An interesting article first appeared on my Facebook timeline, then crept slowly into Salon‘s website, about an author going beyond the norm concerning a blogger who gave her book a 1-star review on the Goodreads website. I thought I might discuss it here because it does concern writing and the folks you hope will be reading.
The author, Kathleen Hale, went into detail in an article posted on The Guardian about her battle with the internet troll who gave her YA book a 1-star review on Goodreads. Now if you’re not familiar with Goodreads (and yes I’m a member too), it’s an Amazon-owned website where readers can identify popular books and review them.
In the new order of publishing this is a good thing; reviews are what drives folks to buying and reading a book for themselves. But the sword is double-edged. Goodreads has come under scrutiny not only because its owned by a web giant whose own website reviews can cause mayhem to an author’s perceived sales (Amazon Vine readers, anyone?) but there are incidents of authors demanding reviewers who post poor reviews to take the comments back or remove them. The reviewers mounted a campaign of their own, stylized under the initials ABB (Authors Behaving Badly), where a collection of reviewers would trounce an author’s book and the writer to get even for authors who engaged with them.
Hale didn’t like the one-star review she received. On Goodreads (and other places), the YA market is tight and its fans can propel some titles into bestseller status simply on the nature of reviews. So Hale turned obsessive: trying to figure out the reviewer’s name, get her address and meet with her personally to make the blogger take those wrong things back. The Internet stalker was being stalked, so to speak. Hale even reached out to other authors who experienced this form of trolling to see if anything could be done. One author made it quite clear (although Hale completely ignored the advice):
DO NOT ENGAGE
So this (and you should read Salon’s article, as well as the original in The Guardian to get all the details) took me on a thought-drive in the park. I’m a writer. I have a self-published book on Goodreads and Amazon. The book has reviews, some good, some middling. However it never dawned to me that I should NEVER EVER SPEAK WITH THESE PEOPLE. This is one of the “suggested” rules of authorship on Goodreads. DO NOT ENGAGE WITH REVIEWERS. There is a button that says comment (and the site knows you are an author commenting on a review of your book) that delivers a huge warning that tells you THIS IS NOT A GOOD IDEA.
But aren’t we supposed to engage with our readers? Are we not told to blog, write, give out freebies, do reviews, host blog chains and chat with readers on Reddit? I get comments on Wattpad all the time concerning ZAK CORBIN. I engage with these readers,if only to say Thank you or to answer a question. And readers have questions … they want to know when the next book is coming out, what will happen to this character, etc. Yes I get mean-spirited comments. I get “this is stupid” comments. I get comments from readers who just want to argue or incite me. I click on the report button and let Wattpad deal with them. Wattpad too has issues with readers and writers tangling up in their forums and comments sections. They have moderators who take stuff down and even block certain users.
This is the new engagement with readers, but it’s also the old engagement. Writers used to be isolated and wary of readers who contacted them (try Stephen King’s MISERY for an example of a fan who goes too far). So today’s published author must not only cultivate a social media presence (blogging, Twitter, Facebook … I have them all) but a hide of steel. Once an author puts their work out, they must leave it up to the consumer to decide what to think of it.
Should authors engage with their reviewers, or not?
I registered and posted ZAK CORBIN AND THE MASTER OF MACHINES as a script on a site called The Blacklist. This is not to be confused with the NBC series THE BLACKLIST, starring that guy who used to be on a lawyer show with William Shatner. Anyway, the site provides access to scripts and screenplays to members. Some of those members are leading industry professionals (who shall remain anonymous).
As a registered member, I could request (and pay for) an evaluation. Now this is not the same as a reading by an industry professional looking for a script, per se. This is a person who has some experience in the business and reviews the script (on a paid basis). Now taking into account the positive review ZAK CORBIN received on the PAGE International Screenplaying Writing Contest, let’s see what this BlackList reviewer has to say about ZAK:
PROFESSIONAL EVALUATION #1
This script offers a cute premise and an adventure. There is plenty of fun action for children, starting with the slapstick comedy of Lugnut pushing the cart of trophies through the school. The story is creative and simple enough for young children to follow and delight in. The ability of the main characters to build a giant, perfect robot friend who fights and succeeds in a battle satisfies kid fantasies in a bright and clean way. The positive messages provided- like the ultimate value of all human life- are appropriate for children but also provide serious drama, like the robot who won’t save Dr. Corbin’s wife because that would endanger more people. Overall the script is loud, bright and action-packed, occasionally achieving a sense of danger without being too scary.
