Thursday, December 27, 2012

Rules of engagement: When the words work, and when they don't.

Yes, I said the other day that most self-published books don't sell very many copies because they're poorly written.  No, I'm not apologizing.  No, I'm not taking it back.

Nor am I saying readers can't or shouldn't enjoy books that I think are poorly written.  It is, after all, only my personal opinion, and anyone is free to disagree with me.  Furthermore, readers are free to read and enjoy anything they wish.  A poorly written book can still be fun, just as well written books can be boring, depressing, frightening, or in any other way a waste of the reader's time and money.  Enjoyment is a personal experience.

But to you authors who think I'm being mean and bullying, I suggest you take off your anger and ego and look at some other possibilities.  If your book isn't selling, and especially if it isn't selling after you've logged 20 or 30 or 50 gushing 5-star reviews on Amazon and GoodReads, maybe you need to consider that just possibly it isn't a very well-written book.  (If it's not selling and it has 50 gushing 5-star reviews, I'd be willing to bet real money they aren't independent, unbiased customer reviews.  If it is selling, you don't need to be reading this.)

I realize there are people who won't agree with my individual assessment of what constitutes a well-written book and what doesn't, but at least I think I've always been able to support my opinion with specifics.  This post is part of an attempt to define the reasonably objective criteria I use and then illustrate those criteria by applying them to a variety of works.  If you're truly interested in improving your writing, in making your book appeal to more readers, then read on.  (And I may have more parts of this attempt in later posts.  Maybe.  Depends on how much time I have.)

But a word of caution:  I know first hand how hard it is to write a book.  I know the sheer hours it takes to write -- by hand, by typewriter, by computer -- all those words.  I know how easy it is to hit a snag in the plotting or discover a detail in Chapter Three screws up the way you wanted to kill of that villain in Chapter Twenty-eight.  I know there are a zillion things that can go wrong with the writing. 

And that means your book may have more than one problem.  It's possible there's no way to salvage the book you've labored so hard over, no way to turn it into a tale millions of people will pay you real money for.  So be prepared for that eventuality.

This post attempts to illustrate, in a way that will be understandable to most writers, one aspect of writing that can spell the difference between a reader's immediate dismissal and her decision to keep reading.  It's not foolproof, it's not guaranteed, and it leaves plenty of room for exceptions.  But I do believe that it offers some ideas that will help writers who are disappointed with their sales take a closer look at their work and, with luck and hard work, revise it to attract more readers, as well as help others start off on a better path to success.

Allow me to start by establishing some credentials, just in case you're new to my blog.   That brief post didn't come out of nowhere.  I have more than a little experience to back up my statement.  Not just a half century of reading historical romances.  I read a lot of other genres as well, but my main focus is historical romances, the first of which -- Leslie Turner White's The Highland Hawk -- I read in 1962, or earlier.  Not just the 3500 books in my personal library or the slightly over 1,000 e-books downloaded to my Kindle.  To be honest, not all of those titles are novels, and of those that are, I haven't yet read all of them.  But I've read a lot.

Add to that experience also the years I spent judging RWA contests and seeing some really, really crappy writing.  I can tell you right now that every manuscript I judged with high marks -- in contemporary, historical, and even paranormal romance categories -- went on to be published, with one notable exception, and I'll get to that later on.  Yes, every single one. They didn't all win those contests -- though some did -- but I gave them high marks because I believed they were well crafted and well written. 

Conversely, not one of the books I gave low marks to was ever picked up by a traditional, established publisher.  Several have surfaced as author-published digital editions, but none attracted a print editor's attention enough to generate a contract.  And from what I can tell, none of them have attracted a substantial readership either.

There are also the manuscripts brought to the critique groups I belonged to, both in person and online over a period of roughly 15 years.  I still have many of those manuscripts, and in looking over some of them, I can't say that my comments would change very much.  Bad writing is still bad writing.

That phrase actually covers several different types of "bad writing" that can afflict novels, some macro and some micro.  The macro elements are things like plot construction, characterization, continuity.  In other words, the story-telling aspects that begin in and can usually be fixed at the concept/outline stage but may not be easily repaired after the book is completed.

On the micro side of "bad writing" there are also at least two distinct incarnations.  There's the bad spelling, bad grammar, bad punctuation kind of bad writing -- mechanical issues with language that are usually identifiable as discrete individual errors and therefore correctable.  While annoying for the reader, mechanical errors by themselves usually don't affect the story.  Many writers will hire a proofreader to find and correct the errors, and if that's the only thing that's wrong with the book, the rest of the story will be fine.  Proofreading will not, of course, repair a poorly constructed story nor fix weak narrative style.

The second kind of micro-level bad writing involves the writer's word choices that, while they may not break any rules, don't work to convey the story effectively.  This goes much further than mere stylistic preferences, because that alone doesn't affect how well the story comes through to the reader.  Style may affect how well the reader enjoys the work, but not how well the reader understands it.  Style is the difference between Ernest Hemingway and William Morris.

I'm referring to a type of bad writing that makes the reading experience either so difficult or so unpleasant or both for the reader that she decides not to read the book.  The story fails to come to life for the reader the way the writer intended.  And while it may be tempting for the writer to push the blame for that failure onto the reader for her failure to understand whatever it was that the writer wrote, the good writer will eschew the easy way out and will accept that it is her responsibility and hers alone to convey her story.

The way she does that is through the specific words she chooses to construct the individual sentences that are the building blocks of her tale.  That's why this is micro-level bad writing:  It's how each individual sentence, no matter how long or short, works to advance the story.  It's "show, don't tell" and a whole lot more.

And it is probably one of the most difficult aspects of writing for a writer to fix once the book has been written, because it may require not only a complete page by page, paragraph by paragraph, sentence by sentence rewrite but also a complete rethinking of how to write. 

And as it's a concept much more readily grasped when shown than told, allow me to demonstrate with a detailed analysis of some examples.

The first is the opening two paragraphs from the "Prologue" to The Eye of the World, Volume One of Robert Jordan's epic Wheel of Time series.

The palace still shook occasionally as the earth rumbled in memory, groaned as if it would deny what had happened. Bars of sunlight cast through rents in the walls made motes of dust glitter where they yet hung in the air. Scorch-marks marred the walls, the floors, the ceilings. Broad black smears crossed the blistered paints and gilt of once-bright murals, soot overlaying crumbling friezes of men and animals which seemed to have attempted to walk before the madness grew quiet. The dead lay everywhere, men and women and children, struck down in attempted flight by the lightnings that had flashed down every corridor, or seized by the fires that had stalked them, or sunken into stone of the palace, the stones that had flowed and sought, almost alive, before stillness came again. In odd counterpoint, colorful tapestries and paintings, masterworks all, hung undisturbed except where bulging walls had pushed them awry. Finely carved furnishings, inlaid with ivory and gold, stood untouched except where rippling floors had toppled them. The mind-twisting had struck at the core, ignoring peripheral things.
Lews Therin Telamon wandered the palace, deftly keeping his balance when the earth heaved. “Ilyena! My love, where are you?” The edge of his pale gray cloak trailed through blood as he stepped across the body of a woman,her golden-haired beauty marred by the horror of her last moments, her still-open eyes frozen in disbelief. “Where are you, my wife? Where is everyone hiding?”
Jordan, Robert. The Eye of the World: Book One of 'The Wheel of Time' (Kindle Locations 139-149). Tor Fantasy. Kindle Edition

What Jordan has done with the first paragraph is to set a visual stage so the reader immediately forms in her mind the image of where the action takes place.  She is, if not actually on stage herself, at least in the front row.  The very first words, "The palace," convey the location of that image, exactly like the first frame of a motion picture. 

Rather than go into a static description of what this palace looked like, Jordan plunges the reader without hesitation into action that has created what the palace looks like.   "The palace still shook occasionally" gives the reader an immediate awareness that something momentous has happened.  And that's in just five words, the very first five words.  Palaces don't normally shake, in our reality, so the idea that this palace is still shaking, but only occasionally, implies that the world of this story is going to be at least slightly different from our world.  This implication is confirmed with the rest of that opening sentence: the desire to "deny what had happened" explicitly states that something had happened and that there could be a reason to want to deny it.  Generally we think of denial in terms of something unpleasant, something we don't want to deal with.  The notion that the whole earth is in denial gives the impression of something momentous happened.  That something was powerful enough to shake the palace and leave it still shaking.

Having begun with action, Jordan proceeds to fill in details.  The words he uses are active and powerful, so that they convey not only sensory description (sight, sound, smell, taste, touch) but mood and movement.  Even when he describes the dead, he does so with verbs and participles that paint action.  Not with adjectives and forms of "to be."  Always active words.

These very first sentences bring the reader into the story.  She is there, in that palace, feeling that shaking, smelling the blistered paint and seeing the crumbled friezes, and hearing the madness that had gone quiet.  Jordan takes the intangible madness and puts it into sensory form so the reader can experience it as if she were there.

He takes the reader's imagination from the description of the ruined palace, through the madness of the dead, to the contrast of the items that were untouched by the catastrophe.  And he ends the paragraph with the ominous and foreshadowing "mind-twisting."

It's a long paragraph, and its sentences are long, but each one works hard both by itself and with its fellows to create the setting and start the sequence of the story.  Most important, however, is their function of bringing the reader into the fabric of the story.  Immediately.  At once.  Without delay or hesitation.

