Friday, September 14, 2012

Choosing one's words

One of the very first writings I ever had published was a little essay titled "Whatever it is, it isn't trash," a defense of popular fiction in general and romance novels in particular.  It was printed in the newsletter of the National Writer's Club in about 1982 or something like that.  I didn't get paid for it, exactly, but I got a free year's membership which at that time was worth I think $40.

The money, of course, was not the point.  I had always always always wanted to be a writer, and the acceptance of that little piece validated my writing skills as well as my conceptualizing skills.  But it also solidified my sense of artistic values.

Five years ago, I got involved in the organizing of a local artists' show.  Now, I'm no stranger to this kind of thing, in more ways than one.  First of all, I've been doing these little arts and crafts gigs since November 1975, and second, I'm the one who started PASIC.

Despite the reservations of several members, our first show was a success and planning started for the next one.  Right away, a few of the members of our artists' group wanted to "jury" the show.  I was all for letting anyone in who wanted to -- there were virtually no limits on the space available -- in a more the merrier (and anti-snob) attitude.  And then one morning, right in front of the coffee shop I frequent, one of the members argued that we needed to jury the show "to keep the crafting riff-raff out."

I have proudly referred to myself as a member of the "crafting riff-raff" ever since.

I make jewelry out of stones.  Some of the stones I actually go out into the desert and find myself.  I cut them on a diamond-bladed saw, grind them to shape, polish them, then wrap them in sterling silver or gold-filled wire.  The piece above, which I sold several years ago, is red jasper with agate from a big chunk I dug out of the ground near Brenda, Arizona.

Sometimes I buy the stones already finished, like this beautiful piece of pinkish Mexican crazy lace agate that I bought at a rock show in Mesa, Arizona a few years ago.

I don't call it art; I'm proud to be a crafter, and I'm delighted when people appreciate my work and even buy it for real money!

My earliest efforts in this field were not always as nice looking as the pieces I make now, and I imagine that if I apply myself to the craft, I will continue to improve.

Likewise, that little art show I organized five years ago is just about to start its 6th Annual event.  It's gotten bigger and better, with more and more artists participating each year.  Instead of a dorky little photocopied program brochure, we now have a beautiful full-color program.  And of course to appease the snobs in the group (they know who they are) we continue to jury the new artists who aren't members of our organization.  Each year we have a few applicants who we just aren't quite sure if their art is high enough quality, but one way or another everyone seems to get in.

This year we received an application from a local artist who works in an uncommon art medium, but one that has a long and well respected tradition.  There were no questions raised by the members of the jury about his qualifications and he was readily approved for the show.  But after the jurying was over, one of the "fine art" snobs (she knows who she is) sent me an email, in which she wrote:

I'm not sure how (his medium) is considered art......maybe I just don't understand it. Based on some of what I saw for juring I think we do need to tighten it up....some were beautiful and looked like quailty art some looked like the local craft fair....
To which I replied:

I'm pretty sure this is the guy I saw at another show, and his (...) are exquisite.  Besides which, they're all one-of-a-kind originals.  No mass-produced note-card prints.
It will be noted that this particular "fine art" snob never sells her original paintings, only mass-produced prints, including note-cards.

So what's the point?  How does this relate to writing?  The point is it's not the medium, it's the craftsmanship.  And every medium, whether it's watercolor or oil painting, wood turning or soapstone carving, spinning and weaving or knitting or quilting or crocheting or basket weaving or pottery or glass blowing or photography or welded steel sculpture -- it all deserves the respect of both the maker and the viewer.

As a craftsperson, I want to do my very best on each piece.  Sometimes they turn out pretty much exactly the  way I want them to, and other times, not so much.  When they don't turn out the way I want them to, I don't put them out for sale.  I respect my craft, I respect my other pieces, I respect my customers, and I respect my own reputation not to put out garbage.

But I also expect to receive that same respect from my fellow artists.  Not just in the words they use when speaking about my chosen medium, but about the effort that others put into their work, regardless of medium.  And to elevate one medium above another as though it is intrinsically superior is an insult.

