Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The taste of bitter words

In light of my discovery last week of how badly I had screwed up on my beloved book Firefly, I took some time off from writing.  Just a few days, not long, but some time to get my thoughts in order.

I used that time to read.  Reading has always been my pump-primer, and the more I read, the more I tend to write.

I actually read several books, titles not to be mentioned here.  A few old print books including one by an old friend who, like me, is now republishing her backlist.  A couple of new ebooks by established authors whose work I had read before.  Several new ebooks by new-to-me writers.

Of the bunch, the old print book by an old friend was the last.  I finished it late last night and felt a sense of satisfaction.  Good story, good writing, nothing spectacular but nothing WTF either.  I had actually never read any of her books before, because sometimes I don't like to read friends' books out of fear they'll turn out to be lousy and I won't be able to tell my friend.  In this case, it worked out all right.  This was a nice "comfort" read.

One of the ebooks was by a fairly well established newer writer but one I had never read before.  It was okay.  I didn't exactly race through it enthralled, but I enjoyed it.  On a scale of one to ten, maybe a seven. 

Because my Kindle for PC application allows me to sort my library into "collections," I have kept the self-published books that I collected for my reviews analysis on a separate shelf for later critical reading.  The ones I read this past week-end, therefore, were not part of that group.  These were selected solely on the basis of subject matter, meaning they're all historical romances without major paranormal elements.  No time-travel, no shape-shifters, no vampires, demons, angels, fairies, elves, warlocks, wizards, etc.  They were not purchased based on what any reviews on Amazon said, or how many reviews, or how many stars.  Solely on content.

As a group, these five books made me cry.  They embarrassed me.  They offended me.  They angered me. 

One of them was fairly well written and decently formatted; I knew it was a Kindle Select publication and therefore exclusive to Amazon, which meant the author (or whoever prepared the Word document for publication) didn't have to work with a variety of digital formats.  There were a few glitches with paragraphing but nothing too distracting.  The typos and misspellings were a little more frequent and therefore more irritating but on balance the mechanics of the writing were acceptable.  Maybe a grade of C+ on that.

Story construction and story-telling were a little better.  Not terrific, but it was enough to hold the interest of this notoriously picky reader.  I reached for my editor's hat more than a few times but never had an urge to throw the laptop against the wall.  I finished the book without undue effort and felt that I'd been adequately entertained.  So maybe a B- on that.

The other four?  Oh my dear goddess.  Horrible.  Just plain horrible.  Beyond horrible.  I managed to get through 22% on the best of this horrible lot; the other three I never finished the equivalent of the 10% free sample. 

I am picky.  I admit that.  I am VERY picky.  I don't deny it.

And if you are an author contemplating self-publication, your work may land on my laptop or it may not.  Or it may land on the Kindle of some other VPP (Very Picky Person).

Or, it may land on the Kindle of a person who just doesn't appreciate your work, who doesn't understand it.  A person who "really loves Regency romances" but doesn't understand why your Regency romance is all about dukes and earls and poor governesses trying to marry wealthy men.  A person who doesn't know the difference between the American Revolutionary War and the War Between the States.  A person who doesn't know Scotland is on the same island as England. 

As authors, we only have control over what we write, and our obligation to our readers is to put out the very best product we can.  That means paying attention to details like character names so they're appropriate to the time and place, to titles and forms of address for the nobility (which varies from country to country and age to age), to details of locations and phases of the moon and weather and who goes into the room and who leaves.  That means making sure the formatting is correct, the spelling errors are kept to an absolute minimum, and so on and so on and so on.

What we can't control are readers' reactions to our writing.  We sure as hell couldn't do it back in the day when all we had were print books.  They were out there and out of our hands.  If we screwed up, it was essentially carved in stone.

Now, in this age of digital publishing, we can go back and fix our mistakes.  One mistake we can't fix, however, is damage to our reputation.

And the best way to ruin your reputation as a digitally published author is to challenge the reader who doesn't agree with your assessment of your marvelous book.

After Firefly was print published in 1988, I entered it in the 1989 RWA Golden Medallion contest.  It wasn't the RITA award then.  Needless to say, I didn't win, and that's okay.  I never expect to win anything.  But one of my judges, who at that time was just beginning her career and has gone on to be a highly successful, best-selling, award-winning author whose name would be familiar to just about anyone who has been around romance fiction for more than six months, this author clearly didn't get the whole point of Firefly.  She didn't get the historical aspects, she didn't get the grief and shame and guilt aspects.  She didn't get anything about the book, and I know this because that's what she wrote on the score sheet, which she signed.

Oh, well.

Knowing who she was and feeling hurt and disappointed, I could have written to her and complained that she was ignorant and missed the point and shouldn't have been a judge at all.  I could have, but I didn't.  She gave the book what I can only assume was her honest effort and, well, she just didn't get it.