In the second paragraph, Jordan introduces a living character, Lews Therin Telamon.  This is not a name most of his readers would encounter among their circle of acquaintances, and yet it has a distinctly human ring in both form and syntax.  (Think Georg Phillip Telemann, which may or may not have been the model for Jordan's invented name.)  It's pronounceable, with a comfortable balance of vowels and consonants, but it's still different from what most English-speaking and -reading readers would be familiar with.   (Since Jordan wrote in English, it's a pretty safe bet he expected his readers to be reasonably familiar with the language.)   If there had been any doubt during the reading of the first paragraph, that doubt is securely laid to rest by the end of the second:  This story is not set in any ordinary earthly realm.  This story takes place Beyond the Fields We Know, and there is Magick.

In the process of introducing this first viewpoint character, Jordan never lets up on the action.  Lews Therin Telamon wanders (not walks) the palace, and his actions give insights not only to how he wanders (deftly keeping his balance) but what kind of person he is.  He's looking for his wife, whom he calls "my love."  Yet for some reason, even though he is looking for his wife, he is apparently unmoved by the sight of the dead woman whose body he steps over.

Think about what Jordan accomplishes with each carefully chosen word.  Look at that phrase "deftly keeping his balance."  First and foremost, that phrase identifies Lews Therin Telamon as male.  The name itself suggests a male character, based on western culture, but the possessive pronoun confirms that detail.  The phrase also shows that Telamon has the physical ability to keep his balance against some force that would cause him to lose his balance, and he does so "deftly," rather than with difficulty or pain or injury.  Four words, but Jordan makes them accomplish a great deal.

Telamon speaks, but Jordan provides no speech tags at all.  They aren't necessary.  It's not nearly as important how Telamon calls to his wife, but only that he does.  "Ilyena!  My love. . . ." the words themselves suggest concern and worry, not anger or threat.  They also establish that the character is most likely an adult.   If Jordan had wanted to contrast the way Telamon speaks with what he actually says, then speech tags light  have been necessary.  Telamon's actions, and the scene he is moving through convey the tone of his voice and his emotions, and Jordan maintains the momentum of the story without ever stopping.  The camera keeps rolling; the reader's imaging (visual and audio) of the scene never stops, and the reader is further pulled into participating in the story.

Jordan has engaged the reader.

Now let's look at another sample.
Waves pounded the shoreline, spraying mist into the wind that stirred white sands glittering in the moonlight.  A dark ship with dark sails, anchored in the reef, swayed with the movement of the water and the wind.  In the distance, black, threatening thunder clouds roiled in the sky over the ocean, hurling fierce lightning bolts through the rain.  It was a magnificent storm that was swiftly approaching.

From the glistening beach, moist air blew upwards, carrying the ocean's salt toward a towering cliff.  Wind in the subterranean caverns that wove deeply into the heart of the land whistled a musical sound that echoed through the winding passages, falling just short of discovering underground secrets that were lost to the ages.  Outside, the sea spray floated up the side of a cliff that ended at the foot of colossal walls of a great, white palace.  Constructed of a series of concentric towers, the palace was resplendent, even in the night.  The constant touch of wind, sand, and water never dulled its shine.  

The salty mist came to settle upon a foreboding scene in the inner garth of the keep, the highest structure.  On the dais, in the middle of the courtyard, lay a fair-haired, bearded man chained to a marble altar.  A man in black stood just above him facing the front of a ring of spectators who were lingering in the shadows.  The man in black was tall and broad, with thick black hair that was sleeked back from his brow and dark eyebrows that slanted menacingly.  He appeared anxious.  His eyes combed the light of the torches that spotted the mantlet wall of the ward, as if he were looking for minute cracks in it that held the answer.  The man on the altar appeared calm but his fatigue, to his great relief, could mask even his fear.  He was dressed in white robes.  It seemed that at least his captors allowed him that.  It was small thing, but a blessing, for the marble was cold ... and the night was cold ...

Douthit, Melissa (2011-05-27). The Raie'Chaelia (Kindle Locations 55-71). Couronne Press. Kindle Edition.

In her preface to The Raie'Chaelia  author Melissa Douthit acknowledges being heavily influenced and inspired by Jordan's Wheel of Time series:  "So, that morning, inspired by Jordan's life story, I sat down and started typing.  I soon found that by having read his books, as well as many others by other authors, the writing came naturally and the words flowed."  (Douthit, Melissa (2011-05-27). The Raie'Chaelia (Kindle Locations 41-43). Couronne Press. Kindle Edition.)

Douthit has also received a lot of criticism for the poor quality of her writing.  To be fair, Jordan's style isn't universally praised, and in terms of story, I personally gave up on Wheel of Time after about the fourth or fifth book.  But in terms of writing style, of effective versus ineffective prose, of how well the opening engaged the reader,  I felt the comparison of the two was a good starting point.

The immediate impression of Douthit's opening paragraph is that it's description of a scene without action.  There is nothing about waves pounding a beach that suggests story action.  Movement of the water yes, action of the story no.  The first sentence is lovely description, but it could just as easily be a description of a painting.  There's no threat, no conflict, no mystery, no human involvement, no departure from the ordinary.   Mist, sand, wind, moonlight.  So?  So what's happening?  Where's the anticipation?  The excitement?  It's just waves on a beach.  Waves are supposed to pound the shoreline.   What makes these waves or this shoreline different, or at least different enough for me as a reader to want to continue?  What story is hinted at, what questions are raised by the pounding of waves on sand?

Another problem with this sentence is that it implies a significant passage of time.  Use of the plural "waves" indicates one wave, then a pause while that wave recedes, followed by another wave and the sequence repeats exactly as waves have crashed on beaches ever since there were waves and beaches.  Based solely on this opening sentence, nothing exciting has happened, nothing exciting is happening, and nothing exciting is anticipated in the immediate future.   There's no immediacy to this scene.

The very next sentence shifts the focus of the reader's imagination from the shoreline to a ship riding at anchor on the reef.  A dark ship with dark sails, but no other description.  Galleon?  Frigate?  Schooner?  A tattered old pirate wreck or a sleek new racing yacht?  No specifics are given, just an undefined generic ship with generic dark sails.   Nor is there as yet any hint of tension, threat, menace.  Just a scene, and a peaceful one at that.  Everything is as it's supposed to be.  Waves, moonlight, sand, wind, ship.  Kind of like a picture post card.

The third sentence takes the reader to a storm in the distance, a storm far enough away that it hasn't affected the ship at anchor.  The ship is only swaying, not tossed.  The clouds have not blotted out the moonlight.  So this magnificent storm is approaching, but it is not here yet.  The fact that it is far enough away not to have stirred the waves or the wind removes its story value; it is not an immediate threat.

Look what the four sentences of this opening paragraph have done to the reader's perspective.  They have taken the camera's focus effectively from the shoreline out to the reef and then beyond to an approaching storm. 

The camera is moving away from the shore, as if out there in the storm is where the action is going to begin.  The reader has no fixed vantage point from which to watch the story unfold.  Where Jordan puts the reader immediately into his palace, Douthit flies the reader from beach to reef to storm with no idea which will actually be the stage on which the action begins to take place.

And as the reader moves into Douthit's second paragraph, the whole scene suddenly shifts yet again.  The camera pans away from that magnificent storm 180 degrees back to the beach and then inland toward towering cliffs. 

Wait, what about that storm?  What happened to that magnificent storm that was approaching?

Well, maybe Douthit is going to come back to the storm.  Maybe it will have some significance later.  Let's read on.

The second paragraph consists solely of description on a macro level.  Where Jordan kept his focus narrowed on the palace where the shaking had taken place and where Lews Therin Telamon was wandering, Douthit's opening sentences go from shoreline to ship on the reef to approaching storm at sea, back to the beach, then to the cliffs, then to subterranean caverns in the cliffs, and even into passages the wind can't reach.  In other words, this description comes from an omniscient narrator completely outside the story.  That's the very essence of "telling, not showing."  Melissa Douthit, author, is telling the reader that there are "underground secrets lost to the ages," because there's no one else within the story -- or at least not in this opening scene -- who can impart that information from character point of view.

From those lost secrets the description moves back out to the mist and the cliffs.  In two paragraphs, this is the third reference to mist/spray/moist air on the wind.  Once would have been enough, because that mist isn't indicative of action.  It's not an active part of the story.  Or at least it hasn't been presented that way.

The contrast is to Jordan's description of the effects of the lightning on the palace.  He uses "scorch marks," "broad black smears," and "soot" to create the image of what the lightning had done without telling the reader that.  These marks and this destruction are out-of-the-ordinary.  Douthit hasn't made her mist anything other than ordinary mist.

That mist, however, finally brings the reader at the end of the second paragraph to a "colossal" palace, "resplendent" in the moonlight.

So, okay, what happened to that storm?  And the ship?  What happened to the ship?  (she asks, like Fred Savage in The Princess Bride.)

Well, rather than on that dramatic storm waiting offshore, the next focus is on the "salty mist."  Yes, the third paragraph opens with yet a fourth mention of the mist.  Then it settles on a scene inside the palace.

The question becomes, then, why didn't Douthit start her scene in the palace to begin with?  Why all the verbiage of mist and wind and beach and ship and cliffs and forgotten secrets?

I don't know why.  I can't answer that.  But she did. 

She tells the reader that the scene is foreboding rather than showing its forebodingness.  She tells the reader there is a man chained to an altar and another man standing over him.  Neither of them is a viewpoint character -- at least not yet -- and they really aren't doing anything.  Douthit tells the reader the one man's eyebrows "slanted menacingly," but little else.  He's looking around -- I'll get to the wandering body parts in a minute or ten -- and he "appears" anxious.  Likewise, the man on the altar "appears" calm. 