I do not take kindly to insults.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

"You keep using that word. . . "

The complete quote, of course is:
You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
And it comes from The Princess Bride, one of the most exquisite movies ever made, in my humble opinion.

The word, of course, is "bully."  And the people who keep using it are the Speshul Snowflakes (I think that's how it's spelled) who have decided to apply the term to me, identifying me with an Amazon reviewer who has left some rather harsh evaluations of some self-published (and even some traditionally published) romance novels.

Let's look at the definition of the word bully.

By Googling "bully definition" I came up with a whole bunch from a variety of websites.  I've chosen just a few of the first:

(noun) A person who uses strength or power to harm or intimidate those who are weaker.
(verb) Use superior strength or influence to intimidate (someone), typically to force him or her to do what one wants.
(noun) A person who is habitually cruel or overbearing, especially to smaller or weaker people.
(noun) Bullying is the activity of repeated, aggressive behavior intended to hurt another person, physically or mentally.
Now, to be honest, I can see where an author who received a negative review, especially a lengthy review that detailed what the reviewer considered the book's faults, might feel harmed or intimidated.  I guess I've been lucky that I haven't received one of those reviews, but then hey, I haven't received very many reviews at all!

A negative review, even a really nastily negative review, is not bullying.  A single review from a single reviewer is just an opinion.

If the reviewer sought out every book a particular author wrote and posted a scathing review, that might approach bullying.  If the reviewer sought out every positive review left for the book and posted a derogatory comment, that might approach bullying.  If the reviewer went to all the sites where the book is sold -- Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, etc. -- and posted negative reviews, that might approach bullying.  If the reviewer went to the author's personal blog and posted critical comments, that might approach bullying.

But a single review is not bullying.  It just isn't.  It's an opinion.

If the reviewer left nasty reviews on every single one of the author's books in every place published, reviews that were personal rather than addressing the content or form of the writing; if the reviewer left insulting comments on other reviews; if the reviewer stalked the author on her blog, on discussion boards where she posted, or wherever she was even talked about; if the reviewer attempted to harrass the author in her real life, either directly or by disseminating personal information about her that could reasonably be expected to lead to harm to her or her family -- that is bullying.  That is harrassment that goes way beyond a critical review.

Now, hold on a minute.  I know you're going to bring up the subject of negative reviews "harming" an author's ability to make money off her writing.  Unfortunately, reviews both good and bad are an expected part of the writing game.  There are no guarantees of success, no guarantees of good reviews.  Not every writer, even the good ones, succeeds.

Bullying is not just criticism; bullying includes that power and intimidation thing, too.  In other words, a bully wants to be able to influence the victim into doing something.  In the grown-up world it might be called extortion or blackmail.  But there has to be some intent on the part of the bully, some objective he or she wants to achieve relative to the person being bullied.

Most of the negative reviews I've seen are merely expressions of an opinion which leave the author free to ignore the review or act upon them if so desired.  In fact, all of the negative reviews I've ever seen have left the author free to ignore the review.

But what about the person the review is really intended for?  That's the reader.  Reviews are for readers; critiques are for authors.  However, I'm going to give the bullies at the stop-bullying site some wiggle room on this, because sometimes I do think a review can be written in a way that makes it seem like it's addressed to the author.

This is certainly true of some of the reviews posted at the Dear Author site.  Sometimes I think it's a little bit disingenuous of the DA reviewers to even pretend that the reviews are for the readers; when the review addresses the author on every negative point, it's pretty likely that the author is going to get the message.  I mean, yeah, the reviews are intended to let readers know what other readers thought about the books, but really you can't address the author repeatedly by name and not have her think the comments are directed at her.

However, even the most pointed review directed at the author is still not a demand that the author do anything.  There is no threat of retaliation, no "Do this, or else!"  Unless the review is part of a concerted effort to get the author to do something -- change the book, quit writing, whatever -- it's not bullying.  Bullying is not an end in and of itself.  Schoolyard bullying involving children may not have that kind of focused intent; adult bullying of the sort we're discussing here has to have a motivation, an objective.