A couple of years after that, I read a book by a wildly popular author, a book that to this day remains on many keeper shelves of historical romance readers.  I loathed the book.  To this day I think it's one of the most appalling examples of our art.  But in the course of reading it, I discovered a horrendous error of historical fact.  As a reader, I wrote a polite letter to the author and sent it to her via her publisher, asking her if she were aware of this error.  Eventually, I received an incredibly rude and insulting reply from her ("I'm surprised I didn't just throw your letter in the garbage, which is where it belongs.").  She then went on to say the error had been made by her editor and missed by herself in correcting the page proofs, but had been corrected in subsequent printings of the book, which I'm sure sold hundreds of thousands of copies.  I've seen later printings, and the error was never corrected.

And while her honest acknowledgment of the error would not have made me despise the novel any less, it would have kept me from holding that author in the lowest possible esteem.

Just a few years later, I served as a judge in RWA's Golden Heart contest, as in fact I did for many years.  In those days, judges were encouraged to provide the unpublished contestants with feedback on their contest entries beyond just the raw scores.  I guess I'm either a frustrated editor or teacher or something, because I went into great detail on each of the entries I received.  Not only did I give each writer an analysis of her individual entry, but I also gave an overview of how I addressed the judging process, what my criteria were, and how I arrived at the scores.

One writer took exception to my comments.  She wrote a very very snarky letter to me, accusing me of being in a bad mood and taking out my frustrations on the poor unpublished authors out of a sense of malice and jealousy.  And yes, I have that letter in my possession.  I also have my reply to her, in which I explained that a.) I was a volunteer who didn't appreciate being insulted for what I had done; b.) I had been given not the six manuscripts I'd been expected to judge but 10; c.) I had received those manuscripts 10 days later than expected because the co-ordinator had mailed them to the wrong address; and d.) if she didn't want feedback, why on earth had she entered the contest?

I've been on both sides.  I've been the reader, and I've been the author.  I've had the rejection letters, the low marks in the contests.  I've been the contest judge and read the horrible crap that should never have been taken out of the writer's printer and I've read the books that made me jump up and down and say "Yes!  This one is going to be published some day!"  And I've seen those books published.

And I've read the reviews on Amazon where someone didn't like a book -- including a couple of those that I read, or tried to read, this past week-end -- and the author has come back to berate the reader for not understanding it or being too picky about grammar or not being able to accept historical inaccuracies because "it's just fiction!"

And I've been following, with morbid fascination, the Badly Behaving Author threads here, here, and here on Amazon.  Don't go there unless you have lots and lots and lots of time to spare! 

Many have said there, and I cannot agree completely enough:  No matter how much the review hurts, no matter how wrong you think the reviewer is, don't respond.  If they tell you they think your book was obviously written by someone who doesn't speak English and had the whole thing translated by Google, ignore them.  If the subject line of the review is "Desperately needs editing!" or "Didn't they have spell check?" or "Formatted by one-handed monkeys" or "I kept looking for a plot and never found one" or "Heroine is the dumbest twit never to have been alive" or "If you like heroes with big wazoos and no brains, this is for you!" or "Run, do not walk, away from this book" or "Someone needs to give this author a geography lesson" or anything even remotely close to that, do not respond. 


There is no way you can fix that reviewer's impression.  Always keep in mind that there is virtually no chance in hell that they know you, and their criticisms are not directed at you but only at your book.  And as close as you are to your book, as much as you think of it as your "baby," it's not.  It's a book.  It's a bunch of lies that you strung together in hopes of entertaining other people.

Nothing you can write will change the opinion of that reader.  Even if you respond politely and the reviewer writes back and says they decided to give you another chance, you can't win.

If you respond with anything approaching anger or resentment or hostility, you've lost.  You've lost that reader and any subsequent readers who see your reply.  If the reviewer said he would never buy another of your books, do you think he will after you've called him an ignorant toad and shill for your competition?  Not likely.

It hurts.  Believe me, I know it hurts.  Write it out on your blog or in your diary or tell your significant other or critique partners or your dog (who will love you no matter what those idiot reviewers think of your precious words!), but resist the temptation to pour out your anger on the reviewer.

And then, when the anger and hurt have passed, then take another look at that review or critique or whatever it is and see if maybe they weren't correct after all.  Read it to find out what they took issue with.  If it's the subject matter or your personal perspective on  it, well, there's not much you can do about that.  If it's clear they don't know what they're talking about (historical accuracy, spelling and grammar, genre or sub-genre conventions), just ignore them.  But if there is validity in their comments, and especially if they've pointed to specifics, then maybe you'd better consider that they may be correct.

Even then, keep it to yourself, and go fix the book.

I won't be reviewing those four books that I found so horrible and unreadable this week-end.  Maybe I should, but I won't.  For some of them, the reviews have already come in.  How the authors react is up to them.  And that's why I won't tell you what books they are.

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