To whom do they appear anxious or calm?  To each other?  To the crowd lingering in the courtyard?  Again, Douthit is telling the reader rather than letting the actions and characters of the novel show the reader what's happening. 

She's not engaging the reader.

It's not bad writing in the sense of poor grammar and misspelled words.  But it's very ineffective writing.  And yes, it's only the opening.  Is it possible the writing becomes more effective later on?  Yes, it's possible.  If so, however, why wouldn't the author put her most effective writing at the beginning, where she has the best chance to engage the reader and pull her into the action of the story?

Sidebar:  WABOPs.  Wabops are "wandering body parts," or those portions of the human anatomy that seemingly detach themselves from the whole and act independent of their host.  The eyes do this most frequently, and I'm sure almost every reader has encountered more than one example like "His eyes followed her as she crossed the room" or "Her eyes reached out to him".   So when Douthit's man in black's "eyes combed the light from the torches," that's a WABOPs moment.

Does this analysis begin to illuminate what I mean by effective vs. ineffective writing at a micro level?  If so, and if I haven't entirely bored you with it, let's look a bit closer at the comparison.

Jordan stays away from "to be" verbs.   They only appear in Telamon's dialogue.  Douthit, on the other hand, uses them frequently: "It was a magnificent storm," "the palace was resplendent," "the man in black was tall and broad."  These verbs are almost always weaker than any substitute, and can be improved merely by asking a variation on the old Ed McMahon to Johnny Carson question, "How tall was he?"

Douthit also relies heavily on present participles, which, like the "to be" auxiliaries they require, are almost always weaker than substitutes.  For example,
A man in black stood just above him facing the front of a ring of spectators who were lingering in the shadows.
Just a minor tweak of this single sentence to replace those -ing verbals results in stronger prose:
A man in black stood just above him and faced the front of a ring of spectators who lingered in the shadows.

Jordan's writing is not immune to criticism; nothing's perfect.  He, too, has some repetitions that could perhaps have been avoided.  "Marred" appears twice in those two paragraphs, as does "attempted."  But there are far more weaknesses with Douthit's in terms of how effective her writing is in pulling the reader into the story.  Mechanically, her writing is clean, with no major errors of punctuation or grammar or spelling.  The problem is with her narrative style.  She starts with a description of a ship and a storm, but never follows up.  She has no viewpoint character and relies too much on author-intrusive telling.  Those aren't criticisms that can be applied to Robert Jordan's opening to The Eye of the World. 

Most readers will not read with this type of close analysis.  Most readers read for entertainment.  They are not invested in the books they pick up to sample, and when they have dozens or hundreds or even thousands of choices, the sooner the writer can engage that reader in the story, the less likely that reader is to put that book back and go looking for another.

Let's examine another example:

Montgomery Woodruff scowled at the low, dirty clouds as though they had appeared just to torment him. He tugged at his lapels, jerking his greatcoat close as the wind tried its best to wrestle a way into his inner garments. The end of January had been unrelenting with blizzards, storms and freezing temperatures. Woodruff entered his carriage and yanked at the folded blanket on the seat, his impatience sending it sliding to the floor. With a muttered oath, he arranged the blanket to better suit his needs, ignoring his clerk who stood dithering in the elements waiting for last minute instructions. Woodruff sent him a withering glare before a curt command from his driver, Sykes, sent the showy black horses away from the three-storey Georgian building to merge with the traffic in the bustling streets of the great Yorkshire town.

Sighing heavily, Woodruff stretched his neck from the starched collar, trying to relax as they traversed around pedestrians and vehicles. Winter gloom and the cold sent most people hurrying home, shop keepers were packing up, women scolded children towards their own hearths while business men headed for the warmth and smoky atmosphere of expensive clubs.

Woodruff grunted, he also should be ensconced in his club, cradling a brandy and discussing world issues, but too many men wanted him for than his views on politics and such like, no, they wanted much more — money!

Brear, Anne (2011-06-08). The House of Women (Kindle Locations 35-45). Knox Robinson Publishing. Kindle Edition.
Brear's opening differs from Jordan's and Douthit's in that she immediately puts a character on stage.  Her opening sentence establishes a number of details: Woodruff's mood, the weather, and his attitude toward the weather.  Through Woodruff's actions the reader gets an impression of some kind of stress, some impending unpleasantness that needs to be resolved.  Woodruff doesn't just pull his coat around him:  He tugs and jerks and yanks, and these are motions that display his mood.

All of the sentences in these three paragraphs keep the focus on Woodruff, and all of them are at least nominally in his point of view.  There are, unfortunately, some punctuation errors -- run-on sentences -- that could easily be fixed but are also probably indicative of more such problems in the rest of the book.  Brear also, like Douthit, seems to rely heavily on present participles when she could have made her writing much more dramatic with substitutions:
Sighing heavily, Woodruff stretched his neck from the starched collar, trying to relax as they traversed around pedestrians and vehicles. 
With a heavy sigh, Woodruff stretched his neck from the starched collar and tried to relax as they traversed around pedestrians and vehicles.

The greater problem with this opening is that once Woodruff is in the carriage, his actions become limited.  He can think, he can muse, he can look out the window, he can remember, but he can't actually do very much within those close confines.  The carriage ride can become a vehicle -- pun fully intended -- for the author to dump a lot of backstory.  Or the carriage ride can be interrupted, in which case it might be better if Brear opens with Woodruff already in the carriage so the interruption can happen earlier and thus engage the reader that much sooner.

Another problem with this paragraph is that the camera focus shifts awkwardly, from Woodruff in his carriage and his reactions to the weather to the clerk dithering in the cold to Sykes the driver to the Georgian building to the city through which the carriage travels.  Even if the focus comes back to Woodruff, the fact that it shifts away from him may be enough to confuse the reader and allow her to put the book down.

Although this particular blog post is directed at writers, there's no reason why readers can't benefit from it, too.  Understanding why one book engages you as a reader -- and why another doesn't -- may very well make your reading experiences more enjoyable.  You may be able to pass on books that don't grab you and spend more time looking for and reading those that do.  Or you may be able to appreciate the story elements better in a book that's less well written but still interests you as a reader.

Readers, however, are not obligated to read books that don't interest them; and certainly they aren't responsible for the author's failure to engage them as readers.

Let's try another:

Jocelyn Renwick had loved a good ball—the dancing, the decorations, the costumes, the breathless excitement as guests arrived—during her very brief Season two years before. She’d been full of wonder and anticipation for a future that had seemed rife with possibility. Now, as a paid companion, she adorned the wall, and the balls she’d once enjoyed had become sadly lackluster.

It wasn’t that the balls themselves had suddenly turned dull. It was her situation. With no close relatives to turn to after her father’s death, she’d become the ward of a family friend, who’d inherited Papa’s property and meager estate. While her guardian had taken care of her, he hadn’t offered to finance another Season, and her trust wasn’t sufficient to cover the expense. And since there was no one marriageable—at least in her opinion—in her small village in Kent, Jocelyn’s options were limited.

She’d jumped at the chance to serve as paid companion to her guardian’s great-aunt, Gertrude Harwood. She was a charming, elderly widow, and Jocelyn was delighted to accompany her for what she said might be her final Season.

Unfortunately, Jocelyn’s Season so far hadn’t included meeting any eligible bachelors or any dancing. The only people she mingled with were Gertrude’s friends, who were even now clustered about.

Burke, Darcy (2012-09-25). To Love a Thief (Secrets & Scandals) (Kindle Locations 51-61). Intrepid Reads. Kindle Edition.

Burke also starts with a character, but is that character actually on stage?  Not really.  Though nominally offered through Jocelyn's point of view, these four paragraphs convey no story action and only background information.  In other words, this opening is just an info dump.  Jocelyn herself isn't doing anything.  She isn't . . . anywhere.  There's no scene described, no action set in motion, no threat or hint of excitement.

But To Love a Thief  is a Regency romance, not high fantasy.  Are the rules of engagement different for this subgenre of romance?

Look at a few others and see if you can find elements of tension and excitement and action.  Or do you see areas of weakness that could be strengthened so the reader's interest, her curiosity for "what happens next?" is engaged from the very first sentences?

The carriage rocked as it travelled along the cliff road. Charity Barlow grabbed the window frame with one hand, and the edge of her seat with the other, to hold herself steady. Following her parents’ deaths in a carriage accident some months before, she was a little nervous at the best of times.

The coachman’s curse was followed by a crack of the whip.

This rugged coastline was foreign to her and different from anything she had ever known. Through the mist, she glimpsed the white-tipped waves of the ocean pounding the black rocks below. The colors reminded her of death, and the rhythmic boom, boom, boom filled her with the same dread she experienced when a tolling church bell signalled a village disaster.

Tamping down the fear of tumbling to her death, Charity pulled her cloak closer, and directed her thoughts to what might await her in the castle on the cliff overlooking the sea.

Unfortunately, this produced anxieties of a different sort.

Charity had not seen her godfather, the Marquess of St Malin, since she was fifteen. Now, at two and twenty years of age, she found herself entirely alone and at his mercy. She remembered him as tall and somewhat haughty. Her father had saved his life when he fell overboard during a boat race on the river at Cambridge, and after that, they had become firm friends.

Now her fate lay in the marquess’ hands, for he had said as much to her father years ago. She was grateful for his kindness, of course, but would have much preferred to remain snug amid the green fields of Oxfordshire with her old governess who was like one of the family. This was now impossible, for her father had left very little money after making bad investments on the ’Change.

