Chuck Wendig: Terribleminds

Apple-Obsessed Author Fella

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Reviews For Books: WTAF

Reviews — meaning, in this case, usually a star-driven text-based evaluation of a book by an author — are curiously controversial. And understandably so! As authors, we don’t precisely know how to grapple with them, if we should look at them ever, if we should engage with them in any way, if we should ask for them, or pretend they don’t exist, or god, do they even matter at all? As readers, more questions ensue: where should they go, what do star ratings mean, who are they for, what is their ultimate purpose, and are they increasingly more noise and less signal?

I sometimes pop on THE OL’ SOCIALS to say something like, “hey, reviews are nice, so if you’ve read one of my books or any book and liked it, leave a review somewhere, and if you didn’t like it, still leave a review by yelling it into an old hollow stump where the goblinfolk will carry it to us on a palanquin made of gull bones.” And I did a similar one recently and a couple-few authors added that the reviews should be five-star reviews only, and — well, needless to say, that inspires some, um, conversation.

So it seems like it’s time for a (probably too long, sorry in advance) post about reviews from the POV of an author, though right up front let’s get ahead of this with a vital tl;dr —

In my opinion, reviews are for readers more than they are for writers, and in that wide open review space, you should feel free to type whatever you want, be as honest as you care to be, and give the book whatever star-rating you feel most soothes your wild soul. There are no rules, and you are under no obligation to a writer, to a publisher, to a bookstore, to anybody but yourself. I patently do not agree with the FIVE STARS OR HIT THE BRICKS attitude, because books aren’t restaurants on Yelp or a survey to tell the car dealership how your service experience was today. It’s not a Doordash or Uber rating. It’s a whole other thing. So, go with the book gods, write the review you wanna write, give it the grade you wanna give it, the end, goodbye.

With that said, let’s scratch the paint on this, see what’s underneath.

What are reviews?

In this context, reviews are an evaluation of a book left at a site like Amazon, Goodreads, Storygraph, B&N, or other sites designed for this kind of thing. Generally they are also governed by some kind of rating or ranking — stars, usually. We’re not talking about trade, media, or professional reviews (the kind you might see in Kirkus, the NYT, NPR, etc., sometimes written by another published author), nor are we talking about the marketing blurbs written by writers for other writers (“Tour de force! Magnum opus! Tingled my britches with its literary masterpieceyness!”). These are the kinds that an average reader can go and deposit online somewhere.

Certainly we’re also talking, to a lesser extent, about the reviews you might leave on TikTok, Threads, Bluesky, IG, Tumblr, Faceyplace, Grindr, Cubezorp, LinkedIn, MySpace, YellZone, or recorded upon the ancient internet papyrus known only as “blogs.”

Are reviews useful?

Sure! Probably! Not always! I don’t know!

Useful is a teleporting bullseye. I am quite certain that readers use reviews written by other readers to gauge whether or not they’re going to read a book or not. I’m sure some use it as their sole metric, whereas others incorporate it into an overall vibe, influencing them but not fully directing them.

Obviously, there are… *looks left, looks right* problems.

First, as authors, we’ve all gotten the reviews that are like, “this book arrived late, one-star,” or, “book smelled weird.”

Second, it’s easier to parse a book’s individual reviews when there are fewer of them. Once you get to a certain point — over a hundred, maybe, certainly over a thousand — it starts to be like sand on a beach. You cannot possibly pore over every grain and gain meaning, so they become more useful in aggregate — “Ah, this book has a 4.3 rating,” you say, and that means something to you specifically, though likely something slightly different to someone else. You might pierce the aggregate and look at a handful of reviews — either the ones that are algorithmically floated to the top, or maybe the ones that are most recent, or even a sampling by star rating.

Third, there is of course no meaningful standard to reviews — which is to say, I’ve read glowing reviews that present the book as flawless that give the book four stars. I’ve read very thoughtful, helpful three-star reviews. I’ve read one-star reviews that are manifestos against “woke.” I’ve read reviews that read like they hated the book, and then, ding, it’s a five-star review. Goodreads and Amazon each carry a different vibe to their reviews, too, with Amazon reviews at least seeming more generous, and GR reviewers being… less so, usually leaning a little lower, overall.

(This even persists in trade reviews. I’ve read middling-seeming reviews that gives the book a star — a star being like, a gold star, a THIS BOOK IS SPECIAL tag, essentially — and I’ve read glowing reviews that eschew the star entirely, for some random reason or another.)

The problem here is also the thing that makes this all so interesting: we’re all people and people who make art and who write reviews of art are all a glorious, wonderful mess with minimal constancy or unity to govern our whims. We’re bringing life experience and mood and baggage to the table. And maybe the book really did smell weird.

A fourth problem is that reviews and ratings sometimes aren’t even reviews or ratings. Review bombing is a thing — and Goodreads seems particularly vulnerable to this, as you can find even right now if you visit Cynthia Pelayo’s Instagram at present. Or, look no further than the Cait Corran thing.

It seemed to happen with my first Star Wars book, Aftermath — the book launched at midnight and by like 2AM, the book had already aggregated a steady flow of one-star reviews. (And here I note that people are free to not like that book for whatever reason, but of course a non-zero number of those reviews seemed particularly obsessed with the gay characters in the book. Though the early surge may have been attributable more to people cranky that this was New Star Wars and not EU Star Wars.)

Alternatively, some people rate books one-star on Goodreads just because they’re using them as a placeholder on their shelf.

Chaos reigns.

How should writers interact with reviews?

The easy and incomplete answer is, “They shouldn’t, and should run away, very fast, and if the review pursues them, kill it with fire.”

Again, we must assume reviews are by readers, for readers.

They are not for the writers.

Admittedly, some people want to tag writers in their bad reviews, which is fucked up, and don’t do that. I don’t email you to tell you I hate your shoes or that I think your child sucks. Don’t tag me to tell me how much you disliked my book. That’s just weird behavior. And some reviewers also think writers need the bad reviews as a “corrective,” which is double weird, because by the time you write that review, the book is done. You realize that, right? It’s over. We can’t do shit about it now. We probably can’t even change the next one because that one is done, too, just not on shelves yet. So, writers need to internalize that reviews are not for them, but some reviewers also need to recognize that the reviews are not really for the writers.

