Sunday, December 29, 2013

Words as a medium of exchange

In light of all the usual moaning and groaning and accusation-flinging about negative reviews -- on Amazon and elsewhere -- I thought this experience of mine was particularly telling.  It's not the negative reviews you should be suspicious of; it's the positive ones.



The transaction was, I thought, a simple and straightforward one.

A few weeks before Christmas, I ordered two items from an Amazon affiliated vendor, to be given as gifts to two different people.  The items were similar, but not identical, and the slight difference was important in determining which recipient received which item.

The order arrived in plenty of time for the holidays, in excellent condition and with a couple of bonus items that were a pleasant surprise.  Unfortunately, the two primary items were packed in identical, unmarked, sealed boxes, with no way to determine which was which.  This was annoying.

My only option was to wrap the gifts and hope that they went to the correct recipients.  If not, I would have to explain the problem and then the two individuals could either swap the gifts or, if the difference wasn't significant enough to them, they could keep them as is.   It turned out that I guessed correctly and there was no problem.   But I was still annoyed and planned to post a review to that effect after the holidays.  It would have been a simple matter, it seemed to me, for the vendor just to stamp the distinguishing feature on the otherwise unmarked boxes.

I was surprised, however, to discover a separate piece of paper included in the box with the merchandise and my Amazon invoice.

It read:
Thank you for your order.  We would like you to write a product review for our [insert product #1 name].  After you have written and submitted the review we will send you a second [insert product #1 name] for FREE to the address on your invoice.  Please allow 7-14 days for the package to arrive.

And then it is signed by the vendor.

After this text is an image of a typical Amazon order page, showing the buyer's account and orders, a description of the product, and the various feedback buttons:  Return or Replace Item; Leave Seller Feedback;  Leave Package/Delivery Feedback; Write a Product Review.  Then comes more text:
We would like you to write a product review!  Product reviews are fun and simple to complete.  Under your account select the "your orders" tab, find this order and then select the button that says "write a product review".
There is a big arrow pointing to the appropriate button on the image.

And then there's a big black line under all that, followed by more text:
If for any reason you are not satisfied with this order please let us know before you write your review.  We have a complete customer satisfaction policy and believe this is an excellent 5-star product!
The note closes with their email address and phone number.


When I went to the product's page and discovered it has well over 50 5-star ratings, I began to feel a niggle of suspicion.  Had all these 5-star ratings been purchased by the seller with a promise of a another free [insert product #1 name]?

I fired off a Seller Feedback note explaining only that I would love to leave a product review, but I couldn't follow their directions because the button wasn't active.  I wrote:
Packed in the box with my order was a note from you regarding product reviews.  I would like to leave a product review but can't because the "Write a Product Review" button doesn't show on the "My Order" page.

FYI -- I was very pleased with the products and with their prompt arrival, in plenty of time for the holidays.  I did have one minor complaint/suggestion, but you'll have to figure out how to allow me to leave a genuine product review.
Within a couple of hours -- on a Sunday afternoon! -- I received the following reply via email:

Linda:

What is your minor complaint/ suggestion?

Please advise.

Thanks,
 My scamdar was pinging wildly.  So I wrote back:
Excuse me, [vendor's name redacted], but my complaint/suggestion is intended for the review, not for private discussion. 
The note included with my order says: 
"Thank you for your order.  We would like you to write a product review for our [insert product #1 name].  After you have written and submitted the review we will send you a second [insert product #1 name] for FREE to the address on your invoice.  Please allow 7-14 days for the package to arrive."
It is then followed by a screen shot of a typical Amazon order page, with an arrow pointing to the "Write a Product Review" button. 
HOWEVER -- my order page does not have that button; instead it has "Contact Seller" and "Leave Seller Feedback" buttons, neither of which leads to the product review page.
Or am I required to submit my review to you for approval before it can be posted? 

Is it possible that this vendor is essentially buying 5-star reviews with a promise of free merchandise?  Is the vendor requiring that any product reviews be vetted by them in order to "qualify" for the free merchandise?  Is this practice potentially a violation of Federal Trade Commission regulations?  Did any of those reviewers state that they had received a free [insert product #1 name] in return for their review?

I wanted to leave an unbiased, honest review of this product.  Would my review -- which would probably have been at least a 4-star -- be buried under all those glowing 5-star reviews that no one will ever know might have been "bought" with free merchandise?

Recent events in the book review community have suggested that perhaps false positive reviews are much more readily ignored by those who have a vested interest in selling books (meaning, Amazon and now GoodReads as part of Amazon); and that sales-damaging negative reviews, even though they're scrupulously honest, may put the reviewer's account and reviewing career at risk.  Writers have inveighed against the negative reviews of their books even while establishing sock puppet accounts to 5-star their own or their friends' books.  (And, to be sure, they've often 1-starred their reviewers' books whenever possible.)

With the integration of Amazon and Goodreads, I think we really have to wonder which will win out:  The quest for sales, or the honest reviewer?  I'm afraid we probably all know the answer to that question already.


After I had written that, the issue continued to develop.  The latest update:

A few hours after I had sent my email to the vendor, I received a reply which stated:

Linda:

Thanks for ordering from us and bringing to our attention that you were not completely satisfied with your purchase. 

We have refunded you the full cost of this item with shipping. This should appear in your account in the next 24 hours.

Please continue to enjoy the [product] and we appreciate any honest and fair feedback you would like to provide.  We prefer that complaints/suggestions be discussed prior to leaving product feedback and reviews (as a reply to this message or by calling us).  In this way, we have a chance to correct or explain an issue or concern.  This will insure your feedback and/or review would include how we dealt with your complaint or suggestion. 

Links and buttons for feedback and reviews are only accessible to the buyer (you).  We do not review or edit feedback or reviews before you (the buyer) post.

Sincerely, 

At that point I didn't know if they were going to refund the purchase price of both items or only the one that was mentioned in the note requesting a review.  Either way, however, I felt very uncomfortable with this.  I felt as if my silence had been purchased.  How can you complain about something you got for free?  Ultimately, the refund was processed for just the one item, which was fine.  I guess.  I'm still not comfortable with it.

I'm even less comfortable because the issue should have been handled differently.  Apparently the reason I can't leave a product review directly from my order page is because the page is designed to give the vendor the chance to fix problems, and the vendor should have known that.  In looking at my ordering history, any order that is fulfilled by Amazon -- even if purchased from another vendor -- can be reviewed directly from the order page via the "Write a Product Review" button.  If the order is not fulfilled by Amazon, then there is only the "Leave Seller Feedback" option. 

Regardless how or why the process didn't work the way it was explained with my order, I'm left wondering how many of those reviews were left by people whose opinions might have been colored by the prospect of free merchandise they received in exchange for a review.  And I also have to wonder if the offer of free merchandise violates Federal Trade Commission Regulations.  Most customers know nothing about FTC rules, or believe that those rules don't apply to individuals.  But Amazon does, and GoodReads does, and the vendors ought to know, too.

And maybe the vendor shouldn't require reviews in order to get free merchandise.  Back in the 1950s we called it Payola, and it's illegal.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

And the word for today is "overwhelmed"

That's me.  In plain and simple terms, the past six weeks or so have been overwhelming. 

There's the day job, of course, which never seems to let up.  And week-ends are barely enough to catch up on all the routine maintenance chores.  When I have week-ends, that is.

Three major arts and craft shows since the end of October have taken up three of those week-ends. 



Not only does that put me behind on the routine maintenance schedule, but I've been trying to squeeze in time to build inventory to replace what's been sold at the shows.  And I can't complain that there's been a lot to replace!  But I have five shows coming up after the first of the year, and my stock is very depleted.

Then there were the ongoing problems with the brand new heating/air conditioning system I had installed in the house last March, after the old one completely failed.  Three more visits from the service people, including one four-hour session during which they installed a whole new air-intake system, now seem to have it working properly, but of course we won't really know until summer.

The Thanksgiving holiday gave me a big break, allowed me to make up for some of that lost time, but I was also dealing with a major vehicle issue -- yes, the transmission went out, again -- which took time and energy and a large amount of cash, while also causing a horrendous amount of stress.

