Thoughts on Star Wars: The Last Jedi

What a disappointment.

I was going to avoid spoilers, but now that I’ve had some time to reflect, man oh man I’m just gonna vent about everything. Because there is so much wrong with this movie, and so many things that could have been awesome but instead turned into missed opportunities. So this post is full of spoilers. Consider yourselves warned.

First, taken entirely on its own, the story is just broken. I’m undecided whether the writers and/or director were too clever or too stupid for their own good. Half the plot of the movie turned out to be a red herring, which made Finn, Rose, and to a certain extent Poe Dameron completely unnecessary characters. It seemed like the writers were trying to play with tropes and plot conventions in an unexpected way, but it ended up completely breaking the story. The Dark Knight did something similar and pulled it off masterfully, but The Last Jedi is no Dark Knight.

The purple-haired feminazi who replaced Princess Leia for half the movie deserves a special measure of my wrath. How a woman with all the charisma of a dead fish became one of the chief leaders of the rebellion lite, aka the resistance, I don’t know. There wasn’t a single scene with her where I wasn’t screwing my face up and cringing. And her command decisions were just completely awful. If you know that you’re going to lose most of your starships anyways, why not ram the super star destroyer at light speed with the first damn one to fall?

I think my biggest problem with the new Star Wars movies is that, with the notable exception of Rogue One, they introduce a bunch of new characters and assume that you’re going to admire them simply because they show up. We’re told that Snoke is the new big bad, but we know nothing about who he is, how he rose to power, what his capabilities are, etc. So when he dies, the only thing going through my head was “well, that was interesting,” whereas when Emperor Palpatine dies, it was this big emotional moment.

We’re never made to admire the new characters, we’re simply told why we should admire them. Goggle eyes orange face is supposed to be this super well-connected smuggler type, but we never learn anything about her other than that Han Solo apparently admires her, and she ends up shooting things a lot. Who is she? Where does she come from? What’s her history? Who is she connected with, and how? Show don’t tell, dammit. Give us something to make us care.

The fridge logic really ruins this movie. Why did Luke tell Rey to go away, when he obviously left a map for them to find him? If ramming starships at light speed is a thing, why hasn’t anyone ever done it before now? If Kylo Ren truly wants to wipe out the past and start over, why is he still fighting the Resistance?

Which brings me to the greatest missed opportunity of the movie. When Rey and Kylo Ren team up, that was truly awesome. Great fight scene, great turning point. For a moment, you think that you’re going to see something new in the Star Wars universe. The whole movie has been building up to it. Luke Skywalker has already established that the Jedi deserve to die out because they’re really a bunch of zealous fanatics, and Kylo Ren has already refused to give himself to the dark side fully. He reaches out his hand to Rey, offering her the chance to join forces and create something new, something that transcends both the light and the dark sides of the force. And then they go right back to fighting each other as if none of this had ever happened, because this is Star Wars, where apparently nothing ever changes.

It’s not so much that Kylo Ren was the most interesting character in the movie, so much as that he was the only interesting character. At this point, he’s the only one I’m still rooting for. Rey is an idiot. Finn and Rose are useless baggage and dead weight, respectively. Princess Leia is apparently still around, but without Carrie Fisher playing the part I really do not care about her. Chewbacca is still alive, I guess. So are R2D2 and C-3PO. But they’re the last original Star Wars characters, and I really don’t think they can carry a story. Poe Dameron is cool, but perpetually hamstrung by the idiots running the Resistance, and that gets old real fast.

As someone who grew up with Star Wars—who ranks Empire Strikes Back as his favorite movie of all time—I hate to say this, but I’m not going to watch the next Star Wars movie to come out. Not unless it gets overwhelmingly positive reviews and all my geek friends can’t stop raving about it. Rogue One was good, but The Last Jedi? It’s crap.

Here’s my ranking of Star Wars movies from best to worst:

  1. The Empire Strikes Back
  2. A New Hope
  3. Rogue One
  4. Return of the Jedi
  5. The Force Awakens
  6. Revenge of the Sith
  7. The Last Jedi
  8. Attack of the Clones
  9. The Phantom Menace

At this point, I don’t think anything below Return of the Jedi is worth rewatching.