If we go back and look at the other fundamental purpose of a review -- that it's directed at readers, not authors -- there still isn't any bullying unless the reviewer makes a "Do this, or else!" threat against the reader.  Don't buy this book, or else. . . .or else what?  Buy this book, or else. . . . or else what?  Since the review isn't targeting any specific reader, how would the, ahem, bullying reviewer make good on the extortion?

What we've seen instead, in the case of this particular group of Speshul Snowflakes, is authors who have received negative reviews and who have then deliberately targeted the reviewers with retaliatory behavior.  They stalked reviewers blogs, posted personal information that is totally irrelevant to the business of books and writing and reviewing and promoting.  And they're doing it to make the reviewers stop reviewing.  The authors -- either directly or through various surrogates such as spouses, friends, and sock puppets -- are using bullying techniques to extort silence from the reviewers. 

"Don't post any more negative reviews, or I'll post your kids' pictures."  "Take down your negative review, or I'll post your real name and home address."  "Stop telling the truth about self-published, unedited, unproofed novels, or. . . ."

Since starting this blog over a year ago, I've read a lot of self-published romance novels.  A few mysteries and some fantasy, but mostly romances.  That's my area of expertise and my favorite entertainment.  I've found some good ones -- in fact, I'm reading one right now that's absolutely wonderful, worth every sparkle of a 4.5 star.  But I have also found some real garbage.  I mean just awful stuff.  The kind of crap that editors would reject before the end of the first page.

Telling these authors that they've written garbage may be unkind, but it is also a very valid opinion, especially if that opinion is substantiated with material from the book.   Unfortunately, I think the situation has reached the point where these bullying authors -- hiding behind screen names in exactly the way they criticize their reviewers -- have lost all touch with reality.  They have become so wrapped up in their crusade against negative reviews that they are completely unaware of what they're doing.  If they read this post -- which I'm sure they won't do -- they will think either I'm not writing about them or, if I am, I'm attacking them.  Uh, no, I'm not.  I'm pointing out what they're doing.  It's up to them to make up their minds what to do about it.

I'm not going to post anyone's personal information.  I'm not going to spend hours of my precious time ferreting out who is whose sock puppet, mother, spouse, next door neighbor, or anything else.  But I'm old enough not to be afraid of bullies.  I don't back down.  I may feel a little shock for a while, but that wears off and then I'm back to normal.

This morning, Dear Author provided a link to this article about an Internet retailer who has been sentenced to four years in prison for harassing and threatening his dissatisfied customers.  His actions went a little bit further than what the stop-bullying bullies have done, but not really all that much further.  This should be a wake-up call for the stop-bullying bullies, but I'm sure it won't be.  I'm sure they're is such denial of what they're doing that it will go right over their heads.

So here's a personal message for them from me, Linda Ann Wheeler Hilton:

That's who I am.  That's my real name.  You can probably find out a lot (?) about me on the Internet.  You can post bad reviews of my books if you like, and you know I won't respond because I don't believe in it.  But there are other actions an author who is truly being bullied can take.  And if you try anything, anything at all, that threatens me, my home or my livelihood, or anyone I care about, I will not hesitate one single second to take whatever legal action is needed to keep me and mine safe.  Go write your books, regardless how good or bad they are, and grow up.  You're only making complete asses of yourselves.

But you knew that already.  You know what that word means.

Take my words, please!

This is another of those old columns I wrote for the chapter newsletter "Del CorAZón" when I was president of the Valley of the Sun RWA chapter in 1993.

The Behaving Badly Author is not a new phenomenon, by any means, and I had the great misfortune to deal with a couple of them back in the day.  Fortunately, in some ways, the meltdowns were relatively private and didn't spill out into the greater discussions.  Unfortunately, because they were private, no one came to my defense and the BBAs were able to take their case to others without challenge.  I'm not sure I want to put too much blame on them for my decision to abandon my writing career, but they certainly didn't provide encouragement for me to stick it out.