Now December is fully upon us.  I'm anticipating a holiday visit from my daughter and her family, so there are arrangements to be made, quarters to be prepared for them to stay in, and various activities to schedule.  Let's not even talk about trying to shop for gifts or put up decorations, because if we talk about that, I'll be even more overwhelmed.

So no, I haven't been writing, except for the occasional post on GoodReads or BookLikes.  I'm still settling in at the latter, still trying to catalog all the books, still trying to figure out the site and how to decorate my blog there.  Nor have I even been reading very much. 

All of that is going to change.

I'm going to make it change.

You just watch and see.  ;-)

Monday, November 11, 2013

Are silent denials words of shame?

This is going to be a very short -- for me -- blog post.  I'll expand it later, but you'll have to come to the blog itself to see the rest.  And no, I'm not sure when it will be.

Here's my question:

If several self-publishing authors formally associate with each other, whether as an organized "group" on a readers-and-authors website or on their own collective blog or face to face or whatever, and if they proceed to rate and review each other's books without disclosing that they have agreed ahead of time to do so, are they engaging in deception for their own gain?  Why would they not identify themselves as friends or colleagues or associates or . . . whatever?  Are they ashamed of something?

Let me reiterate:  Are they ashamed of what they've done?

I have said all along that reviews by real people should be allowed.  Not reviews by 25 sock puppets of the author, 19 sock puppets of her mother, and 769 computer-generated sock puppets.  Authors are real people, and there's no reason why they shouldn't be allowed to post reviews of their friends' books if they want to.

But shouldn't they have enough integrity to identify themselves?  If not, what are they trying to hide?

Those of you who have been following me at all know that I generally include a disclaimer in my reviews.  Not only do I review under my own name, but I let the reader of the review know when and where and how I obtained the book; whether I've had any contact with the author and what kind of contact that is; and that I am an author of historical romances.  Personally, I feel that kind of honesty allows the reader to make an informed decision about the validity of my comments.

How is a reader to make that kind of decision when a book has five, or ten, or 20 5-star ratings but not one of the reviewers admits to being a member of an authors' review swapping group?

Again:  Are they ashamed of what they've done?  And if they're not ashamed of what they've done, why won't they admit it?

Sunday, October 27, 2013

On eating one's words: The good, the bad, and the real

This blog post has been more than two months in the writing.  It seems every time I go back to the draft to complete it, events have occurred that have direct bearing on what I'm trying to say.  I'm really going to try to wrap it up today.


Over the past several weeks, I think I've re-read  this previous post  and this one at least a dozen times each.  Maybe more than that.

And maybe I've done so to rationalize my position on reviews and reviewers given the, ahem, ongoing fracas regarding them you-know-where.

But there's been a little more to it in my case than what's been discussed publicly, and that's what's been stewing.  And it's why I've spent so much time on this particular essay.

Not too long before the big explosion/implosion "over there" and in the wake of yet another author meltdown over a review she didn't like -- neither the title, author, or the reason is important -- I received some private comments regarding my stance to defend all reviews and all reviewers, no matter how vicious, no matter how vapid, no matter how insincere, especially since I'm an author, too.  The people who contacted me were not antagonistic; they were, and still are, friends who were asking if I still felt the same after reading the reviews that had prompted the author's meltdown.  Some of the comments in those reviews were, though not at all personal, pretty damn harsh.  The reviewers basically said there was nothing at all to recommend the book:  The writing was terrible, the characters had no redeeming qualities, the plot was simplistic (where it wasn't totally incomprehensible), and the sex scenes were. . . .well, never mind that.   The reviewers pretty much all said the book was terrible and should never have been (self)-published.

My response in all cases was the same:  Reviewers have the right to say whatever they want.  They don't owe the writer a damn thing.

But...but...but...my friends protested.  Didn't I have any compassion for my fellow creative artists?  (A non-friend basically said the same thing, publicly, on this blog.  We won't go there.)

Well, no, I didn't.  And yet, yes, I did.  And in that seeming contradiction lies my defense of an issue I have visited far too often.  I would leave it alone if it didn't keep coming up, again and again and again and again.   And because it lies at the heart of The Great Debate.

The author was devastated, went on a rampage, got more hostile reviews, and eventually flounced.  We're all familiar with the scenario; what few details vary from case to case really don't matter.  We read the same words -- mean, vicious, troll, bullies -- and yawned, ho hum.  And we got ready to move on, leaving the writer to do whatever she chose to do.

Wait a minute.  Let's back up a bit.  Did I write "insincere" in reference to some reviews?  I did, and I'm quite well aware that the word is used as a surrogate for a variety of other words.  Like inaccurate, untruthful, retaliatory, mean, and yes, even bullying, as well as fake, bought, squeeing, and sock puppeted.   Can something that's insincere also be kind?

During this whole discussion in various venues and over considerable time, someone posted, somewhere, one of those cute little poster things about kindness.  And I think I even responded, quoting in turn the little epigram sometimes attributed to Etienne de Grellet, and sometimes to William Penn.  
"I expect to pass through this world but once. Any good therefore that I can do, or any kindness or abilities that I can show to any fellow creature, let me do it now. Let me not defer it or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again."
And I wondered, not for the first time, if kindness trumps honesty.  And to whom is kindness owed, if kindness to one party harms another?

I took a break from all that angst for a while.  For one thing, I was wrapped up in the republishing of my own book, Legacy of Honor, and I needed to concentrate on that.  A good portion of what little free time I have this time of year also has to be dedicated to preparing for the seasonal art shows I participate in.  So worrying about reviews of other people's books was not high on my priority list.  The whole brouhaha continued unabated anyway; it would no doubt be still raging when I came back to it.

And of course it was.  Legacy of Honor was now out there, ready for any reviews positive or negative, and I was going to be put to the test.

I don't look at my reviews.  Not ever, unless by accident or someone brings something specific about a review to my attention.  Maybe I should look at them more often, but I figure what's the point?  If someone likes the book, they'll say something nice, and I'll get all over-confident and conceited; or I'll find out someone doesn't like it and I'll go into a dismal funk the way I did over Moonsilver. (Which funk had nothing to do with reviews, but anyway.)  So I just don't look at them.

And anyway, they're not for me.  They're for other readers.  That's what I keep saying, and I damn well better mean it.

Of course, I'm not stupid, and I know that there are probably a few or even more than a few retaliatory reviews on my books from people whose books I didn't like.  Maybe someone found  a typo I missed (shit happens) or they just felt like being mean.  They're allowed to do that.  It's only a book review.  It's only a book.

But what if there's an error?  A great huge gaping plot hole I missed in all my various revisions and someone catches it and I could easily fix it and reupload it and. . . . and. . . . . . . and. . . . . .  ..  ..  .

If there is, that's my fault.  I could have asked someone else to read it, someone I knew and trusted who would be able to find any such plot holes or internal inconsistencies or whatever.  Not that I really know anyone like that.  A critique partner?  To go through all 194,000 words?  To keep track of all the little details the way a professional editor would?  Oh, wait, a professional editor did edit it and left lots and lots and lots and lots of plot holes in it 28 years ago.

Sure, I know.  That was Leisure, and they weren't noted for their attention to detail.  (Like, typos on the back cover copy?  Hello??  Excuse me?!?!)

But whoever edited my later books at Zebra didn't catch the big errors either.  Like the crucial bit of dialogue that was virtually copied and pasted and duplicated due to one of my own revisions and no one caught it.  Not in editing, not in copyediting, not in typesetting, not in proofing, not in page proofs.  It was embarrassing for me, yes, because I was the author.  But at least I could shove some of the blame onto the editorial team for that one.

Ultimately, therefore, if a reviewer finds an error, oh well, she finds an error.  Other readers will be alerted to it and I'll continue in blissful ignorance because I'm not going anywhere near those reviews.  (If there even are any!)

