Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The words that don't win the prize

This particular installment is born out of personal frustration and anger.

Badly Behaving Author meltdowns seem to be becoming almost commonplace, and with their frequency comes what appears to be a growing malevolence.  The bad behavior is one thing, the escalation is another.  But where is it coming from?  What in the name of all that's literary makes people think they can get away with this?

Sadly, the out-of-all-reasonable-proportion response to negative comments on a written work are not in and of themselves anything new.  And while I think there's probably some justification for saying people who take criticism this personally and react this extremely may indeed have serious mental health issues, not all of them do.  Some of them just sincerely believe there is nothing wrong with their work and no one has any right to criticize it.

In my daily skim through the Amazon Kindle freebies a week or so ago, I stumbled upon an author's name that rang faintly familiar.  I was pretty sure I had judged a manuscript from this author in an RWA contest many many years ago.  A bit of rummaging through my files turned up a photocopied score sheet for that author's entry.  (Remember:  I keep just about EVERYTHING, and if it's related to writing, the files are generally pretty well organized.)  A little more research identified the contest entry as another of this author's now-self-published Kindle books.  Not even the title had been changed.  For sake of discussion, let's call the book Summer Love.  That's a made-up title and has nothing whatsoever to do with the real title of the real book.
Out of curiosity, I downloaded the free sample of Summer Love (the book itself was priced at $3.99) and began to read.  After just three pages I couldn't go any further; the experience was simply too painful.

I know that authors do not like to get bad "reviews."  It doesn't matter if those bad reviews are on Amazon, in RT, on Dear Author, from a critique partner, an agent, an editor, or even just a low score in a writing contest.  It hurts to have someone tell you your work isn't absolutely wonderful.

Been there, done that.

Let me repeat: 

Been there, done that.

As soon as I began reading the sample, I remembered the entry from when I had judged Summer Love.  Furthermore, I knew that if I had the score sheet in my physical files, I probably had an evaluation analysis in my digital files.  These really old ones aren't quite as organized as some of my paper files, but I did manage to find the analysis I had done on the manuscript. 

This contest was sponsored by my local RWA chapter (yeah, I know that's gonna narrow down the field of who it could be) and part of the attraction for the contest was that the judges were encouraged to give extensive feedback on the manuscripts.  Many RWA contests had restricted or even eliminated any opportunity for judges' comments because too many contestants took vocal exception to any negative comments, so for this contest, instead of just a raw score, the authors could expect explanations and even suggestions for improvement.

As I read through those old comments on an otherwise forgotten contest entry and compared those comments to what I was now reading from the self-published e-book, I realized the author had changed virtually nothing.  The same things I had found lacking in the manuscript almost 20 years ago were still lacking.  Even though I knew the author had been told at least once that at least one critic -- me -- found her characterization thin, her description lackluster, and her dialogue stiff, she had chosen to ignore that criticism.

Of course, any author is free to ignore any criticism.  And not all criticism is constructive.  I remember the argument I had with a critique group member who insisted all the backstory to Firefly should be put in a prologue so the reader doesn't have to wonder why Julie behaves the way she does.  But that reader was the only one who wanted such a prologue; every other member of the group felt leaving the revelation to be made between the characters at the appropriate time was more dramatic.  Eventually the book was published that way, and I didn't change it for the digital edition.

But in all the intervening years since I judged it in that contest, Summer Love never made it into print.  I don't know how Amazon's sales rankings are determined, but its place was pretty far down the list.  There were no reviews, not even from friends, the author herself, sock puppets, shills.  I have no way of knowing if anyone at all has ever bought a single copy.

And that to me is sad.  I know there aren't many people who read my little blog.  I know I'm mostly just talking to myself and the various searchbots that wander through here.  But if you're an author who has stumbled across these musings and you're blaming everyone from Jeff Bezos to your Golden Heart judges to your critique partners to every agent who has rejected you as a client to every editor who has rejected your manuscript, have you ever really listened to the criticisms?  Have you ever really listened to what those critics are saying?  If you've thumbed your nose at all of them -- as I have, so I know exactly where you're coming from -- and self-published digitally with little success in terms of paid sales, have you seriously wondered why?

That book, Summer Love, had its good points.  With a good editor, it could have been cleaned up and polished into a decent novel.  But one of the reasons I remembered the author's name was that she had written back to me, after the contest, to excoriate me for the comments I made on it.  And yes, I still have that letter, neatly stapled to the photocopy I made of the scoresheet.

In that letter, she accused me of not knowing anything about the particular history surrounding the events in the story, even though I never questioned the accuracy of her research.  I just said her spelling could have been improved.  She accused me of vindictiveness and spite and jealousy, even though I had been published and she had not.  She accused me of taking out my frustrations on her book and not giving it a fair reading.  Yet my comments clearly indicated that I had read her 25 submission in its entirety twice.

I'm not always right, but I'm not always wrong, either.  Maybe Summer Love would never have been published by a traditional print publisher even if the author had followed every one of my suggestions to the letter.  But we'll never know, because it doesn't look as if she ever even tried.

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