I’m happy to see positive reviews, because of course I am. I love to know something I wrote connected with someone. And I’m happy to share those kind of reviews if someone sends them, though I damn sure don’t seek them out. (I confess I usually look at my books’ reviews in the first week of release, then I nope the fuck out after that.)

Generally, the goal is for us to stay away from and out of reviews. It is not our world. We of course transgress, but we are needy magpies whose beaks long for shiny things to peck and to steal. It’s understandable, I hope.

(Also, this is my personal opinion, but authors should try to avoid negatively reviewing books by other authors. I recognize this is a controversial opinion and not universally shared, but to me it enters into “ethically questionable” territory while simultaneously being just a little bit gross. YMMV.)

Above all else, writers, leave the reviewers alone. This shouldn’t need to be said and the people who need to hear it won’t read it anyway, but hey, don’t insult or stalk or mess with reviewers ew fuck what is wrong with you.

Do reviews have a meaningful effect?

Which is to say, are they tied to anything? Do they do anything beyond existing individually or in aggregate for other readers? Or is it just the knob on the toaster that pretends it will make your toast darker?

Like, are they tied to any algorithms?

Do publishers care about them?

If a book gets X number of five-star reviews, do we get a plaque or a pony or even a digital high-five from a marketing robot? (We do not.)

When it comes to evaluating their precise effect, witness my hearty shrug.

This is, at this point, purely anecdotal — but once upon a time, I spoke to A Man From Amazon at one of the ComicCons. I wanna say NYCC but might’ve been SD, not sure. He was asking me questions about author experience with how Amazon handled books and also the back-end of reporting, and I had questions of my own and so forth and in the course of that conversation one of the things that came up was that, in essence, a book’s page was almost like a single social media item. Say, a tweet. (God I still can’t believe Elon Musk shitted up that crucial branding, but then again, he’s King Midas except more like King Shite-Ass, given how everything he touches turns to turds.) Anyway. A tweet or an IG post gains traction based on, essentially, how much interaction there is with it. Looking at it, commenting on it, favoriting it, resharing it, and so forth. Doesn’t matter if that interaction is positive or negative. It’s interaction, and it gooses the algorithm into paying attention to it. Amazon product pages were purportedly similar at that time, whereupon simply interacting with the page mattered for the algorithm. Leaving a review was one such interaction. Trick is, at the time, it didn’t really matter if the review was positive or negative — it was, in the ALGORITHM’S UNBLINKING EYES, a net positive, going in the + column that the product obviously had “attention.” And in the attention economy, that meant something, and so it was likely to juggle the page into algorithmic searches.

Is this still true? I have no idea. Was it ever true? I also have no idea. Certainly these days an individual book’s product page is a fucking nightmare at Amazon — it’s so much noise and so little signal. I have no idea how reviews factor into Amazon’s algo. I know Amazon’s own published books can end up having tens of thousands of reviews before the book even publishes given the way they give access to the books early to certain Amazon subscriber-types, and some programs, I believe, require a measure of reviewing to happen, so it ensures that more reviews mound on top of those books, which arguably generates more algorithmic attention — then again, I was once to understand that Amazon’s own published books already had a boost in the algorithm — a thumb on the scale. Again, who knows! This is all behind closed doors and the more quote unquote “AI” enters the equation, the more all of it is inscrutable even to the people who work there.

As to whether publishers care, again, no idea. My guess is that, similar to the algorithm, they care more when a book is getting no attention rather than when it’s getting some attention. And they probably care about review bombing campaigns, though whether or not they hold an author in any way accountable there I assume depends on the publisher. It’s also very possible that they have AI aggregators now to summarize for them massive swaths of review information. We’re seeing that at Amazon for other non-book products where all the reviews are summarized by the magic robot (who has no nuance and who probably just makes shit up, let’s be honest). It also wouldn’t shock me — though it would certainly make me sad and upset — to learn that publishers might use such systems to output for them reports that help determine whether or not an author gets a new book deal, and at what price point advances are offered. “Sorry, the robot says your reviews online could be better, so we’re cutting 20% off your advance.” Is this happening now? No idea. Will it happen? No idea, but again, wouldn’t be shocked.

Does that mean there are ethical considerations to leaving reviews?

In the sense there are ethical considerations to everything we do, sure. Certainly there’s a possibility, even a likelihood, that bad reviews will start to have a programmatic effect on our publishing environment. TechBros definitely want everything to feel SUPER DISRUPTED, BRO, turning everything into an algo-driven numerical ranking used to concentrate power away from labor and into the hands of the companies. (“Sorry, bro, you’re only at a 4.7, so we’re going to have to take away your healthcare, since the threshold is a 4.81.”) Certainly you should absolutely leave a glowing review for your Uber driver, your Doordash driver, any labor worker you can review individually, because anything less than that absolutely fucks them. I’m not yet aware of this happening to authors, though again, it is possible that it will have some clandestine effect — or is even having an effect now we’re unaware of. (The ground is moving fast under our feet.)

Even still, I think suggesting that readers have an obligation to leave only positive reviews is weird, and sets a dangerous precedent that only feeds the above problem before it gets going. (And if our books only get five-stars, then nothing really matters anymore.) Selfishly, I’d love if we all rounded up our reviews — you know, hedge our bets a little bit in case The Robots decide to start executing all authors below a 3.5-star rating. Doubly so when we’re talking marginalized authors who often are the ones who suffer the most at the hands of review-bombing campaigns. But I don’t really think readers owe writers anything at all besides procuring the book from a bookstore or a library fair and square.

I do think that leaving any review is a good thing, operating under the assumption that attention for the book is attention for the book regardless of the numerical factor of the book’s rating. Though maybe one day I’ll change my tune on that once if I learn, say, that our advances are literally affected by negative reviews. That sounds too evil to be true, but I guess in this day and age, you’d lose big betting against the dystopia.

Where is best to leave a review?

The two usual suspects are Amazon and Goodreads. Goodreads feeds into Amazon, too, which is weird. (GR is owned by Amazon, remember.)

Obviously, both are problematic in a few ways — here, an article about how the world is turning against Goodreads.