Her childhood home had been sold to pay off debts and Nanny sent to live with her sister in Kent.

Andersen, Maggi (2012-03-06). The Reluctant Marquess (Kindle Locations 33-50). Knox Robinson Publishing. Kindle Edition.

Let's try another:

Lady Chilton pushed back the draperies of her bedroom window and peered out into the night. In the distance she could see fire leaping up, and she shivered. It was the Mob. She was sure of it; she had heard their howls the day before, seen them pushing through the streets like some great amorphous beast, hungry for blood.

She stepped back from the window, her hands twining together nervously. Emerson was certain that the Mob would not turn on them. Her husband had that careless, casual confidence of the English that no harm would dare come to them. Simone was not so sure. She was, after all, French, and a member of that aristocracy whom the Mob was so eager to destroy. The fact that she was married to an Englishman might not be enough to save her if the Mob came here—indeed, she feared that her French identity might destroy her husband, as well.

And the children.

It was that thought that made her sick with fear. What would happen to her little ones if the sans-culottes came to their house?

She stood for a moment indecisively, a beautiful woman with liquid brown eyes and clouds of dark hair, dressed in the finest clothes that Paris had to offer, her neck circled with precious gems, yet paper-white with fear, her huge eyes haunted.

Camp, Candace (2008-11-12). A Stolen Heart (The Lost Heirs) (Kindle Locations 76-86). Harlequin Enterprises. Kindle Edition.

And another:

The door to the upstairs library slammed viciously, rattling in its frame. Heavy steps marched across the room, bearing down on Hugo’s desk. Fists slammed against the wood surface.

“Damn it, Marshall. I need you to fix this.”

Despite that dramatic production, Hugo Marshall did not look up from the books. Instead he waited silently, listening to boots marking a path upon the carpet. He wasn’t a servant; he refused to be treated as one.

After a moment, his patience was rewarded. “Fix it, please,” the Duke of Clermont muttered.

Hugo raised his head. An untutored observer would focus on the Duke of Clermont, apparently in full command, resplendent in a waistcoat so shot with gold thread that it almost hurt the eyes. This observer would dismiss the drab Mr. Marshall, arrayed as he was in clothing spanning the spectrum from brown to browner.

The comparison wouldn’t stop at clothing. The duke was respectably bulky without running to fat; his patrician features were sharp and aristocratic. He had mobile, ice-blue eyes that seemed to take in everything. Compared with Hugo’s own unprepossessing expression and sandy brown hair, the untutored observer would have concluded that the duke was in charge.

Milan, Courtney (2012-04-21). The Governess Affair (The Brothers Sinister) (Kindle Locations 24-34). Courtney Milan. Kindle Edition.

 In each example, if you've taken heed of some of my analysis, you should be able to see how the author focuses the narrative, how she sets the scene as well as the tone.  Does she weave description with action, or does she stop the action to provide a "fashion show" or "freeze frame" portrait?  What words, and what kind of words does she use to convey emotion and mood, appearance or other sensory description, action or background information?   How much of the background information provided in the opening paragraphs is absolutely and totally essential to the opening, or can some of it wait until later in the book?  Which selections offer more background than is absolutely necessary to open the action, and which provide just enough for the scene to make sense? 

How could those that are less than perfect be improved?

For example, Milan's WABOP fists make me wince, and she's got a major dangling participle in the final sentence.  Camp relies too much on "was + adjective" description.  I like Andersen's opening paragraph because it ties background information to on-stage action.  Each example has its strengths and weaknesses.  As you learn to spot them in other writing, you'll be better able to spot them in your own, to build on the strengths and challenge the weaknesses.

It's not enough just to read.  To become a writer you must read with a writer's eyes, not a reader's.  And after you become a writer, you have to write with a reader's eye.

No one is going to peek over your shoulder.  If that book you so proudly put out there on Smashwords has sold only four copies over the past six months (and two of them were to yourself), no one is going to know if you look at your original MS Word file and analyze the hell out of the first page.  What sentences would you rewrite?  How would you rewrite them?  Which ones, if any, would you cut?

Needless to say, those of you who have not yet started writing or who are preparing to start a new work can use these ideas and suggestions to better your writing from the beginning and avoid at least some of the revising and rewriting process.  But before you get too enthusiastic and plunge right into the next (potential) bestseller, consider that all of these techniques can be applied to the entire book, not just the first few paragraphs.

Because once you have engaged the reader, you must keep her engaged.  The interest and excitement and curiosity about what happens next must be established early, but it must also be sustained right through to the end.

So, what does happen next?  Ah, you'll have to come back to find out.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Why they're not buying your book, in three words times three.

Because it sucks.

You can't write.

What the fuck?

Yeah, yeah, I know, that's mean.  But it's also the truth.

Just because you wrote it doesn't mean it's good.  Just because you wrote it doesn't mean people want to read it.  Just because you wrote it doesn't mean people will pay you for the privilege of reading it.

Why don't most self-published books sell very well?  The answer is very, very simple:  Because they aren't written very well. 

Friday, December 14, 2012

They are only words. Only words

Today is 14 December 2012.  Keep that in mind.

Today, 14 December 2012, "author" James M. Lowrance (aka jml63)  wrote this on the Amazon KDP forum, whining about negative reviews his book received on GoodReads.

Some members use the site [GoodReads] to perpetrate intimidation. They would claim this is done to keep authors writing better books but this actually causes authors to feel like they are dodging assassin bullets (no exaggeration). Some reviewers there are only interested in extremely well-written novels and are largely bored by works in the 'How To' or 'Need to Know' categories. Why do they review these type books anyway? Because they are seeking out “bad behaviors” in authors and many of them use THE SAME DISCLAIMER that they composed that actually states this.
Emphasis is mine.

As I wrote in my comment tonight attached to the review written by GoodReads member "Chris," I'm sure Mr. Lowrance will remove his pathetic whine once the obscene inappropriateness of it is brought to his attention.  No matter, folks; I've already screen capped it. 

I don't care who you are, authors.  I don't care if you're Melissa Douthit, Kiera Cass, Leslie Wooddavis, Leah Banicki, M.T. Dismuke, Judith McNaught, Delaney Rhodes, Vanessa Pryor, Jerri Hines, Esther Kaliski, Ruth Ann Burkybile,  James Lowrance, Joe Konrath, Jo Ludwig, whoever. 

Your book is not your baby.  It is not your child.  It is not alive.  It does not eat and sleep and breathe.  It does not laugh and cry and play and dance and go to school and wait for Christmas.   You may have worked very hard to write it, but you did not give birth to it.  And no matter how harsh the criticisms, no matter how nasty the reviews, no matter how vicious the reviewer, neither you nor your book will bleed as a result.

Tonight, 14 December 2012, there are as many as 20, and perhaps even more, families mourning the violent and senseless and irreversible deaths of their real flesh and blood children.  I hope none of you whining, wanking crybabies ever have to experience that.  I hope no one anywhere ever has to, even though I know that in our day and age, such a hope is in vain.

But to compare a negative review to an assassin's bullet is grotesque exaggeration -- yes, Lowrance, you pathetic twit, it most certainly is exaggeration, of the most insensitive and offensive kind.

I'm a writer.  I've been a writer longer than a lot of you have been alive.  I've suffered the bad reviews, the stupid critique partners, the d'uh moments when my own stupidity and errors have been pointed out to me.  I've been there, I've felt it, I've done it . . . and I haven't gone all wacko over it.  I don't blame the reviewer, I don't call her bully, I don't threaten to reveal where she works or where her kids go to school. 

Because it's a book.  It's a fucking book.  It's a made up once-upon-a-time story.  The people in it aren't real, their lives aren't real, none of it is real.  The bad guys die, sometimes horribly, but when you go back to page one to reread it -- or rewrite it -- the bad guys come back to life, and so do the good guys who died on page 175.  They're not real.  They don't bleed, they don't suffer, they don't really die. 

Bad reviews won't kill it, and they sure as hell won't kill you.  Grow the fuck up.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

The three most important words for writing fiction

Show, don't tell.

(Unless otherwise credited, the selections are my own writing.)

Example #1
Version 1.
Trace entered the expensive hotel room and shut the door. He took off his coat and lay down on the bed. He was angry.  He had been out in the cold weather until he was almost frozen.  There was snow on his jacket and his boots were muddy.  And the man he had been chasing had gotten away from him.
Version 2.

Trace stormed into the suite's lavish bedroom and slammed the door behind him. Chunks of half-melted snow flew from his jacket as he ripped the garment off and flung it in the general direction of a small, brocade upholstered chair he passed on his way to the bed. Without a single thought to the mess his muddy boots and pants might make on the white satin spread, Trace collapsed backward onto the bed and lay, spread-eagled, staring blindly at the ceiling.
"I lost the son of a bitch."
Example #2
Version 1.
O'Leary was driving way too fast.  Nonie begged him to slow down.
    "I don't want to get there too late," O'Leary growled.
    He ran another red light.  He should have turned at that intersection and saved an extra three blocks, but he wanted to make the big SUV at the light wait.
    Nonie tried not to grab the armrest when he finally did turn down another street.  His comment hadn't made much sense to her but his comments rarely did.
    "I want to get there before all the evidence is cleaned up.  Homicide will be in charge and we'll just be consultants," he complained.
     "You don't care about the evidence," Nonie accused.  "You just want to get a good look at the body."
     He turned the car to the left again.  This time she grabbed the armrest.
Version 2.
"For God's sake, John, slow down."
     She hated these off-hours calls that gave him an excuse to drive more like an escaping criminal than a veteran detective.
     "They'll have everything mopped up if we get there too late."
     He blew through another red light, the second of the morning.
     "You should have turned back there," she pointed out. "Now you'll have to go three blocks out of your way."
     "Yeah, I know, but I wanted to make that big black Denali sit out the light."
     She sighed and tried not to grab the armrest when he finally turned left down a side street. After ten years riding with O'Leary, she expected his irrational answers to simple questions, but they still never made any sense.  Not at first, anyway.
     "Look, Nonie, they killed the clerk. Homicide's gonna take this one over, and we won't be nothin' but underpaid consultants. I wanna get there before they clean up all the good evidence."
     "Evidence! When did you ever give a damn about evidence? You just want a good look at the corpse."
     He spun the wheel sharply to the left again. She grabbed the armrest this time.

