Friday, January 10, 2020

A sense of impending doom . . . .

Today -- Friday, 10 January 2020 -- has not been one of my better days.  Maybe that's why I'm back here, after a long and not entirely voluntary hiatus.

I wrote a long time ago that I wouldn't be doing book reviews here.  I thought about setting up a separate blog for reviews, and in fact so much time has passed that maybe I actually did that and have just forgotten about it.

The truth is, I don't write a lot of reviews of current fiction.  Most of the reviews I do write and post on BookLikes are of books I didn't like, didn't finish, didn't get past the first few pages.  There's a reason for that, and it's not a good reason.

My budget is severely limited.  More or less retired, I live on Social Security and some supplemental self-employment income from my writing and from the sale of various arts & crafts products I make.  My Social Security benefits are reduced because I elected to start them earlier than full retirement age.  The supplemental income is not reliable, and it has been made even less reliable by my inability to shake off various stressors.  Anxiety is not profitable, but it is pervasive.  I do not write as much as I should.  I do not make as much jewelry as I should.

I do not make as much money as I need.

Therefore, my reading material tends to fall into certain distinct classifications:

1. Physical books I already own, which number about 5,000.
2. Kindle books, mostly freebies and therefore many self-published
3. Non-fiction library books, whether physical copies or digital borrows.

It's that second category that ends up being "reviewed" on my BookLikes blog.  Sadly, many of those author-published books just aren't very well written.  But I did try them.  I really did.

My longer, more analytical reviews were saved for those favorite personal classics, books like Josephine Tey's Brat Farrar and Leslie Turner White's Lord Johnnie.  I loved these books when I first read them more than 50 years ago; rereading them for the purpose of close analysis was just as much fun.

The past few weeks have been filled with the drama surrounding Romance Writers of America, a scandal of sorts with its roots in racism, lack of diversity, and lack of transparency in dealing with those issues.  I'm not going to rehash any of that, or bring up my very tangential involvement, except to say that my fifteen or so years of active membership in RWA meant I made a lot of connections with other writers.  Friends? Um, not all of them, and only a tiny few of those connections have survived.  But it still means that reading a book by someone I knew back then brings in an automatic bias.  So I haven't posted reviews of many books by people I know or knew.

Let me be clear:  I would never, under any circumstances, direct an author to a review I had written of their work*.  Reviews are for readers.  But I don't have any way of knowing, unless they post it in front of me on Twitter or something, which authors routinely search for reviews of their books.  It's not likely that I'd post a really bad review of a book by someone I've had a positive personal relationship with -- whether in person or just through social media -- but even minor criticisms might be taken the wrong way.  I really do appreciate my online contacts, and I would rather not review a book written by a cyber-friend than risk that friendship.

(*I did recently inform an author with whom I've interacted on social media  that I reviewed one of their books 30+ years ago. I no longer have a copy of the review.)

But BookLikes has become more problematic today than it has been for a while.  I think I started to take it for granted again, but it's been down for 24 hours now with only a brief Facebook notification that they're working on it.

So, what to do?

Well, I have a website that I haven't even looked at for a year or more.  It's due to renew in February, and I actually thought this morning that I might let it all lapse.  Could I convert it to something more attuned to books and book blogging?  I don't know.  That's not my area of expertise; I wouldn't even know how to start.

But it's been six and a half years since the Great Purge at Goodreads, and so many of us have found a home at BookLikes.  We like the freedom, even if we don't like the spammers.  We like the platform, even if we don't like the silence from the operators.  Most of all, however, we like each other.

If the platform returns, I'll be backing up as much of my material as I can.  Some of it may end up here.  Comments may be lost, but at least the core will be saved.  Again, that's if the platform can be resuscitated.  And I'll add links to it for this post, too.  If it comes back.

I'm committed to doing what I can -- within the constraints of time and budget -- to keep the community alive, regardless.


Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Stuffed with Words

This is a long tale.  Very long.  There's a great deal of time to cover, details to catch up on. Grab a cup of coffee, and have the pot handy for a refill.  Or a glass of wine and the bottle.  Or whatever beverage of choice you prefer.  And settle in.

Let's swing back to 2013, to the infamous Goodreads Purge.  The whole thing started in August over a 2-star review posted to a book that hadn't yet been released.  The author threw a hissy fit, wanted the review removed, wouldn't accept that GR had a policy of allowing reviews for unreleased books.  Her temper tantrum ended up garnering hundreds and hundreds of 5-star reviews for the book . . . which she then never released.  The book and its reviews remain on Goodreads to this day as far as I know.

Over the next several months, Goodreads, which had been purchased by Amazon in June of that year, began to tighten the rules on reviewing, specifically in the area of not allowing negative reviews based on the author's behavior if that behavior was unrelated to the writing in the book.  If, for instance, the author was spamming the various discussion groups on Goodreads and a reader wanted to note for her own reference that she didn't ever want to buy or read anything by that author because he was a spammer, she couldn't do it.  Shelf names indicating author misbehavior -- "Author spams," "Review troll," "Don't buy" --  were no longer allowed.  (Well, they weren't allowed for some reviewers though others got away with it.)  Slowly but surely, a lot of reviewers were either removed or silenced.

For the most part, those removed were reviewers who more often took a hard line when it came to poorly written books and/or poor author behavior.

I was one of those reviewers.

Between August 2013, when the whiny author fiasco started, and November 2014 when I was finally banned from Goodreads, I had become very active researching authors who purchased reviews from and the reviewers from whom they purchased those reviews.  Purchased reviews were absolutely forbidden on both Goodreads and Amazon, as being against both Terms of Service on the respective sites and against Federal Trade Commission guidelines on Amazon, where the books were actually sold.  With assistance from a small cadre of other reviewers, I got over 6,000 fraudulent reviews removed from Goodreads.  Several reviewers were banned from both Goodreads and Amazon, though most of them found ways to come back.  Some authors also had their GR accounts removed.  A couple of years later I was able to confirm that several of the reviewers were still in business under other names; I haven't bothered to research it further since then.

I don't mind admitting that there was a certain amount of self-righteousness involved in my crusade against the fake reviews.  For the most part, the books were published by their authors, often with little or no professional-level editing.  In other words, they were badly written. The authors couldn't generate positive reviews on the books' merits alone, so they bought reviews to gain visibility.  Some of them, I'm sure, believed that what they were doing was perfectly legitimate promotion.  Or they justified it somehow.

Most readers knew nothing about this, and there was nowhere to let them know.  They'd see a book with glowing reviews, buy it, and find out it was a dud.  But how were they to know?  And how many of them, not understanding that the five-star reviews were lies, thought it was their own fault for not liking the books?  Many of the paid reviewers had achieved high ranking in the Top 1000, Top 500, or even Top 100 Amazon reviewers.

What I realized through this experience was that too few people are willing to write a negative review.  They offer a lot of reasons, too, and I've discussed that often enough before that I won't go into great detail again here.  Suffice to say that there are issues with hurting the author's feelings or not knowing how to justify a negative review or even just wanting to make sure the free ARCs keep coming.

Taking into consideration that Amazon and Goodreads ultimately have the same bottom line, and that as a combined entity they are the single largest platform for book buying, book selling, book publishing, and book reviewing online, any author who steps in to review takes an enormous risk.