The Self-Sufficient Writer: Makers vs. Takers

There are two kinds of people in the world. No, not those who can count and those who can’t. No, not those with loaded guns and those who dig. Stay with me for a minute, because this is important. In fact, it may be the most important realization I’ve ever had.

We have a tendency to see the world in terms of haves and have-nots. This is because it’s so easy for us to see the difference. The haves tend to live in nice houses, drive nice cars, and have (hence the term “haves”) lots of nice stuff. The have-nots, on the other hand, tend to scrape the bottom of the barrel just to get by.

This distinction between haves and have-nots, while real and present, isn’t actually that useful. Why? Because it doesn’t get to the crux of the issue: it doesn’t explain why some people have and some people have-not.

Sometimes, a have-not is just a have going through a downturn or temporary setback. Sometimes, a have is just a have-not who won the jackpot and is spending himself back to poverty as fast as he can.

This doesn’t just apply to socioeconomics, by the way. A writer who “lacks talent” may just be the next Kevin J. Anderson writing his way through his first million words. A bestselling author may just be a one-hit wonder who hit the current zeitgeist in just the right way. This also applies to personal virtues and character traits: there are haves and have-nots of honesty, compassion, generosity, charisma, etc etc.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter at any given moment who has and who has-not. What matters is what you—what anyone—chooses to do about it. And that’s where we get to the heart of the matter.

There are two kinds of people in this world: the makers and the takers. A maker, when presented with a narrow slice of the pie, immediately thinks “I should go make more pie,” while a taker grabs the knife and tries to re-slice everyone’s piece.

Makers recognize that there isn’t a fixed amount of wealth, or success, or happiness in the world. They don’t feel threatened by another person’s success because they know that it doesn’t take away from their own. They are confident in their ability to go out and create, knowing that their only limitation is their ability to innovate and solve problems.

Takers, on the other hand, are obsessed with fairness and equality. They view wealth as a finite resource that need to be redistributed in order for everyone to get their “fair share.” They are threatened by other people’s success and feel that it diminishes their own. This often leads them to sabotage their relationships, leading to things like gaslighting, manipulation, and abuse.

Makers believe in freedom; takers believe in control. Makers judge people by what they do; takers judge people by what they are. Makers pursue opportunity; takers try to shut other people out. Makers are pioneers and entrepreneurs; takers are parasites and thieves.

I’m deliberately oversimplifying this in order to show the two extremes. Of course, no one is 100% to one side or the other. There are areas in our lives where we are makers, and other areas where we are takers. Humans are complex variables that don’t fit neatly into any equation.

What isn’t gray is that making is a virtue and taking is a vice.

So what does this have to do with writing and self-sufficiency? In the age of indie publishing, just about everything.

The publishing industry today is full of both extremes. In the contract clauses of traditional publishing, we have some of the most eggregious rights grabs that have ever been penned. Non-competes, rights reversions, right of first refusal—it’s a minefield out there, littered with the bloody, dismembered limbs of broken dreams.

On the other end of the spectrum in indie publishing, there is a perfect confluence of opportunity for makers to do what they do best: make. In the indie world, you have no one but yourself to blame for your failures, but your successes are all your own. Yes, there are a lot of failures—but there are also a hell of a lot of successes.

In other words, publishing is the wild, wild west right now. And just as the west was notorious for robbers and bandits, it also saw some of the greatest pioneering the world has ever seen.

Do you want to be self-sufficient as a writer? Do you want to be able to live off of your writing through the good times and the bad?

Be a maker, not a taker.

When you see an author outselling you with a crappy-looking cover and a blurb/sample rife with grammar and spelling errors, don’t fall prey to jealousy. Don’t be petty about it. That book is not preventing people from reading yours. That author’s success does not diminish your own. Don’t try to take his success away from him; go and make success of your own.

When you’re talking shop with other writers and things get into an argument, don’t throw down the gauntlet by demanding that everyone share their sales numbers. Don’t turn it into a dick measuring contest. The only circumstance in which sales numbers prove one side right is a controlled A/B test, where everything else is constant except for the thing that you’re trying to test.

