Thursday, August 23, 2012

The only good word is none

Okay, you're all aware that there's been another stupid, irresponsible, and potentially dangerous author meltdown over a less-than-gushing review.  It doesn't matter who or why or what the particulars are.  If you're interested, you probably already know who it is and what the particulars are.  If you're not interested, um, what the heck are you doing here?  ;-)

But this latest adventure in total asshattery just reinforces my advice to ALL authors, whether they are newbie SPAs who haven't even sold a single copy outside their immediate family or New York Times bestsellers (and YOU know who YOU are, and you're making all the rest of us look bad) --

DO NOT, under any circumstances, respond to reviewers unless you are explicitly invited by the reviewer to do so. 


Got that, morons?  Unless the reviewer comes right out and in writing and in public invites you to respond, shut your piehole.  Shut it, and lock it.

And don't try to give me all your pathetic, whiny, insecure little special circumstances. 


And yes, I know that all caps is screaming.  I'm screaming at you, because that's the only way you're going to listen, if at all.

People who know me know that my politics are far left.  I make no apologies for that, and if you don't like it, and won't read my books because of it, that's fine with me.  Your threats not to read my books are not going to change my politics.

And my politics contain two absolutes.

Number One, I am absolutely opposed to the death penalty.  No exceptions.  None.  Not a single one.  I don't care how heinous the crime.  I don't care how innocent the victim or how many victims.  I don't care how unrepentant the criminal is.  No death penalty.  Never.  If you wanta engage me on that, you're free to do so.  Just leave a comment and we'll do this privately.

Number Two, I am absolutely opposed to any restrictions on a woman's right to choose to carry a pregnancy to term, or not.  In simple terms:  No limits to abortion on demand.  None.  No required ultrasounds.  No age limits.  No parental notification.  No waiting period.  No limits on insurance coverage or public funding.  No time limit.  If you wanta engage me on this issue, you're free to do so.  Leave a comment, and we'll do this privately.

And now for Number Three --  I am absolutely opposed to authors responding to reader-reviewers unless explicitly invited to.

You can give me all the bizarre scenarios you want, and I'm going to counter every single one of them with the reason why you STILL shouldn't respond.  Silence is ALWAYS going to be better than responding.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

A word to the why's -- A rant with no links

So I was sitting there in the coffee shop this morning, composing another writing lesson, and a friend asked me why I was doing it.  She's not a writer, but her comment echoed an often-voiced sentiment from my days in RWA.

"Isn't that like training your competition?" she asked.

Well yes, and no.

Let me backtrack a bit.  During my dozen years or so of active RWA membership, I gave my share of time and energy to helping the unpublished become published.  I gave workshops.  I belonged to several critique groups in which I was the only published writer.  I judged manuscripts in contests open only to the unpublished.  I worked with several writers on their contest entries, finding the tiny flaws that might have kept them from winning, and two authors who followed my advice not only won Golden Heart awards but ended up selling those books to print publishers.

Could I have spent my time and energy more profitably on my own writing?  Probably.  But part of the business of writing is cultivating an audience and a market.  I believed wholeheartedly that by encouraging other writers I was creating good will with them, with their friends, with their eventual readers, and so on.  Call me naive and I won't disagree:  A few of the authors to whom I gave more than I should have ended up stabbing me in the back.  I won't name them; they know who they are.

But that never really diminished the teacher/helper in me.  Even though yes, I knew all along that in the day when print publishing was the only viable game in town, I was indeed training my competition, I still did it.  And most of the time I enjoyed it and took great satisfaction in seeing their triumphs.

As I wrote in an early blogpost, some of the authors whose manuscripts I judged did not take my advice and those books never sold.  Instead, they have ended up on Amazon (and probably elsewhere) as self-published e-books or as print-on-demand trade paperbacks.  They've sold a few copies, but that's about it.

My intention is not to give you the impression I think I'm an infallible judge or editor;  I know damn well I'm not.  As has been said often enough here and elsewhere, even the editors at the big traditional publishing houses make mistakes all the time, either passing up books that eventually become best sellers for another publisher or paying big bucks for and then promoting the hell out of duds.

But because of the major shift in the book industry to digital publishing the past few years, many books are coming on the market that would never have reached traditional publication.  The reasons these books failed to find publishers are numerous -- weak stories, bad writing, unlikable characters, whatever -- but they were always competition for those of us writers who weren't locked into secure and lucrative contracts.  We always had to take our chances with the rest of the manuscripts in the slush pile.  Having an agent or having even a minimal track record helped a little, but it didn't necessarily give us an advantage.  In fact, having a record of publishing with less than stellar sales numbers could be a distinct disadvantage.