Under the same FTC guidelines mentioned above, authors are not allowed to review on the Amazon platform unless they are reviewing outside their own genre or they leave a positive review.  Most authors, for reasons of promotion and general public relations, tend not to write negative reviews anyway, even though in many cases they are the best qualified to do so.  Negative reviews from authors are more legal on Goodreads, but that's also the more social venue, so there are reasons why negative reviews from authors are less likely there.

Since that 2013 purge at Goodreads, the stand-alone review blogs have become more prolific, and by their very nature they are more likely to promote new books with positive reviews than they are to be analytical or critical of the not-so-good ones.  Well, that's the nature of the beast, and frankly, my disagreement with the philosophy that drives it doesn't really amount to a hill of beans.  I was booted off Goodreads in November 2014 (or thereabouts) and that was the end of it.

I had found a home of sorts at BookLikes.  I brought over some of my issues with bad books and skeevy reviewing, but there was less drama at BookLikes and that was fine.  A few odd little coincidences within the group I had joined there ended up leading me back to actual writing, and in July 2016, I published The Looking-Glass Portrait via Kindle Direct Publishing.  I had never had much luck with Smashwords, the only other platform I'd used for self-publishing, so I didn't even bother with it for LGP.  I had all my books on Amazon, and the five novels were all enrolled in Kindle Unlimited.  LGP did surprisingly well for me over the next eighteen months or so; I had no complaints at all.

What little reviewing I did on BookLikes was mostly related to books I read that I felt like sharing with others or to books I read for the games we played on BookLikes.  I didn't review everything I read, in part because I read a lot of stuff I knew no one else would be interested in.  I didn't have a huge following.

A good deal of my energy went into my crafting hobbies, and then my resurrected writing.

But I was also burned out on reviewing.  Not for the reasons you might think, however.  Or maybe so.

I had read a lot of crap.  I don't have a huge budget for book buying, so my digital purchases are pretty much restricted to the free stuff with the occasional bargain when something is on sale for $1.99 or less.  Rarely will I spend more than that on a digital book, unless it's a much-wanted non-fiction selection for research.

Reviewing a bad book is hard work, and given how few people would see it on BookLikes, I couldn't justify putting in the time and effort.  The negative reviews I had posted on Goodreads had brought a lot of negative feedback, some of it vicious to the point of death threats.  My own older books that I had republished on Amazon took the hit of dozens of one-star reviews, even though I knew none of the reviewers had read them.  I have a philosophy of never ever ever reading reviews of my work, which I maintain to this day, so I never read the nasty remarks, never reported them, never did anything.  Again, as far as I know most of those reviews are still there, on Goodreads and on Amazon, though some of the accounts were subsequently removed because other people reported them.  I never did.

And though I'm old and accustomed to that kind of stupid behavior, after November 2014 I had gradually lost contact with the writing and publishing aspect of the book world and I didn't make a special effort to renew that contact while writing LGP or even after publishing it.  The Amazon discussion boards, where I used to read a lot but never posted, became vicious when they weren't stupid; I walked away from even reading them long before Amazon shut them down.  I had never followed the Kboard platform very much, nor had I been more than peripherally involved with sites such as The Passive Voice or Absolute Write.  My time on social media became more and more devoted to arts and crafts via Etsy and Facebook.

Things took a slight turn in August 2016.  After I had published The Looking-Glass Portrait and was working on what I hoped would be my next book, I took a break one afternoon to browse through the freebies on Amazon.  I found this:

It's gone from Amazon now, but it was free that particular day and it looked harmless enough, so I downloaded it.  But I couldn't believe what I found.

It was garbage.

I won't bore you with the whole review -- which you can read on BookLikes here -- but it was pretty darn bad.  And I knew there were a whole bunch more like it, because I had downloaded them too.  I just didn't know what they were!

This was August of 2016.  Almost two years ago.  And if you read the comments posted to that review, even then there were questions about the Kindle Unlimited page views.  If I had stayed in the writing community, maybe I would have followed up on it.  I didn't.

This particular book was a collection of unrelated stories, a veritable hodgepodge of romances set in different eras and locations, with varying degrees of "heat."  Mafia romances, biker romances, shifter romances, Regency romances.  All of them poorly written, poorly formatted.  I had already downloaded several more of Sarah Thorn's other books, but I didn't even open them.  They weren't worth my time.

But I couldn't review on Amazon.  I was banned from Goodreads.  So I reviewed it on BookLikes where nothing much happened.  I didn't expect anything to happen.  BookLikes is too small a platform in terms of number of users.  There was no way for the word to spread about this type of

It wasn't until October 2017 that I encountered the next odd book on Kindle.  It, too, has disappeared from Amazon, but it was there last October. 

Again, the product was so . . . odd that I reviewed it on BookLikes in substantial detail.  And this time the comments were eye-popping.  One of them included a link to a David Gaughran blog post about book stuffers.  In that post, Gaughran stated that he had been in contact with Amazon about this problem for sixteen months.  Gaughran's post is dated July 2017.  So this issue of bookstuffing has been known and discussed with Amazon since at least March 2016.

I suspect Mr. Gaughran has gone way beyond frustrated by now.

I know a little bit about how he feels.  I went through the same thing when reporting on review buyers and sellers to Goodreads.  It became a bit of an obsession, and I wasn't even really writing at the time.  A few of my books had been republished on KDP, but I didn't really have a horse in the race.  It was all a matter of principle.

A principle that I should have risen to defend in October 2017, but I didn't.  And therefore I owe a huge apology to David Gaughran.

Because as I realized today, it's all related.  Or at least maybe it is.

So many critical voices were silenced as a result of the 2013 Goodreads Purge that maybe there were few to sound the alarms over the bookstuffing.

I had to stop and ask myself, as I pulled all this out of my personal wayback machine, how I had failed to pick up on it.  The answer was, sadly, pretty damn obvious.  In October 2017 I was just starting my annual season of arts and crafts shows.  When I wasn't preparing for one show, I was often recovering from another.  I went through several agonizing bouts of back spasms that often had me laid up for a week or more.  I was trying to write, too.  My brain was just going in too many directions.

Now here we are at June 2018.  My show season is over; outdoor temperatures are hitting triple digits so I'm comfortably settled for the summer.  Oh, I still have work to do to prepare for the 2018-2019 show season, but I shouldn't be bothered with back spasms or the tendonitis that flared up this winter in my left elbow.

As they say, getting old isn't for sissies.

I've been thinking for the past few months that it was time to resurrect this writing blog anyway.  So here I am, wondering what we do next about the book stuffing.  #GETLOUD at Twitter is, I guess one way.  But what are we up against?  And who cares?

Well, the authors sure ought to care.

Let's look at some numbers, just for fun.  The pot of Amazon money set aside for the Kindle Unlimited (and to a lesser extent the Kindle Owners Lending Library, or KOLL) is currently at $21.2 million for April 2018, to be paid in June.  At $10 per month for the KU subscription, that represents at least two million subscribers.  We can safely assume Amazon isn't turning over all the KU money to the fund, so if that $21.2 million is only $8 out of each subscription, that adds another half a million readers.  Plus all those who in any given month sign up for the free month and then cancel.

Is there anything scientific about this estimate?  No, not really.  What it does, however, is give an idea of how vast the pool of readers is out there who might care about book stuffing.

The KU subscriber who encounters a stuffed book might not care.  She's already paid her fee, so if she gets a dud book, it's no real loss.  She returns it and checks out another.  In that sense, she's not out anything and could be said to not have a dog in this race.

What about the non-KU reader?  She shells out $2.99 or $4.99 or even $0.99 for a stuffed book, discovers it's full of "stuff" she's already read, and she returns it.