Again, it’s not about the haves and the have-nots. Just because another writer doesn’t currently have as much success as you doesn’t make them wrong. Be a maker: strive to learn from everyone.

Avoid your toxic writer “friends” who seek to diminish your success because you haven’t hit such and such bestseller list, or won such and such award. Don’t attach your emotional well-being as a writer to the opinions of other people. Hell, don’t attach your emotional well-being to anything that isn’t in your control. Be independent, not codependent. Cultivate self-sufficiency by making your own success.

Don’t obsess about book piracy. If your books are fairly priced, DRM free, and widely available, a pirated book is almost never a lost sale. Instead of playing whack-a-mole with takedown notices, focus that energy on finding new readers who are willing to pay for your books.

Don’t obsess over book reviews. Don’t try to control every little thing that people say about your books. Let readers freely and honestly express what they liked and didn’t like about your books, without any interference from you. And if it turns out you wrote a stinker, learn what you can from it and write a better one next time.

Be a maker, not a taker.

Only makers are truly self-sufficient. When the takers run out of haves to take from, they inevitably tear each other apart. If you’re in a writing group or online community where that is currently happening, don’t let yourself get caught up in that. Leave.

A maker is someone who can leave everything behind and start over with nothing. It’s never easy, but when it has to be done, you will always be better off for it. The self-sufficient writer recognizes this, and strives to live and writes in such a way that they can start over if they have to.

Being a maker is a choice. It is something that you can always control. Even as an indie writer, there are a lot of things you can’t control. You can’t control how well your books will sell. You can’t directly control how much success you experience, or how soon you will experience it.

You can’t always choose to be a have or a have-not. But you can always choose to be a maker instead of a taker.

Be a maker, not a taker.

The Self-Sufficient Writer (Index)

Pay what you want

For a long time, I’ve said that if I didn’t have to make a living at this writing thing, I would love to give all my books away for free. Well, for the month of January at least, I’ve decided to do just that.

Smashwords has a special pricing option that allows readers to set the price for your ebooks that they’re willing to pay. There is no minimum price, so you can set the price to $0 and download it for free. You can also come back and pay for the book after you’ve read it. Smashwords breaks down where the money goes, so you can see how much of it goes to the author. Smashwords pays authors better than any other site I’ve worked with, and also gives you the widest variety of ebook formats to choose from.

I started this experiment two weeks ago and didn’t say much about it, just because I wanted to see what would happen first. The response so far has been quite surprising. A lot of people have downloaded the books for free, but the people who are opting to pay have more than made up the difference. If things continue like this, I may just keep all my Smashwords books at Reader Sets the Price indefinitely.

So if you’ve got an account at Smashwords and you’d like to pick up some of my books, feel free to check them out! You can pay whatever you want for them, or download them for free and tip me later.

More than money, though, what I really need for my Smashwords books are reviews. It’s an unfortunate fact that people who download ebooks for free are more likely to leave negative reviews (and then download the rest of the books in the series they supposedly hate, leaving negative reviews on each one). If you have a Smashwords account and you’ve enjoyed any of my books, I would really appreciate it if you’d take a couple minutes to go over there and leave an honest review. I would actually appreciate reviews more than payment, so if you want to pick up one of my books that you haven’t read yet, leave a review on one that you have and we’ll call it even.

That just about does it. When January is over, I’ll write another blog post where I’ll detail my results.

Thanks for reading!

R is for Reviews

Reviews are for readers, not for writers. That’s my cardinal rule.

I know that some readers love interacting with authors on their books’ review pages, and I know that some indies try to make it a point to respond to every review, but I’ve seen that sort of thing blow up so many times that I strictly avoid it. Just this past week, a spat between an author and a one-star reviewer turned so ugly, the author calculates that he lost $23,000 over it. Whether or not that’s true is anyone’s guess, but the author’s response to the reviewer certainly hasn’t made anything better.

Reviews are an inevitable fact of life when you’re an indie writer. If you value your sanity at all, you have to learn not to attach any emotional value to them. Sure, the positive reviews feel great and can really boost your ego, but the negative ones can really throw you into a funk if you let them. The sooner you can learn to shrug your shoulders and shake it off, the better.

