Conformity – Celebration or Curse?

by Janis Patterson

There is a plague spreading through my neighborhood and no, I don’t mean the recent Covid Crazies. This new assault is visible, concrete and sublimely ugly. I live in a nice, mid-century development of nice, middle-class custom homes, mostly single story and at one time all of natural brick. The different hues and shadings of the different bricks were beautiful, and one of the most appealing facets of the area. A former cotton field, this was starkly bare land when my parents first built this home, but as people moved in they planted trees and now we live in a forest of towering trees, mainly oaks and crepe myrtles, some twice as tall as the houses they shelter.

But that is changing, and not for the better. The soaring price of real estate and congruent punishing taxes has priced a lot of the old residents out of their homes, many of which have been snapped up by developers and flippers. (My thoughts on these two categories of humanoids are not suitable for public pixilation!) Sadly, the result is that our neighborhood is subject to both the denigration and degradation of conformity, and the lovely old brick is being covered by thick layers of paint with no shading, no personality and definitely no taste.

Painted almost exclusively a dead flat white or a dark, depressing grey, these once beautiful and individual homes now resemble nothing so much as the love child of Soviet brutalist architecture and a rogue box of Legos. In the setting of gracious old trees and carefully tended gardens the result is not only ugly but jarringly distressing.

One of the flippers proudly said the painted brick trend was new, modern and made a more cohesive neighborhood. He then asked me what I thought of his newly decorated grey lump, whereupon I asked him did he mean other than the fact it was hideous? Hmmm… even in this riotous real estate market the painted brick houses seem to be moving more slowly than the traditional brick. Perhaps the concept of good taste may be taking a beating, but is not yet truly dead.

So, you are doubtless thinking, has this woman lost her mind? What does this have to do with writing?

I fully believe there is such a thing as synchronicity amongst human beings. Bringing individual architecture (and remember, this is a neighborhood of custom-custom houses, each individually designed and built) into a fast (and relatively cheap) homogeneity in order to appeal to the (theoretically) vastest amount of people is a form of seeking the lowest common denominator with no thought or regard for individual tastes. The same thing happened in publishing.

Remember before the tsunami of self-publishing became practicable? Remember the pigeonholes of genre fiction? The ever-tightening pigeonholes as dictated by traditional publishing? If you didn’t write to their exact specifications you didn’t get contracted. They always wanted (and I quote) “… the same as (insert name of currently popular author here) but different…” Forget creativity. Forget individuality. Conformity at all costs. I can remember when some publishers even put out tip sheets, dictating what should happen in a manuscript almost to the exact page.

Now I understand that traditional publishers have to make a profit – that is right and natural – but don’t the readers have rights as well, mainly the right to read whatever permutation of fiction they want? If the trads dictated that Regency romance is to be super-sexy with only the barest nod of the head to history, what happens to the reader who finds written sex boring and is fanatic about historical accuracy? Or vice-versa? What about in mysteries the dictum that a dead body should appear in the first chapter, the closer to the first page the better?

Thus self-publishing was born, and thank God for it! It has freed writers to write what they want and get it before the public, and given readers to find the exact kind of book/genre they want. Sexy psychic vampire nuns on the planet Zeon, anyone?

Yet a certain conformity has crept in there, too, as more and more writers write to market. If talking cats who live in a needlework shop and solve crimes with their telekinetic powers are suddenly big, there are star-chasing writers who will writer them, often with widely varying degrees of both success and ability. At least there will always be variety, no matter if some constantly try to write to market without regard as to if the market is right for them or not.

Also the indie author is getting shafted by more and more pirates/thieves and are even getting short shrift from the sales outlets which make money from their sales. Amazon has a monthly subscription program for readers called Kindle Unlimited, which it pushes far more than books that are ‘wide’ – i.e., available from other retailers. A self-published book written by an unknown can be so far down in the algorithms that even with a search for the exact title and author you might have to go 10 or 15 pages in to find it.

For a self-published author to be in KU they must be totally exclusive to KU, and woe betide any lone outlet which has been neglected to be removed by any retailer, no matter how small, distant or obscure. The writer will have that book pulled instantly from KU and even runs the risk of having his entire account and all his books cancelled.

Nor does it stop there. Unfairly, traditional publishers can put a book into KU even while keeping the title wide. Here conformity only seems to affect the independents. There are also pricing/payment options available to the trads that are denied to self-publishers. I cannot help but wonder if the trad books on Amazon are as plagued by the buy, read, return, refund plague which afflicts self-published books – and their authors’ incomes,  but that is a rant for another day.