So now we're all competing against each other on a sort of level playing field.  Why would I want to help my competition?

Well, because we're all up against another competitor, one who has a lot more clout than we do:  The Traditional NYC Publishing Houses.

The traditional houses have the editors, the proofreaders, the formatters, the artists.  They have EVERYTHING, and of course they extract a price for it.  Amazon pays 70% royalties, with no advance; a traditional publisher pays 10% royalties and maybe gives $2,500 advance.  Of course, traditional publishers charge readers $7.99 and up for a paperback, and there's often little to no discount for the digital edition.  The paperback can be traded or sold; the digital version can maybe be lent once -- unless of course the buyer wants to (illegally) strip the DRM and convert the digital file to something transferable.  A self-published e-book frequently runs $2.99 or less, and many can be picked up for free by the careful shopper.

The complaints from readers, as voiced in reviews, are that self-published books just don't measure up to the quality of traditionally published books (TPBs).  Stories are weaker, formatting for e-publication is often messed up, typographical errors abound, and on and on and on.  The mechanical problems of grammar, punctuation, spelling and so on are usually non-existent in TPBs simply because there are enough editors and others to go over the manuscript prior to publication.  If the SPA can't afford to have her book professionally edited and professionally proofread and professionally formatted, those errors are going to slip through.  And if she herself isn't a good enough writer, a good enough editor, a good enough proofreader, a good enough formatter, those errors are going to be numerous.

The big question, then, becomes whether or not the reader should be obligated to accept without complaint the lower quality on the self-published book.

Read that last sentence again:

The big question, then, becomes whether or not the reader should be obligated to accept without complaint the lower quality on the self-published book.

The authors who end up having public tantrums because someone dared to give their book a bad review are almost always self-published.  Just Google "author meltdown" if you don't already know enough about the subject.  And most of the meltdowns are precipitated by bad reviews.  One star on Amazon.  Criticism of anything about the book, whether it's the author's poor grammatical skills, a borrowed plotline, inaccurate research, whatevah.

And all too often these melting authors defend themselves by castigating the readers for not giving them and their books a pass because they're self-published and self-published books shouldn't be held to the same standards.

In other words, a reader who downloads a self-published book should not only expect lower quality but should accept it as is and not complain about any flaws.  The fact that the author wrote the book and had the courage to self-publish it (but not the courage to withstand any criticism at all) is supposed to be enough.  Bad grammar?  Pay no attention to it, Gentle Reader.  Misspellings galore?  Ignore them, Gentle Reader.  Can't make heads or tails of the syntax?  Pretend you can, Gentle Reader.

But the readers aren't so gentle, and they aren't buying -- in the figurative sense, more than the literal. 
Many readers and reviewers have adopted a "Do Not Read" attitude toward self-published books.  They've become so disgusted with the lack of quality assurance that they just won't waste their time on the SPBs at all any more.  These are readers who are knowledgeable enough to check the identity of the "publisher" on the book's listing before they buy it.  Or maybe they read the free sample to determine if there's even a chance that the rest of the book will be readable.  But more and more often there are comments on blogs and discussion boards and even on the Amazon discussions that readers simply will not bother with self-published books.

Obviously, if a well-known but traditionally published author moves into self-publishing, she has a certain amount of name recognition and can build on that.  But as publishers hold onto digital rights -- and pay diddly in royalties to the authors -- and authors are emotionally bullied into continuing with their traditional publishers, self-publishing becomes more and more of a wasteland.  That means even the traditionally published authors are losing out.

Yes, you traditionally published authors, the bad SPBs out there are hurting you. 

The only way to break the chains of literary serfdom is to make self-publishing truly viable.  That means the authors who are taking that route, myself included, absolutely must put out a quality product.  No more making excuses.  No more hiding behind lean budgets. 

And no more tantrums when a reader or reviewer points out "The book is garbage.  It's unreadable tripe.  The author can't spell, the heroine is a doormat and the hero is a dunce, and there were no zippers in Regency ballgowns."  Any author who engages in this sort of pathetic, infantile behavior is not worth of the title.  Go away.  Grow up.  You're not the "special snowflake" you think you are.  You're a fraud and a phony. 

No more paid shill reviews, no more friends and family and sock puppet reviews.  No more fan-girl attacks on the truth-tellers.  No more take-downs of legitimate websites, no "Stop the Bullies!" campaigns.  The people who are telling you your book is crap are only telling you what you already know:  If you're defending it on the basis that it shouldn't be compared to "quality" writing because self-publishing means it's of lesser quality, then you're admitting you know it's crap and should just smile and say to the reviewer, "I appreciate that you recognized my work for what I intended it to be. Thank  you so very much."  And then SHUT UP.