Or will she?

Remember that Amazon recently instituted new policies about limiting returns.  What if the reader is now faced with the risk of returning a stuffed book . . . or losing her Amazon account altogether?

If she chooses not to return it, she's out the money, and the author is rewarded for his scam.  The reader may decide to be less eager to spend money on self-publishing authors and stick with the better-known, familiar names from the traditional publishers.  (This is why trad publishers are not likely to come to the assistance of readers or writers of author published material.  As long as the indie stuff remains bad, it sends more readers to the trad publishers.)

If the readers don't appear to be hurt by the book stuffing scam, what about the non-stuffing writers?  They're the ones who are really hurt.

At the current limit of 3000 KENPC per book, the stuffer is paid $15 for each "first" read.  It's very easy to slip in a link at the beginning of the book that takes the reader immediately to the end.  It may be a link to a newsletter sign-up or even a link to a Table of Contents that's at the end of the book instead of the beginning!  Regardless what it is, as soon as the reader reaches the end of the book, the author is credited with a full read, even if 99.9% of the book has been skipped over.  Instant $15 profit.

Next month, the author shuffles the order of the "stories" in the book, slaps on a new cover and new title, and publishes again.  Another $15 royalty, even though none of the content is new!

Some of the stuffer/scammers boast of six-figure monthly incomes from their books.  That money comes out of the general pool, meaning it's less for the non-stuffing authors -- like me!  It's not just the per-page payout that's affected.  Amazon also pays All-Star bonuses for the most pages read.  My book at 637 pages doesn't stand a chance against those 3,000 KENPC stuffed monsters, with links that take the reader to the end from page one.  So the pool shrinks further.

Not to mention, of course, that Amazon sales are driven by reviews and reads and algorithms.  A book that gets lots of page reads will generate its own visibility, and when the book stuffers are all grouped together, they corral all the visibility to themselves.

A check of Tia Siren's Love Next Door: A Romance Compilation shows that the first four "Customers who bought this book also bought" recommendations are also stuffed books:

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What happens as a result is that independent, self-publishing authors find themselves unable to earn enough to keep writing.  Some have (reluctantly?) turned to book stuffing themselves, gaming a system that's rigged in favor of the gamesters.  Others have turned to other publishing platforms where at least they don't have to compete with the stuffers. Others have given up entirely.

Readers lose out and writers lose out, and the scammers win big.  Now that some people are speaking out, is it too late?  The scammers are being reported to Amazon, but is it doing any good?

If you look at a selection of these books, they get few negative reviews, if any.  So how is anyone to know they're not well-written, not well-formatted for the digital reader, and not stuffed with old stories?

Looking at just one at random, I can immediately see from the "Look Inside" preview that the formatting is off.

I downloaded the free sample to my plain Kindle, and the double spacing between paragraphs made the reading experience uncomfortable, but not impossible.  I've seen worse.

But here's the thing -- the writing is bad.  It's bad from the beginning.  It's bad on the micro level that few readers pay attention to.  It's bad on the level that would keep the writer from ever being considered by a traditional, gatekeeping publisher.

Parades don't arrive from the town square.  If there were to be a parade for the home-coming hero, he would be in it and it would go to the town square.  Is this important?  Is it nit-picky?  Yes, to both.

Unless, of course, this is just crappy erotica to be read for the titillation and the profit.

But the second paragraph is worse, because weapons aren't automated.  They're automatic, or semi-automatic.  This error tells me the author doesn't give a shit about the quality of the writing.

The few negative reviews contain references to the level of sexual content in the book as being quite high.  One review refers to it as porn.  I'd be willing to bet that most of the stuffed books that are topping the Amazon sales charts are also high on the sex level.

Is that what it's come down to?  Is it all just porn?  Is it all just fuck books with no attempt to write well, craft a story, create an imaginary world for the reader to slip into for a while?

I'd like to think not.

But no one criticizes these books.  No one points out how badly written they are.  Is it because no one cares?  Or is it because no one knows how to tell bad writing from good?  Is it because those who do know the difference have been bludgeoned into silence by the hordes of "Think of the author's feelings!" and "If you can't say something nice. . . " and "I have to leave good reviews if I want to keep getting free ARCs from the authors!"

The silence at Goodreads and Amazon when it comes to badly written and/or badly published books is at least part of what allowed this to happen.

Do reviewers have the right to publish only positive reviews?  Yes, they do.

Do reviewers have the right to publish only positive reviews because they want to keep getting free books?  Yes, they do.

Do reviewers have the right to publish only positive reviews because they don't want to hurt the authors' feelings?  Yes, they do.

Do reviewers have the right to publish only positive reviews because even though the books are bad they don't know how to tell anyone they're bad?  Yes, they do.

Do reviewers have the right to publish only positive reviews because they're afraid of the backlash from fans or authors if they publish a negative review?  Yes, they do.

Do reviewers have the right to publish only positive reviews because they are also authors and don't want anyone to give their books negative reviews in revenge?  Yes, they do.

Do readers have the right to read honest reviews of both good and bad books so they can make informed decisions on how to spend their money and their time?

Yes, they do.

If books are badly written, if they are poorly researched, if they are stuffed with other material to boost KU page reads, they deserve to be reviewed as such.  Readers deserve to know this.


Monday, January 23, 2017

Word Power: Part One: Introduction

"The time has come," the Walrus said, "to talk of many things."

It's not the opening line to Lewis Carroll's Jabberwocky, but most of us are familiar with it.  And if we don't know all the words, we know from the title of the poem that it's probably going to deal with nonsense.

Perhaps we need to relearn how to deal with nonsense.  Perhaps we, like Alice, have walked through the looking-glass into a world of alternative facts.

There has lately been much talk -- by way of such cyber-print entities as Facebook and Twitter -- of the classic doublespeak in George Orwell's 1984.  We know that Ayn Rand's alternative reality of Atlas Shrugged has had a profound influence on current affairs, just as Upton Sinclair's The Jungle did almost a century ago and even Uncle Tom's Cabin long before that. 

What many of us seem to have lost sight of is the enormous power of popular culture to effect serious social change.  While it may be said that movements give rise to culture, the cross pollination may also be necessary to produce fruit.  How much did the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s owe to the folk rock music of the era, and vice versa? 

How much of the normalization of a potentially dystopian future is owed to the proliferation of dystopian fiction?  How much acceptance of gun violence is due to acceptance of gun violence in video games?  How much violence against women is related to misogyny in advertising?  How much of rape culture is perpetuated through romantic film and books?

By education I am a sociologist, but I do not claim expertise.  I do, however, believe that if we are to avoid the repetition of the worst of our species's recent history, we need to take a much closer look at how popular culture influenced it in the past, and how it can do so in the future, for good or evil.

That's what I'm going to do here.  Comments of course are welcome.  I'll be back shortly.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Word Perfection

No one is perfect.  Well, except Nadia Comaneci, and Torvill and Dean.

That doesn't mean we can't or shouldn't strive for perfection.

I take a great deal of pride in my grammar, spelling, and proofreading skills.  I know that mine are above average, but I also know that the results of refining those skills are attainable by nearly every writer who dreams of uploading a manuscript to Amazon. 

I finished the actual writing of The Looking-Glass Portrait on 11 July 2016.  Because it was written using Word Perfect, I had to convert the document to Microsoft Word before I could upload it.  There are certain conventions of the two softwares that are not 100% compatible, so I had to go through the entire manuscript and make manual corrections to things like em and en dashes, tabs and ellipses, double breaks and so on. This also gave me the opportunity to look in both versions for marked spelling errors and fix them. 