You can leave a review at Amazon without having purchased the book, though they indicate that such a review essentially weighs less in terms of the algorithm. Worth reading Amazon’s review note, actually:

There’s also more information at this link.

The Goodreads review policy (and “philosophy”) is here.

I think Storygraph is pretty interesting, but I see now they’re learning into some kind of AI — and I don’t know if it’s the good helpful kind or the kind where it’s just gobbling up all manner of human interaction and art in order to barf out a bunch of shitty information-shapes.

Posting your DEEP BOOK THOUGHTS to social media is good, too. I note that a single post on social can have dramatic effects — look no further than how Bigolas Dickolas completely bent the arc for This Is How You Lose The Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone. I know that TikTok is also a place where backlist can end up flaring bright in the darkness of obscurity, and any hope for renewed interest in older books is a huge win.

So what does any of this mean?

Forgive my flailing, but I really don’t know. Currently, my feeling is this:

Leave reviews when you can. While we can’t speak to the exact value, they certainly direct attention to a book.

I personally might suggest trying to ensure that reviews are fair-minded, even-handed, kind when they can be. Even a bad review doesn’t have to read like a manifesto of spleen, is what I’m saying. You’re free to write ONE STAR, TURDS, as your entire review; you do you. Your mileage can and should vary and I think the review space is all yours, and what you put there is between you and your gods, and you’re under no obligation to us. (We’re also under no obligation to you, either. We write what we write, you write what you write, and hopefully in the middle of that Venn Diagram are some fulfilled readers and unstarving writers.)

Again, this may all change — if we start to see that reviews are actually moving the needle and hurting writers (and writers are labor), then I do think that equation might need to shift in terms of ethical ramifications.

I don’t know how much reviews ultimately matter. I do know I’m gracious that anyone would read one of my books and feel affected by it enough to go say something about it somewhere, anywhere.

Ultimately, again, there’s no obligation to review a book at all, and certainly no obligation to review it favorably. But I do think that there is value in helping curate a healthy bookish ecosystem by leaving reviews, and being thoughtful about those reviews in some way.

Hey, it’s my birthday!

So I mean if you wanna get me a present and leave a review of one of my books somewhere, that’d be super cool. Or you could even buy one of my books! That’d be nice. Or don’t! I’m not your father. I am merely your weird uncle, and my words carry no authority at all.

That B&N Preorder Sale

Listen, it’s the time of the year when B&N offers a pretty nice deal on preordered books, and so of course every author in the world is like AHHHH PLEASE PREORDER MY BOOK, and honestly, if you can, it’s great? It’s good for the author, it’s good for bookstores, it’s good for the overall bookish ecosystem. It is not required, but you will surely find a lot of cool books to pre-order out yonder, and of course I am obliged to hang out my own shingle and gesticulate wildly toward it.

I, in fact, have two books for preorder–

The first, arriving June 25th, is the paperback of Black River Orchard from Del Rey (B&N link here):

And the second is my next middle grade, Monster Movie! (the exclamation point is very important and if you forget it, the monster will eat you), coming out on September 10th of this year. (B&N link here.)

The gist is, you get 25% off with code PREORDER25, and you get an additional 10% off if you’re a B&N member.

And I’ll note there are a lot of potential books you can pre-order.

Not just by me!

Here, for example, is a cool sampling of said books:




Kevin Hearne’s CANDLE & CROW.

HORROR MOVIE by Paul Tremblay.



THE DEVIL BY NAME (the FEVER HOUSE sequel!) by Keith Rosson.





These are books I’m either reading and digging, or just plain looking forward to my own damn self. Anyway! Books are good! Get books! From wherever you are able to get them. And if you pre-order these from B&N, you get a deal, and we all get to keep writing and, y’know, keep eating. Yay books.

Fallout Is The Perfect Video Game Adaptation (And Other Things I’m Digging)

Fallout is, so far, the most videogamey of all the potential video game adaptations. When I say it is the perfect adaptation, I don’t simply mean in quality — though the quality is high! — I mean that it somehow has distilled the experience of the game into the sweet narrative liquor of a television show. Game mechanics are represented organically, and in a way that makes sense, down to (and these are first episode spoilers, very light, but be warned) using stimpaks and having a scene of “presenting my skills for character creaton” and the bloody mess perk and the junk jet gun, and, and, and. Every time I see a game mechanic lovingly folded into the story I’m like

It feels like it’s not trying to transcend the material, which, honestly, is pretty refreshing. Transcending the material is fine! But it can also feel like, “Oh, we can do better,” in a kind of looking-down-your-nose-y way. “We’re making art here, turning the raw unprocessed pablum of the video game into something so much more.”

This isn’t that. It isn’t so much more. It’s exactly the game. Not the story! The story is new. But if you play the Fallout games and feel like you’ve lived in them, this show will also feel like you’re living in it. It is, in a weird way, the same comfort of playing the game. It feels like going home. As long as, y’know, “home” is “a brutal cartoonishly violent satirical nuclear wasteland.”

Ooh, also, the violence and gore are off the charts but at the same time, don’t feel… upsetting? Is that weird? There’s a cruelty and a cynicism to the violence in some shows, from Game of Thrones to The Boys. And it works in those places, don’t get me wrong. But here it’s a little more Looney Tunes? Someone on Threads said that it was more EVIL DEAD 2 than SAW, and I think that’s definitely a good way to put it.

Anyway! Only a couple episodes deep but it’s great. It’s kind of a shame they released it all at once? Not sure why they did that. I’d rather savor it week to week. Parcel it out instead of wolfing it all down in one go.

Hey, here are ten songs I’ve been listening to and enjoying.

You know, if you like music.

(Links all go to YouTube.)

(I don’t dig on the Spotify.)

1. All the new Girl In Red album, but hey, check out Serotonin.

2. Tom Cardy: Perception Check

3. This rehearsal version of Olivia Rodrigo’s Obsessed is great.

4. Okay, more Tom Cardy, this time with Ninja Sex Party, Dance Till You Stop, which is about being at a party and hating being at parties

5. Last Dinner Party, Nothing Matters, is lush and sad and excellent

6. Mama Zu’s whole album is great, and here I’ll shout out Lip as maybe my favorite. I was like, “wow, Mama Zu is great, I want more,” and then I Googled the band and found out the lead singer died a few years ago? And this album is only just coming out and I’m sad about this in so many ways. Lost a great artist and we’re only just discovering the artist who is lost. Anyway, Lip may be one of the truly best songs of recent memory.