Are you getting the idea? 

Example #3.
"Lord, but I hate Saturday nights!"
     In the dark alley behind the Red Hat Saloon, Sunny McAllister tugged at the drooping flounce on her black dress, but the fabric refused to stretch any further.
     "Damn!" she swore quietly when an autumn breeze coming down from the mountains raised goosebumps. The dress left her arms and shoulders and too much bosom exposed; she wrapped her arms around herself and swung her long, straight black hair over her shoulders for warmth. The inside of the Red Hat would be much warmer than the alley, but Sunny didn't want to go in any sooner than necessary.  To keep warm, she paced nervously back and forth outside the back door, dreading the moment when she would have to go in and yet wishing it would come so that she could get the evening over that much sooner.

Example #4.
 “Sophie, darling, take a deep breath, wipe the tears off your face and tell me what's happened,” Rina purred in a kind, firm voice.
       Sophie woodenly obeyed, picking up her napkin, wiping her face and discreetly blowing her nose.
     “I'm not sure I want to tell you.” The tears wouldn’t stop coming. Disgusted with herself, she straightened up, tucked her wavy blond hair behind her ears, glanced at Rina, and then let her gaze fall on her chef salad.
      Her favorites as far as salads went with juicy red tomatoes, cooked hard-boiled eggs, and crumbled bacon blending tastefully with the crunchy green lettuce and sweet, crisp carrot slices tossed with chunks of ham and turkey. A fiesta of flavor with every bite, she thought woefully, knowing she wasn't going to enjoy a single bite. “I’m not quite ready to divulge the details of my pathetic life, Rina.”
    Workman, RaShelle (2011-12-16). Sleeping Roses (Dead Roses) (p. 6). Polished Pen Press. Kindle Edition.
 Example #5
This was not her fight, it never had been. But somehow the man named Demyan, the evil man with the glowing eyes, had found her and had known about her ability. He’d forced her from France, to India, willing to use her for his own gain even if it meant she must betray her half-brother, Colin.
       Not that Colin knew he was her brother. No, he was completely oblivious and she sure as hell wasn’t going to admit their relation. He’d want to do something honorable, like support her and Maman. She had other plans, plans that didn’t involve a family she barely knew. And so, when she’d met him for the first time just moments ago, she’d kept her mouth shut about their shared blood, and merely pointed him in the direction of Demyan. And when she’d seen her father for the first time in over fourteen years and he hadn’t recognized her, she had ignored the sting.
      He’d had no interest in her, only his treasures. Good against evil and all for a ridiculous statue. The moment Colin and her father left, she’d darted out of the temple and had crawled under the rock. They might think they were getting the treasure, but she knew the truth.

Brighton, Lori  (2011-12-09). Wild Passion, Story 3 in the Wild Series (Kindle Locations 78-87).  . Kindle Edition.

Friday, December 7, 2012

What have they done to my words? The Amazon formatting fraud continues

What follows is the text of my email to Amazon customer service regarding the Kindle content I downloaded last night.  I will post the relevant screen shots later today.

The Kindle content is "Stone of the Goddess" by Grizel Standilands.  I looked at the Look Inside sample, and it appeared fine.  The sample download, however, is formatted differently than the Look Inside feature.  It is in a different font and has no paragraph indents.  It is not easily readable.
I would like to buy this book, but I'm tired of getting Kindle content that looks good on the Look Inside feature and then turns out to be junk when I try to read it on my Kindle for PC.

I have deregistered, uninstalled, and reinstalled the Kindle for PC application literally dozens of times since these problems first appeared in July 2012.  Not a single one of the problems has been solved. 

Angels at Midnight by Norma Beishir
Danger at Mellin Cove by Rena George
Embrace the Wild Dawn by S.K. McClafferty
among others.

Amazon has taken hours and hours of my time in online chat and promise resolution, but nothing has been done.  I have been promised responses in three days, five days, a week, but I never get anything.  The people I chat with pay little attention to what I'm telling them.  For instance, the last time I got into an online chat, it lasted three hours, even though the question I asked at 20 minutes into the conversation could have been answered then, if the person had only been paying attention.

I have sent screen shots of sample pages showing what happens.  I have been told over and over and over that there is a team of specialists working on the problem and that it is an Amazon software problem.  I began reporting this in July 2012 and I have logs of all the chats to show that.
I know that it is perfectly possible for Kindle content to be formatted just fine to show correctly on the Kindle for PC app, because I read that content all the time.  If indeed the problem is in the software, as I have repeatedly been told by Amazon representatives that it is, then Amazon needs to fix it.  If, on the other hand, the problem is with the authors' formatting of the document that's uploaded to the Kindle platform, then that needs to be determined so the authors can fix their product.

I have the Kindle for PC app on two computers, an HP laptop operating Windows Vista and a Lenovo desktop using Windows 7.  I get exactly the same results on both of them when I look at the affected content.

The Amazon representatives have granted me some Kindle credit in compensation for my frustration and the time I've spent online with them.  I'm tired of giving up my time to this.  There is absolutely no reason why these books don't display properly on my devices.  And I am not going to go out and spend money for a Kindle device that I don't want and don't need and don't have the time to use, because I no longer have faith that these products would display correctly even on the Amazon hardware.

I am also a Kindle Direct Publishing author.  I have no way of knowing if Amazon has delivered my product in readable or unreadable condition to readers.  I have no way of knowing -- other than trusting the "preview" feature -- what my product looks like on any other device.  All I do know is that Amazon has been cheating authors out of sales by not addressing this issue for six months.

This email will be posted on my blog. 

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Edit, editing, edited: Do you even know what the words mean?

Warning and disclaimer:

This is a rant.  It is an angry rant that may be filled with "bad" words. 


I've written before about there being a difference between proofreading and editing.  Let me explain it again.

Proofreading generally is intended to fix errors of spelling, punctuation, capitalization, grammar, and word usage.  In other words, errors on a micro level of writing mechanics.

A proofreader may -- but may not -- correct errors of grammar such as replacing "had went" with "had gone" or "several ladys's coats" with "several ladies' coats."  A proofreader may -- but may not -- correct errors such as a character's name changing from Harry to Woodrow in the middle of Chapter 3 or point out that the hero has brown eyes in the prologue and blue in the middle of the opening scene.  A proofreader will probably not tell you that your scene set on the corner of Dearborn and LaSalle in Chicago violates the known cartography of the city because Dearborn and LaSalle run parallel to each other.  A proofreader will almost certainly not correct historical inaccuracies nor inform you that the character on page 75 who is sharing a carriage with the heroine had in fact been killed on page 62.

A proofreader is not an editor, and proofreading is not editing.

How difficult is this to understand?

A proofreader is not an editor, and proofreading is not editing.

Allow me to illustrate:

Thomasina watched out the window in the front door until her mother and brother had went, then she locked the door. Now that the confrontation was over, she gave in to the overwhelming weighth of stress. Much as she wanted to follow commonsense and secured the locks on the back door, she stumbled only as far as the stairway. Her knees were weak, her head ached, and she feared she would collapse in hysterical tears if she didn't give herself a receipt.
She sank down onto the bottom stair and leaned forward, elbows on her knees, forehead on her upturned palms.

"I should of stayed in Seattle," She lamented aloud, but even as the echoes faded in the stillness, a shivery tightening in her stomach reminded her that if she had not came back to Ridgewood, to the confrontations with her family and questions of the House, to the enduring and now pressing mystery of her Father's death, she would of never re-established contact with Steve Angelotti.

She took a deep and calming breath and tilted her head back, then to each side, stretching the taunt muscles in her neck and shoulders. Whatever the problems, the decision to return to Ridgewood were her own to make. 

She was hungry, too.  A glance at her watch told her it was nearly half past seven, her sandwich and salad lunch with Steve was hours ago. But as she glanced down the hall toward the kitchen, she wondered how she would ever keep anything on a stomach as knotted as her's was right now.
Let's try that again:
Thomasina watched out the window in the front door until her mother and brother had gone, then she locked the door. Now that the confrontation was over, she gave in to the overwhelming weight of stress. Much as she wanted to follow common sense and secure the locks on the back door, she stumbled only as far as the stairway. Her knees were weak, her head ached, and she feared she would collapse in hysterical tears if she didn't give herself a respite.
She sank down onto the bottom stair and leaned forward, elbows on her knees, forehead on her upturned palms.

"I should have stayed in Seattle," she lamented aloud, but even as the echoes faded in the stillness, a shivery tightening in her stomach reminded her that if she had not come back to Ridgewood, to the confrontations with her family and questions of the House, to the enduring and now pressing mystery of her father's death, she would have never re-established contact with Steve Angelotti.

