Mike Spinak »

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My book, Growing Up Humming, is now the #1 Top Rated book in the Children’s Nonfiction Animal category on Amazon. Thank you, everyone who helped it get there.

Some of you might wonder what this means, and might wonder about some of the details. Here’s what I know:

First, this has nothing to do with sales. #1 Top Rated doesn’t mean #1 Bestselling. The sales of Growing Up Humming are just a trickle, so far. It means that – by whatever unspecified algorithm Amazon uses, seemingly factoring in both the average rating (which goes from 1-5 stars, 5 being highest), and the number of people who have rated the book – my book has come out at the top in its category, based upon readers’ ratings.

Second, you might wonder, “#1 out of how many?” As of the time of writing this, that’s out of 44,677 books in the Children’s Nonfiction Animal Book category on Amazon, as you can see here.

Third, you might wonder, “Are Growing Up Humming‘s book ratings honest?” After all, it’s quite common for authors to try to stack their book’s ratings with biased reviews from friends and family. Furthermore, the New York Times had an article about authors and publishers gaming Amazon’s rating system by paying for reviews. To the best of my knowledge, all of the reviews my book has garnered are honest. Many of the reviews are by my request (I’ve contacted a number of popular reviewers, asking them to review my book), but I always let them know I’m not asking for a biased, positive review, and I’m fine with them calling it like they see it, positive or negative. You can see for yourself that many of the reviews are from comparatively credible sources. 30 of my book’s reviews are from the top ranked reviewers on Amazon, such as this 5 star review by the #1 top ranked Amazon reviewer. Likewise, 5 of my book’s reviews are from the top ranked reviewers on Goodreads, such as this 5 star rating by the 9th highest ranked reviewer on Goodreads. I also have reviews by respected independent reviewing organizations, such as this 5 star review by Kindle Book Review. And I have a 5 star review from a top professional in my field.

How long will my book remain the #1 Top Rated in its category on Amazon? It’s been almost a week since I found out. I expect it won’t last much longer. All such things on Amazon get updated hourly. The competition is tough (Roald Dahl, Temple Grandin, and T.S. Eliot are neck and neck with me in the top 10), and the winds of change are especially fickle when it comes to people’s tastes.

I’ll enjoy it while it lasts – but most of all, I’ll thank you, Dear Readers, who made it so.

Edited to add: It turned out my book stayed #1 for 6 months straight, while the number of books in the category grew to just under 50,000. After 6 months straight, it was automatically removed from the list.

I was interviewed at length by author and editor Meghan Ward, on the Writerland website. The topics included my book, social media as a platform for authors, and crowdsourcing as a way for authors to fund their books. You can find the interview here.

Criticism can point out deficiencies, provide insight, and spark ideas. It can help you refine and improve your work. 

Some of the early test readers for my book Growing Up Humming felt that the unexplained absence of the father hummingbird was glaring and problematic.

It was a classic case where I, as the author, had been too close to the story to see this aspect the way readers would. As I was writing this nonfiction book, I simply related the events that actually happened. Those events didn’t include a father; ergo, neither did I. It never occurred to me to bring up the father.

The question “Where’s the father?” is perfectly reasonable, and I recognized this should be addressed, when readers mentioned it. They had no way to know that Anna’s hummingbird fathers just inseminate and move on, without helping raise the chicks, or that Anna’s hummingbirds are too promiscuous for the hummingbirds to know who the father is. These were facts that I took for granted during the writing process, because I knew them. But readers would not be coming to the story sharing my expectation of no paternal involvement.

I added a brief, child-appropriate passage about the “missing” father, and I think the book is stronger for it.

I love criticism, and I’m always open to it. However, that doesn’t mean I automatically assume all criticism is right and should be abided. Criticism can also be wrong. Or, at least, wrong for you and your art’s circumstances and needs. So, how do you know which criticism to heed and which to ignore?

One of my book’s early test readers suggested a number of changes. “Get rid of the parts about thermoregulation, regurgitation, and aerodynamics,” she said, “and don’t use any big words. Keep it very short. Switch from nonfiction to fiction, and make the story more fanciful. Give the birds names. Make it cute!” And so on.