7. This acoustic session of “The Becoming” from NIN — video directed by Rob Sheridan, fuck yeah — is great and I’m just now rediscovering this version.

8. Paramore’s Burning Down the House cover? Yes please.

9. My music-buddy and friend Liz sent me this one a little while back and it is in steady rotation at the Wendighaus — Sweeping Promise’s Good Living Is Coming For You

10. I anticipate Remi Wolf’s Cinderella will be a COOL SUMMER JAM for me.

What’s that? YOU LIKE-A THE BOOKS?

First, just go get Sarah Langan’s A BETTER WORLD immediately. It’s a little bit satire, a little bit speculative, a little bit thriller, lot of social commentary, and it’s just racing through my head even after I’m done it. It shares some sort of spiritual terrain with Rob Hart’s THE WAREHOUSE.

Also, M.L. Rio has a novella out soon you need to look for — GRAVEYARD SHIFT. It’s a lot in a little package. It’s rats and fungus and great character work and has that nice balance of mystery and thriller and “literary.”

I’ve heard Paul Tremblay’s HORROR MOVIE is fucking great, but no one has sent me a copy yet, PAUL, which is of course fine because I’m an adult and can buy my own books, PAUL, but where is my book, PAUL, goddamnit. You can never, ever, not even once, go wrong with Paul Tremblay. Unless you try to feed him a pickle. Then it’s game over.

Cina Pelayo’s FORGOTTEN SISTERS was really, really good, and it’s out now. I technically sent in a blurb for it but I don’t think it ended up anywhere? I said in that blurb, “Pelayo’s darkly poetic prose captures you like a river current and pulls you into its embrace.” Anyway! Go get it!

Got the newest ARC from my homie Delilah, GUILLOTINE, too, so I’m excited to read that this weekend. If you haven’t read BLOOM yet, fix your shit immediately.

I’m always on the lookout for good standup comedy, but man, it’s fraught turning on nearly any comedy special by A WHITE DUDE in the year of our lord 2024. Not to get all “””woke””” on you but the moment your comedy devolves into a grievance rant about how you can’t say this or that anymore and something-something trans, I’m noping the fuck out. Can’t you just do comedy? Just be funny. Make jokes that work instead of making a special of shitty signals an increasingly marginal audience. Don’t be an asshole.

The Anthony Jeselnik commentary on this is worth a watch, btw.

Anyway. Good (recentish) comedy specials out there to watch, though, still — Jacqueline Novak, Taylor Tomlinson, Marc Maron, Dimitri Martin’s newest, Sam Jay, Tig Notaro, Trevor Noah, Mike Birbiglia, and so forth.

What else? Shit, I dunno. GODZILLA X KONG was really silly and a lot of fun, and I’m happy to hear that the Monsterverse is continuing in more TV iterations, too, because Monarch was great.

I also liked The Gentleman on Netflix a lot? Haven’t seen the movie.


Buy my books or I perish.

For instance, do not forget —





Threads Has Weird Ideas About Writing And Publishing, So Here Are Some Of My Own

I continue to be on Threads. It’s fine? My quick capsule review of it is that it’s effective at reaching people, the algorithm is over-reactive and also terrible by its very nature, and the UI is hostile and I can’t ever seem to get a grip on really using it well. It still seems designed to broadcast more than it is to converse? But, it’s fine. It’s a thing that exists and I don’t hate it, and these days, in the Year of Our Lord 2024, that’s next door to an endorsement.

The one thing that you have to know is, the algorithm really does rule all — which means that when someone has a WEIRD IDEA or a CONTROVERSIAL TAKE, people responding to it or quoting it for “the dunk” instantly help that thing spread. The system is designed to see fire, and when you say, “Hey, look, fire,” the robot then pours gasoline on it.

(The robot is not here to help.)

As such, you tend to get just truly nonsense ideas about writing and publishing — bizarre opinions and worse, absolutely batfuck advice, often given by people who would seem to have little to no actual credit in the writing and publishing space. It’s like asking driving directions from someone on a different continent.

You’ll be scrolling through Threads and you’ll see someone say, like, “If a sentence has more than one comma, it’s a bad sentence.” Or, “Agents don’t really read queries; the only way to get an agent’s attention is to enter their home at night through a pet door, and leave your manuscript in the refrigerator, topped with origami rose petals made with Post-It notes, scented with your zesty authorial pheromones.” Or, “You can’t have potatoes in science-fiction.” Daily, someone just waltzes onto that website, fills a bottle with urine, and throws it into the crowd. And then, then, all day long you get Comma Discourse, or Don’t Stalk Agents Rejoinders, or Fiery Debate Over Sci-Fi Potatoes. It’s the cheapest, easiest bait, and we all take it. I’m not immune! I’m a fool! We’re all rats and there’s cheese everywhere — we cannot help to take a li’l nibble here and there.

Initially this was just going to be a post of me gesticulating wantonly and screaming DON’T TAKE THE BAIT THE BAIT WANTS YOU TO TAKE IT and maybe just writing that a hundred or so times. On your face. With a Sharpie. In reverse so you see it in the mirror when you look upon yourself.

Then, I thought, oh, ha ha, I’ll write a bunch of fake things about writing and publishing but honestly, no fake shit I write could be as good as the fake shit people spread around as if it’s already real.

But then I was like, “Well, what about sincerity and earnestness about the subject of writing and publishing?” And someone in the back made a barf noise and yelled “cringe” at me, but whatever, I’m cringe, I get it, it’s fine, I accept my role in this life.

So, I figured I’d just offer a few actually sincere thoughts about writing and publishing today. None of this will be particularly new, none of it earth-shattering, none of it so controversial it’ll goose an algorithm with a tasty pinch of contrarianism, and certainly I’m just one dipshit on the internet and everything I say here should be considered suspect.