Reviewers have to feel free to write whatever they want.  Computer-generated sock puppet accounts are not reviewers.  Paid shills are not reviewers.  (Edited to add:  They're commercials, and should be identified as such.  Should their reviews be allowed?  Yes, as long as they're identified as what they are: Paid advertising.)  Friends and relatives and colleagues at the same publisher and editors and so on -- yes, they're reviewers.  They should, if they're honest, disclose their relationship, but hey, people aren't always particularly honest.  If they're the competition, they should note that, too.

Regardless, however, real reviewers need to be able to review freely.  They shouldn't need to ask if the book has been edited or proofread.  They shouldn't need to ask if the author is 12 years old or 30 or 70.  They shouldn't need to ask if the author is depending on income from the sales of this book to put her children through college or pay for her pending kidney transplant.  They shouldn't need to ask if the author wants an honest review or just ego strokes.  Unless and until the author makes her behavior part of the selling of the book, the review should only be about the book.

Is it well written?  Does it make sense?  Did the reader find it enjoyable? 

I feel pretty confident that my writing -- blog, discussion posts, fiction, non-fiction -- can pass as reasonably professional.  My spelling, grammar, punctuation, syntax haven't been called into question at least since I graduated high school, and that was in 1966.  The fact that I sold seven novels to royalty publishers does give me some reassurance that I can come up with decent story ideas and then develop them into readable books. 

In other words, I'm pretty sure my writing is competent enough that my republished digital editions aren't going to be slammed for bad writing and huge plot holes.  What's left is reader opinion, and as far as I'm concerned, that's sacrosanct.  As long as it's a real person writing it, the review is untouchable by the author of the book. 

Which brings it all back to the beginning.  Not just the question of whether a reviewer, any reviewer, has an obligation to be kind to the author, but the specific question of whether I, as writer and reviewer, have a special obligation to treat my fellow wordcrafters with a unique brand of kindness reserved for colleagues.

It would be easy to fall back on the "reviews are for readers, not authors" mantra that I've spouted often enough.  And it's true.  But I've also never made any secret of the fact that many of my reviews are essentially critiques leveled at the writing if not directly at the writer.  Yes, I definitely feel readers should be alerted to research errors and sloppy formatting and whiny characters and dull narrative and so on.  If I don't know the writer and have never had any interaction (even secondhand) with her either online or in person, how can I possibly write a review based on anything other than the writing?  Seriously -- it's always going to come back to the writing.

Still, how does that answer the question:  Do I as a writer have an obligation to temper my reviews with kindness simply because I'm a writer?  Does kindness trump my obligation to give an honest review?  Does kindness to the author, if it requires lying, matter more than telling her the truth about her terrible writing?  Does kindness to the author, if it requires lying, overrule letting potential readers know how bad the book is?

I think I've mentioned the experience of a fellow writer some 25 or so years ago whose career was essentially killed by kindness.  After completing a novel, she sent it to her agent who requested some minor changes.  She made the changes and resubmitted.  The agent asked for just a few more little alterations.  Done and resubmitted.  The agent then suggested a few more tiny revisions.  Well, when all was said and done, the book bore little resemblance to what the writer had originally written, and she gave up in frustration.  The agent told her she didn't want to overwhelm her with so many changes all at once; she was trying to be kind.  To my knowledge, the writer never wrote anything else.

Is it therefore better to say nothing, to write no review at all, to pretend a badly written book doesn't exist, than to express the opinion that it's badly written?  Or am I merely justifying my own meanness and cruelty and whatever?  Who determines what constitutes a mean or cruel review?  And who is the cruelty directed at? 

I struggled with this, as I have struggled with it before, and I reached no resolution.  I read the poor author's reaction to reading the reviews of her novel and I wondered if the reviewers had been unnecessarily harsh.  Had I been unnecessarily harsh in some of my reviews?  Had I hurt the authors' feelings unnecessarily?

Was it possible, I pondered, to write a scathing review that spared the author's sensibilities?  Was it possible to write a negative review that still offered encouragement and support to the author?  Was it possible to warn readers who might have come to trust my judgment that this was a book they might want to avoid, while at the same time not hurting the author's feelings?

Yes, I'm sure it is.  It's also possible to run an under four minute mile, but I sure as hell can't do it.

I will continue to write reviews honestly, and if some writers take that honesty as unkindness or cruelty, I am sorry.  But I'm not going to change the way I review.  I cannot temper my remarks to spare the author when to do so would be lying to the readers. 

And I expect the same honesty from anyone who chooses to review my books.  If they want to be mean and nasty, go right ahead.  I'm not going to read them, and any writer who doesn't have the confidence not to read reviews probably should be hurt by harsh criticism.  Her work is probably not ready for publication.  And I'm not going to be kind to her at the expense of those readers who have come to trust my judgment.  Some of them, after all, may be my fellow writers.  And above all else, I owe them my honesty, not my kind lies.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Letting go of the words. . . . again

So, it's done.

Legacy of Honor is live on Amazon.

I was never a shameless hussy of self promotion, and I doubt I'm ever going to be.  This blog and my comments on various books-and-authors websites like Booklikes and maybe a post on Facebook are as much promo as I've ever been comfortable doing.

But as I blogged earlier, something about this republication of my first print-published book has been very emotional for me.  I'm not totally sure why.

Back in March of this year, when I really began the process, I blogged some of my thoughts about to change or not to change a book that had been written over 30 years ago, whether I should bring it up to the, for lack of a better phrase, market sensibilities of 2013.  Back then I made the decision not to. 

In March I already knew some of the problems with the various versions of the book, and I knew I was going to have to make at least some revisions.  I had no idea then how extensive they would be or how much effort they would take, but I didn't really think the process would be too difficult or complex.

I was wrong.  Very wrong.

Part of that March blog post was intended to form the basis of an author's foreword to the digital edition, and I did paste it into the digital manuscript as I worked on the edits.  What started as a couple of paragraphs, however, quickly grew to several pages.  As usual, I was telling someone how to make a watch when all they'd asked for was the time.  Fortunately (I hope!) for my readers, I cut that foreword back to just a couple of paragraphs for the now-republished digital version.

While sitting at my desk today, working at my day-job and waiting for Legacy to go live on Amazon, I experienced a very unexpected emotional assault.  Like my heroine Alexandra, I cry easily, and so I wasn't particularly surprised that I found myself near tears several times this afternoon.  I know myself pretty well, and that's how I am.  But I also usually shake that stuff off pretty easily.

In the context of all the ruckus online regarding negative reviews and authors responding inappropriately and especially my own comments, I sat back to examine how I felt about all this.  In particular, how did my emotional reaction compare to the "my book is my baby!" nonsense I had criticized when other authors offered it as an excuse for their tirades against negative reviews.

Was I more sympathetic to them?  Did I have a clearer understanding of how they felt?  Did I accept their defense as valid?  In words of one syllable:  No, yes, and hell no.


What follows now is that much, much, much too long "Author's Foreword to the 2013 Edition" further expanded with some thoughts now that the book has in fact been republished.  Some of this text will be familiar to those of you who have read the earlier version in March, but much of it is new.


There is sometimes a temptation, when preparing a work for republication many years after its debut, to alter the story and make it more suitable for the present day's audience.  In essence, to write it the way it would have been written today.  After some considerable deliberation, I chose not to do that with Legacy of Honor, which was my first published novel.

I have, however, made some minor changes that I feel will improve the reading experience without changing the substance of the book, in either content or tone.

Written over a period of roughly two years between 1980 and 1982, Legacy endured rejections by several of the major paperback publishers.  During the submission process, one editor suggested the manuscript be trimmed from its original hefty 240,000 words (Version #1) and she'd take another look at it; I made substantial cuts and resubmitted the manuscript (Version #2), but that editor ultimately did not offer a contract.

At some point after that rejection, I decided on my own to make a major revision to the ending, for reasons detailed in one of the previous blog posts.  I also purchased a new typewriter.  Since the entire manuscript would have to be retyped to lead into the dramatically altered ending, I rewrote the synopsis to reflect that change, then typed the standard outline-and-sample-chapters submission to send to Leisure Books.  I anticipated at the very least the usual two to three months before receiving any response, which would be plenty of time to make all the revisions necessary to accommodate the new ending as well as type the rest of the approximately 650 manuscript pages.