Spell check tools are wonderful.  They won't catch everything, but they catch a lot.  Anyone who doesn't take advantage of them is just plain foolish.  I've seen too many author-published works on Amazon that have clearly never been run through even the most rudimentary spell-checking program.  This is unforgivable.

After putting my MSWord document through the conversion to HTML and then to mobi, I uploaded it to Kindle Direct Publishing on 18 July.  Yes, just one week.  No one else had read it.  No one else had proofread it.  No one else had edited it.  I knew I was taking a huge risk that I might have missed something major, but I was willing to take that risk and trust at least to my own proofreading skills.

The uploading process contains its own spell check application.  I used it, too, because you never know what the other programs might have missed.  And they had in fact missed one typo that I was able to fix before uploading.  I hit the "publish" button.

By Word Perfect's count, the book is something over 138,000 words long.  After a few readers got back to me, we had identified a grand total of three -- three -- errors that escaped my eagle eyes:  a missing space between two words, a wrong word, and a missing word.  All were easily fixed so the corrected document can be uploaded to Amazon.

Am I bragging?  Yes, I am!  But I'm also saying that this can be done by anyone who is willing to learn the skills or learn to rely on others who have the skills.  Your readers should be able to sit down with your book and read it, not correct it.  Are three errors acceptable?  Well, not by me!  Would I throw a book against a wall for three errors in 400 pages?  No, of course not.  But I wouldn't read past the first page if I found three errors on it.

It's not enough to put your heart and soul, your blood, sweat, and tears into you book.  You have to put your skill into it, too.  Language is the absolutely essential tool you have with which to build your literary world, and if you don't learn to use it with consummate skill, you probably won't be able to tell a story people will be willing to pay good money for.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Getting the word out about getting the words out.

I'm going to indulge in a bit of shameless self promotion here and post the cover to my recently self-published romance novel, The Looking-Glass Portrait.  I am not comfortable doing this, but I also don't want some of the other images presented in this entry to show up when I post a link.

Anyone who has been following me much at all knows that I frequently make reference to the old days of traditional print publication.  I'm going to do that again in this post, so if you're sick and tired of that subject, you can skip this one.  ;-)

Anyone who has been following me much at all also knows I am terrible at self-promotion.  I love talking about writing, expressing my opinions about good and bad writing, chatting up weird crap that happens in my life whether related to writing or not, showing off some of my artsy fartsy crafting.  But even here on my own little blog, I have significant difficulty promoting my own books.  This is nothing new.  I've always been reticent about tooting my own horn.

Part of the reason is that when I began writing with the intention of getting my work published, I was ridiculed and discouraged.  For many, many years, I was told I had no chance to sell my work to a legitimate publisher and that I was foolish -- sometimes the operative word was "stupid" -- to try.  Considering that I began writing adult fiction at about the age of eleven and didn't sell my first novel until I was 36, that was a lot of ridicule and discouragement. At one point, I was fired from a job because my boss didn't believe I was really writing a book and therefore I must be lying and untrustworthy.

Had there been any countering support or encouragement, the outcome might have been different, but there was very, very little.  The overwhelming majority  of reaction was negative, and especially after losing a job over it, I learned the very difficult lesson and kept my mouth shut.

Even after selling that first novel, I didn't always get positive reaction.  In the early 1980s, historical romances were routinely dismissed as "bodice-rippers" or soft porn, and anything described as a romance was often just dismissed as "a Harlequin."  So even though I had achieved publication, the nature of my work did not attract anything like acceptance of success.

Along with the routine dismissal of romance fiction as a genre, there was also an expectation that writers all made lots of money.  Few non-writers understood that royalty rates for the newly published were often just four percent of the retail cover price.  When Legacy of Honor was published in 1985, that meant I earned 16 cents for each copy sold at $3.95.

In a saturated market like romance, certain authors hit it big, but many others didn't.  And it took a combination of many factors to reach the level of sales that allowed a writer to make a career at the craft.  One had to be reasonably prolific; Janet Dailey made a name for herself by writing a new book every month.  As an example of "nothing succeeds like success," Dailey was able to devote herself full-time to her career and leave everything else to her husband.

What few writers understood back in the heyday of romance publishing in the 1980s and 1990s was that publishing was a business and writing was an art.  The overwhelming majority of the writers were women, and the overwhelming majority of them had no experience with or knowledge about the publishing business.  Kathryn Falk's magazine Romantic Times and the organization Romance Writers of America, Inc, both founded in the early 1980s, promoted romance writing as a desirable and lucrative career for women, with Publication(sic) as the brass ring.

RT and RWA also promoted promotion.  Authors were (strongly) encouraged to buy advertising in RT and accompany the ads with personal profiles or articles further promoting their latest titles.  Again, success bred success, as those who either already had sufficient income to afford paid advertising or those who had achieved sufficient sales levels with previous books could buy additional advertising, get their books in front of the reading public, and sell more.

This was a huge departure from traditional publishing promotion, which had been handled by the publishers.  Whether they took out ads in newspapers and magazines, sent their top listed authors on paid book tours, or booked them onto television shows -- Janet Dailey, for instance, appeared on The Phil Donohue Show in 1981 -- the publishers arranged for and in many cases paid for the promotion of their authors and their books.

What happened as a result of RT and RWA was that for romance writers in particular, these new venues for promotion allowed publishers to deftly slide some of the responsibility -- and cost -- for promotion onto the authors.  Did this in turn prompt higher royalty rates?  Of course not!  What are you, crazy?

Indeed, publishers found more and more ways to cut royalties to romance writers.  Bulk sales and direct-mail subscription clubs paying two percent or less became popular ways to add to publisher revenue; these options were less viable for other genres simply because science fiction, mystery, and other types of novels didn't have the market share that romance did.

Do you begin to see how this played out?  Over a period of less than twenty years, much of the burden of promotion had shifted from the publisher to the romance writer while more and more of the profit had shifted from the writer to the publisher.  It was a very convenient spiral, and many of the writers who couldn't afford to pay to play just quit the game or stayed in the lower ranks of midlist and never achieved stardom.

By the time digital self-publishing became a truly viable option for writers, the shift to self-promotion had been fully established in the romance writing community.  To a slightly lesser extent, it had also become a feature in science fiction and fantasy, though through a different route.  Fan conventions had long been a tradition in the science fiction and fantasy community of writers and readers, thus providing various venues for authors as well as publishers to market and promote directly to readers.  Fan fiction was another tradition in sf/f writing and publishing, and as the two top-selling genres began crossing over into each other's turf -- primarily from romance taking on more and more sf/f elements -- the commercial aspects of romance publishing were becoming established for sf/f writers.

Whether the extent of self-promotion that became de rigeur for romance would ever have achieved the same status in sf/f is almost moot.  Digital self-publishing forced it on every writer in every genre, with few exceptions.

Digital self-publishing -- let's call it DSP for convenience -- cut out the commercial publishers entirely.  Writers no longer had to go through the arduous and often discouraging process of sending their manuscripts to publishers and agents who all too often sent the works back with form letter rejections.  Writers now needed only to upload their MSWord document files and presto! they were published authors, often literally overnight.  Instead of four percent or even eight percent royalties, these new DSP authors could brag about collecting 35% to 70% of the digital cover price.