Let us begin. Here, then, is a quivering dumpster of random thoughts about writing and publishing in the Year 2024.

1. Write the thing you wanna write. You can be strategic and whatever, you can and maybe even should try to figure out what people want to read and what publishers are willing to buy, but at the end of the day, a whole lot of people in and around this industry know almost nothing for certain. They have institutional knowledge! They have expertise! But the intersection of art and commerce is a car crash and we’re all just trying to make sense of its wreckage. Plus, life is short and art is weird so go on and lean into it.

2. Be weird but don’t make it weird, you know what I mean? Just be cool. Be cool. It’s a community. Writers are cool. People in publishing are cool. Don’t make it weird. We’re just hanging out over here.

3. Try to be honest and open. With yourself, your peers, your readers, your editor, your agent. That’s not to say: be a dick. But be honest and open. Keep an open mind but also don’t let anybody just put anything they want in that mind. Have limits, know the hills you’re willing to die on.

4. Don’t kill all your darlings. Darlings are nice. We all deserve our darlings.

5. People are messy. Books are messy. Stories are messy. Publishing is messy. Art is messy. It’s all a mess. Know that going in.

6. There’s a lot of advice out there. It’s all bullshit, but bullshit fertilizes. If it helps your garden grow, use it, spread it. If it doesn’t? Wash it away.

7. When your process is failing you, change your process.

8. Lists of writing rules are often written by older, successful, able-bodied white guys and, like, that’s not to say they’re wrong about everything, but that’s also not to say they’re right about everything. Survivorship bias is king, alongside, well, all the other biases.

9. Your writing, your story, isn’t a product, it isn’t quote-unquote “content.” It gets packaged that way, sure, but it’s so much more than that. Let it be more than that. It’s footprints, fingerprints, heartprints, bite marks. It’s not a widget. It’s not a dongle. Writing and storytelling is art.

10. You can’t put potatoes in science-fiction, that one is true. That’s just rookie shit right there. I mean, what the fuck. Do better. Be better.

11. Don’t believe everything you read. Question everything. Except the thing about potatoes in science-fiction. Do not question that.

12. Publishing sucks. People in publishing are generally pretty great. It’s not their fault publishing sucks. And it doesn’t always suck, it just sucks generally. It’s a big half-broken-but-still-functional city-sized robot, jankily tromping about. It works, but it doesn’t work great, and it’s really too big to change easily, and if you’re not careful, you’re going to get stepped on.

13. I think the greatest challenge right now is just reaching audience. Both existing audience and new audience. Social media broke into islands and there isn’t as much Literary Weight packed into one place. It’s more diffuse and publishers outright don’t know how to handle that and they aren’t free with money, and got used to being not so free with the money, because it was really easy to just say, “Authors should build their platforms and stand on those platforms and yell about their books, ta-da, that’s called marketing and advertising, baby.” It didn’t even work so great then but it worked a little, and now most of that reach is gone. And they aren’t so keen to just like, spend money to put up actual ads for books (which they should!), so I think the greatest challenge is not only being heard, but finding the ears to hear.

14. Plans within plans within plans. I have so many contingency plans. I think you have to if you’re in publishing for more than ten minutes. We watch cities rise and worlds fall every few weeks. At some point you realize that the door in front of you might not be unlocked or even there next time you look, so you have to mark the other doors, the windows, the places where the wall is weak and you can kick your way through it. A one-year-plan, a five-year-plan, a ten-year-plan, a contingency plan, an escape plan.

15. The ground is shifting a lot right now underneath our feet. It has been for a couple years but the tectonic rumbles are really going good now. No real advice here except, I guess, hold onto something and have friends.

16. Having friends in this gig really matters. It’s hard, too, because we’re all a garage full of cats on fire. But having community is really important. Writers are the only people who understand the writer-part of writers.

17. Publishing is really dysfunctional, you think, until you work in comic books or Hollywood, and then publishing feels like a warm, soft hug.

18. Ideas are just costume jewelry. It’s all in how you wear ’em.

19. You can’t do everything or be everything to everyone. Good life advice, I guess, but also good advice in writing and publishing. You can’t blurb everything or read everything or support everything, you just do your best and try to be nice and pick your champions and in a perfect world do so with an eye on empathy and inclusion. But you do have to make sure your oxygen mask is on and fitted well, first, before you attend to others.

20. I think it’s nice to feel things when you read a book and when you write a book. Not just the cold calculations of plot but the deep feels part. I also think it’s okay be coldly calculating, too, and say, “This is the part where I make the reader feel [insert emotion here: sorrow, anger, lust, hunger for a very specific Japanese KitKat flavor you can only get once a year, like Sakura Ennui or Miso Gunpowder].”

21. Sometimes you have to say “fuck it” and do the thing, whatever the thing is. You probably already know what the thing is. We all have the thing. Sometimes many things. And we all have to say “fuck it” sometimes. So, y’know, fuck it. Do the thing.

22. Cultivating your instincts is pretty key, meaning you know when something (an edit, an offer, a marketing plan, a day’s writing) is right and when it’s off-kilter, and you really only cultivate those instincts by working a lot and thinking a lot and oops you thought too much now you’re anxious.

23. I mostly follow a 50/50 path of “what I want to do/what seems like the smart thing to do.” This is selfish and privileged. But I’m in this game for me and also I am a raccoon-crow hybrid who favors shiny things and I will chase the pretty shiny things and write the things I wanna write because I don’t know how to do differently. But strategy does factor into it. I won’t write something I don’t wanna write just because Ta-Da Strategy, but I will gladly line up the shiny things I want and try to decide which one of them you the audience will also like best. I want our interests to align. Storytelling is a shout in the dark and I want you to hear it so we can find one another.

24. My probably only really controversial Threadsy take here is that I think writing Licensed IP is getting trickier and less ideal in terms of that strategy. I want to say we were in a golden age of writing it but I think the pay hasn’t kept up and the rights are garbage and now with AI creeping into things, I’d say there are more red flags there than usual, and you might just be better off writing something that you own in terms of ideas, rights, material — you can just write a book, for free, and it doesn’t need to be like, someone else’s shit. It can be all your own shit. Actually, owning your own stuff is really important in general: owning a space to write, owning time to write, owning a space online that can’t be taken away if Elon Musk shows up and takes a cyber-shit upon it, owning your rights to the work, owning a jaunty capybara in a monocle and a top-hat who brings you coffee on his back like some kind of cool Miyazaki shit. Also P.S. it’s not “writing IP,” because your original work is IP, too, everything is IP except AI shit. You mean writing “licensed IP,” which is different. Anyway. Yeah.