I didn't count on a letter arriving just five days later -- via snail mail, which was all we had in 1984 -- requesting the complete manuscript.  Somehow or other, I managed to make the changes so the book matched the revised synopsis, to retype the whole thing, and to send it back within about a week.  That was the version (Version #3) Leisure purchased, of roughly 180,000 words.

Months later, the editor requested further cuts – about 15,000 words – to meet production costs; I made those in two or three days (Version #3a), with little time to make sure internal consistency was maintained and no glaring plot errors were created in the process.  I did the best I could, then trusted any details I missed would be caught and fixed by the editor.

Except that they weren't caught or fixed.  With the exception of typesetting and other errors, Legacy of Honor was published exactly as I had written it.  There were no revisions requested; there were no revisions made.  I never saw the page proofs prior to publication, so was quite stunned to discover the product that hit bookstore shelves in February of 1985 was riddled with typos and other minor errors that I probably would have caught if offered the opportunity to proofread.  But in those days, a published novel was essentially carved in stone.  My name was on the cover and I had to live with the errors.  I could always blame the editors for the errors; after all, they were the ones responsible for the errors -- including typos! -- on the back cover blurb.  I had nothing at all to do with that.

Fast-forward to 2013.  With the publishing rights reverted to me after the Dorchester bankruptcy, my first task in digitizing the text was to catch as many of those errors as possible, just as I would have done if I had proofread the print version.  I made an OCR scan of the print version to digitize it and thought it would simply be a matter of proofreading and fixing small errors.

In the process, however, I also discovered minor line-editing details – many of which were related to those cuts demanded by the editor at the last minute – that I had thought would be fixed but weren't, such as a character who entered a conversation before entering the room.  Most of these errors required little more than the restoration of a line or two from the original, untrimmed manuscript or other similar quick fixes.  I knew I had a copy of the original Version #2, and I located a copy of Version #3 to see where most of the cuts had been made and what could be restored.  I felt comfortable that I would be publishing a digital version that was 99.5% identical to what was printed in 1985, and that the 0.5% (or even less) would be virtually undetectable.

As I began what I thought was a final proofread of the digital edition, I discovered a much more significant error of exactly the type I had expected an editor to catch.  I'm not sure if I would have noticed it in 1985 when all I'd have been looking for was typos, but on revisiting the story almost 30 years later, the omission of some crucial text was glaring.  I went back to my original manuscripts and realized that, for various reasons, this problem could not be solved just by adding back in a paragraph or two from a previous manuscript version.  Several scenes needed substantial revisions, not so much to change the story but to make it make sense.
 
I recognized that the major change I'd made between Version #2 and Version #3 really required more revision than I'd been able to make in that ten day or two week period.  There were some rather large continuity errors, some of which had in fact been exacerbated by the later cuts that became #3a.  I realize this almost certainly makes much more sense to me than it does to you, dear reader, because I know how the novel evolved through those changes.

But that is what led to the dilemma.  Did I want to make the changes now, in 2013, that I felt an editor should have requested to correct what appeared to be, well, some rather significant plot holes?  Or did I want to preserve the original as much as possible?

I had to give the matter some thought.  Serious thought.

Because there were some other issues. 

Writing in the days before the Internet, before Google and Wikipedia and all the other wonderful research tools now available at our fingertips, I had to rely on much more limited resources for historical detail, and as a result there were some minor errors of fact – minor, that is, in terms of how the story was constructed.  I didn't want to leave those uncorrected, which meant at least some changes from the original text.

Given those changes and the fact that I had already made minor line editing corrections and restored other bits and pieces that had been cut from the original, I finally decided that if the book was worth republishing at all, it was worth republishing with its flaws fixed so it at least made internal sense.
 
I still work a day job, though I do work at home and have a certain amount of flexibility.  My day job, however, requires a great deal of intense mental focus, which precludes using that time to write or even think about writing.  I had to do all of my rewriting, all of my proofreading, all of my writing in short bits of time snatched here and there from other endeavors.  Because the revisions also required very tight focus -- I had to weave everything in as seamlessly as possible to the existing narrative and not change any more than absolutely necessary -- I was rarely able to do very much at a time.  And I had to keep going back and checking to make sure I didn't make more problems with each revision than I was fixing. 
 
Unlike the other previously published books I'd put into digital format, Legacy was demanding a lot of original creative effort.  In a way, this was good, very good.  I was enjoying that creative effort immensely and only wished I had more time to devote to it.  My frustration came not from the complexity and delicacy of the project but from the time I had to give to other activities. 
 
Slowly, slowly, page by chapter by revision, everything began to come together.  I found a cover design I really, really liked.  I made it through a second read, then a third to do an intense proofreading.  I found more small errors that had to be fixed, so I fixed them.  Then came the conversion for Kindle -- with no misspelled words on the first try!! -- and another proofreading.  Even on this fourth read, I found tiny, tiny mistakes that reminded me no matter how carefully I would go over it, undoubtedly there were still errors.  Nothing is ever perfect.

Then it was time to write the blurb (that's a blog post in itself!) and put it all together and actually publish it.  I did that about 11:00 this morning, and around 6:00 this evening, Legacy of Honor went live for the first time since 1985.

And for most of those seven hours, I was a basket case.

Do I have a better understanding now of how an author feels when her precious work receives a negative review?  No.  I always understood that.  I also understood, better than those who have never been through the process, what it's like to put your creative work in the hands of someone who will not have the intimate respect for it that the author does and who ultimately puts it out there in the public's hands with what amounts to a dirty face, mismatched socks, and holes in its underwear. 

I took that poor abused child back, washed its face, made sure its stockings were the same color, and put on brand new undies.

And then I let it go.

Because that's what you have to do.  It's what you have to do as a parent and as an author.  You have to let go.

So how does this saga end?
 
Cleaning up the typesetting and a few research errors, plus restoring some of the excised text (a total of approximately 25,000 words, including the original Prologue, thus bringing it to 194,000 or ~550 Kindle pages) and revising for clarity were the only changes I made.  The story line, the events and actions and the characters remain otherwise unchanged from what was printed in 1985.  And I've left my writing style alone, too, pretty much.

Did I write the book differently in 1983 than I would if I were writing it today?  Of course.  But the Legacy of Honor I wrote in the early 1980s was true to its time.  In releasing it again, I wanted to keep it true to itself, and to myself as the writer I was then.  So yes, there is rampant head-hopping.  Will it drive the reader crazy?  Oh, maybe.  And if I'd had an Internet to do research, I might have gone into more historical detail.  But I wrote with the tools and experience and style and editorial guidance that were available to me, and that's the way it will stay.

I hope you enjoy it.

Three little words

"Save and Publish"

It's been a very long slog, but this afternoon I clicked the "Save and Publish" button on the Kindle Direct Publishing site to upload Legacy of Honor.

I'm not sure why it was such an emotional experience for me.  I've published three other books and a non-fiction piece online without this kind of personal reaction.  But whatever the cause, this one really made an impact.


I'll let you all know when it's "live" on Amazon.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Groovy words

The list began my junior year in high school.  My best (and often only) friend Mary and I somehow or other began a list of what we considered groovy words, "groovy" itself being one of them in those mid-1960s days. 

Many were of pre-Columbian Mesoamerican origin -- Teotihuacan, Tenochtitlan, Macchu Picchu -- because Mary and I were in Spanish class together and our teacher, Charles Schlereth, was introducing us to the native cultures of Mexico and Central and South America.

There were also a lot of French words on the list -- fait accompli is the first that springs to mind without actually looking at the original compilation, and gendarme -- as well as just interesting words that we came across in our reading, such as juggernaut and klipspringer and rambunctious. 

I kept track of my copy of the list in a spiral notebook; Mary kept hers, too, though I'm not sure where.  Forty odd years later, at a class reunion in 2006, we met again for the first time in decades and both of us had the lists with us.

Words meant a lot to us then, and still do.

But there was more.