She took a deep and calming breath and tilted her head back, then to each side, stretching the taut muscles in her neck and shoulders. Whatever the problems, the decision to return to Ridgewood was her own to make. 

She was hungry, too.  A glance at her watch told her it was nearly half past seven; her sandwich and salad lunch with Steve was hours ago. But as she glanced down the hall toward the kitchen, she wondered how she would ever keep anything on a stomach as knotted as hers was right now.

If you don't know what the mistakes were and couldn't correct them by yourself, you need a proofreader.

A proofreader, however, will not fix bad writing, poor story construction, lackluster characterization, static description, research errors, implausible motivation, impossible logic, or any of the other macro level problems that beset far too many self-published works.

If all you've done is hire someone to clean up the punctuation and spelling, DO NOT claim that you've had the book edited.

The above selection is from a contemporary gothic romance I'm writing titled The Looking-Glass Portrait.  I had to create the errors in the first sample so there would be something to fix, and then, by the goddess, I fixed the errors.

If the person you hire doesn't, can't, or won't correct all of your grammar and syntax errors, they haven't done any editing, and they haven't even done a competent job of proofreading.

Here's a brief passage from Leah Banicki's Seeing the Elephant originally published in 2011:

Corinne stands waiting in her Aunt's fashionable 12th street Boston home. The walls gilded in pinks and golds. The chandelier weeps with great drops of crystal. This place doesn't look like a prison, but Corinne lost her freedom the moment she tied her first whalebone corset around her petite frame.
Banicki, Leah. Seeing the Elephant (Wildflowers) (p. 5). Smashwords. Kindle Edition.
The book received some nice reviews on Amazon, but also some very harsh criticism for the poor grammar, especially the shifts in tenses.

Today -- 4 December 2012 -- the revised version of that book was free on Amazon, with a new cover, a new title, and an announcement from the author that it's been revised, rewritten, and "professionally edited."

Here's that same passage from Finding Her Way, the revised version published 27 October 2012:

Corinne waited in her Aunt's fashionable 12th street Boston home. The walls gilded in pinks and golds, great drops of crystal cascaded from the chandeliers, the grand staircase wrapped elegantly around the back and majestically descended into the great hall. Halfway down the stairs there was a great view of the parlor on one side and the ballroom on the other. Artisans from Italy and France laid the exquisite marble floor. The fireplaces designed by a famous stonemason, the iron grates, and tools imported from the best artists and craftsmen from around the world. Few houses in Boston could boast of finer rooms or impressive displays of wealth. It had been a long while since it even fazed Corinne. This place did not look like a prison, but Corinne had lost her freedom a few years ago when she tied her first whalebone corset around her petite frame. The grandeur came at a price.

Banicki, Leah (2012-10-27). Finding Her Way (Wildflowers) (Kindle Locations 150-171). . Kindle Edition.
The segment has quite obviously been rewritten and expanded. The mix of present and past tenses has been fixed. But "Aunt's" should not have been capitalized in the first section and that error wasn't fixed in the rewrite. The Boston address of "12th Street" should have been capitalized, and that error wasn't fixed either. The short incomplete sentence about the walls in the first passage was expanded for the second, but it remains an incomplete sentence, sort of, but mixed with others to make a ghastly run-on sentence.  The second highlighted description is a similar combination of fragments and comma splices. The use of the word "impressive" is incorrect, since the sentence structure implies "few houses in Boston could boast of impressive displays of wealth." Should the word "more" have been inserted? I don't know. All I know is that in this single paragraph there is more than enough evidence to show me this book was not "edited." It wasn't even proofread very well.

I've said often enough that I'm not going to do book reviews here on this blog, but I have to say I'm sorely tempted right now. Except that there is no way I could even begin to read, let alone review, this book without indulging in some very heavy critiquing. The opening is all tell, no show. There is a major historical error on the opening page. There are still words being used inaccurately.

Is it an improvement over the first version? Yeah, I guess so. But it hasn't been edited. And that's the point I'm trying to make. I'm sure Leah Banicki won't read this. I'm sure dozens of other self-publishing writers who are paying for "editing" services won't read this either. They'll go into denial, they'll insist there are no errors, they'll call me a hater or a jealous competitor or something. And they will never admit that they screwed up. They will never admit their stories are flawed, their writing is inadequate, their research is flimsy, their characters are wooden/TSTL/whatever. Most important, they will insist until the cows come home that the book must be absolutely flawless because they've had it "professionally edited."

Except they haven't. They don't even know what the word means.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Words in response to the trolls and bullies

As difficult as it is to believe, I've been online almost 20 years.  Or maybe more than that.  I'm not sure when I got the first modem and the Prodigy software, but it had to be somewhere around 1992.

One of the first lessons I learned back in those old Prodigy days was "Don't Feed the Trolls!"  I remember a few of those first encounters.  Of course then as now I was mostly visiting threads and discussions about writing and reading, and we'd always get a few doofuses who wanted to make fun of women who read and wrote romance novels.  Then there was a guy who insisted no successful writer ever came out out of a critique group.  By the time I moved on to the GEnie network's Romance Exchange, or RomEx, and then to AOL, ignoring trolls was just another part of online life. 

However, I learned these lessons the hard way.  All too often I'd get suckered into one of those discussions, the kind that you can never win because they're designed that way.  Kind of like the old joke, "So, tell me, Bob, are you still beating your wife?"  There's no way to answer that and save face.

Yes, indeed, I often ended up in the role of the miserable, frustrated little soul, hunched over her keyboard into the wee hours, my brow furrowed in concentration, an enormous thought bubble hanging over my head with the words "Someone on the Internet is WRONG!" 

Most of the time, it wasn't worth the effort.  I changed very few opinions, if any, since all of us were safely ensconced behind our monitors and we didn't have to suffer much in the way of consequences.

The online world has changed a lot since then.  When I started with Prodigy and GEnie and AOL, DOS was still viable and there was no www, no Facebook and no eBay and no Amazon and no PayPal, no Twitter and no Pinterest and no YouTube.  Now we have all that, and more, and we still have the trolls.

As I've come back into my writing career (if you want to call it that) I've believed more than ever in the integrity of the words.  What we write has meaning and it has consequences.  If we are not prepared to accept the consequences, then we should not put our words out in public.  Once those words are out there, once we've hit the post or send or publish button, we've lost control of those words.  They are ours, but they are no longer ours alone. 

One area that has quite obviously attracted a lot of trolls is the whole issue of book reviews.  It's been a hot topic just on this little blog, even though I don't do any reviews here.  I do write about reviews here, however, and one of the issues I've addressed is the need for honest reviews, especially about bad books.

The sad truth is that there are a lot of badly written books out there.  The sadder truth is that a lot of those badly written books are published by their authors.  Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing and Smashwords -- the two platforms I've used -- make digital publishing a snap, and far too many people have been seduced by that snap.  They've published too many books that weren't ready for publication, and worse than that is the fact the authors themselves weren't ready for the consequences.  They don't know why their books weren't ready nor do they know how to make them ready.  All they know how to do is lash out at the critics -- or anyone they perceive to be a critic.

I don't think I'd make a very good reviewer.  I say that even though I have been a reviewer in the past.  But the reviews I wrote for Rave Reviews and for the long-defunct online review site whose name I have completely forgotten were bland and formulaic and utterly commercial.  The opinions were mine and they were honest, but I felt as if they served little purpose other than to announce hey, random reader, here's another book you might want to take a look at.

As I've written elsewhere on this blog, the books I reviewed then were published by established print publishers who had a vested interest in making sure their product was literate.  That was one of the beauties of the old publishing machine.  You either wrote well enough to be published or you learned and practiced until you did.  When you wrote well enough to be published. . . .you were published, and it worked equally well in reverse:  If you were published, then obviously you wrote well enough to be published. 

Now there's no such validation, because anyone can be published.  There are no gatekeepers.

Books, however, involve a three-phase process -- writing, publishing, and reading.  Along with the traditional gatekeeping between writing and publishing, there was another between publishing and reading:  the book review.  Though less a true quality assurance function, reviews did serve to assist readers in making selections, especially in the romance fiction community.

But book reviews have proliferated just the way publishing has.  Where reviewers were few in number and were selected for publication in much the same manner as authors -- You had to have some credentials.  If your review was published in a reputable magazine, it was deemed to have some validity -- now anyone can be a reviewer, just as anyone can be an author.

So what the reader is faced with today is a double whammy:  A flood of self-published, unvetted reading material and a flood of untrustworthy reviews and recommendations.

Independent reviewers who try to wade through this tsunami are often attacked by self-publishing authors as well as their supporters.  This has been documented time and time and time again.  There are groups and individuals campaigning to force bookseller sites like Amazon and reader sites like GoodReads to limit reviews to only positive comments.  Reviewers are scolded if they aren't "nice" enough.  Reviewers who dare to express honest, personal opinions that happen to be negative have been the victims of cyber stalking, harassing phone calls, and publication of private, personal information -- all forms of extortion or blackmail to silence them. 

In other words, the authors whose books are receiving negative reviews have resorted to threats -- and in some cases carried out those threats -- rather than look to see if there is any validity in the criticisms.  And once the author has become angrily defensive about her work to the point of refusing to change one precious word of it, she's in denial and virtually incapable of seeing the errors that have to be corrected.

This is true even when the criticisms are leveled against elements of the book that are demonstrably and objectively inaccurate. 