25. It’s hard being a writer. So be good to yourself. Learn to love the work more than you love the publishing because the work can always be there for you even when publishing won’t be. Also block assholes online. Just clear your day of jerks. It’s a nice favor to yourself.

I wrote a book that has more of this kind of thing in it if you like that, it’s called Gentle Writing Advice. And yes I’m shilling, but like, I gotta be proud of my stuff and also, I need to pay my mortgage, as the banks get real salty about that. It’s like, settle down, banks, jeez. You can get a signed, personalized copy of it or any of my books through Doylestown Bookshop. Or head to Bookshop-dot-org. (Er, also, I’m noticing my “anxiety-based ant thriller with an Elon Muskian villain” is on sale for a buck ninety-nine again at your various e-book places, so, feel free to grabby-grabby.)

Delilah S. Dawson: It Will Only Hurt For A Moment Cover Reveal!

With some books, I know the exact moment the story seed arrived. With Wake of Vultures, it was trail riding on my horse and watching a vulture circle overhead while an obnoxious donkey tried to hump my boot. With Bloom, my latest cottagecore Horror novella, it was my teen daughter asking me why all the hot serial killers are dudes.

But with It Will Only Hurt for a Moment, I… do not remember.

Which is also a big part of the book.

It Will Only Hurt for a Moment, which we will call IWOHFAM from here on out to avoid wrecking the internet with too many words, is about Sarah Carpenter, a woman in her mid-twenties who’s waking up from an unhappy life in thrall to a narcissistic ex-boyfriend. As narcissists tend to do, he insidiously shut down all avenues of escape and joy, which means Sarah, once a pottery major, has completely given up on her art. But now she’s won a scholarship to the Tranquil Falls artist retreat in the north Georgia mountains and can’t wait to commune with her fellow creators and rediscover herself.

Instead, she discovers something dark. Something dangerous. Something that’s been waiting in the cellar of the once-resplendent resort overlooking the valley.

If Sarah’s strange, half-forgotten dreams are true, there’s a reason the other artists are going slowly crazy. The fiber artist is knitting an endless scarf. The calligrapher’s teeth are stained black. The musician can’t stop playing this one maddening carousel song. And then people start getting hurt.

But even worse, there’s something Sarah can’t quite remember, something horrible that was done to her. Something that also happened to me. You can read about it in the Author’s Note when IWOHFAM is on shelves, but until then, I promise you the same thing I promised you in The Violence: in this book, the people responsible will get what they deserve.

I hope you’ll preorder a copy of IWOHFAM, which is out October 22, the day after my birthday, which kinda makes it a gift for us both. It’s available in hardcover, e-book, and audio.

And if you’d like to find me online or read my books, all my links are here!

(Cover credit goes to Regina Flath)

Generative A.I. For Writers: An Unfolding (But Not Inevitable) Nightmare!

I have seen the sentiment around that generative AI for writers and artists is “inevitable,” which is a message that I think falls right in line with the myth of the starving artist — meaning, they’re two bits of pervasive folklore put forth by the Powers That Be, because it rewards and enriches those powers. To put a finer point on it, it’s fucking capitalism. It’s capitalist propaganda bellowed from the deepest, most cankerous cave of moneyed interests, because if they say it enough times and make it true, then they make more money because we make less money, the end.

Just the same, I’ve seen some actual writers and actual artists start to… really take this to heart. They are taking on the inevitability of Gen AI sure as a broken-hulled boat takes on water — but that boat doesn’t have to sink, and nor does AI have to be inevitable. I do think it is inevitable that Moneyed Interests will continue to push AI as a catch-all solution to problems that don’t exist, and they won’t just let that bone go — but I do think, just like crypto and NFTs and what-have-you, that the actual value of Gen AI and the inclusion of Gen AI is far, far from confirmed prophecy.

So, this is a post talking about what we are, I anticipate, likely to see regarding artificial intelligence and both our writing lives and our writing careers. Note: none of this is good, but again, none of this needs to be inevitable, either, and I feel like blah blah blah, forewarned is forearmed.

Real quick, a quick sum-up of where we’re at with Gen AI in art and writing (and arguably music and game design and pretty much everything else):

a) It is built entirely on stolen work, colonizing the efforts of human creators, milling everything into artbarf and content slurry — and it is worth reminding too that it is not the AI that has stolen our work but rather, the creators of the AI who literally directed their artbarf robots to build themselves out of pilfered material.

b) It is environmentally damaging, increasingly so, guzzling water like a man in the desert and contributing overmuch to carbon emissions — see this article here, from Yale. Immigrants crossing borders are dying of thirst, but meanwhile, we’re feeding a half-a-liter of water to the machines just to ask it a couple-few dozen questions (which it will probably get wrong).

c) It continues to chew at the beams and struts of our information fidelity, and in those holes and in the inevitable collapse, mis- and disinformation will flourish like an invasive species.

With those three things in mind, it is fair to say, I think, that use of AI in writing and in the arts is unethical at present until the problems of stolen material, environmental damage and information erosion are addressed and solved. There’s a fourth thing, one that arguably is too true of everything we touch, which is that Gen AI exists largely to make Rich People Richer, and does nothing for everyone further down the ladder. (This is a much harder problem to solve because, well, welcome to the water in which we swim.) It serves companies. It does not serve people. It doesn’t help writers or artists or the audience. It’s there to make stuff fast, cheap, easy.

And, to opine a bit here, even outside the ethics of this, I also think use of Gen AI in this way is supremely lazy and completely betrays the entire point of making art and telling stories in the first fucking place. It’s not helping us make the work better and get paid more. It’s relegating art and writing to a hobby only, while simpering incel chimps press buttons and get their rocks off by having the AI make images and stories of whatever mediocre garbage is passing through their minds at any given moment.