That 16-cents-per-copy that I earned for Legacy of Honor as a $3.95 paperback in 1985 could become (roughly) 30-cents-per-copy for a 99-cent Kindle edition in 2013.

Of course DSP also means the writer has to provide all the services that used to be done by the publisher: editing, formatting, proofreading, cover art, and promotion.

Back in those old days of traditional print publication, the typical reader walked into a bookstore -- new or used doesn't matter -- or library and chose their preferred reading material from a fairly limited supply.  Virtually all of the titles had gone through the same reasonably professional production process from manuscript to printed book, and the reader could be reasonably confident that whatever book she took from the shelf would be readable.  It may not be great by whatever her personal standards might be, and it may not be to her personal taste, but it would be competently produced in terms of a commercial product.

And while the acquiring editors at any given publishing house might screw up and pass on the next best-seller, there was also a pretty good chance that few commercially viable manuscripts fell completely through the cracks.  In other words, to put it simply, if the book was any good, it would find a publisher.

With DSP, virtually everything about publishing changed, though some things changed more than others.

One thing that changed was the profit motive for publishers.  Traditional publishers knew enough about their markets that they chose products they firmly believed would sell and bring a reasonable return on the investment in editing, printing, and promotion.  They had to pay for their staff and overhead, and they also had to show a profit to the stockholders.  They couldn't afford to publish garbage, at least not on a routine basis.

DSP allowed writers to publish garbage and not answer to anyone at all.

DSP erased all the distinctions that used to protect readers from garbage.

While writers might be expected, even in the age of DSP, to have a working knowledge of how publishing used to work, most readers had no interest back then and still don't.  Whether they are browsing the shelves in a big Barnes and Noble media store, digging through the offerings on the Friends of the Library two-for-a-dollar sale table, or scrolling through the Amazon Kindle listings in order low price to high, the readers still see "published" as "published."  And all they really want to do is read good books.

Let me give you an example.

The link is to a novel titled Surrender Ma'Lady by one Willow Fae von Wicken.  I will leave it to you whether you want to look at the text of the book itself, but be warned that the quality of the writing is, well, it's probably best described as below standard.

The story is described, per the listing on Amazon as:

Victoria Whittenberg was shipwrecked and bound by shackles, trapped in the clutches of Enrico Rodriguez, her captor, the man who she witnessed shoot her fiancé. She was left with little choice but to approach a lone rider who had witnessed her demise, and without a word, he rode away, leaving her to the mercy of killers.

Although a publisher is listed, Dymond Publishing appears to be a front for the author-as-publisher.  That prospective readers are unaware of the realities of publishing is evidenced by the following, a review posted on Amazon for this book:

"Worst case of editing that I have ever seen."

Except that the author was (more than likely) the only "editor" the book ever saw.

And this is not a rare phenomenon.  Over the past several years, there have been countless cases of writers whose books have been negatively reviewed who have complained that they can't afford an editor, and/or are waiting until they make enough sales that they can afford an editor, at which time they will re-publish the book and all the readers who slogged through the unedited version can now read it again, edited.  As if they wished to.

Willow Fae von Wicken's book is perma-free at Amazon.  (I don't know how that works, only that it does.)  There are lots and lots of freebies in all genres, and many of them are DSP works that would never have seen print in the old days.  That's what the publishing industry has evolved into.  I'm not passing judgment here, though my loathing for traditional print publishers is no secret.  DSP has given many people opportunities for writing careers that they might never have had in the old days.

However, DSP has thrown readers into an unexpected chaos, and this is why I have tried to champion readers and their rights ahead of writers and their rights, at least in the marketplace.

Promotion is now the name of the game, not publishing.  Anyone can be published, but now it takes promotion to make a career. 

Writing a book and publishing it via DSP costs pretty much nothing.  Of course a writer can pay for professional editing and proofreading and cover art, but none of those expenditures are mandatory, and many unsophisticated writers -- those who turn out works of the quality of Surrender Ma'Lady or just slightly better -- consider such services unnecessary in terms of establishing their careers as authors.  Promotion, however, is another thing entirely.  Promotion that generates visibility for the work is essential, many writers believe, to garnering sales.  Promotion becomes not only the motivating force behind everything the writer does, but also justification for anything she does.

This includes, but is certainly not limited to, traditional promotional tools such as paid ads, distributing free copies of the book for reviews, soliciting endorsements from established writers with recognized followings.

Digital Self Publishing, however, is part of the whole digital universe, and social media in all its forms has become the billboard -- in the original sense of the word -- for the self-publishing author.  Promotion through social media, then, includes but is not limited to:

Spamming her book, its cover, its blurb everywhere she can think of. Every Facebook post, Instagram and Twitter several times a day. joining every discussion group on Goodreads whether it allows promotion or not.  The irresistible urge to spam was what led to Amazon restricting promotional posts to certain forums, because readers and participants in the other forums got sick of the spam.

Purchasing 5-star reviews from "gig" sites such as, to be posted to the book's Amazon and Goodreads' listings in violation of those sites' Terms of Use.  Also purchasing upvotes of favorable reviews (and downvotes of negative reviews), adding the book to Listopias and other promotional tools.  

These paid-for "reviews" are, of course, violations of U.S. Federal Trade Commission regulations, but the feds aren't going to go after either the paid reviewers or the writers.  The FTC  might, however, crackdown on the commercial sites such as Amazon if the level of violation reaches too high.  Regardless, the pressure to achieve visibility is enormous, and many writers will succumb to the temptation.

Sometimes the violation is less odious than buying the reviews.  Having family and friends -- with "friends" encompassing fellow writers who agree to do "I'll scratch your back if you scratch mine" quid pro quo favorable reviews -- pose as strangers to leave favorable reviews is another way to gain visibility, even though it's just as much in violation of FTC regulations and certain sites' TOUs as the paid reviews.

And sometimes the desperate need for visibility prompts writers to set themselves up as arbiters of moral standards, declaring that only certain kinds of reviews should be allowed, that only certain kinds of readers should be allowed to review, that reviewers have an obligation to the writer rather than to their fellow readers.

These are the writers who have forgotten -- if they ever knew in the first place -- that reviews are for the readers, not for the writers.  Reviews are the observations and comments and opinions of unbiased, independent readers to readers.  Does the foremost book retailer,, violate this standard with their "Top Reviewer" status, often conferred on people who love every book sent to them because that's how they continue to get free books?  Yeah, they do.  Do readers know and understand and qualify or disqualify those reviews?  I'm sure some do, but I'm also sure many don't.

I took a long vacation from the book community because I was sick and tired of the blatant gaming of the system.  I felt I was losing my perspective not only as to what was good writing and what wasn't, but also as to what was legitimate criticism and what wasn't.  Did the books of writers like Willow Fae von Wicken and Raani York, Sharon Desruisseaux and Victor Bertolaccini deserve the scathing reviews I left for them?  Had I made my criticisms too personal, even though I knew nothing about the writers?

I still don't know for sure.

What I do know, however, is that this drive for visibility, and especially for favorable, 5-star visibility, may lie behind the sudden uptick in successful authors drifting onto the dark side of questionable behavior.  Why else would a writer with over 9,000 followers on her Facebook page put out a plea that readers treat her books like her babies, with only the utmost kindness and consideration and no criticism?  Why else would a writer with over 90,000 followers on her Facebook page urge those followers to manipulate one of her negative reviews so she didn't have to see it any more.  