For example, is the document properly formatted for digital publication?  Just about anyone can look at a Kindle device or the Kindle app for PC or Android or whatever and determine if a manuscript has been properly formatted.  Are there double- or triple-spaced breaks between paragraphs?  No paragraphs at all?  Are the margins reasonable, or too narrow or too wide?  These are the basic mechanical details of publishing the already-written book.  This is the process that makes the digital content look like a professionally prepared product.  This is what the "real" publishers do when they digitize a book.  The self-publishing author who doesn't care enough or know enough to format her product so that it looks professional probably doesn't care enough or know enough to write a good book.  Yet often when these formatting errors are pointed out in reviews, the authors or their supporters deny that the errors exist -or- they insist the formatting errors don't matter, that the reviewer is petty for pointing them out, or . . . whatever.

If there are spelling errors, punctuation errors, formatting errors, factual research errors and the author refuses to acknowledge them she is not going to be capable of handling the editing necessary to fix character motivation, plot continuity, and historical accuracy. 

Many of these problems used to be resolved in the critique group, contest, or "beta reader" process.  I don't know what happened to that.  I know that some of the free publishing sites such as offer the writer the opportunity to receive feedback, but how much feedback is actually offered, what quality it is, and whether the authors take most of it is unknown to me, at least at this time.  Booksie, at least, allows the writer to delete negative comments.  Denial, denial, denial.

The ability of authors to deny or ignore criticism extends to more formal, commercial digital publication as well.  Ebooks aren't carved in stone.  When a book -- or its author -- receives too many negative reviews, the author can simply unpublish the book and then republish it, wiping the page clean of one-star reviews and negative comments.  Then all the fans and friends and family members and paid shills can repost the good reviews before the meanies get in there.

Reviewers have little recourse.  GoodReads, where I have actually begun writing reviews of some of the books I've read, defends readers more staunchly than writers and at least does not remove books solely because the authors have complained of too many negative reviews.  Once listed, the book remains along with all the reviews and comments.

I'm not afraid of the trolls and bullies.  I won't link to them or their websites, I won't name them, I won't out them from behind their screen names and avatars.  I don't care about them.  I write under my own name, and I will review under my own name.

As a self-publishing author, I care very much about the quality of the other books in the market place.  I'm not afraid to go up against the books published by the traditional publishers.  My work always has to stand on its own merits.   Nor do I fear competition from the hundreds, thousands of books offered at bargain prices by their self-publishing  authors, because I am confident my work is at least equal to if not superior to them.

If there is any threat at all, it comes from the poorly written, poorly presented books that make so many readers reluctant to even try the independent, small-publisher, and self-published fare.  There are no gatekeepers between the authors and publishing any more, and too few trustworthy gatekeepers between the publishing platforms and the readers, other than reliable reviewers.  Because some of the reviewers have either given up on "indie" books because of the actions of trolls and bullies, someone has to step into the breach.

I love writing and I love reading.  I love books.  Although my publishing portfolio isn't extensive, I think I have sufficient credibility to make not necessarily a good reviewer, but a good critiquer.  And the trolls and bullies be damned.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Review vs. Critique: Which word applies?

When I was reviewing books for the long-defunct Rave Reviews magazine back in the late 1980s, we had a very limited amount of space in which to describe both the book and our reaction to it.  Certain aspects, however, were pretty much taken for granted:  We knew the books had been reasonably edited and typeset so we didn't have to worry about massive numbers of typos or poorly formatted pages.  We could therefore devote our 300 or 400 words to a brief summary of the contents and to our opinion/recommendation.

A longer review, for example a professional review in Publisher's Weekly or The New York Review of Books, might go into more detail about the writing style, the author's background, the wider cultural impact of the book.  But again, those details of basic presentation were taken for granted:  The books had all been professionally edited and printed.

The reviewers, whether the well-known mavens at the big publications or eager amateurs like myself, knew that there had already been a screening process.

At the same time that I was reviewing for Rave, I was judging contests for RWA and reading material written by the members of my critique group.  For those manuscripts, I knew there had been no screening.  These were coming directly from the authors and had not been edited at all.  Sometimes they didn't even meet standard manuscript formatting, but that, too, was part of the process.

Though I can't speak for anyone else who judged RWA contests or belonged to a critique group, I can at least say that for myself I looked at the entire product, both content and presentation.  Every aspect of the manuscript was important, from the quality of the printing to the running of spell check to the use, misuse, and abuse of commas and semicolons.

As an author, I knew that the submission (I still hate that word) of a manuscript to an editor required the author to take into consideration any and all  factors that could impact that editor's decision to buy or reject.  I wrote often enough that editors didn't look for reasons to reject books, but when they found reasons, they rejected.  Those reasons could include poor grammar and spelling, sloppy manuscript preparation, even character names that were difficult to pronounce.  For one thing, carelessness in manuscript prep could indicate carelessness in story construction too, but it also meant the editor would have to invest more labor -- and more of her publisher's money -- to fix the problems.

Publishers, unlike authors, are all about the bottom line.  Anything that takes away from a book's profitability makes it less attractive to purchase.

As an author I knew all this, but I also knew it as a reader.  I couldn't -- and can't -- turn off my analytical self when I read.  That's why a really good book, one that engages me and keeps me turning the pages and not wanting to put it down to fix supper or let the dogs out, that's a book that hits on all the factors.  The writing is good, the formatting is clean, the story is compelling.

When judging a contest entry or reading a critique group submission, I took the task seriously and looked not at just a few errors but all of them.  I was often -- and I do mean often -- accused of being brutal.  I pointed out spelling errors and I complained if the pages weren't clean with regular margins and standard type size.  I told one member of my critique group that she needed to change her heroine's name because it belonged to a well-known film actress.  And yes, I know people have the same names as other people.  I went to high school with a girl named Elizabeth Taylor, and she married a guy named Dean Martin.  Seriously.

But when your heroine's name is "Rehnee" and you tell me you want it pronounced "Rainy," I have to ask you why you don't just spell it "Rainy"?  After all, you aren't going to be there with every reader to tell her personally how to pronounce the name and keep her from hearing it in her head as RenĂ©e or Renny.

A critique covers all of that.  Or at least it should. 

In fact, when I instituted my local RWA chapter's "Hot Prospects" contest in 1994, I designed -- because I'm anal that way -- an elaborate scoring system so judges had a broad array of aspects to judge each entry on, everything from characterization to writing style to internal consistency.  I have a feeling it intimidated a lot of judges who really didn't want to be that analytical about the entries they were reading.

Such a score sheet also, however, was designed to help the aspiring writer judge become more analytical about her own writing

Of course, those who were the most intimidated by a detailed score sheet were also often those most reluctant to admit that they didn't know enough about plotting, about character motivation, about conflict logic, to write a salable romance novel.  Whether through the critique process or through thorough contest judging, the writer was expected to learn and grow and improve.

One judge, who had three manuscripts to score, returned them all with perfect marks.  I think the highest possible total was 200 points, and she had given all three of them 200 points.  I asked her why she did that.  Did she find nothing wrong with any of them?  Were all of them absolutely perfect, with no room for improvement?  Oh, no, she admitted they were far from perfect.  But she felt the authors needed encouragement more than they needed criticism.  When I asked her how she thought a perfect score was going to help them improve, she said she didn't know.

Can you tell I was frustrated with her?  As a writer who entered a contest to learn how to make my writing better, I'd have been furious with a perfect score that told me nothing.  As a writer whose work had already been rejected numerous times and had not won any contests, I'd be frustrated that someone was essentially telling me something I already knew wasn't true.  And the judge had already admitted to me that her perfect scores weren't honest.

In the 20 years and more since my reviewing days, the screening process provided by agents, editors, and publishers has been removed.  We readers never used to have ready access to the books that had been rejected.  The advent of digital self-publishing has not only brought those rejects into the marketplace, but it has done so without the benefit of the editing and revising the publishing process imposes on even the accepted books.

Some of these self-published authors may have availed themselves of editing or proofreading services, and their books may have gone through a process of independent critiquing and revising.  These authors will have dealt with the negative comments that every book receives during its development. 

But many other authors who don't have access to or haven't availed themselves of writing contests are putting raw manuscripts into digital publication with no concept of the often painful journey a story takes from conception to polished publication.  They don't understand that a critique of a work in process, perhaps of the opening chapters, isn't a personal assault; it's an attempt on the part of the reader to put the author on the path to success.

The author who has labored for months or even years on a novel with no input from qualified critics may be understandably upset when that first "review" comes in and points out the massive spelling and punctuation errors, the plot holes, the historical inaccuracies.   And whether a "review" is supposed to be just for other readers or for the author as well, it's difficult for any author to read a negative review and not think it's at least somewhat directed at her.

I know that few, if any, self-publishing authors pay much attention to my blog.  I know that a few have taken exception to some of my comments, and maybe they're even reposting them on their own blogs.  I don't much care.  Because I also know that those who disagree with me have not yet been able to prove me wrong. They may not like what I say or how I say it, but no one so far has been able to refute the validity of what I've said.

Critiques are not only an inevitable part of the writing-for-publication process, they are also essential.  And the writer who doesn't prepare herself for the inevitable is only hurting herself.  Denying the criticisms is absolutely the wrong thing to do.  "Flushing" the one-star reviews by unpublishing and republishing under a new title doesn't improve the book. 

Real writers know this.  Real writers know that it isn't enough just to have written the book.  Real writers know that writing a book is an accomplishment, but rewriting a book is a triumph.  Real writers know that writing is indeed rewriting, and you can't effectively rewrite unless you get feedback, evaluation, opinion, criticism.