But, but, but

Again, I don’t think this is inevitable.

Here I’m really going to switch gears and talk more explicitly about Gen AI in writing, and the problems it presents beyond the lack of ethics and the fact it’s really just there for lazy people who actually like the idea of writing more than they actually want to write. (Ironically, some people want to be a writer without doing work, but AI doesn’t fix that for them — they’re still not writing jack shit, they’re just zapping the Fancy Autocorrect Robot and making it shit out words for them. The software is the writer, not them.)

So, for me there are two key problems with Gen AI in writing —

1) It sucks.

It really just sucks. It’s not good. It can make the shape of the thing you want it to write (article, story, blog post, review) but then it fills it with half-assed hallucinations. Gen AI isn’t here to get things right, it’s here to make things look right, which is a very different thing. AI is vibes only. You don’t get an article — you get an article-shaped thing that’s just a really, really advanced version of Lorem Ipsum.

Gen AI isn’t true artificial intelligence. It isn’t “thinking” per se about input and output. It’s just barfing up the raw-throated bile of effervescent copypasta. It’s just a program tapping the predictive words button. And it knows to do this because, again, it’s stolen a whole lot of material to feed to its Judas Engine. So what it’s outputting is a broth steeped from tens of thousands of illicitly-yoinked human-created pieces of writing.

It also isn’t good at sustaining anything with continuity. Continuity is really important for writing — in an article, in an essay, and especially in longer-form material. When we talk about Chekhov’s Gun, that’s a shorthand that means the pieces of narrative information we use early are just the start of the trail of breadcrumbs that will carry us through the story. The gun appears early and must be used later — but that’s true of so much inside our work. We introduce things that are important, that have continuity throughout the work, that appear again and again and form a kind of constellation of narrative information — and that information comes in the form of themes, motifs, motivations, descriptions, tension-building plot points, and so on. AI has literally no understanding of that. Because it doesn’t understand anything. It just sees a pile of stuff and attempts to ape the shape and colors of that stuff. Gen AI artbarf can show you a house in image, but it has no idea what building a house means, it doesn’t know what’s behind the walls or how bricks are laid or how fucking molecules and atoms form together to make everything — it just horks up the architectural hairball on command, like a cat with the Clapper in its stomach.


Anyway. What I’m saying is–

AI doesn’t know shit and can’t sustain shit.

And here the retort is often, “Well, sure, but this is what it can do now, imagine what it can do in a year or two.” And that mayyyyy be true, but I have a gut feeling that — particularly when it comes to writing — it has some very hard limits. It can never really go beyond the fact it is Fancy Autocorrect. Because it does not truly think, it will always be janky. It will never sustain information for long. It will always lie. It may be able to fake shorter pieces, but I also think that, like humans spotting Terminators, we will develop a keen eye to be able to spot this bullshit with an increasingly refined Uncanny Valley detector in our guts.

2) The second problem is that it can’t be copyrighted. That’s a real problem, a true vulnerability, though one that hasn’t been entirely tested legally, yet — what if you push the AI-Do-My-Work-I-Suck-And-Am-Lazy button and it spits out a 5,000-word short story but then you change like, every 100th word? What does that mean for its copyrightability? I don’t know because I am a stupid person and not a lawyer, but I do suspect that it remains a very real weak spot in its defenses.

So, these two things mean we’re free and clear, right? The AI will eventually fail to be a Good Writer. It will collapse under its own mediocre hallucinations! It’ll be like the aliens in War of the Worlds, felled by pigeon herpes and rat poison, same as Brave Flaco.

(I apologize, I just really wanted to write “pigeon herpes.” RIP, Flaco. Poor owl. People are bad and pigeons have herpes, the end.)

Sadly, we are not free and clear.

Gen AI will come at us from a dozen different directions, and we need to be eyes up in terms of what happens next — because eventually it will become clear it cannot sustain itself as a Pure Form Generator. But Money Shitheads are still Shitheads who want their Money, and so that means Gen AI will continue its ceaseless march upon our territories. After all, they’ve already invested, and they’d much rather not pay actual humans (because, god forbid, those humans might start getting sassy and unionize, oh fuck).

So, AI is still coming for us all.

Question is: How?

The myth of its magic and potency will be a cudgel used by companies to bash us into taking less money for our work.

Meaning, they’ll say, “Ah, look, the AI is so good, it has generated this script, this story, this idea. It’s done the hard work!” And here we must remember that AI is very much about the fetishization of ideas. “So, now I just need you, Word Janitor, to come and, you know, sweep these ideas into a pile for us.” The writer will just became a wrangler, a jockey, a plumber clearing story clogs — at least, that’s how it’ll be described. In reality, the writer will be even more vital, because the writer will be handed some inane, insane piece of shit from the Artbarf Robot, and told to turn that horrible thing into art — which is harder than just allowing a human to refine their own idea into something amazing. “Turn this AI turd into a profitable Ryan Reynolds movie” is a Herculean task, but will be paid with Sisyphean money.

(Real-talk, licensed IP is already set up for this pretty easily. Most of these licensed worlds are already miles deep in terms of storytelling and worldbuilding — it would be no shock to see Marvel or Star Wars or whoever feeding all their existing material into The Machine in the hopes it will extrude favorable content, whether as an idea or as a full “story.” Again, it’ll be slop that will require an actual human to make palatable.)

This will probably fail, too — eventually they’ll come back around to the idea that humans are better than the Artbarf Robot, but by that time the aim will be served, which is, writers get paid less. Here, the AI serves almost more as a threat than as an actual foe. And it doesn’t take much to imagine some company in the future telling its writers, “We’re paying less now because honestly we could just get The Robot to do it, but we’re throwing you a bone.” It’s a lie, of course. The Robot can’t do it, or they’d have it done already without you, for sure. But, that’s the AI trick, isn’t it? AI is here to build to a convincing lie. A useful lie. Artifice wielded by power.