And that's why I'm offering my little free lessons on how to write.  Some writers may pay attention.  They'll have just the slightest bit of advantage over those who don't.  And if all of us build on that advantage, then maybe, just maybe, we can swing the royalty pendulum more our way.

Whether we sell it for $2.99 or $9.99 or give it away free, we need to make it the very very best we can.  We need to go back to the tried-and-true techniques of the critique group and critique partner, the qualified editor and proofreader, the professional cover art designer.  We need to hone our skills with grammar and syntax.  We need to make sure our digital books are as perfectly formatted as they can possibly be.  Merely uploading a Word .doc file isn't enough. 

So to answer my friend at the coffee shop, I'm doing this to help other writers because I firmly believe it helps me, too.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

The words out of their mouths, Part 2: Effective speech tags

One of the more common criticisms of unpolished writing is that there is too much telling and not enough showing.  Often, writers are urged to use dialogue between characters to break up long passages of narrative and get out of the authorial point of view.  While dialogue can be a very effective means of employing the "show, don't tell" technique, it must  be done, well, effectively.

A few days ago I was perusing my rather substantial inventory of Kindle books and selected one that I'd been particularly interested in based on the plot description and setting.  Unfortunately, the very first scene turned me off.   After a paragraph or two that set the stage, so to speak, as being in the library of a great house somewhere in Regency England, the ensuing conversation went something like this:

"You've taken everything I have, Craddock," said Jeremy Vinson.
     "There's always your sister," said the earl of Craddock.
     "What do you mean?"
     "I mean your sister Oriana.  She owns the Morvenny estate, doesn't she?"
     "Yes, but I still don't understand," said Jeremy.
     "Morvenny adjoins one of my smaller properties.  Together they would make an attractive parcel," said the earl.
     "But I can't give you Oriana's property.  She's only my half-sister, you know.  She inherited Morvenny from her mother's father, and I have no control over it," said Jeremy.
     "Oh, I'm quite well aware of that.  But surely you have some control over Oriana?"
     "Very little," said Jeremy.
     "Yes, I got the impression she's a bit of a handful.  Quite the hoyden when left to her own devices I would imagine," said Craddock.
     "You don't know the half of it."
Yes, it was that bad.  All dialogue, no action, and those booooring "said So-and-So" speech tags, and it went on for several pages just like that before the author added anything approaching action or description or. . . . anything.

So, how to improve this?  Well, one way would be to change all those "saids" to something else.  Replied, responded, queried, wondered, snapped, barked, snarled, trilled, sang, chortled, etc., etc., etc.  Those are called said-bookisms, as if the writer had a book of alternatives to the plain old said and was determined to use each and every one of them at least once but never employ "said" itself at all.  I won't even provide you with a sample; I think you know what I mean.

Much better results are achieved not by adding lots of interesting verbs (or worse, a bunch of adverbs!), but by. . .

Jeremy Vinson took a deep breath and released it slowly.
      "You've taken everything I have, Craddock," he said.
      Swirling the brandy in his glass lazily, the earl of Craddock studied the amber fluid and did not look at his host.  "There's always your sister."
       "What do you mean?"
       Craddock leaned back against the closed door and almost smiled at the desperation in Vinson's query.
      "I mean your sister Oriana.  She owns the Morvenny estate, doesn't she?"
      Vinson tried but failed to stifle a gasp.
      "Yes, b-but I still d-don't understand."
      Desperate, yes, but not terribly bright.  Craddock finally looked up from his contemplation of what was a surprisingly fine brandy, given the state of the Vinsons' fortunes.  From the other side of an ornate desk, Jeremy was staring at him, his eyes blinking with total lack of comprehension.  The earl had hoped not to have to spell out the details but there was nothing for it but to put it in simple terms this eldest of the three Vinson brothers might grasp. 
     "Morvenny adjoins one of my smaller properties in the duchy.  Together they would make an attractive parcel."
     Jeremy blinked several more times before he blurted, "But I can't give you Oriana's property.  She's only my half-sister, you know.  She inherited Morvenny from her mother's father, and I have no control over it."
     Good God, the man was duller than he'd thought.  To avoid shouting at him, Craddock took a sip of the brandy, then replied, "Oh, I'm quite well aware of that.  But surely you have some control over Oriana herself?"
     With a snort of disgust, Vinson said, "Very little."
     "Yes, I got the impression she's a bit of a handful.  Quite the hoyden when left to her own devices I would imagine."
     "You don't know the half of it."  Vinson tossed back the last of the brandy in his own glass, then threw the lovely vessel at the library's exquisite fireplace some three or four feet behind him.  Shards of crystal flew everywhere.  "She's a God damned bitch is what she is."
Speech tags themselves aren't enough.  Dialogue has to be mixed with action, with narrative, with description.  Sometimes "said" is the best verb to use because it doesn't overpower the rest of the sentence, either the dialogue or the narrative that goes with it.  Even without speech tags, the reader has no difficult discerning who said what.

