots of shopping. If it looks to you like you can sell a lot more copies before December 31 than after, you may elect to just take the income tax hit.

Also, if you're in a position to receive any other author-related income (e.g., advance on a book or manuscript you've sold to a publisher, speaker fees, etc.), if you can afford it, you may want to consider asking till after January 1 to have those checks cut.

Bottom line: be prepared, plan ahead, and when in doubt, consult a tax pro.