The time period is poorly conveyed. At first it is set in WW2 era, then a futuristic 1950s, and at the end it’s set in 1939 but there is no time travel or explanation for this. Clarity in slug lines would be very helpful. There are some logic issues as well. It’s not clear why Zak and his friends can’t have the harmless robots that other kids have, and it seems like Zak’s family history would conjure a more severe reaction when people learn he is making his own robots and bringing them to school. His desire to show off the ugly robots at school is confusing as well. Overall, the script is somewhat lacking in logic and clarity. It would also benefit from the addition of complex layers to entertain adult caretakers watching the movie with children, which has become a trademark of successful children’s entertainment. There are numerous typos, including one in the title.
Prospects for the story are somewhat good, but the cultural appreciation of robots may be changing considering technological advances. This script seems to have its best chance at success as a small-budget animation.
Well, there you go. The business of writing and reviewing is personal. It’s all a matter of taste. I can certainly see the reviewer’s points here. They’re not the same as the judge who read the same script in the PAGE awards.
So what happens next? Well the script has been downloaded a few times by Industry pros, but I’ve read somewhere that no one will pay any attention to your script on this site unless it achieves 8s on the number score ratings. So the work continues.
So on several fronts, it’s been a very interesting year.
I sold my house and moved to Chesapeake, Virginia because I like Virginia and I enjoy the shore (although I get incredibly seasick on a boat). I love being able to bike along the beach. It’s very relaxing. There are wonderful state parks to hike around in.
I found an apartment and made a few nice new friends who’ve introduced me to their antics and their social world. So I’m not totally alone out there. I even belong to a kickball league and I’m playing right after I write this post.
Things have changed in my life on the relationship front. Essentially I’m single and I haven’t dragged myself out to find anyone new. The dating sites I’m on are not the most interesting way to meet people. In short, it’s disappointing. There’s nothing like typing messages to invisible people and not getting back any sort of response. It’s sort of a “meh” result. Since I’m not a rock star, movie star, sports star, political star … the world really could care less. It’s not, as I like to say, “crucial critical”.
But most importantly, I’ve been able to commit myself to writing and really focus on it. I’ve been productive. I can write 2000 or more words a day and feel really good about them because I wasn’t interrupted. Not having to drag myself into an office and face other people’s annoying problems (The website is down! The code won’t work! We need you to come into the office!) has been liberating. I’ve put a screenplay into a major competition and now its on a major website for review and reading. I finished the first draft of a new novel. I’m writing a TV pilot. And I’m waiting for the edits for my first book which will be published by Divertir.
This however, is not a perfect world. I can’t live on what savings I have for much longer. The books I have on Amazon and other sites netted me $22.00 this year. So now I’m facing the dilemma which I call “The Party Is Over” syndrome.
I know that the edits which I will receive for my first book to be published by Divertir will be extensive. I’ve already spoken to my editor and she’s relayed some important things that must be addressed. This means that Darkest Hour will not be going into print anytime soon. It has to be done. It has to be made as good as I can make it. So I’m not blubbering over the changes, I just am blubbering over the fact that I am out of time and I have to make certain life decisions. I would love to keep writing, but now I have to find work.
I have several options. The first is freelancing from home, either as a writer or as a web developer. I could put myself out as a Kickstarter project and promise folks things like signed copies of the book or illustrations or what not. I could put myself out to a temp agency and work locally for awhile. I could sit down and find another real job (because writing, you see, isn’t). Lastly I could dig into my savings and keep funding myself.