Mary and I engaged in a bit of civil disobedience involving words.

We were allowed, in our school, to spend assigned study hall periods in the library.  The infamous grand study hall in room 42-44, in the damp and musty basement of the school, was a good place to escape from, and so unless forced to do so, we chose to spend that period in the library.  If nothing else, the library was bright and sunny and of course, it had books.

We liked books.

The library had a procedure for taking attendance, which involved the filling out of a small slip of paper handed to you by a library aide as you entered.  There were places for name and other identifying information, the date and class period number, the assigned study hall number, and the last line was simply labeled "Purpose."

As far as we knew, no one ever actually filled out the last line.  I mean, everyone was there to escape study hall.  Whether you were going to study, read, do homework, draw a picture, who cared what you were doing?  No one ever wrote anything on the last line.

Mary and I didn't.

And each period, the aide or a student assistant walked through the library and collected all the attendance slips, then sorted them and returned them to the original study hall for attendance.

But one day it came into my head that I was going to fill in the blank space on my attendance slip.  Since I was even in those days a writer, I simply wrote "Create."   Yes, I could have written "write" as my purpose, but I didn't.  I chose "Create."  I wrote it in the space in my very nice handwriting and put the slip on the edge of the table for collection.

Nothing happened.  The slips were collected, but no one questioned my purpose; probably no one noticed. 

Mary and I began to fill in the blank line every day with "Create."

And still nothing happened.

After a week or so of this, we became bored.  It would have been easy, since no one paid any attention to our little innocuous prank -- which really wasn't a prank because I was working on my novel and Mary was writing poetry -- to just drop it and go back to leaving the line blank.  But people who love words as Mary and I did are not able to leave blank lines blank once those lines have been filled with words.

And so we began to fill the blank each day with a new word, but not just any word.  They were always verbs ending in -ate.  Pontificate.  Elaborate.  Elucidate.  Incorporate.  Prognosticate.  Bloviate.

Nothing happened.

We didn't use bad words or suggestive words, and the verbs we chose all had something -- even if remotely -- to do with a legitimate reason for being in the library.  Prevaricate.  Fulminate.  Excoriate.

Of course, after a few weeks of this, we finally got caught.  One of the librarians confronted us with our teasing and banned us from the library for a week.  We protested that we were only filling out the form as required, but that didn't do us any good.  More than likely someone saw one of those -ate verbs, didn't know what it meant, and felt they were being mocked.  So we were banished back to the wasteland of study hall for five days, where we had time to ruminate on our behavior and contemplate our sins.

When we were once again permitted to spend that period in the library, we continued to fill in the blank line.  Generally we used less controversial verbs to accommodate our oppressors, but we did not change our behavior.  The words were that important to us.

When we met 40 years after high school graduation, Mary had a list of all the verbs she'd been able to find ending in -ate over the years.  Hundreds of them.  Maybe thousands.

And they all had meanings.

All the words do.  That's what makes them so groovy.



(Posted in honor of our October birthdays -- Mary's, Charles's, and mine.  Librans rule!!)

Saturday, September 28, 2013

A few words to set your hearts at ease

Those of you who know who you are, that is.

This is a personal note to a few people who seem to have their knickers in a twist after they stalked me to a popular website and saw something they thought was bad behavior on my part.  I want to assure them that I was not doing what they thought I was doing.  I'm sure they will sleep better at night knowing this.

When I came to Goodreads something over a year ago, I began cataloguing my books.  I think it's absolutely wonderful that Goodreads has this fantastic database of books I have and would like to have.

The first phase of my personal cataloguing was to enter the books I already own.  I had a spreadsheet for most of them, or about 1700 titles.  I slowly, in my spare time, began entering those.

Next came the now over 2,000 Kindle titles, many of them new and not even in the Goodreads database.  Some I added myself to Goodreads; some I just waited for.

I also added specific titles to my "wish list" shelf, which is for books I know about and would like to acquire or read someday.  Many of these came as Goodreads recommendations, links from other books I'd listed, or from personal friends.  Some came from Amazon links.

As I worked my way through this agglomeration, I also added owned books that had not originally been on my spreadsheet or books I've acquired since creating the spreadsheet.  I'm still not finished with this listing.  There are two huge bookcases in the living room that haven't been inventoried yet.  I add those books as I think of them or find time.

I've also started listing the books that are out in my studio, which is not part of the house; I haven't even begun to tackle to 20+ boxes still in storage in the workshop. 

Yes, I have a lot of books.

But how was I going to keep track of the enormous bunches of books I wanted to explore?  How could I quickly put them into a separate category of books I wanted to find, books I hoped would appear on Kindle?

A few days ago, I set up a Goodreads shelf for these to-be-explored books, titled "new-new."  I found, however, that it was very tedious to go to the pages for the authors I was interested in checking out and adding those titles to my created shelf.  Nor did I want to add them to my "want to read" shelf via the UGB because in fact I was also adding new titles to that -- books I already had but hadn't entered.  I wanted a way to segregate these easily and quickly.

Here's what I did:

I started by going to the Bodice Ripper Readers Anonymous group, which was the first group I joined when I became a Goodreads member.  (It should go without saying that as a writer of historical romances, I also read a lot of them.)  I knew there was a list of Zebra books with links to the authors.  From that list I clicked on the authors, and added all the titles I didn't already have in my Goodreads library.  Anything I did have showed up on the buttons, so I simply clicked on the one-star, thus adding all those books to my standard Goodreads "read" shelf.

It was a simple matter to sort those books by date added and then batch-edit those books to move them to my "new-new" shelf.  While it's slightly more tedious to remove the one-star ratings, that task can be accomplished while I continue adding the books and authors I'm interested in.  And again, it can be conveniently -- if tediously -- done from that exclusive shelf.

So here's a word to those who have accused me doing something nasty: 

It's just not wise to ascribe nefarious motives to people you really don't know.  It can make you look like an utter fool.  Not to mention, a cyberstalker.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Meteoric words

Take from this what you will.

I don't know without digging into my records what the exact time frame was, but I'm pretty sure it was in the early 1990s.  Harlequin Enterprises had started gobbling up its competition and establishing itself as a near monopoly in category contemporary romance.  They'd bought the Silhouette operation from Simon & Schuster in about 1984 and proceeded to dominate until most of the other lines -- Rapture, Candlelight, Candlelight Ecstasy, Second Chance at Love -- had folded.  Bantam's Loveswept was ultimately the last to fall in about 1995.  Again, I'm not positive on the dates, but that should be pretty close.

There had been, for a number of years, a company called HCA, or Hosiery Corporation of America, which sold pantyhose by mail subscription.  You signed up, chose your color, style, size, etc., and every month they sent you four pair.  The price was extremely competitive and the quality was every bit as good as most and better than a lot of what you could buy in the store -- No Nonsense, L'eggs, etc.  I know this because I was a long-time customer of HCA and still have a bunch of their product.

Harlequin, and some other publishers, were cashing in on their own subscription services, and someone at HCA got the bright idea to go into the publishing business.  Their line of category contemporary romances was called "Meteor," and they were going to undersell the big brands.  They had a HUGE mailing list of women who were already buying things on a repeat monthly basis.

They sent editors to RWA conferences and they began buying manuscripts.  They didn't pay a lot in terms of advance against royalties, and I don't know right off the top of my head what their royalty rate was or what rights they bought -- I'd have to do more research than I have time at the moment to do -- but they were not a scam.  They published the books, sold them, and so on.  How successful were they?  I don't know.  I'm sure there's some information in the RWA "Rate the Publishers" surveys from that time, and I have those.  I'll look later on, if anyone is interested.

I suspect they were reasonably successful.  Yes, their authors were lower tier, and undoubtedly many of them had been rejected by the other, better paying houses.  The books were decently produced, though some of the cover art was kind of on the cheap side.  At least Meteor was successful enough that they represented some kind of threat.  After about a year of operation, they were bought out/shut down/silenced by Harlequin.