But aside from the emotional dimension, so reviews have a practical effect on sales of your books? Probably, though I suspect that the number of reviews matters a lot more than the average star rating. Plenty of readers report buying a book after reading the negative reviews, and plenty of others say that they just ignore the star rating altogether. Also, having lots of generic five-stars can hurt more than they help if they all sound vapid or fake.

Reviews are for readers, not for writers. That means that I stay out of the review sections as much as I can. On some very rare occasions, I’ve popped in to clarify an obvious mistake, but I never stick around or engage longer than I have to.

For example, here’s one of my one-stars on Star Wanderers: Outworlder (Part I):

Boring in the extreme. No new ideas – just shooting up aliens. Big deal. I could have gotten the same watching my kid play his video games.

The book actually has nothing to do with aliens (or space battles, for that matter), so in order to clarify, I responded with the following:

Hi, I’m Joe Vasicek, author of the STAR WANDERERS books. I don’t normally respond to Amazon reviews, but I thought I should point out that you may have reviewed the wrong book in error. There aren’t any aliens or futuristic gun battles in this particular book. Perhaps you found it boring for other reasons, or perhaps you meant to attach this review to another of my books. I’m not opposed to negative reviews, but I thought I should point that out in case there’s been some sort of mistake.

Either way, thanks for giving one of my books a try!

The reviewer was actually quite nice and responded with an apology, saying that he would check out the book again and remove the review if it turned out to be a mistake. He hasn’t removed the review yet, probably because it’s slipped his mind, but I’m not going to push it. There’s really no way that I can graciously do so, and besides, the review probably isn’t going to do much harm anyway.

Every once in a while, I’ll receive a negative review that does bring up enough good points to make me wince. When that happens, I try to remember that reviews are subjective and that just because one person thought the book was horrible doesn’t mean that everyone will. No two readers are alike, just like no two books–thank goodness for that! And if the review stings because there’s an element of truth in it, at least I can take lesson to the next book.

I do read all my reviews, but that’s because I’ve got a thick skin and I’ve learned how to deal with it. I wouldn’t recommend that to everyone, since some authors really do get worked up over the negative ones. Personally, I’d get more worked up not knowing what people are saying about my books than knowing that they’re saying something bad.

As to whether I solicit reviews, I can’t entirely say that I don’t do it, because at the end of every book I include an author’s note where I encourage readers to leave an honest review if they liked it. But I never, NEVER pay for reviews, or participate in review exchanges, or do anything like that to game the system. Reviews are for readers, not writers–gaming the system is one of the worst possible ways to violate that. Besides, readers aren’t stupid–they can tell what’s real from what’s fake.

Reviews are for readers, not for writers. At the core of that rule is the principle that readers should have a safe-zone where they can talk about books without having to worry about any sort of blowback from the author. Towards that end, even positive, gracious engagement with reviewers can turn around and bite you. There really is no way to win this game–or rather, the only way to win is not to play.

Things I’ve learned from STAR WANDERERS

Star Wanderers I (thumb)Star Wanderers II (thumb)Star Wanderers III (thumb)Star Wanderers IV (thumb)SW-V Dreamweaver (thumb)SW-VI (thumb)SW-VII Reproach (thumb)

When I published the first couple installments of Star Wanderers, it represented both an experiment with a new publishing format and a departure from the more long-form styles that I was used to.  Now, a little over a year later, I can say it’s been a success.  The series isn’t finished, and I’m still learning as I go, but here are some of the big lessons that I’ve picked up:

Novellas are surprisingly well-suited to series. They read fairly quickly, contain enough focus to sustain an episode of a larger story, and yet at the same time contain enough space to develop a wider arc.  Plus, they are a lot quicker to write than novels and generally don’t require as much editing, since it’s easier to get the story right on the first pass.  This means that you can put out novellas faster and more regularly than long-form novels, maintaining good momentum for the series as a whole.