This is that part of the writer’s life that many folks don’t realize. Many aspiring authors do not have the income to be full time writers. I’ve been like this for 25 years, and it still hasn’t changed. I’ve been able to take off a few months, but the timing between publishing and waiting for something to happen is just too narrow. It takes time to publish a book. It might do nothing. It might do something. And waiting for that is way longer than I have the money for.
So this is the part where Real Life Must Interrupt the Writing Life. Not to say that it hasn’t been enticing and fun. It has been. It’s great to be a writer. It’s what I do. I just wish I could do that for a lot longer.
I submitted ZAK CORBIN: MASTER OF MACHINES as a screenplay in this year’s PAGE International Screenplay Writing Contest. The script got as far as the quarter finals, but made it no further. What was very exciting, however, was the judge’s feedback that was sent to me this morning.
Now, I am hesitant (IN A WORLD WHERE SCREENPLAY IDEAS ARE STOLEN FROM WRITERS LEFT AND RIGHT) to post the actual script on line for you to compare. Even with the work registered with WGA, I have heard stories about writers kicked out of the development cycle only to see their work stolen or plagiarized.
If you are a legitimate agent (with credentials) interested in reading this work, contact me through my Facebook account or Twitter account.
So here’s the feedback:
The 2014 PAGE Awards Judge’s Feedback
Title: ZAK CORBIN MASTER OF MACHINES
What is the writer trying to achieve in this script?
In New Futura City, fifteen-year-old ZAK CORBIN follows his infamous uncle’s forbidden robot designs and creates something that leads him into an unbelievable adventure.
In what ways is the writer successful at achieving his/her goals?
I enjoyed a lot about ZAK CORBIN: MASTER OF MACHINES, and above all the elements, I thought your handling of the story’s basic outline was outstanding.
You open strong, with an action-packed first five pages that set up the origin story of THE CORBIN ROBOTS, shown rebelling against the war-mongering GENERAL MAXIM at the command of their creator ELIAS CORBIN.
Fifteen years later, Elias is in jail and his nephew ZAK has inherited a talent for robotics. You elegantly set up what’s unique about this world during the opening pages, and introduce our young heroes (Zak, JASON and ODIE – short for ODYSSEUS) efficiently as they toy with robots in their spare time.
You close out the first fifteen pages with a wild comic set piece at school, and skillfully introduce our love interest and co-lead, the resourceful and lovely LISABETH RYAN.
I especially enjoyed how effectively you plant things like Zak’s DISSEMBLER device, which will play an important role during the script’s conclusion.
I enjoyed how the remainder of the script was mapped out: At page 30, you give us the tragic back story for Uncle Elias and on page 45, the surprising twist of Lisabeth being as aware of Zak as he is of her.
Page 60 puts our robot hero POGO on the trail of Uncle Elias, and the final act is a well-escalated series of exciting robot battles.
Since this script is an origin story for its title character, you had a lot of introducing to do – and you created a very likable group here. I liked Zak and his gang of pals, and the way you portrayed Lisabeth was refreshing.
But you don’t just focus on the younger characters, the adults are entertaining as well.
Uncle Elias was an effectively complicated figure (although I wish I could have seen a few scenes of him interacting with his beloved Caroline), and I loved SIDNEY DEXTER, Army captain turned private eye who helps the kids find some answers.
These grown-ups help appeal to a wider audience, and fill out your world nicely.
Like many classic family films, ZAK CORBIN has some strong thematic elements, mainly the sentiment that all human life is sacred. Elias’ creations are designed to help first, and I enjoyed how you used this subtle reworking of the rules from Isaac Asimov’s I, ROBOT to fuel the main conflict of your story.
Those who would use technology to help others versus those who would use it to destroy – I think this is a strong thematic note that binds this story together in many ways.
Early on, the robotic creations bring danger because they might not work properly, but later, as the designs are perfected, the harm only comes from the humans, and their mechanical creature of war.
This adds a powerful, memorable dimension to this draft.
3. In what ways does the screenplay fall short?
Probably the most troubled element of this draft, with some minor stylistic issues and more major tonal ones.