The reader, whether she has paid $9.99 or picked the book up as a Kindle freebie, only sees the words in front of her.  The only story she cares about is the one that unfolds through those words.  The author's trials and tribulations and excuses don't matter.  Whatever comments the independent reader cares to make, whether they are a brief gush or a short slam or a lengthy analysis of all the novel's shortcomings, become equally valid because they become part of the process as it has evolved over the past two decades or so with the changes in publishing techniques and technology.

There used to be a big difference between a "review" and a "critique," primarily in that the former was applied to a product that was explicitly finished.  The reader knew the book had been accepted, edited, printed, and presented for sale as a final product.  The reader knew the book had been produced to meet basic industry standards.  Now, however, many digital books have not been through that complete process, and the reader is fully within her rights to react more in the role of contest judge or critique partner evaluating a work in progress than just as the reader of a final product.

It's my opinion, therefore, that both reviews and critiques are equally valid, provided of course that they come from independent and honest readers.  Not paid shills, not friends and family members, not reciprocating or disgruntled authors out to enhance their own offerings.  Those authors who wail and protest against the detailed critique-reviews should thank their lucky stars (pun intended) for each and every such review they receive, whether on a mega-site like Amazon or on a smaller review website/blog; and if they don't like dealing with negative reviews in public, then they need to remove their books from publication and get the private critiques that come from a good contest and/or a good critique group.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

"Perfect" is not a word I use very often

And with good reason.  Almost nothing is "perfect" anyway -- except some verb tenses.

That doesn't mean perfection isn't an acceptable goal.  The closer we approach it, the better we are at whatever it is we're doing.  Believing we've reached it, however, too often signifies we've lost sight of reality.  This is especially true of writing.

The other day, a reader pointed out to me that there were still some small errors in the Kindle version of Firefly.  As I explained to her, I knew about them but had left them because of my on-going battle with Amazon over the Kindle for PC application software.  These errors only appear on certain Kindle device displays, not on all.  And since the author has no way to know if a "fix" to an error will end up making it actually worse on other devices. . . . well, you see the dilemma.

At the time  Firefly was published on Amazon, the KDP preview only allowed the publisher (that's me) to preview how the document would appear on the basic Kindle device.  Amazon has now enhanced the KDP process so that the publisher has a variety of preview options and can now see how the document will look on the Kindle, Kindle Fire, iPhone, and others.  This is certainly an improvement.  So I was able to take the comments from this reader and check out what the errors looked like on the various platforms, something I had not been able to do before.

This allowed me to confirm that the formatting errors do appear on all the other devices -- but not, ironically, on the Kindle for PC!  So I've decided to proofread the text as it is previewed for the Kindle Fire and locate the errors.

Unfortunately, I found something else.  And this is why I cringe at the word perfect when applied to anyone's writing.

It's not a typo or a formatting glitch, nor is it a problem created by the conversion of the original 1987 Symphony documents into Word Perfect 4.0 for DOS and then through a succession of Word Perfect for Windows versions and finally into MS Word for the uploading to Kindle.  Yeah, there were a bunch of those, and they were a nightmare, and they provided the foundation for those lingering bugs in the Kindle version.  Nope, it's not anything like that.

It's a continuity error that's been in the book since that 1987 Symphony version.  I never caught it, and neither did my (cough, cough) editor at Pageant Books.  All the times I've read Firefly since, and especially all the times I've gone through it in preparing it for digital publication, I never caught this particular little mistake.

But there it is, so minor and insignificant that in all these years, all these readings, no one has mentioned it.  Does it affect the story?  No, not at all.  It can be corrected by deleting, or revising, a single sentence.  In fact, replacing one verb with another will do the trick, and that's probably what I'll do since I have to upload a revised version of the text anyway to fix the formatting errors.

The point is, even someone as nitpicky and perfectionist as I can make mistakes.  And having made them, I can miss them in proofreading and revising and editing and everything else.  Is it embarrassing?  Sure!  And do you think I'm going to tell anyone what it was?  Hell, no!  Neither am I going to make a big deal about the fact that the (cough, cough) editor missed it, too.

These things happen.  No one's perfect. 

But that doesn't mean we shouldn't try.  And it certainly doesn't mean we should excuse, dismiss, or -- goddess forbid -- defend our mistakes.  Admit it, fix it, and move on.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Giving the words away, or who are you writing for anyway?

One of the reasons I subtitled this blog "Adventures of a Resurrected Romance Novelist" is that part of my adventure involves pulling the past into the present and future.  It's about revamping and republishing old books.  It's about finishing and then publishing books I started years ago.  It's about taking lessons from the past and applying them to the now.

The little "lessons" I've included are, of course, similar to those I offered to fellow writers in the past.  Between about 1983 and 1998, I was active in several different critique groups, belonged to three local RWA chapters, judged dozens of manuscripts for contests, and taught non-credit creative writing classes through Estrella Mountain Community College.  I saw a lot of unpublished writing, and recognized that most of it did not meet the standards to make it publishable at that time.  Now, of course, the technology has altered, to a certain extent, the need for writers to meet publishing standards.  If it's a .doc file, it can be published seems to be the only requirement. 

The book doesn't actually need cover art, although it's possible to slap one together for next to nothing.  I did the cover for Half Heaven, Half Heartache, my undergrad honors thesis on romance novels, using a photograph I'd taken of a rose in my back yard and some inexpensive fonts. 

As can be seen by perusing the offerings from Amazon and Smashwords, there's no requirement that the book be proofread, that the formatting be correct, or even that the writing be stellar.  The writing doesn't even have to be. . .adequate.

I've blogged about this before when I've pointed out some of the really horrible (imho) products out there, the ones in eye-scorching bold fonts with incomprehensibly creative spelling and bizarre, almost random punctuation.  But I'm not alone.  Other readers complain in numerous reviews that they had a difficult time reading the text because of the problems with tenses and grammar and spelling.  And I suspect 95% or more of the time, those complaints fall on blind eyes.  Either the writers don't care, don't understand the complaints, or don't know how to recognize their own errors.

But then there are those writers who defend their errors with the excuse that they did it all deliberately to create a certain mood or convey a certain feeling.  There's an attitude floating around out there that rules don't apply to these authors.  They sometimes go public with statements to the effect that they know how to write, they know how to punctuate, they know how to spell, but it's their story and they will tell it their way.  And furthermore, any reviewer or critic who doesn't like it is just a hater and a stupid head who doesn't understand great creative work.

Uh, no.

I've explained often enough that the rules of grammar and spelling aren't restrictions on a writer's creativity but rather they are tools for unlocking that creativity.  They are the chisels and gouges that remove the excess marble and release the masterpiece hiding inside the stone.  And I've tried to get the point across to writers that if the reader doesn't get it, if the reader can't figure out what the author is trying to convey, then the author has failed.

It is not the reader's job to figure it out.  The reader isn't getting paid to fix the spelling or figure out that the writer didn't know the difference between "allude" and "elude."  The reader can't be blamed if the main character is named Larry in the first two chapters and then somehow morphs into Wayne in the middle of Chapter 3.  And it's not the reader's fault if she gives up in disgust and posts a DNF one-star review.

No, all you Special Snowflakes out there, it is always, always, always the writer's fault.  Even when the reader is wrong, it's the author's fault.  The author, and especially the self-published author, is always and entirely to blame.

Yes, you.  After all, who were you writing it for?

And that's the question every author should ask herself/himself at least 10,000 times before putting the book online for sale, before reading any of the reviews, before commenting on any of the reviews, before ranting and raving and threatening a reviewer who had the unmitigated gall to tell you they can't pronounce the name of your character.

Who were you writing it for? 

Were you writing it for yourself?  Fine.  Do whatever you want.  You can use ghoti=fish spelling if you like.  Youcanignorespacingbetweenwordsifthat'swhatfloatsyourboat.  YOU CAN WRITE IN ALL CAPS AND SCREAM AT YOUR READER or in a bold italic that lacerates the eyeballs.  If it's all about you and what you want and what you like, then why not just keep the book to yourself?  It's your baby, your darling.  It's the opus you've slaved over for years and years and years.

Were you publishing it just so you could say you did it?  Fine.  It's published, now you're done, now walk away from it.  Pay no attention to the critics, the haters, the one-star reviewers, the DNFers, the MFs, the trolls and sock puppets who have blasted your precious words.  You weren't writing it for them anyway, so what does it matter what they think?

Did you upload it to Amazon and Smashwords and then ask all your friends and family to post OMGyougottareadthis reviews?  Why?  Unless you wrote it for other people to actually buy and read, why do you care about reviews and ratings?

Did you write it to make money?  Well, honey, then you wrote it for the readers, and you have to pay attention to what they want and what they like and what they don't like.  And you have to pay attention to what they say.  And you have to not attack them.

Some people can be very mercenary when it comes to their writing and the money they make from it.  They can write anything, even stuff they don't like, so long as it sells and they get paid.

Other people can only write what they love, whether it's poetry or cozy mysteries or rousing pirate adventures.

But no matter what they write, if they want to make money from it, they have to write for the reader.  Because the reader is the one who's got the money you want.  Duh.

And the writer has to understand that if the readers like what they read, they will come back for more.  If they don't like it, no amount of bullshit will persuade them to part with their money.  No amount of bullying, of insulting, of attacking, of browbeating, of whining, of pleading, of lying, of threatening will alter the simple truth: the readers don't like it.

And it's the writer's fault.  Always.  Got it?  Good.