Despite assurances that any and all books already under contract would be published in some form or other, pretty much nothing happened.  Meteor disappeared, many of the authors disappeared, and of course there was no concern whatsoever about the readers.  I'm not even sure if RWA took much of a stand on it.

By about 1995, when the uproar over royalties on subscription sales was reaching a crescendo, I wrote, as the PAN "rabble rouser," an impassioned plea for someone, anyone, to step up and provide some competition to Harlequin.  That plea was quoted at length in Paul Grescoe's Merchants of Venus but ultimately nothing happened.  Loveswept folded, authors are still being screwed by Harlequin, and the only competition is from the small digital publishers and independent writers who are putting their work on Amazon and Smashwords and selling it for 99 cents or giving it away for free.

Harlequin didn't give a rat's ass about the writers at Meteor.  They didn't have to.  That entire operation stood in their way and all they saw was an obstacle.  They allowed the writers to vent and whine at RWA conferences, much the way Steve Zacharius allowed us to vent in the Zebra forum, but then they went ahead and continued to do what they intended to do all along.

As I recall, now that I'm thinking about it, Kate Duffy was the start-up editor for Meteor.  Kate's obituary in the New York Times a few years ago was one of the little omen-like events that prodded me toward resuming my writing career.  A couple years after that, the friend who showed me Kate's obituary showed me Walter Zacharius's.  I don't believe in omens, but that was kind of the reminding nudge that got me started again.

The point is, for those of you us who are complaining about The Powers That Be not listening to us, it's not because they are afraid of us or don't have answers.  It's because they never had any intention of answering.  They don't care.  They don't have any fucks left to give.

Neither do I.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Tracking the words to their source

Okay.  So most of you are aware of The Big Kerfluffle over on Goodreads regarding the matter of negative reviews, offensive shelf names, and so on.  At the moment there are over 1,000 responses and I'm sure more will be coming in as the week-end progresses.  (And now, as of Monday morning, over 2100.)

It ought to be interesting, to say the least.

Since I came to this space and staunchly defended Goodreads just a few weeks ago, I feel I'm entitled to spew a few more words on why I think the new policy is all wrong.

Remember, I'm old.  I remember very well the days before the Internet, the World Wide Web, Amazon, digital publishing, and especially digital self-publishing.  I'm not alone, and I'd love to hear from other people who have lived through The Great Leap Forward.

But in those old days before KDP and Smashwords, readers went to a bookstore and bought a book, read it, and then maybe chatted about it with their friends.  Maybe they had a local book club, or they were just a couple of neighbors who got together over a cup of coffee to talk books and swap a few.  They'd put codes or comments inside the front cover -- "Hot!"  "Elaine loved it."  "♥♥♥." -- to mark the books they've read and their opinions when they took the book to a used bookstore or swapped with friends.  If they were readers of serious literature, they might check out the reviews in the newspaper or major magazines, but if they were readers of genre fiction, they'd have to rely on genre-specific magazines for any reviews at all.  Publishers Weekly and other trade magazines did not review genre fiction. 

Readers rarely met the authors of the books they read unless there was a booksigning, usually for only one author, or maybe a few.  Conventions -- or "cons" -- organized by and/or for the fans of a specific genre might bring a bunch of authors together for an event.  Readers brought their treasured "keeper" copies to have them autographed, and they got to visit with the author for a few minutes or listen to her speak at a seminar, but other than that, there was little direct interaction between writers and readers.

Also, there was an entire publishing apparatus between the writer and the reader:  Publisher, editor, graphic designer, bookseller, publicist, etc., etc., etc.  That apparatus not only provided a physical moat, if you will, between the book as it emerged from the writer's writing instrument of choice, but it provided gatekeeping for the quality of the work into the marketplace.  The reader knew that if she bought a book published by Crown or Baen or Avon or Signet or any of the other established publishers, it would be readable.  It might not be to her liking, but it would be written in mostly recognizable English, have reasonably competent printing and binding, and so on.

The only people who might get hit with promotional materials for a forthcoming book would be the booksellers, who might be showered with flyers and posters and bookmarks, which they could distribute to excited fans or dump in the wastebasket.  Then the books were distributed and they either sold or they didn't. 

Authors collected their royalty checks, if there were any, and stayed home to write their books.

Science fiction cons started the engaging of writers and readers, and that revolution was further incited by Kathryn Falk and Romantic Times magazine with her booklovers' conventions, and by Romance Writers of America.   Because RWA did not have any qualifications for membership, anyone could join and many fans did just that.  More than 80 percent of the membership was (and probably still is) unpublished; they were essentially fans who got to hobnob with their favorite authors and pretend to be on a par with them.

I was a member of RWA for over 10 years.  I attended enough RWA conferences to know how this worked, and it didn't always work to the benefit of the authors.  In fact, so many of the authors were unhappy with this arrangement -- as one said, "We always have to be 'on' for the fans, and they don't like it when they find out we're only human." -- that I started a separate group within RWA just for published authors so we could have our own conference without all the fans around.  It did not make me particularly popular with some factions of the organization.  But the Published Authors' Special Interest Chapter, born from an idea that popped into my head on the evening of Sunday, 13 October 1994, is still going strong.

This is a big picture issue, which is why I've brought all this history into it.  The background is essential to understanding why this recent decision of Goodreads' is wrong.

The self-publishing revolution changed all of the above.  The publishing apparatus was no longer necessary, so anyone could become "an author."  And any scribbling could become "a book."  The machinery for ensuring quality of the product had been removed as a necessity.  Of course there were still books being bought and published by traditional publishers, with all the gatekeeping and quality assurance systems in place.  But there was also another industry coming into vocal being.

Not only did the newly self-publishing authors have little to no experience with how the marketplace worked, they often didn't know how reading and readers work.  And that set the stage for confrontation.

Goodreads was originally established as a site for readers to list, catalogue, review, and discuss books.  Having a customer base of thousands and eventually millions of readers, the site attracted advertisers who pitched their books to potential readers.  Most readers don't want to chat with copy editors and proofreaders, and the site wasn't built for authors to interact with readers, so reviews and discussions remained pretty much focused on the content of the books.  There really wasn't much else to talk about.

Let me emphasize that again:  Reviews and discussions remained pretty much focused on the content of the books.  There really wasn't much else to talk about.

What changed, however, was the whole social media aspect that took over not only publishing but self-publishing. 

The author who self-publishes is often not only the writer of the words but the editor and proofreader, the formatter of the digital edition, the art director who chooses or commissions or even creates the cover art, the creator of the cover copy that accompanies the online listing, the publicist who hawks the book on Facebook and Twitter, Tumblr and ..... Goodreads.

The author is required, by her choice to self-publish, to fill all these roles.  She has to interact with readers in ways authors never did before.  Even if she doesn't plunge into social media with 100 tweets a day, the product she presents is much more hers than just the words.

If she does utilize social media -- including Goodreads -- to interact with her readers and/or potential readers, that action both is and is not the action of the author.  If she spams Twitter and Facebook with notices about her book, she as writer and as publisher is in control of that.  All of that is part of the book's production and distribution process.

In most cases this is a good thing.  But occasionally it's not.  And when it isn't good, it sometimes becomes horrible.

A new writer who has little writing skill, who knows nothing about the legalities of copyright and publishing and distribution, who has no agent or editor or PR assistant to manage her public behavior, who has filled her head with nonsense about how many millions of copies of her book are going to be sold, may be simply, completely, and totally unprepared for negative comments on her books.  She lashes out, creates a shitstorm, accuses people of things they never did, makes a lot of people angry, gets people to defend her based on the untruths she's told . . . . .

And then those untruths are taken as gospel, perpetuated through the social media over which she has no control, and yet readers aren't allowed to set forth the truth? 

That's what has happened with the announcement on Goodreads that reviewers may not review author behavior.

I have so far had one review removed by Goodreads.  Although I don't have a copy of that review, I know pretty much what it consisted of.