Stylistically, I thought the script was occasionally over-directed, with a style that was too interested in camera angles and movements, to the detriment of the story. In today’s spec market, camera directions are left to the shooting draft once the script is sold, and is the purview of the director. It’s best to delete throughout and keep the clutter off the page.
Tonally, some of the material felt more like a mainstream PG-13 movie than a milder family film. The action was dark and possibly too intense sometimes, especially the massive scenes of destruction near the end.
Again, related to the tonal issues mentioned in the paragraph above, I think the darker tone could possibly alienate or overwhelm some younger audience members.
Also, while I liked the alternate America where the story took place, your retrovibe might be a little too weird for mainstream consumption, according to executive types who want to maximize profitability.
4. On the contest scorecard, you gave this script a total score of: 79. Please explain your criteria for your score.
PREMISE/CONCEPT Score: 8
Solid idea for a possible franchise of adventures starring young Zak and his young friends (and their robot creations).
PRESENTATION Score: 8
There are occasional spacing issues and some missing scene extensions (DAY, NIGHT, etc.), but nothing major is wrong with this draft, it’s a professional-looking piece of work.
See below for a few notes by page number.
Jason said your parents sent you go to (to go) bed early…
Zak puts down (the) tool and looks up at Pogo.
You’re going to waer (wear) out your poor uncle before we even gets(get) there!
STRUCTURE Score: 9
Probably the most effective element of this draft, producing a tightly plotted story with fun action set pieces, solid character development, and a rising sense of excitement.
PLOT Score: 8
This draft is a fun origin story, containing an impressively realized universe and a fast-moving adventure for your title character. I would like to see some scenes between Elias and his wife Caroline before her death to deepen that relationship.
PACING Score: 8
This draft moves forward at a steady clip, with a few flashes to the past along the way, and, in reference to the PLOT notes above, I think you have room to add some Caroline/Elias scenes.
CHARACTERS Score: 8
The kids are aces in this draft, and I like how well you fleshed out Odie and Jason in support of Zak. The tentative romance between Zak and Lisabeth was adorably handled, and the adult characters appealing as well.
DIALOGUE Score: 8
Another effective element, and you did a good job handling many types of people and making their voices relatable and consistent.
I especially enjoyed the rapport between Zak and Lisabeth – as well as the bonding of the main trio of young inventor adventurers.
THEME Score: 8
A strong element of this draft, and I thought it displayed a positive message about using technology for good instead of evil.
STYLE/TONE Score: 7
One of the few troubled elements of this draft, with an occasionally overdone style and tone that shades too dark.
COMMERCIAL POTENTIAL Score: 7
Partially because of the tonal issues above, I didn’t see this one as a box office slam-dunk.
Screen franchises like this one usually come from other media originally, but the writing is still strong and appealing – if maybe not as family-friendly as it could be.
5. If you received this screenplay at your agency or production company, would you give it a:
RECOMMEND CONSIDER PASS
Why? What is your agency or production company currently looking for?
Our company is looking for high-concept film and TV projects, with characters that are complex and appealing to top talent. We look for commercial projects that can be set up at major studios with writers that have unique, clear voices.
I really liked the initial adventure of ZAK CORBIN: MASTER OF MACHINES, and think it was an effective HARRY POTTER-esque style franchise in waiting. However, projects like these are always tougher to sell unless they are based on previously existing/underlying material.
Still, I was impressed enough by the fast-paced, well-structured work here to CONSIDER this screenplay.
6. How could this writer improve his/her chances of success with this script? What else would you like to tell this writer?
I liked this script, but was not as sold on the title – which doesn’t really convey the sense of fun the story contains.
I would come up with some other options that convey the story more effectively.
Good luck with the next draft,
Wow! So incredibly close to having a blockbuster. It’s interesting to finally get a professional opinion about a work. In the hands of another judge, the results could be pretty different.