That’s the more direct way it’ll come for us, but this is a death by a thousand cuts situation, and it would not be shocking to find:

– AI implemented in generating descriptions of our written material online, or Amazon using AI descriptions above the flap copy written by us or our publishers, orrrrr

– Publishers saying “fuck it” and using AI to write the flap copy in the first place, pre-appeasing the robo-tyrants

– Publishers replacing human editors with AI, though again here the reality is likely that they’ll still retain and require human editors, but they’ll just pay them less (or heap other duties upon their shoulders, burning them out through strain and crunch) because “well, the AI did most of the work, now you do the cleanup” — meaning, editors will just edit the shitty editing done by the shitty robots. Or, they’ll let the AI rewrite whole sections of your book, and leave it to you, the author, to fix it.

– Book reviews written wholecloth by AI. I think I’ve already found a couple of these for my books. Here, you can find one here, a review of Black River Orchard at what looks like a reputable place. Is it AI? Maybe not. But it gets some details totally wrong and other details seem simply lifted from the text, as if the book was fed to a machine in order to defecate out the review. And some of the sentences are… just weird. “Calla is not fooled by its appearance and refers to this new blend situation as trapping her between the Scylla of Golden and the Charybdis of the apple. Along with the narrative of a now older Calla and her father, we are treated to time spent with two other kindred spirits: life partners Emily and Meg. Their stories will become intertwined with each other, as well as a horde of other interesting characters with whom Wendig peppers his tale.” Like, what the fuck is that sentence? Hell, the whole review starts off suggesting I’ve been praised by Stephen King, which… trust me, if Stephen King had praised me, I’d be spraypainting that shit on the walls of your homes. We’d all know it.

– And even if the above review isn’t AI, the simple possibility of it being so poisons the entire ecosystem. It’s like The Thing. Any one of your friends or co-workers could be the monster.

– AI as an insult, too — “It sucks. ChatGPT probably wrote this.”

– AI “authors” straight-up remixing our books and publishing them at Amazon. This is more or less already happening — Jane Friedman notes that there are books on Amazon labeled as written by her, but not written by her at all. And Stephanie Land found “biographies” of her at Amazon.

– AI picking and choosing what books get made based on the trends it analyzes and farms. It’ll be wrong, of course, and worse, it’ll be wholly pedestrian in its tastes — the best case scenario is that it’ll get stuff so wrong and so weird that it accidentally picks some interesting books. One could argue in a sense this is already happening with algorithms on social media…

– Publishers passively or actively letting AI onto book covers. This is, of course, already happening. Gothikana, Fractal Noise, etc. Sometimes it’ll be art directors not realizing that AI was in the stock imagery they’re using. Sometimes it’ll just be someone plugging the cover idea into Midjourney and seeing what the Arfbarf Robot barfs up.

– Companies feeding written material into the machine in order to train the machine. This is again likeliest amongst freelance work or work done in service to licensed IPs because you do not own that work and they can do whatever the fuck they want with it. (And I’d argue this is a reason to start reconsidering doing licensed IP work, by the way. The juice is increasingly not worth the squeeze.)

This is all just a sampling. AI will come to fuck us in so many worse and weirder ways. And in the larger sense, it’ll simply add way too much noise into an already noisy process — lots of uncertainty and threat, all designed to, again, direct money upward and not toward writers and artists.

So, what the hell do we do about it?

Is there anything we can do about it?

Absolutely. This stuff is really not inevitable.

First, push back on it. Whenever you see it, push back. I am really appreciating that when I see AI pop up somewhere, people hop in the comments to say THIS IS AI, and then explain why. It vibes to me that there is a strong public sentiment against the intrusion of AI, and I’m all for it.

Though, also worth noting, it is possible to get it wrong, and it’s why it’s important to do your best to enlighten and engage rather than throwing sharp rocks at individuals. And when it’s not an individual, when it’s a corporation — well, sharp rocks work juuuuuust fine.

Second, AI does well with formula. The most vulnerable writing is the kind of writing that has at its core a formula, an equation of how the thing is written. This isn’t always escapable, but when it is, definitely escape it. It’s as good a reason as any to go big and weird and personal. The AI can’t do shit with wild swings. It’s not clever enough or smart enough. The more humanity you put into the work, the less it can ape it — and, ideally, the more likely it is you connect the work to other human readers and not just info-scraping robots looking to render the text into replicable hot dog paste.

Third, if you see it in contracts, do your best to kill it with fire. It’s also why agents are very important here, especially agents who understand this stuff and are on your side. If they don’t and they’re not, get a new agent. Good to get ahead of this, too, by talking to agents and editors — be they current or potential suitors for the work.

Fourth, get good at spotting it. AI imagery, even in its advanced state, is still obviously AI with a few cursory glances, and there are good groups on, say, Facebook that will share tutorials on how to spot AI. AI writing is a little harder but even still, it usually gets a bunch of shit wrong and has a kind of… fakey-fakey sound to it, the prose as plastic as the weird TikTok voice or the creepy sheen on so much AI-generated artbarf.

Fifth, don’t use it. Not even a little. Don’t dick around with ChatGPT even for shits and giggles. Avoid it. Spit upon the lens of its cybernetic eye-stalk.

Sixth and finally? Don’t quit. It’s tempting. It is. But don’t quit. Stay in the game if you can. Keep your boot on the Terminator’s neck. Assert your human-ness through your art and through your stories.

Generative AI does not need to be inevitable. It doesn’t need to write our TV shows and movies, it doesn’t need to write our books, it doesn’t need to be all up in our articles or legal briefs or bios. It shouldn’t edit us, shouldn’t make our book covers, not any of it. Leave AI to help us figure out when milk is on sale or to alert me to what birds might be migrating into my area overnight. I don’t want AI to write or draw comic books — I just want it to help me plot a better route to the comic book store. Okay?

The Artbarf Copypasta Content Slurry Thieving Magpie of a Robot can fuck all the way off. And when it won’t go willingly, we need to hit it with a stick until it does.

Anyway. I am a human. Buy my human-written books. Shit, when I say it that way it sounds like I’m protesting too much. I wrote them! Me, a human! A person of BLOOD AND MEAT oh god it’s sounding worse I AM NOT A ROBOT MY HEART IS NOT METAL

(also p.s. I’m realizing that I’m posting this on April Fool’s Day and boy that is totally appropriate given how AI is trying to make fools of us all)

(anyway Black River Orchard is out in paperback June 25th bye)