It’s hard to write anything shorter than a novella without leaving readers unsatisfied.  By far the biggest criticism I’ve received for Outworlder (which is really more of a novelette than a novella) is that the story feels too short.  If the novella (17,500 to 40,000 words, or 80 to 150 pages) has all the benefits of the novel and the short story, then it seems that the novelette (7,500 to 17,500 words, or 30 to 80 pages) has all of the drawbacks.  Then again, it could just be that I have yet to master the form.

The satisfying element in a series is at least as important as the returnable element.  Every successful episodic story has some sort of returnable element–something about the story that makes the audience ravenous for more.  Often, this takes the form of a cliffhanger, leaving something unresolved.  However, it’s not enough just to string readers along, holding back whatever your story has promised them.  In every installment, you have to deliver.

It’s a delicate balance, to be sure, but the advantage of erring on the side of satisfaction is that the satisfaction can actually become a major hook in itself.  If readers know that they’re going to be satisfied whenever they pick up one of your books, you don’t have to ratchet up the tension to eleven in order to keep them coming back.  Several Star Wanderers reviews mention that it’s more relaxing and not as fast paced as other space opera, but sales of parts III through VI are almost 1:1.

Readers love to revisit a good story from another character’s point of view.  Some of the most glowing reviews I’ve received for this series are for Dreamweaver, which is basically a parallel novella to Outworlder but from Noemi’s point of view.  In Outworlder’s Amazon also-boughts, it sometimes even appears ahead of Homeworld, which actually comes before it in the series order.  This tells me that readers love to revisit a story, or to hear the same story again but from a different point of view.  Head-hopping from episode to episode can be a great way to add variety and depth.

Plenty of readers are willing to pay $2.99 per book for a series they enjoy.  When I published the omnibus for Star Wanderers I-IV, I wondered if sales of the individual novellas would taper off since I priced the omnibus much lower than their sum.  To my surprise, sales for both the omnibus and the individual installments have actually remained about even.  Since the omnibus clearly shows up on Amazon’s recommendations, this tells me that $2.99 is not too high of a price, even for a novella.

Perma-free works; however, free and $.99 attract some bad apples.  Do not underestimate the power of free, especially perma-free for the first book in a series.  I credit that strategy for at least 90% of the Star Wanderers sales, since the series itself has boosted my total sales numbers by more than an order of magnitude.  However, there are people out there who never fail to find something to complain about.  These are usually the same people who don’t like to pay for anything, and when they realize that the rest of my series is not free, they tend to leave unhelpful and/or incomprehensible reviews.

I priced Fidelity at $.99 to try to give readers more of a hook from part I to part II, but the sales ratio between part II (Fidelity) and part III is about 2.5:1–in other words, pretty bad.  Judging from some of the reviews, it seems that a fair number of the people who are dropping out are the bad apples.  I haven’t decided whether to raise the price, but if things keep going the way they have been, I probably will.

Series don’t usually take off until the third or fourth installment.  Do you know how many sales Outworlder had in the month when I first published it?  About 10–and that was actually a surprise.  When I published Fidelity, I had even fewer, and Sacrifice hardly sold anything until Outworlder went perma-free.  When it did, sales of the other two novellas picked up, but it wasn’t until after I’d published Dreamweaver that the sales of Fidelity started hitting triple digits.  The lesson to me is clear: it takes time for a series to pick up steam, so don’t be like Fox.  Give it a chance to grow.

Nothing sells a book like writing and publishing more books.  This is probably the main driving factor behind the last point.  I’ve done almost no promotion for Star Wanderers, other than putting out new books on a fairly consistent basis.  Amazon’s algorithms have probably done their part (sales on other outlets haven’t been growing nearly as much), but at the end of the day, there is no substitute to writing more and better books.  Any sort of promotional or marketing activity that takes away from my writing time is just not worth it–not when I’ve got stories to tell.

Right now, I’m getting ready to start a new spin-off series, which hopefully will be even more successful.  I’ll to try out a few new things (mostly along the lines of better covers and meatier novellas), but mostly, I’m going to try to replicate the success I’ve achieved with Star Wanderers by keeping these lessons in mind.  I have no idea how this new series is going to go, but I figure I know enough about the publishing side now that I can focus my attention on writing an awesome story, which is the most important thing after all.