We have come a long way from the tastelessness of painted brick to the pitfalls and traps of self-publishing, but it is all part and parcel of the curse of conformity which seems to be infecting our land. America was founded on the right to individuality and self-responsibility, be it business, bricks or reading material. Celebrate this by supporting your courageous and dedicated self-publishers. Go buy one of their books today. You’ll enjoy it.

On A Writer’s Responsibility…


by Janis Patterson


The other night The Husband and I were out to dinner with some of his friends whom I knew very slightly. The wives were nattering on about something so totally mind-numbing that I was half-way listening to the men. They are all sport rocketry enthusiasts – something I know very little about and personally find watching paint dry much more interesting – and were taking about the various propellants used in rocket engines.


One of them laughed about a particular one and said if they weren’t careful they could make a pretty nifty bomb using XYZ. Perhaps unwisely, I said yes, they could, but it would be foolish, as XYZ was disproportionate in explosive value versus weight/size besides being so basically unstable that it was very dangerous to use in the quantity needed to do any significant damage. Plus, it would need a special detonator that would be very easy for the police to trace.


Startled, they all looked at me as if I had lifted my sweater to reveal a suicide vest. The Husband was quick to enlighten them, saying that I was a novelist and that he had helped me research explosives for a work in progress. Obviously intrigued, they peppered me with questions about various fuels and propellants and their non-rocket related destructive capabilities, then became rather petulant when I refused to answer them as completely as they wished.


I probably could have answered all their questions sufficiently to give them a great deal of destructive knowledge, but even though these were all decent and law-abiding men, I didn’t. Why take the risk if I were wrong? Besides, I never tell everything I know, either in print or in person.
Why? Because I write novels, which should be momentary escapes for ordinary people – not technical manuals. I long ago decided that I should never put anything in a story that someone can use to hurt someone else. The idea, yes, or I wouldn’t have a story. Enough facts to have a feeling of verisimilitude, yes. A blueprint, no. There’s no way I can stop people bent on destruction from seeking out all the information they need about any kind of killing tool – and it is out there if they’re determined – but I don’t have to help them.


For example, years ago at an NRA convention I met a salesman who, on finding I was a mystery novelist, delighted in telling me how to get a ballistically clean and therefore untraceable bullet – i.e., how to kill someone with a bullet that had no rifling, no striations, no markings at all. He seemed so proud of himself and then asked me when I put that in a novel would I mention his name. Horrified, I told him NO most definitely, then begged him not to tell anyone else.


I write about crime. I want to entertain, and entertain only. I don’t want to teach or make it easy for some demented person to eliminate another without leaving clues. Sadly, that made the third way I have found to have a ballistically clean bullet. Those who want to can find the information if they search assiduously enough, but I don’t have to help them.


I believe it is the writer’s responsibility to entertain, and perhaps maybe even teach some (hopefully benign) facts. It is not our responsibility to become an instructor – and therefore, in spirit at least, an accessory.


So – I imitate my betters by using selective censorship and obfuscation. Some of my characters do horrible things, but while readers are given enough facts to know what is happening, none are able to recreate the crime. At least, not from what I write. Not everyone out there – especially on the internet – is so responsible. And that is sad.

The Truth About Idleness

by Janis Patterson

Perhaps one of the hardest things about writing is to convince non-writers that you are actually working when you’re just sitting and staring into space. Of course, part of the problem is the popular perception that writing a book consists of sitting down with pen and paper (for the romantics) or laptop (for the pragmatists and those with bad handwriting) and in a few days dashing off several thousand words, which are (1) sent to an agent grateful to receive them who sends them to a (2) publisher, who immediately responds with a large check and (3) a few weeks later the book – nicely printed and with a gorgeous cover – appears in all the bookstores while the author (4) is on a magical country-wide book-signing tour.

If you believe that, let me tell you the one about Little Red Riding Hood.

Yes, the above scenario has happened – but so rarely it isn’t even statistically viable. In the acting world it is called the ‘Cinderella syndrome’ – or by the more cynical, ‘deus ex machina.’ There’s nothing intrinsically wrong in wishing for a fairy tale publishing experience, but it’s foolish to believe in them and idiotic to expect one.

Writing is work. Writing is not only work, it is full-time work, because some part of your brain is working on your story while your hands and head are busy cleaning house or working at your day job or even while you sleep. Creation is a full-time business.

Which is why it is so irritating that when the writer does get a few minutes where nothing physical has to be done and can sit and deliberately think about his story (without actually being at the keyboard) the non-writers around either tease or castigate him for being lazy. One of my favorite quotes is from Robert Louis Stevenson in “An Apology for Idlers” (Cornhill Magazine, July 1877) – “Idleness so called, which does not consist in doing nothing, but in doing a great deal not recognized in the dogmatic formularies of the ruling class, has as good a right to state its position as industry itself.” So, for writers especially, sitting and (visually) doing nothing is actually work.