The book had received a lot of negative comments because of bad writing:  poor grammar, spelling, punctuation, and so on.  The author -- digitally self-published -- became incensed and wrote a blog post declaring she didn't care that she wasn't a good writer, had no intentions of learning how to write well, and the reviewers who called her on it could pretty much go screw themselves.  When she then got flak about that -- including my review, which cited the blogpost as my reason for even looking at the book and then reviewing it -- she deleted the blogpost.  She then flagged the review and it was hidden by Goodreads.  Friday, that review was removed.

Another of my reviews has been flagged.  That one I've copied and saved off the Goodreads site.  Again, the book was poorly written and any original review I might have written was solely based on the content and quality of the book as a product.  But the author had taken heat for the book's obvious lack of professional editing and proofreading, so she listed herself under another name as the editor.  She assumed a third name as co-author, and a fourth as illustrator.  A 10-minute search identified all these frauds.

The book did have several five-star reviews, but they all came from persons readily identifiable as either out-and-out sock puppets of the author, members of her family, or close friends who were named in the book.  When the accounts were identified and reported to Goodreads and subsequently removed, the author lashed out at reviewers.  How can this behavior, all directly connected to her writing, publishing, and promotion of the book, not be a legitimate subject for criticism?

Another of my reviews may have been flagged; I'm not sure yet, but it, too, has been saved off the site just in case.  Again, it's an instance where the author has engaged in mildly deceptive practices, has enlisted friends and family to denounce and verbally attack anyone who dares to criticize her book,  has created sock puppet accounts for herself to boost her own ratings.

A book, even a self-published book, is a product being sold in a marketplace.  Every aspect of that product should be material for possible criticism.  Is the cover art offensive?  Is the digital formatting impossible to read?  Is the book over-priced?  Is the author issuing revised editions every week, resulting in reviewers actually reviewing different material without even knowing it?

The Goodreads (partial) ban on addressing author issues related to books is very short-sighted, but it is also consistent with an entity that is only concerned with pushing product, not with guaranteeing the quality of the product.  By protecting the feelings of authors who really can't write anyway, Goodreads actively promotes bad writing and whiny authors.  By punishing the reviewers who dare to tell the truth, Goodreads is actively silencing ... everyone.

Does Goodreads allow trolling and bullying?  Yes, unfortunately, they do now.  But the trolls aren't even members of the site, and they are bullying the readers. 

They know who they are.





Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Afterword


The moon is setting over my computer.

My office window faces due west, and at the moment -- 5:55 A.M. Arizona time -- a brilliant full moon is hanging in the sky out that window.  Looking at that moon over the top edge of the monitor, I can't help but be fascinated by the eerily perfect shape, the mottled cream and grey coloring, the slow but steady descent.  In a few minutes it will be gone.  The rising sun is already lighting the landscape:  The trees in my yard, the rock wall along the driveway, the side of my neighbors' house.

Tidbits of personal experience like this help me flesh out my writing, whether the way the moon rides in the sky or how the sun glows behind clouds or the feel of silk on skin or the effect of champagne on the libido.

A much more complex experience served as the personal inspiration for Legacy of Honor, which I hope to be re-publishing via Kindle in the next few days.  I've been torn as to whether or not to include an Afterword -- the digital edition already has a much-too-lengthy Foreword -- but I feel as if some record is warranted of the event that actually inspired that novel.


The 1812 invasion of Russia ended Napoleon's dreams of empire, and ultimately saved England.  The Corsican's Grand Armée lost perhaps as many as half a million soldiers, depending on whose account you read.  Tens of thousands succumbed to disease and fell in battle even before they reached Moscow, but the long march back to France was devastating.  Horses, wagons, cannon, everything became just so much debris littering the roadside.

The Peninsular War had taken its toll on French forces and resources, but Russia dealt the tactical and political death blow from which Napoleon would not -- could not -- recover.

I had learned the basic historical background from Tolstoy's War and Peace, which will probably always be one of the definitive novels of the inhumanity of that or any other campaign, but the real inspiration for Legacy of Honor was a fascinating gentleman I met one night in Torremolinos, Spain in the early spring of 1969.

To get away from the snow and cold of Chicago and to pursue my almost life-long dream of being A Writer, I had flown to Luxembourg on the last day of January that year.  After taking a train to Paris, I hitchhiked to the Spanish border, then took several more trains to Málaga and eventually settled in Torremolinos on the Costa del Sol.  Several weeks later, I took a job in a chintzy little bar in the downtown tourist section of the city. 
At the moment, I don't even remember the name of the bar.  The owner was a Swiss woman who didn't hang around the place much; my two fellow bartendresses were an English girl from Manchester and a young Scot from Glasgow.  I've since forgotten their names, too.

We earned a base wage per night -- only if we worked the entire 8:00 p.m. to 3:00 a.m. shift, nothing if we went home early -- plus a commission on any drinks we managed to talk the customers into buying for us.  Most of the liquor was well watered to make outrageous profits truly obscene.   It wasn't a particularly fun job, but it was easy and all three of us needed the money.

One particularly quiet night when we'd had almost no customers at all, the owner departed and left the three of us girls alone.  Some time later, two gentlemen entered and took seats at the bar. 

They were dressed alike in dark tuxedos with white ruffled shirts of the style popular in the late 1960s, but nothing else about them was similar.  One was older, perhaps in his 50s, short and a bit chubby, bald except for a fringe of short curly white hair.  He had a delightful, friendly smile.  They ordered a couple of beers and when I served them, I noticed the little bald guy was missing a finger on his left hand.

The younger man might have been in his late 20s or early 30s, and could easily be described as "movie star handsome."  Okay, he was flat out gorgeous.  He was also very tall, well over six feet, with thick dark hair, dark eyes, and absurdly long eyelashes. 

Conversation was slightly awkward, since the two men spoke no English, and I was the only one of us three girls who spoke Spanish.  But we managed.

I'm not sure what we talked about, but at some point in the conversation the younger man lit a cigarette.  This wasn't anything unusual, but something made me take note of it.  Was it because he was gorgeous and I was paying attention to anything and everything he did?  I don't know.  But I noticed he was rolling the cigarette over his fingers, and then a minute or two later, the cigarette was gone. 

I mean, one minute he had it in his hand and was smoking it, and then ... it wasn't there any more.  And it wasn't in the ash tray.  And it wasn't on the floor.
So I asked him where it went.  He held out both hands, neither of which held a cigarette, and insisted he didn't know.  I knew I was being set up for something, even if I didn't know what it was.  And of course while we were still puzzling over the cigarette, it somehow reappeared.
As if by magic? 
Hold that thought.
Neither of my companions behind the bar had any particular sleight of hand skills, and my only "tricks" were the ability to slightly wiggle my ears and to bend my fingers backward.  After we had all laughed about this -- and after the cigarette had disappeared and reappeared a couple more times -- the tall young man announced, in Spanish of course, "My friend eats glass."
No, that's not a typo.
He went on to explain that his companion would, if supplied with a fresh mug of beer, eat a glass.  Not one he provided that could be suspected of trickery, but one of ours from behind the bar.
The translating of all this prompted a lot of laughter and speculation, and of course we worried what would happen if the owner of the bar returned, but we decided what the hell.  We refilled their mugs and I handed the little bald guy a stemmed cognac glass.
He took a look at, then put the upper edge in his mouth and bit off a chunk.   He chewed it up, swallowed, and washed it down with a swig of beer.  Over the next ten minutes or so, he proceeded to consume the entire bowl of the glass and the flat base, leaving only the stem.  That part, he explained, was too hard to chew with his false teeth.
There was no broken glass in the bottom of the mug.  The beer was gone, and so was the glass.
Well, we were more than slightly astounded, as you might expect.  To this day, I can only assume he actually ate the damn glass.  I have no other explanation.
Or at least no complete explanation.  Some explanation came from the younger man, when he introduced himself as the owner of a nightclub around the corner from the bar -- and a magician.

Now, as I wrote above, I had demonstrated to him and his friend my totally trivial abilities to bend my fingers backward and wiggle my ears.  I was the only one of us working in the bar who spoke Spanish at all, and in those days my Spanish was actually pretty fluent.  My French was somewhere just below adequate, but I could get by.  (Remember?  I had hitchhiked from Paris to the Spanish border ... alone.)  While we were still enjoying the amazement of watching the little bald guy eat a glass, the tall and gorgeous magician offered me a job, as a dancer in his nightclub.