Today, of course, the BBAs are able to bring all their drama to the review sites, their own blogs, and wherever else they can gain an audience.  Their tantrums, however, are the same as they were 20 years ago.  Or 30.

And so, slightly updated for the changes in the publishing landscape, here is what I wrote. . . then.


I don't usually make this column a personal soapbox, but I'm making an exception. I've been the shocked recipient of two rather unpleasant responses to manuscript evaluations I did earlier this year.

These evaluations were personally requested by authors who claimed they valued my honest opinion and my expertise.  Both then expressed outrage and emotional devastation because I dared to find fault with their books.  This isn't the first time; I tend to believe people when they say they want an honest evaluation.  But I'm going to make sure it's the last time I take the blame for someone else's shattered ego.

So to all of you who have thought about asking for my personal evaluation of your manuscripts, I offer this warning:

If you can't take criticism, don't ask for it.  Don't expect rave reviews.  Expect the critic not to like your work.  Then you'll be pleasantly surprised by all the nice things he or she says and more willing to listen objectively to the unpleasant things.

If you can't take criticism, don't ask for it.  Don't tell your critic you'd like some help tightening your style and then get defensive every time she suggests you delete some extraneous adjectives or trim some repetitive narrative.  This is especially true if you tell your critic you don't know exactly what "tightening" means.  Listen -- and learn.

If you can't take criticism, don't ask for it.  Don't accuse your critic of ignorance.  You're the one who admitted, by asking for guidance, that you don't know everything.  Respect your critic's expertise -- and her opinion.

If you can't take criticism, don't ask for it.  Don't take criticism personally.  Learn to separate yourself from your work.  Your critic is evaluating only words on paper, not the personal motives and emotions you've invested in those words.  If the book is so much a part of you that any criticism of it becomes a criticism of yourself, you may be writing more for yourself than for any audience, even an audience of one.

If you can't take criticism, don't ask for it.  Don't offer motivations and justifications to the critic who says she can't find those motivations and justifications in the manuscript, which is where they're supposed to be.  You won't be there to explain them to an editor, and certainly not to a reader.  Get them in the book, where they belong.

If you can't take criticism, don't ask for it.  Don't rely on editors to buy your book and then fix its problems.  They won't.  They want proof you can do it on your own.  Your book is competing against those of other authors who are willing to take criticism and do their own work.  You've got to be able to do the same if you want to compete successfully.  And if you think you can self-publish without the assistance of a professional editor, then you have to be prepared for the reactions.  Maybe you can, but maybe you can't, and that's a risk you have to weigh.

If you can't take criticism, don't ask for it.  Don't pin your hopes on editors or any other critics making gentle suggestions for improvement.  Most of the responses you get from editors are likely to be the cruelest criticism of all -- rejection without explanation.  If the helpful hints from a friend are more than your fragile ego can take, how will you survive the reality check of a form-letter rejection that tells you nothing except that the editor didn't like your work -- and didn't even like it enough to comment on it?  And what will you do when readers who don't know you and don't care about you make negative comments? 

If you can't take criticism, don't ask for it.  Don't expect to learn anything from gushing praise and warm fuzzies and smiley faces.  They only tell you the things you don't need to work on.  You can't correct your mistakes or strengthen your weaknesses unless you know what they are.  Most of your family members and personal friends are not experts in writing techniques or story construction or grammar or proofreading.  Their opinions do not count, not even if they are experts.

If you can't take criticism, don't ask for it.  Don't put your book out there for anyone and everyone to read.  You may have avoided the emotional devastation of an editor's form letter rejection, but now everyone who reads your book has the same platform for criticism as the editors and agents who might have rejected without comment.  Free or at an inflated price, people may very well read it and some might not like it.  Just as you're free to publish it, they're free to post reviews, make comments, express their opinion.