More important, however, the blending of spoken words with action and description keeps the action moving.  Without the author's voice ever intruding, the reader learns Jeremy Vinson is apparently in debt to the earl of Craddock and is desperate as a result.  The author could easily have started the exchange between the two men by simply writing "Jeremy Vinson had lost everything he owned to the earl of Craddock and now had nothing left."  Instead, through dialogue and narrative and careful use of point of view, Vinson's desperation and Craddock's condescension are made evident.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

A word to the not-so-wise: CHILL!

The self-published author meltdowns continue unabated.  People who are well past the age of majority are behaving like spoiled three-year-olds.  And I don't think any of them have a clue as to how embarrassing their behavior is.

I, quite frankly, am embarrassed by them.  I, too, am a self-published author, and there are hundreds of others who are not behaving like rotten children who have never been disciplined in their lives.

Whether the issue these jerks are having their tantrums over is bad reviews or legitimate e-book lending sites, they are so completely out of any boundaries of professionalism that they make me despair that authors will never get free of the vampire parasite claws of the traditional publishers.

I don't need to list them, either by name or tantrum or website.  You probably already know who they are anyway.  What I'm here to ask is that you readers not tar all of us self-publishing authors with the well-deserved "I'm NEVER buying another book of hers!" brush.

There may be a dozen or two dozen or even a hundred of these authors.  At the first sign of criticism, they lash out with all the fury of a child deprived of a favorite toy.  They may have recruited friends and family members to post gushing reviews and feel entitled to every single one of those Amazon five-star reviews even when they know the opinions of friends and family members are not unbiased.  But along comes a reader who has poured her time and money into reading the book and is then disappointed with it, a truly unbiased critic, and she is attacked by these authors, their friends, their fans.

So they set up websites devoted to further lashing out at the critics.  They go way beyond anything any other professional  would do in any other profession.  They threaten and intimidate and refuse to address any of the issues brought up by the critics.

Maybe the book is badly written.  Maybe the research is inadequate.  Maybe the typos outnumber the lines.  It doesn't make any difference:  If the reader is disappointed, she is entitled to her opinion and the author is NOT entitled to go after her.

Get that?  The author put that work out there.  (Yes, I'm repeating earlier admonitions.)  The author said, in effect, "Here is my product.  I'm done with it.   This is the very best I can do and because of the respect I have for my readers, for the people who are investing time and money in anticipation of top quality entertainment, I ask nothing more of you than that.  I do not require you to make excuses for me or correct my mistakes.  That is not your job; it is mine and you have every right to expect that I've done it before you ever open the file to read."

It is also our job as digital self-publishers to read and understand and abide by our contracts.  Yes, authors, when you upload your MSWord file to Kindle or PubIt or whatever, you are entering into a contract, a legally binding contract, with the company that's going to be selling your work.  Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords:  They all require you to affirm that you have read and understood and will abide by their Terms of Service before you upload your file.  You don't get to opt out of clauses you don't like, and you have no ethical or moral right to take out your frustration on any innocent party if it turns out you didn't read, didn't understand, and/or are not willing to abide by those terms, all of those terms.

There is a list posted on the Amazon "Badly Behaving Authors" discussion thread of authors who have participated in the destruction of an e-book lending site.  I'm happy to say I recognized none of the names on that list, which means I have never bought any of their books.  Needless to say, I won't buy any in the future.  And there are probably other readers who won't, because the word gets around the Internet very, very quickly.  And as many have said, the Internet has a very short attention span, but a very, very, very long memory.  In other words, peopleare not going to forget this kind of bad behavior.

As writers, our job is to write; as self-publishing authors, our job is to put a professionally produced product in the market place for our readers to buy.

It is not our job to challenge readers, to correct them, to chastise them, to attack them, to "out" them.  Never, never, never.

So though I doubt any of the badly behaving authors will ever venture to this blog, perhaps some who do chance by here will tell their friends and colleagues:  The most unprofessional thing any author, but especially the self-publishing author, can do is alienate the very people she expects to buy her book.  the customer is always right, even when she's wrong.