How does Amazon work, I wonder

I really must say, the ranking system on Amazon fascinates me in a morbid fashion.

It is, really, the personification of many of the reasons I actually deplore the degree to which digital technology has permeated our society. Only through the advent of complex computers could such Lovecraftian mathematical models and algorithms be achieved on an hourly basis.

Something that has profoundly improved my position on the top 100 lists, or the overall sales rank lists: not selling any copies for nearly 12 hours. This, in one case, increased my rank in one category by something like 12 places.

An example of something that hurt my sales rank severely: selling about 4 copies. This, in one case, lowered me by more than 20 places.

Some things observed by other authors: raising and lowering your price has profound impact directly related to the price change (raise price, improve rank); existence of a film version – an author helping to puzzle out this ranking model had books with and books without movie treatments and confirmed that despite equal or worse sales, the ranks for the movied tales ranked higher; reviews (quantity) – it would seem that no reviews is better than some, but if you have any several is best … number of stars irrelevant, 40 1-stars is better as far as can be determined than 8 5-star.

Something with strange weight within the algorithm: 1-star reviews. They seem to hurt more than a 5-star helps. The fact that rating is used at all in the ranking is unique to Amazon, which troubles many consumers and creators alike since Amazon does not discourage people from reviewing things that they have never used/owned/etc nor take issue with people saying so in the reviews; and there’s no way to flag for removal a review for a radiant heater that reads (regardless of how many stars) “I really don’t like duck sauce” – while I pray that such a review for such an unrelated circumstance is merely the construct of my own strange mind, I do know that people will review things unrelated to the product or its quality.

I’ve actually had to resist the urge to consult astrological charts to determine if ranking trends correspond to any stellar alignments; I’m fairly certain, though, that Mercury’s position relative to Mars has some profound bearing upon the Hot New Releases Top 20 for Mysteries.

Ah me, but the eternal question: if it weren’t for computers and the internet wold my work be published? Frankly, I’m not a fan of computers and the internet as a rule. They’re useful tools in moderation, truly. I’m fond of some of their applications, like email. While I agree with Louis L’Amour regarding people relying on word processors to do too much of their writing for them, leading to sloppiness, I still would be loathe to be transferring my manuscripts to typewriter instead of Pages. Still, I would happily renew my acquaintance with my postman and invest in a big, solid Underwood if I could escape the perversions wrought upon society by the virulent proliferation of computer technologies …I miss simple electronics, such as 1980s and earlier televisions & radios {wistful sigh}.

Because the voices say so

It’s funny, but a lot of people tend to ask writers: where did you get your inspiration? Where do your ideas come from? And various other questions in that vein.

The thing is … for most writers, this is as strange a question as: so what made you write this?

By and large in all of those cases, the answer boils down to “The voices said so.”

Sometimes, yes, we do have some stimulus that gets us to thinking in a particular direction. Now & Forever was born because I read a sweet, happy romance at around the same time I noticed that there was an acute lack of such stories featuring a same sex romantic pair as the main protagonists. Oh, they exist, and in more abundance since that point, but it’s irrelevant. That made me think of writing such a romance. The rest came down to, Lauren and Sally asked me to write their story.

Writers’ inspiration, by and large, is the same as any artist, I should think. Life. We look around at life and ask What If, or Why Not – thus we write various fictions, especially speculative. We look around and we see things we wish to point out – thus is born things like satire. We have a feeling, and we wish to share it – thus is born Romantic fiction (not to be confused with romance fiction, which is a sub-category of this). But in all it’s life, and voices.

The voices are the characters. They’re visions of people, and of places. Sometimes we try to guide the voices, but mostly they guide us. We just have to be quick at taking dictation.

Yes, some authors do construct stories. They build dialogue. They think long and hard about the nature of plot and such. Those people seem, most of the time (in my experience at any rate) to favour literary fiction, a genre whose purpose I’ve yet to fathom. Some do write romances, mysteries, SF, westerns, or horror. Seemingly, though, of a literary nature, or of a completely ephemeral and throw away nature.

All the authors people really seem to dig, the stories that seem to resonate with the most readers, though, those are the ones where things are described as a period of discovery. We learn about our characters, we become friends or enemies with them. We witness the births of cultures, the deaths of races. We see the whole tapestry of events unfold with each stroke of the pen or press of a key. The inspiration particles sleet through our brains, and when we’re feeling particularly receptive to them the words flow like water that has just burst its dam and threatens to flood us to forgetting all but the story – sometimes it happens. These are the authors who might say things like “I want to know what happens next” (Louis L’Amour).

Good or bad. I’m not saying that believing your characters are living, breathing beings somewhere, or anything of that sort, will make you the next Jo Rowling or Neil Gaiman. Talent, the ability to take that inspiration and shape it and forge it into a solid tale, engrossing and engaging, that matters at the end of the day as much or more.

My other point is, for every one person for whom their character is nought but a cog in some literary device – no more real and alive than a transistor (and all too often, in my reading, with as much personality and ability to garner the sympathies of the reader) – there are a dozen or so who talk of their story or their characters as a thing alive that has an either parasitic or symbiotic relationship with the author’s psyche and mind.

I, personally, think this always shows in writing. Even a talented, skilled, brilliant author whose story isn’t a living thing won’t shine as well as the person with only mediocre skill and so-so talent whose story is like unto a living thing. It’s in the language of critics and fans alike. The tales of Oz or the adventures of the young Miss Alice, sailing the high seas with Long John Silver or Captain Nemo, slaying vampires with Van Helsing or slaying orcs with Arylin and Danilo all can be said to come alive. Maybe it’s because the story, in some way IS alive and was so for the author and now is so for the reader. Just as the purely mechanical – all technique and no heart – writing of the literary purist might be no more alive than a machine, no more soul than a desk fan, and thus as it had no life for the writer it has no life for the reader.

I could be wrong. I know how I write, and I know what it looks like when my favourite writers talk about writing. I know what I see on the rare occasions where I venture into internet discussion forums (which, on those rare occasions I do so, do tend to be writer’s forums). I wonder … can corollaries be true? Can a story that was alive and vibrant in the author’s mind find death and mechanical lifelessness once written? Can something born of technique and lifeless prose tell a story alive and vivid to the reader? I wonder if you could tell; would the formerly alive have the feeling of a corpse? Would the lifeless machine that has come to life still show signs of having once been the prose equivocal of a little wooden boy? Ah well, I suppose in the fullness of time anything is possible.