As author Jenny Trout has written about readers, 

They already gave your book the time it took to read it. Why on earth should we be asking for more? And it feels as though the question devalues that reader who doesn’t leave a review. “You don’t count,” we’re saying. “You read the book, but you didn’t leave a review, so you’re not as appreciated as my other readers.”
Sadly, Amazon sends out requests for reviews that the writer has no control over; that's the way Amazon operates, and the writer has to put up with the fallout if the reader gets ticked off.  (And yes, writers also have to put up with the disgruntled readers who leave low rated reviews over issues the writer has no control over.)  And yes, it's a reality that reviews generate visibility and all of us writers want visibility.

But to what level do we need to stoop to get it?  Urging random readers, who may know nothing about effective reviewing, to leave a comment like, "Great book, I loved it.  You should read it"?  Is that what happens when a writer lists her book for free and 4,000 people download it because it's free but only seventeen actually read it?

I probably wouldn't have given all of this much thought except for the fact that I was reading a DSP title the other day in which the author's front material included this:

Please remember to leave a review which greatly helps everyone.

(Heath, Tim. Cherry Picking . Tim Heath Books. Kindle Edition.)
 My thought was, well, I'm not sure it would help Tim Heath if I left a negative review.  It might help other readers who don't want their time wasted on poorly written books.  It certainly, however, would not help me to leave a negative review.  As an author  I am not allowed to leave negative reviews on Amazon, as it could be considered a conflict of interest.  As an author I am allowed to leave positive reviews, because . . . well, because no one considers that it might be a tit-for-tat review, or the author might be a friend of mine.  So the bottom line is, I'm not going to leave a review on Amazon under any circumstances.

But then we go back to the business of reviewers leaving reviews that are "helpful" to the author, meaning the review is critical but offers suggestions that will help the author improve the book in subsequent revisions or improve the next book.  As I have argued time and again, it is never the reader's job to help the writer do anything.  No reader should ever feel obligated to donate her time and expertise to help a writer make more money.  (Many authors do not react kindly to "helpful" reviews anyway, so there is some risk involved in volunteering.  Been there, done that.)

This is especially true, in my never humble opinion, if the reader is also another writer.  Why should any professional writer, one who has taken the time and effort to learn her craft, be pressured into helping her competition?  (Tim Heath is probably not my competition; I don't think we write the same type of novel or target the same audience, but who knows?)

The other side of that  same coin is that many readers may not know enough to provide accurate advice. If a writer's writing skills are substandard and she is looking for readers to help her out, she probably doesn't know enough to tell the difference between good advice and bad advice.

Another comment Jenny Trout made resonated with me because I had just posted about this issue on my own Facebook timeline:

So many writers will tell you that the reason they write is because they enjoy it. It’s too difficult a job to do if your heart isn’t in it. So, if what you need to enjoy it is reviews, and you’re not getting them and your heart is not in it, then maybe it’s time to rethink some priorities. But it’s your job to decide whether or not to continue. Don’t put that responsibility on readers.
I can't not write.  Even when I wasn't writing, I was writing.  Even during that twenty years between Touchstone and The Looking-Glass Portrait, I was writing.  I just wasn't finishing novels.  But I can't not write.  Would I like to be making more money at it?  Sure!  But the money isn't what makes me write.

As a writer, I understand exactly what Jenny Trout is writing about when she continues:
I know that it’s frustrating when you see people racking up fantastic review after fantastic review. I know you want your book to reach the widest possible audience and have two full pages of positive quotes to sell it.
But what no one seems to be saying is, "What if those fantastic reviews are lies?"

It's one thing to risk alienating your readers by begging for a review; I think it's another thing entirely to risk everyone else's readers by encouraging, buying, or posting fake reviews.  We know it has happened; I've posted enough analyses myself of the purchased reviews from  But what is a DSP writer to do?

I know you're tired of reading all my blathering, and yes, I guess I sort of did take your question of "What time is it?" as an excuse to tell you how to build a clock, but that's the way I am. 

I hate self promotion.  I'm very bad at it.  I don't know how to do it.  And I think the shenanigans of writers like the two who have gone off the rails this week and all the others before and after them have made it more and more difficult for the rest of us.  They're applying pressure to us, the mid-listers and below, to jump into that game of racking up the reviews by fair means or foul.

I make it a practice not to read any reviews of my work.  Even when someone else re-posts them, I avoid reading them.  Reviews are for readers.  Period.  End of discussion.

I'm reasonably accessible online.  If a reader has something they really think I need to know about something they've found in one of my books, such as an error of fact or an internal inconsistency or a TSTL character, I'm not that difficult to contact.  Here on the blog, for instance.  Or on Facebook.  Or on Booklikes.  The worst I'll probably do to a stalker/harasser/troll is block them, unless of course they get really threatening, in which case I'll go to the police.

But if you want to leave a scathing review, be my guest.  I'll even help you.

Ten free Kindle copies of The Looking-Glass Portrait to the first ten people who request them.  I'll know you've read to the end of this atrociously long screed, because this is the only place I'll mention it.  I have the DRM-free mobi file to send via email, which you can then transfer to your Kindle or Kindle app.

Is a review required?  No, of course not, and because I never look, I'll never know anyway.

And then we'll see what happens.  Maybe nothing.  But that's okay.  I can't not write.

Friday, July 22, 2016

When the only words are "How cool is that!"

I don't believe in omens. Seriously, I do not believe in omens. I know I keep saying it, but it's true. I don't believe in omens.

We will forget about all the omens that led me this past April to pick up a book I'd started in 1996 and start writing on it again, a process that resulted in the publication earlier this week of that book, The Looking-Glass Portrait, on Amazon.

I immediately began work on a new book, which I have only the vaguest idea where I'm going with. The opening scene is of the main character, one Iola Fairfield, taking leave of her old life in Indiana and heading out on her own. She gets into her car, starts the engine and . . . . 

"Satisfied that everything looked in order, I put the key in the ignition and turned the car on.  I knew that as soon as I pulled out of the parking lot, I would never look back.  There was nothing here for me at all.  Instead of looking back, I looked at the clock.  Ten minutes after eleven.  I waited another minute before shifting the Suburban into gear.  Eleven had always been a lucky number for me, even though I wasn't particularly superstitious, and it seemed fitting to begin this journey at the auspicious moment of 11:11."

Now, this may seem trivial to you, and in reality it is. There is eventual significance in the novel, but that's not what this post is about.
This post is about baseball.
I am not a fanatic baseball fan, the kind who remembers stats and so on with an encyclopedic memory.  And I'm certainly not a personally athletic person by any means.  But I am a Chicago White Sox fan.
In seventh grade, in Bill Kyger's social studies class at South Junior High School, we studied Illinois and Chicago history.  We had to do "projects," some kind of 3-D construction of something depicting Illinois or Chicago culture.  I'm sure there were the usual models of Fort Dearborn and maybe someone constructed a model of the Water Tower out of sugar cubes.  I made a model of Comiskey Park.

In the spring of that same school year, my buddy Sue S. and I decided we would enter the Chicago Daily News batboy contest.  As I recall, entrants had to write 200 words (or some such) on why they wanted to be the White Sox batboy.  Two boys would be chosen, one for the home team and one for the visitors, but every entrant would receive an official baseball.  And yes, of course, in 1961 this contest was open only to boys.  That didn't matter to me; I was determined to enter anyway, and I thought Sue was, too.  I wrote out my little essay, forged my mother's signature to the entrance form, and sent it off.  Sue chickened out.  But it didn't matter; I was apparently disqualified for being a girl -- or for doing a bad job of forgery? -- and never even got my free baseball.