If you can't take criticism, don't ask for it.  Don't slap together the Word file of your beloved book and upload it to Amazon or Nook or Smashwords and forget it.  If it doesn't look like a "real" published book, it's not going to read like a published book.  Check the damned e-formatting for pagination, paragraphing, everything.  Don't whine about Amazon screwing up -- yes, I've written about that, too -- just fix it.  Whatever it takes, fix it and don't offer stupid excuses or worse, blame the reader.

If you can't take criticism, don't ask for it. And whatever you do, don't ask me, because I will tell you the truth.

In the immortal words of Jane Baxter: Word!

Jane Baxter, the obnoxious younger sister of William Silvanus Baxter, is not allowed to say "damn."  And so she substitutes "word."  Propriety is maintained, but Jane sees the truth that poor William cannot see.  So besotted with Lola Pratt is he, that he can see nothing at all, and certainly not truth.

Booth Tarkington's ageless Seventeen: A Tale of Youth and Summer Time and the Baxter Family Especially William  could serve as an object lesson for some of today's beyond merely obnoxious self-published authors.

Apparently, I have arrived, because my little blog, which almost no one reads except the 'bots from Russia and Latvia and Romania and Indonesia, has been found by the twits at Stop the GoodReads Bullies.  No, I won't link to their site.  I'd rather drink black coffee than link to that cesspool.  But the STGRB jerks have apparently started quoting at least one post from this blog.


Should any of them care to read beyond the single post from 27 February 2012 in which I analyzed a few reviews on Amazon and came to the conclusion that some of those reviews were probably written by shills, family members, friends, or sock puppets of the authors themselves, the STGRB terrorists might discover that I am about as far from a supporter of the Big 6 or any other traditional publisher as they'd be likely to find.

As a self-published author myself -- three reprints of traditionally published books as well as original e-publication of a shorter non-fiction piece -- I am 110% behind the self-publishing community.

But what I don't and won't support is crappy writing, nor will I defend anyone who attacks a reviewer.

Every reviewer out there is a potential customer, a potential buyer of my book, a potential reader of my book.  (Buyers and readers are not necessarily the same thing, of course.)  To piss off one reader is to potentially piss off a whole bunch of 'em, and I don't think any author can afford to do that.

Jane Baxter is the reviewer who sees with unbiased eyes what is really going on.  Through her eyes, Tarkington allows the reader to see William's folly when William can't.  As authors, we all desperately need our Janes.  (And if the crackpots at STGRB think that's some kind of evidence that I'm "part of" Dear Author and/or have some bizarre connection to Jane Litte, well, enjoy your fantasy.)  As authors we desperately need those honest eyes, those brave and courageous souls who are willing to tell us we're making fools of ourselves.

Several years ago, one of the members of my critique group was writing a contemporary romance about a shy young woman from Phoenix who met up with a brash New York City police detective on the trail of a notorious drug lord.  The shy miss and the brash cop fall instantly in love and have a night of wild, wild, really wild sex.  And the next morning, after yet another "session," she suggests they go to her brother's bicycle shop, borrow a couple of bikes, and go on a long, long tour of Phoenix.

Yeah, right. 

So I told the author, in the public arena of our critique group of five or six members, that bike riding didn't make sense for a woman who is aching at 6:00 a.m. and then engages again.  I mean, it is going to be, um, really uncomfortable riding around on a bicycle for crying out loud, and she got mad at me!  She just didn't want to admit that, oops, she had made a mistake.  She had made a silly mistake.  Even though within the context of the story there were various other ways to accomplish what the bike ride would have done -- leave the house unoccupied for several hours and provide the cop additional evidence that the shy young miss is in cahoots with the drug lord -- the author insisted vehemently that it had to be the bike ride.

The more the other members of the critique group agreed with me, the more the author defended her stance, to the point that we gave up.

And that's what so many of these melting down authors have done:  They've decided to defend the indefensible and they're making fools of themselves.

Booth Tarkington would have understood them completely.