When she gave me this feedback, I thought to myself, “I can’t please everybody. You’ll be among those I don’t please.” Not because she was calling for massive revision. Sometimes that’s for the best. Nor due to being offended. (I wasn’t offended at all.) Rather, it was because of the nature of her suggestions. Reading between the lines, all of her criticism equated to “It’s too geeky”; and all of her suggestions fundamentally meant, “Make it not-geeky.”

I am geeky. Unabashedly so. I wrote Growing Up Humming as a geek, in a way that other geeks would especially appreciate. That’s not to say that it only appeals to geeks – the fact that it’s averaging 4.9 out of 5 stars through 75 reviews shows it has wide appeal – it’s just to say that it has a somewhat geeky slant.

The reason I ignored feedback to make it less geeky is simple: Making the book non-geeky would have meant not being true to myself. When you stop being true to yourself in your creative expression, your creations become inauthentic. Thus, your results suffer.

I’m not aware of any all-encompassing way to determine which criticism you should heed and which you should reject, but I’m convinced this makes a good starting point.

Always be true to yourself.

Many artists harbor a pernicious double-standard. Not just against others, but also against themselves. It’s holding some of them back.

An example of this came up the other day. I was in an online disagreement on a writing forum. The original poster started the discussion by noting how much it bothered her when people “misused” the word literally – by which she meant used literally to emphatically describe something that was not actual. For example, “I literally died of laughter when I watched The Producers.”

I pointed out that Charles Dickens did it; James Joyce did it; Mark Twain did it; many of the biggest names in writing did it. None of them considered it misuse to use the word literally this way. They did it as hyperbole, and hyperbole has a legitimate literary role.

I was accused of being contrary, as the only one taking the dissenting view, amidst the flood of, “That drives me crazy, too,” type comments. Meanwhile, I thought to myself that they were making up silly things to be bothered about, and parading their ignorance. It’s even right there in the dictionary as one of the definitions, for Heaven’s sake.

I wasn’t surprised they disagreed, but I was taken aback by their specific retort. To paraphrase, they said, “Sure, Dickens and Joyce and Twain could do that. They’re literary masters – but you and I are not. They could make it work. We can’t, so we shouldn’t be doing that.”

There it is. The artistic double standard. It’s OK for literary gods like Twain, but not OK for mere mortals such as ourselves. There are rules for the rest of us, but they don’t apply to the greats.

I’ve also encountered this double standard beyond writing. For example, when I’ve told people they can stop composing their photos by the golden ratio, because it’s nothing but empty superstition – some have replied to me, “That’s easy for you to say, Mike. You’re there. But I’m not.”

It pains me to hear this. It’s a philosophy of failure: Be small and unambitious. Avoid the new and challenging. Know your place and don’t try to exceed it. 

How do you think the greats got to be great? Not by acting like this. They did it by unflinchingly pushing their limits and doing whatever it takes.

What do you have to lose by daring to use literally hyperbolically? Or by beginning a sentence with a conjunction? Or ending one with a preposition? There’s a chance it won’t work well (which doesn’t imply any universal rule against it; it just means it wasn’t best for this instance), in which case you may have to try again.

On the other hand, what do you have to lose if you avoid all such linguistic hazards? The possibility of ever achieving mastery, and the chance to ever create a masterpiece. Or, let me put it another way, since the point isn’t the prestige and pride of mastery and masterwork. You lose the possibility of rendering the very best work your capabilities allow. You exchange those for mediocrity, and the regularity of achieving the safe and pedestrian.

It’s not that you must go out of your way to break “the rules” to make a masterpiece. It isn’t about pointless rule-breaking gimmicks for their own sake. It’s just that you have to be unfettered in your exploration of what’s possible, and in your pursuit of the best choice for each creative decision you make.

You can’t keep that necessary openness while stifling all nonconformist possibilities. You can’t make something exceptional without making exceptions. And you can’t attain mastery without pushing the limits.

Personally, I think that living fearfully and consigning your future work to safe blandness is more abhorrent than making some missteps and having to do things over.

So take some risks. You might even find that you’re more capable than you realized.