Girls couldn't play Little League then, and my high school didn't even have girls' softball.  Not that I probably would have made the team anyway, but it would have been nice to know I wasn't automatically excluded.  Oh, well, I could still be a spectator.

Did I have a favorite player?  Oh, of course I did.

One morning in the spring of 1996, the phone rang.  I answered it, and it was my son Kevin calling from Tempe, where he was attending Arizona State University.  

"I'll bet you don't know what day it is," he taunted.

"Of course, I do," I replied without any hesitation whatsoever.  "It's the 29th of April, which means it's Luis Aparicio's birthday."

Aparicio was the star shortstop for the Go-Go White Sox in the late 1950s and 1960s.  Everyone in the family knew he was my favorite player.  His uniform number, as you can see above, was 11.

Then there was the Mother's Day a year or so later when Kevin walked in the house with a gift for me from -- if I remember the name correctly -- The Glass Cage, a sports memorabilia store.  The baseball autographed by Luis Aparicio still sits on top of my piano.

I missed watching the opening game of the 2005 World Series between the White Sox and Houston Astros, when Aparicio threw out the ceremonial first pitch, but I watched the next three games as the Sox swept the Astros to their first championship since 1917.  I remembered the 1959 series and the loss to the Dodgers; 2005 was special.

There's other stuff, tangential stuff, irrelevant stuff, the weird stuff that gets tucked into a writer's head to be pulled out when some bit of weird stuff is needed, whether it's an old house with plastic tulip shade pulls or an auspicious moment for a character to embark on a new life.  So it was that just a couple of days ago, my fictional Iola Fairfield hopped into her car and waited to leave the parking lot until 11:11.

But wait!  There's more!

That same son who teased me about Aparicio's birthday and brought me the autographed baseball is now raising his own son to play baseball.  This week Kevin and Andrew are making a pilgrimage to Cooperstown, New York, to the Baseball Hall of Fame.  This morning, Kevin sent me a picture on Facebook.

How cool!

(And yeah, at this point I was already thinking about that auspicious start to a journey at 11:11 and dismissing it all because I really don't believe in omens.)

Shortly after receiving the Facebook post, I heard the whistle on my cell phone that indicates a text message.  "Ok" he wrote.   "So are you ready for this????"

Followed by


How cool is that???!!!!!!!!!

But I still don't believe in omens.  Really and truly I don't.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Where the words came from

Very, very, VERY long background on the project that has occupied me for the past two months (and four days).

Let me start out by saying once again that I am NOT superstitious and I do NOT believe in "omens." I do think, however, that our brains latch onto things from deep in our subconscious that trigger connections we sort of forgot about until that subconscious throws them in our faces again.

That's what happened back in April with a shared Facebook story about a duplex in Toronto that was basically unchanged from the time it was built in the 1950s or so.

It looks like a typical '50s duplex, very similar to the one my aunt and uncle built shortly after my cousin was born, which was 1956. The three of them lived in the downstairs unit, and my aunt's widowed mother, whom we called Aunt Petie even though her real name was Gertrude, had the upstairs. 
My Uncle Dick is my mother's brother, so Aunt Shirley was only related to me by marriage. Her dad, Cornelius Stryker, was a commercial artist, a career my aunt also followed. She was an only child, and in turn only had one child, my cousin Connie. Connie also went into the arts; she and her husband Paul have a graphic arts and printing business in the Chicago suburbs.

You'll understand all these details . . . . eventually.

We were a very small and geographically close family, so holidays were spent at the in-laws' homes as much as the family's. My dad's family, the Wheelers, also lived in Edison Park not far from the Strykers, and his sister, also Shirley, was friends with Shirley Stryker who married my mother's brother. In fact, the Wheelers' house on Owen Avenue was not more than a few blocks from the Strykers' on Olcott. My dad and both Aunts Shirley went to the same grade school, Ebinger. Thus I was relatively familiar with the Stryker house, where Aunt Petie lived until 1957 or so, when I would have been nine years old. And that's old enough to remember things.

As the oldest of the five cousins born in that time period -- my brother and sister are half a generation younger -- I was eventually granted special privileges when visiting the Stryker house, the biggest of which was to use the upstairs bathroom. It was a marvelous, mysterious blue, totally unlike any other bathroom I had ever seen. The stairway was beautiful polished dark wood, with a large landing in the middle where it turned 180 degrees. On that landing was a glass fronted case containing my aunt's collection of dolls from all over the world, gifts from a family friend. I was also the only one of the children allowed to sit on the landing and look at the dolls.

I loved the house. And over the years, even after Uncle Neil Stryker died and Aunt Petie moved in with my Uncle Dick and Aunt Shirley, certain details of the house remained absolutely crystal clear in my memory, as clear as the crystal knobs on the interior doors in the house. I remembered the very modern chrome and glass end tables in the living room, the dining room, the closed-in back porch where we kids played, the white painted brick fireplace with its never burned white birch logs. The back yard with all the tulips -- the Strykers were Dutch and the yard had hundreds of tulips -- and the kind of creepy basement, too, all stuck in my memory.
There was another creepy thing about the house.

During the Depression, Cornelius Stryker worked as a window dresser for some of the department stores in downtown Chicago, and he supplemented his income by making plaster of Paris figurines which he then painted and sold. I still have a set of five little puppies that my aunt gave me after he had passed away. But one thing that he had made scared the crap out of me. It was a head, maybe of a person or maybe of a frog or maybe of something in between, and it was painted green and it had its mouth wide open. The inside of the mouth was painted red. The whole thing was about as big as the palm of your hand. It was used to hold a pot scrubber, such as an SOS pad or whatever, and it sat on the counter in the kitchen, and I was terrified of it.  Absolutely terrified.  I can still see that thing in my mind's eye, creepy as hell.

I have other memories of the house that may not be quite as clear or may not even be memories so much as they are products of my imagination.

On the other side of the kitchen from the counter where the plaster thing was, I recall a little breakfast nook, pretty much like a booth in a restaurant. The two benches and the table were painted bright red enamel, and there was a window overlooking the back yard and garden. That window faced east, and to block the morning sun at breakfast time, there was an ordinary pull-down window shade. The pull on the shade was a little red plastic charm of tulips growing in a wooden shoe. I have no idea why I was so fascinated by that red plastic shade pull, but I was, and I remembered it with absolute clarity.

As I said, Uncle Neil died in the mid-1950s, and Aunt Petie sold the house in Edison Park and moved in with Uncle Dick and Aunt Shirley and Connie, somewhere around 1957.

Fast forward 40 years or so, to 1997. My career writing historical romances was in the process of dying, but I am a compulsive writer, as you may have noticed, and so I kept on even though I knew I would never publish anything again. I got an idea for a contemporary gothic -- similar to what Barbara Michaels wrote -- involving a house modeled on. but for various reasons not identical to, the Stryker house. As I began to write it, the details I remembered about the actual house came more and more and more into play. I hadn't originally intended to be quite so exact, but it seemed as if my subconscious was writing parts of the story around some of those details.

Unfortunately, there were certain things I didn't remember. I thought I'd just write around them, or make up something, but nothing fit right. So one Saturday, I called my aunt to see if she could refresh my memory. She had, after all, grown up in the house.