Last summer I was fortunate enough to visit the home of Francis Parkinson Keyes (pronounced, I learned, as K-eyes, not like the things that open locks) in New Orleans, even though I had vowed never to set foot in that benighted city again. It was an old house (late 1700s) in the French Quarter, which meant it sat right on the street with only a narrow strip of flower bed in front and some beautiful curving stairs up to the front door. A wildly popular mid-20th-century novelist, Mrs. Keyes usually wrote in what she called her office, a converted parlor at the front of the house. She was interrupted so many times by fans who wished to meet her (and had the gall to come and knock on her front door!) that she eventually converted the former servants’ quarters in the back of the house to her office, turned the parlor back into a parlor and had her maid say she wasn’t at home.

One incident which the guide recites is of how Mrs. Keyes was sitting in her parlor office, thinking (i.e., working) when a fan walked up and knocked on the door. Mrs. Keyes answered the door and when the fan (a culture vulture clubwoman) said that she had just come to tell Mrs. Keyes how much she liked her work, Mrs. Keyes – understandably miffed at such an intrusion – politely told the woman that no, she cannot invite her in for tea and a chat about her books because she is working. The woman then became huffy, saying that she was doing no such thing, she herself saw Mrs. Keyes just sitting and staring and that surely a short interruption of an hour or so to talk to a fan was more important than doing nothing. Later in one of her memoirs Mrs. Keyes said that she doesn’t understand why people – women especially – can’t understand that an interruption in the mental process of writing is just as devastating as interrupting the cooking of an angel food cake for an hour or so and expecting it to come out perfect when the cooking process is finally completed.

My own dear mother, who was not a writer herself, never grasped that, and with every interruption would say, “I’m just going to take a minute…” As she was a skilled seamstress, I once in frustration grabbed a spool of thread and said the thread was representative of an idea. Then I pulled out a foot or so and cut it, moving the ends apart. “That’s what happens when there is an interruption,” I said. “The thread is changed and can never be the same again.” “But I just took a minute,” Mother would reply. She never got – or never acknowledged – the concept.

There have been pundits who declare that the preparation for writing – researching, plotting, experimenting with ideas, etc., including simply staring into space thinking – accounts for 90-98% of the total time necessary to write a novel. The 2-10% left is for sitting at the keyboard, which is merely transcribing. My own personal percentages vary, but nothing changes the fact that most writing is done in the head.

When other people allow it.

While I love people and am very social and outgoing, I do understand and sometimes envy those writers who have the good fortune to be able to lock themselves away – either in an office with a lock on the door or a private island – and do their work, even if it does seem to be nothing but staring into space.

What’s Old is New Again – Explorations in the Serial Format


by Janis Patterson

If you’ve been reading my various posts and blogs over time, you are probably aware that I bore very easily. That’s why I write in so many different genres and so many variations of my name. However, sometimes even variety become stale and boring, so lately other occupations had been sending their seductive lures my way.

Then came Vella. (Sounds sort of like the title of a rom-com, doesn’t it?)

For those of you who don’t know, Vella is a new platform by Amazon Kindle that is sold serial-format, i.e., chapter by chapter. (Shades of Charles Dickens, not that I am comparing myself to Charles Dickens…) Sort of like the old Saturday morning movie serials we old people remember.

Being very bored one afternoon I thought I’d give it a try… and stepped into a new world. Before going to bed – happily exhausted, I remember – I had written three episodes. Within just a short time I had finished all thirty-six episodes of what I called GHOSTS OF BELLE FLEUR and had them loaded on the Vella platform.

I had already started another story, too, a crime-and-chase fem-jep tale called THE SWABIAN AFFAIR, set in Stuttgart during the time of the Christmas market. At just nineteen episodes it’s roughly half the length of GHOSTS. Both are now available on Kindle Vella.

Quite honestly, this serial format is so much fun I started yet another story, this one set in South Carolina called THE HOUSE WITH THE RED DOOR and have fourteen episodes finished. The first couple of episodes should go live next week. (One neat thing is that the first three episodes of every Vella story are always free!)

So far all my stories have been written by my Janis Susan May persona, but I’m planning to do a murder story under my mystery name of Janis Patterson. This, of course, will require more forethought, but it will be an interesting process.

As I come to the end of each episode I have to think, “What can I do to these poor people now?” Although there does have to be a cohesive story arc from the beginning to the end, I find there is so much more latitude in this unabashedly ‘hook-ish’ serial format. I can pull all kinds of circumstances from my little bag of tricks. Usually I decide on something that is either so intriguing the reader can’t wait to get to the next installment, or something so off-the-wall and unexpected that they’re startled and can’t wait to get to the next installment.

