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.