I am curious about the TONAL elements mentioned. Is Zak too dark for kids? The giant version of POGO breaks Zak’s uncle out of prison and brings him back to the city. The Army (represented by COLONEL FLAGG, and yes the name was inspired by the character of the same name from the M*A*S*H* TV series!) goes overboard trying to stop the “rampaging giant robot”. There’s a lot of damage caused by a falling tower steeple, but unlike say MAN OF STEEL, the giant POGO and thousands of other Guardian robots leap to the rescue. Well, it is a point brought up the judge.
I can point at HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON as my inspiration when I was writing this screenplay. The ending of that picture dealt with Hiccup and Astrid finding the dragon nest (which is scary) and the attack by the giant Green Death dragon (which puts everyone in danger). By the end, Hiccup has suffered a major physical injury (for an animated picture, no less). And that movie was PG.
And then there’s the “not based on a known property” issue. It really is a Catch-22 situation. If a book sells a zillion copies (HARRY POTTER, HUNGER GAMES), you get the blockbuster movie deal. If your book is unknown, no one wants to take a risk. Which is totally understandable in the gazillion-dollar, sure-bet movie industry. But let’s look at some popular YA books that have gotten movie deals:
THE VAMPIRE DIARIES (flopped and panned)
THE MORTAL INSTRUMENTS: CITY OF BONES (low returns, second movie stuck in development hell)
THE HOST (a guaranteed Stephanie Myer/Twilight franchise launcher) Dead on arrival
THE GIVER (mixed reviews, low box office)
THE MAZE RUNNER (not generating a whole lot of excitement)
So much for the “known property” theory. But wait, ZAK CORBIN is known. I have over 780,000 readers on Wattpad who loved it. Perhaps the “known property” issue needs to include social media sites?
Last of all, the title is not the judge’s favorite. A good title is very hard to come by. My book that will be released by Divertir Publishing, the first of my alt-history World War II titles, has had its share of naming problems. So if someone can come up with a new title, I’m open to it.
Well that’s it. Not bad for a second screenplay entered in a giant contest. And yes, it’s well worth revisiting. Screenplays are never final. Instead of trying to turn ZAK CORBIN into a movie, maybe a TV show?
Now that I’m hip deep in new writing, I’m going to start posting some stats and a little info:
Current Word Count: 23,392
Current Chapter: 11
Summary: This is a historical fantasy set during the Russian Revolution. The royal family has been marked for death. A mysterious savior appears in the night and whisks the main character, the youngest daughter Anastasia, to safety. It’s a race to see if she can be brought safely back to England. But the girl’s savior has been hurt and it’s up to Ana to protect him…
Some random musings, since I haven’t updated the blog in a while. The Internet is crackling with Comic-Con announcements. Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy, TV shows, Mad Max, Game of Thrones, everybody’s excited. Were there any actual comic book announcements (besides the Eisner awards)? Let me know if there’s anything good that I should pick up.
I’ve moved into my new digs in Chesapeake, Virginia. 20 minutes from the beach. Loving it. It’s been muggy and hot (and there was a hurricane), but everything’s fine. I spend a lot of my time hitting the computer and the other time running, biking and something like Livada de Loca. But tamer. Much tamer.
I’m contemplating a new series to write exclusively for Wattpad. Wired featured a story about a young girl who posted her One Direction/50 Shades interpretation and got a zillion reads and a contract with Simon and Schuster. I’m a huge fan of “Cast A Deadly Spell”, a made for HBO movie made in the 1980s about a private eye named Lovecraft who lives in a magic-based Los Angeles–except he hates and wont use magic. Very pulpy. Very noir.
Oh and the script version of ZAK CORBIN: MASTER OF MACHINES made the quarterfinals of a very important screenplay writing competition here. The list is alphabetical by title, so you have to scroll to the bottom. I’ll keep you tuned if the script gets any farther in the contest.
There’s been little word on the Divertir front. I know senior editor Jen Corkill Hunt is extremely busy cheering on her current edit-in-progress. Mine could be next. The story has a title change, which I will be announcing as the edit and the publication date grows closer. BTW: did you know that September 15, 2015 is the 75th anniversary of The Battle of Britain? And today is the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I. See, and you kids are freaking out about a tree named Groot and a talking raccoon. Later.