This was in the days -- 1997 -- when long distance calls still cost some real cash, so it was quite an investment for me to call from Arizona to Illinois, but we had a long and delightful conversation. She was pretty surprised at how much detail I did remember, especially the crystal door knobs, the evil grinning scrubbie holder, and the plastic shade pull. She offered to draw me a floor plan and send it to me, so I'd have the details of the layout, in particular of the second floor, since I had never been up there very much. (Only the bathroom!) The floor plan diagram arrived a couple weeks later, along with a most truly bizarre extra.

To my surprise, the floor plan did not include the breakfast nook that I remembered so vividly, but, well, I apparently misremembered.  To this day I don't know where that pseudo-memory came from.

I continued to work on the novel, incorporating some of the details she had told me about, but 1997 was a traumatic year for me for a wide variety of reasons. It was also a financially troubling year, more so even than all the other financially troubling years I'd been through. In 1998 I put virtually all my fiction writing aside and made the bizarre decision to return to college; I got my BA in 2000, then stuck around for a master's in 2003. Those five years were filled with more trauma, emotional as well as financial, but I got through it. Just when things should have been leveling off, my husband was diagnosed with lung cancer, and died 10 weeks later in 2005.

I've dabbled with fiction through all this, but haven't really done much. I have gazillions of files on the computer, plus notes and sketches written longhand and filling a fat folder in the file cabinet. Every once in a while I get the folder out and transcribe some of those notes in an attempt to put everything in digital format, but I usually get discouraged and quit.

Several years ago, I picked up that particular novel and thought I'd work on it again. Self-publishing via Amazon's Kindle had given me the opportunity to put some of my historical romances out there again, and I thought it would also allow me to bypass all the trauma of dealing with editors and agents and the attendant bullshit, and I figured what the heck. I hit up good ol' Google to see if I could get some exterior pictures of the real house just for inspiration, and as luck -- or omens? -- would have it, the house happened to be for sale at the time. One of the real estate sites, Trulia or Zillow or whatever, had a whole portfolio of interior pictures as well, and I greedily gobbled them up and tucked them in the digital file folder. One of those photos was of the kitchen counter, exactly as I remembered it except for the grinning mouth figurine. The breakfast nook with its window and shade and plastic tulips was nowhere to be found.

But alas, for whatever reasons I never went any further than collecting the photos. The book itself continued to languish.

Until this past April.

The article about the Toronto house, frozen in time, brought all of that back, for some reason or other. Maybe it wouldn't have except for the fact that my daughter in New Jersey bought a house last summer that in many ways resembles the interior of the Toronto house. There's a lot of pink in Rachel's house, a lot of decor left from the 60s and 70s which the original owner from whom they bought it never changed. Ultimately, though, those subconscious connections all led back to Aunt Petie's house in Edison Park and the gothic novel I had started 20 years ago.

Again, I do not believe in omens, just odd coincidences. But maybe that's what it took to start me writing again, writing on that particular novel, writing until 1:00 a.m. and then dredging up the original text files -- still dated 1997 -- and going back to work on it.

Because there was that little bonus gift, that bizarre little extra in the envelope Aunt Shirley sent me back in 1997.

She told me that the house had been sold again a few years before our conversation, and somehow the new owners had contacted her to try to put everything back the way it was structurally at least when Neil Stryker built it. So the white paint had been removed from the red brick fireplace and the chimney opened to make it functional again, and the two stained glass windows that flanked the chimney had been uncovered. (They were boarded up sometime in the 40s; I never knew they were there.) The original kitchen cabinets had never been changed, though the blue bathroom was gone and there had been other alterations over the years.

As far as I know, she never went in the house again after our conversation, but I don't know that for sure. Still, 1997 was 40 years after her mother had moved out, and insignificant little things don't usually last 40 years.

What she had included as a gift with her drawing of the floor plan was the red plastic shade pull from the kitchen nook window. There was no way she could have known in 1956 or 1957, when the house was sold, that such a tiny thing would have any meaning to me at all. Maybe it did to her as well; I don't know. But why, of all the things in the house, did she still have THAT? And why, of all the things in the house, did I remember THAT??

That first night last April -- it must have been the 25th -- I wrote about 1000 words on the book, and the following evening I compiled all the separate chapter files into one document on the computer. It desperately needed proofreading and there were other details that needed to be fixed. The whole timeline had to be brought forward 20 years, and the technology as well.

But I was amazed as I skimmed through a brief synopsis I'd written that there were certain very creepy details, things that I had planted in the plot of the novel that foreshadowed events in my own real life over the course of the subsequent 20 years. I've wanted to go back to writing -- gee, can you tell? -- for a long time, but life seems always to intervene. I'm not at a point where I can financially devote myself to it fully, but my anger and frustration over certain other things need an outlet.

And the little plastic shade pull with the tulips and wooden shoes was still in the file cabinet, along with the floor plan of the house in Edison Park.

I honestly didn't expect anything to come of it. But night after night, morning after morning, afternoon after afternoon, I continued to add words to it. What began as something like 13 chapters and 44,000 words grew, and grew, and grew. I hit horrible snags in the plot that I thought would put an end to the thing, but somehow they seemed to get worked out. A subplot that I was very fond of couldn't get itself resolved because it meant veering off from the main thread, so I made the painful decision to just do away with it.
The fictional location is not, of course, Edison Park. And I've made some major alterations to the floor plan of Aunt Shirley's house to better fit the story. None of the characters are based on anyone I actually know.

I haven't decided on the title. It has always had a working title, and I happen to like that title very much, but it may be too much of a spoiler, and I'm not sure if it will be commercially viable. There's plenty of time to worry about that, however, while I do the editing and rewriting needed for a project that went on hiatus for 20 years.  And I have to find cover art, one of the tasks a self-publishing author has to take over from the vampire publishers.  (Can you tell I don't like them?)
When I hit 100,000 words, I could hardly believe it. My first complete novel, written when I was 15, ran to about 115,000 so it wasn't the raw number that surprised me. It was that after all these years I had stuck with it that far. I honestly thought I had lost my touch, that I was too old, that my other books had been flukes.

A couple days ago, I hit another snag, one that was looming as insurmountable. I didn't want to take a day off from it, because I literally had written every single day since the bug bit me. Most days I added around 1,000 words, but sometimes it was over 2,000. And it was so much damn fun. So I made myself write, made myself think, made myself create, and the block passed and I got through the insurmountable problem.

By Sunday, 26 June, I was down to the last "action" scene. I had hoped to get through at least half of it that day, maybe finish it the next, then write the mop-up denouement. In the middle of this last scene, my mind went blank. An absolutely crucial detail just plain wasn't there. I was well over 134,000 words by this time and I couldn't believe the final confrontation was going to fall flat.

I've always been one of the writers who plots everything out, writes a detailed outline/synopsis to start, and who doesn't like surprises. This book has been a surprise from the very beginning, or at least from its "new" beginning two months ago. The sketch has always been very clear, but details have seemed to fall into place on their own. So why was this one detail not showing up?

I don't know. I don't know where it was or where it came from, but it finally made an appearance and made everything make sense.

It doesn't have to be perfect, it only has to be finished.

It's far from perfect. In some places it's not even good! And it wasn't really quite finished just because that scene worked out. There were more small revelations to be made, but those were backstory details that had already been worked out. On Monday, 27 June, I finished the last action scene, and on Wednesday, 29 June, I wrote the final lines.  There is still a lot of editing to do, but it's finished.  It's the first novel I've completed since 1995.

And I'm damn fucking proud of myself.