I know that writing and reading tastes are cyclical (just look at the rebirth of the serial format!) and that what is fresh and new and fun now will eventually become tomorrow’s tired and old hat drag, but I’m going to enjoy it while I’m here. The best thing is that so far I have not been desperate enough to have a T-Rex rise from the lake and eat all the characters, as happened with a regular book not too long ago! But it’s a nice twist to have up my sleeve if needed…

Serial novels… wonder what will come back next?

To ISBN or Not To ISBN – That Is the Question

by Janis Patterson

There is an evergreen discussion that flowers repeatedly on most writers’ loops, especially on those that have more non-professional writers. Do you need an ISBN? Should you buy your own ISBN? Why should you want an ISBN?

The answer to all the questions above is … it depends.

ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number, a number of either 10 or 13 digits that is unique to a certain book/edition/format. Almost every book has one.

I say almost, because there are mitigating factors. You can release a book without an ISBN, but then especially with paper it would be difficult to downright impossible for anyone to order or stock it. Neither would you be able to track any sales you might have.

If you are publishing an ebook with Amazon, or some other online retailers only, you do not have to have an ISBN because almost every retailer has their own internal identifying numbers. Amazon’s (the biggest ebook retailer) numbers are called ASIN.

Let’s be honest – ISBNs are expensive. Prices for one – just one! – start at $125. While much more economical, a hundred still go for close to $600. That’s big money in almost anyone’s wallet, but especially for self-publishing writers, many of whom are just starting out.

There are several ways to get ISBNs. First, and the one I like best, is to buy your own directly from Bowker/MyIdentifiers. Bowker is the only company licensed to sell ISBNs in the United States. (If you are from another country, you will have to check on where and what ISBN prices and availabilities are. I don’t know. I do know that the citizens of Canada get theirs free – if they meet certain criteria – lucky stiffs!) If you buy your own ISBNs you are shown as the publisher.

Second, there are those who will be happy to sell you a couple of single ISBNs for a lot less than Bowker. I advise you not to do that, even though it saves you a couple of bucks. These people are called re-sellers, because they buy large amounts of ISBNs from Bowker, where they are much cheaper per number, and then sell one or two or three to you for a profit.

Now I am a big believer in profit, but this particular ploy comes at a price – namely that you are not listed as the official publisher. When someone buys an ISBN from Bowker, they automatically become the publisher of record. If you buy (or get a free) an ISBN from JoeBlow, Inc., since JoeBlow, Inc. bought the ISBN from Bowker, he/it is now the publisher of record.

At the moment this particular little quirk doesn’t mean much, just a bit of legalese – but my concern is that we don’t know what the publishing laws will be down the road. I wrote the book, so I want to be on record as the publisher of record and be able to control my book throughout its life. More simply, my book is my book.

This same principle applies when some company and/or retailer offers to give you a ‘free’ ISBN if you publish with them. No adult today should believe that anything is ever truly ‘free’ – someone somewhere somehow sometime has to pay for it, and in this circumstance it might be you by losing control of your book. The entity giving you the ‘free’ ISBN is on record as the publisher of record – not you.

So should you pay for ISBNs? If you are writing short little books that you intend to sell as ebooks on Amazon (for example) and on Amazon only – you certainly don’t have to. If, though, you decide to take those ebooks to print or start your publishing career in print, yes, most definitely you need an ISBN.

You should have an ISBN for every version of your book – one for ebook (which should cover all ebook retailers, no matter what Bowker says – remember, they sell ISBNs!), one for print, one for large print, one for audio. Remember, one of the main purposes of ISBNs is to track sales and you don’t want the data on your sales tracks muddied. (And a little hint – if you are doing a paper copy Bowker will try to sell you bar codes for a fair chunk of change. You don’t need to. The publisher – Amazon, Draft2Digital, Ingram, whoever – will put one on for you without charge – just be sure to leave a space for it in your cover design.)

As there are brick-and-mortar stores who refuse to do business with Amazon (a complicated set of affairs I’m not going to go deeper into now) many authors give their print editions two ISBNs. These authors do one print edition through Amazon print and give it a discrete ISBN with limited distribution, which means that book is sold only on Amazon only. Then they go through another publishing venue such as Ingram’s or Draft2Digital for another print version and give it another separate ISBN. Whatever you think of the practice, remember more brick-and-mortar stores will order from Ingram’s (which has the all-encompassing industry standard catalogue) and Draft2Digital and all the others where they will not from Amazon.

Now I am going to talk about pure personal opinion. When you self-publish in any format, you are a publisher. Everyone admits – or they should! – that editing, covers and publicity are legitimate business expenses; you should regard ISBNs as the same thing. If you are going to compete against the biggest traditional publishers you need to play by the same rules. You are a publisher; act like one.