He handed me his business card and told me, in Spanish of course, to write to him at that address and he would make the arrangements.

I still have the card.  After 44 years it's a bit tattered, but .....



So he was Russian.  And gorgeous.  Like Gwen Bristow's Handsome Brute in Jubilee Trail.  And I knew someday I would have to write a book about him.  I knew.  I just knew.

That was March 1969.   A few days later, in another bar, I met the man who would become my husband.  Without ever contacting the Russian magician, I headed back to the States and a more or less normal life .  But I didn't forget.  And when one evening in 1980 I began to outline a novel set during the Napoleonic Wars, Igor von Tzebrikow de Villardo, Marques de Tzebriachwili, was the model for my hero.

From what little I have been able to find via the Internet, it appears that he remained involved in businesses, including real estate, in the Málaga-Torremolinos-Benalmádena corridor of the Costa del Sol, and may even still be there.  I would love to find out for sure.

¡Qué mundo pequeño!

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Almost perfect words

I got a very rude awakening the other day.  I learned that the Kindle Direct Publishing platform has instituted some changes.  More than likely, these changes were announced and explained in the e-newsletter Kindle distributes, but after finding too many errors in the first issue of that periodical, I confess I haven't been diligent in reading subsequent issues.  Not that I have a whole lot of time for that, but it is unprofessional of me, so I will try to do better.

Due to an issue that had arisen while I was formatting Legacy of Honor in preparation for Kindle publishing, I thought I would recheck the three books I had already published online. 

When I published those three, the Kindle program offered only limited emulation for the author/uploader to see how the document would appear on the Kindle.  Over time, that emulation has been expanded to include Kindle Fire, iPhone, iPad, and several other devices.   I strongly advise any author who has published via KDP to re-examine their documents -- and continue to do so on a routine basis -- to see if there are any formatting glitches that may come to light with this expanded preview capability and changes in device software.  For example, I noticed that the paragraph indents on one of my books should probably be adjusted to make for a better reading experience on all the various devices.  This adjustment is very easy to make, and of course can be checked before hitting the final "publish" button.

What I didn't know until a few days ago, however, was that KDP now has a spellcheck feature.  How long this has been there, I don't know, but I admit with some embarrassment that it was a surprise to me.  And it wasn't a pleasant surprise, because it brought up a list of misspelled words from one of my books.

I pride myself on my proofreading skills.  Do I claim to be perfect?  No, of course not, and especially not with my own work.  I know that it's far too easy to see what we expect to see when we're reading something we've written.  I still find errors in my stuff when I've gone back to reread weeks or months or even years later.  Not a lot of them and not all that often, but I do find them. 

Most often, however, those errors are misused/wrong words.  "That" for "than" or vice versa, or "from" for "form."  Or just a word left out.  But I'm a pretty good speller and a fair enough typist that I can rely on autocorrect and spellcheck to catch a lot of the basics and on my own good eye for the rest, even if it takes two or three or more passes.

Seeing that list of misspellings pop up from the Kindle spellcheck software rather alarmed me.  Then I read through the words that had been flagged.

An invented name.
A slang word.
An invented descriptive word.
A contraction.
A misspelled word.

In other words (pun intended), out of approximately 110,000 words, I had missed exactly one simple typographical error.  One. 

Needless to say, I immediately checked both of the other books.  Again there were invented names and slang and contractions, but this time not a single misspelling in either book.

Out of roughly 350,000 words, ONE was misspelled, according to Kindle's own spellcheck.

All three of these novels were uploaded from my original digital manuscripts, not from anything any publisher had edited or fixed or formatted or typeset.  These were not OCR scans of printed pages.  I will take the blame for any errors, but I will also take the credit for very, very clean writing.

The point of this?  Oh, partly it's just to brag and pat myself on the back.  But it's also to put the lie to those lazy and incompetent writers who defend their self-published pieces of crap with the old "It's impossible to catch all of one's own errors."

Kindle will do at least part of it for you, if you weren't diligent enough or competent enough on your own.  Can't you at least do that much?





Tuesday, September 17, 2013

You probably won't like these words

Sometimes I have to use the words to write about something other than writing.

After the tragic events yesterday, someone asked, "What is wrong with this country that shit like this keeps happening?
And my reply was one word:  Poverty.

Of course I was blown off, but that's okay.  I'm used to it.

But I wasn't silenced.

Poverty is one of the major symptoms of "what is wrong with this country" but it's also an indicator that connects to so many others.

The lack of available treatment for those who have mental health problems is directly tied to a recognizable economic agenda.

The defense of the right to own a(ny kind and number of) gun(s) is indirectly tied to the economic agenda of individual rights as trumping public safety, community responsibility, common interests.
Failure to recognize the interconnectedness of all these issues is a kind of compartmentalization that enables the adherents of a particular philosophy to believe in two (or more) diametrically opposed concepts at one and the same time.

Aaron Alexis and many other mass killers have obtained and owned their guns legally.  When the culture supports the rights of gun ownership and gun owners and a free enterprise system that denies (mental) health care to far too many and places all of that above and beyond the rights of citizens to live in peace and safety, then you have to begin to look at the whole structure of that society and the culture it espouses. 

No one wants to look at the big picture.  No one (except the sociologists, maybe) wants to admit that there are many, many, many aspects of a culture that support and encourage and, in effect, enable this kind of tragedy.

NOTHING HAS CHANGED since Sandy Hook, just as NOTHING CHANGED after Aurora and NOTHING CHANGED after Columbine and NOTHING CHANGED after Fort Hood and NOTHING CHANGED after Killeen.  How far do you want to go back?  To Charles Whitman and the University of Texas?  NOTHING HAS CHANGED since then in terms of how "this country" addresses issues of mental health and guns. 

Is anyone discussing the "news" that poor women are so financially strapped that they cannot afford diapers for their babies?  This in a country where a guy who invents a cyber chat engine can buy a $5million "tear-down" house?  Is anyone discussing the research that has suggested even the users of the most addictive drugs -- crack cocaine and methamphetamine -- will, if given the opportunity, forgo their drugs in favor of money?  Is this an indication that they'd rather be financially secure but when they're not and have no hope of ever being so, they turn to self-destructive drugs?

No, it's always easier to say that there is no answer, because the real answers are difficult to face.

If and when this benighted country ever wakes up to the fact that universal health care -- including mental health, dental care, vision care -- should be as much of a right as the "right" to bear arms, maybe things will change.  That might mean the demise of the parasitic insurance companies, of course, and there's solid political support for protecting the insurance companies -- or at least protecting their right to make as much profit as possible. 

There is far too little political support for really addressing the causes of these mass killings.  And when any one of the causes hits home -- whether it's that right to bear arms or the right to enjoy violent video games or the right to rake in the dividends from for-profit hospitals and for-profit prisons -- then the hand-wringing stops and it all becomes, "Well, there's nothing we can do about it."

There is something you can do.  You just don't want to do it.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Putting the words back together again

To be perfectly honest, I never thought it would take me this long to complete the revisions to Legacy of Honor.  It didn't take as long as the actual writing of the book, though there were times when I thought it might.  But as of approximately 10:00 A.M., Wednesday, 4 September 2013, the revisions were complete.

I began to detail this process here and here.  Now that the revised version is 99.0% ready for digital republication, I have a much better understanding of what happened even than I had four or five months ago.  In light of other things that have happened in the book world recently, I thought it might be worthwhile to share some of that understanding.


When I wrote Legacy of Honor -- that was the working title from the beginning and never changed -- in the early 1980s, I wrote it for myself.  Though I had been reading historical romances for close to 20 years by that time and had even written another before Legacy, I didn't consciously write with any other reader in mind but myself.

This is not to say I didn't have intentions of trying to publish it from the beginning.  That was always the objective.  But I was still writing first and foremost for myself.  If somehow or other the book attracted a publisher and found itself in print, well, that would be all well and good, but I was the first reader and I was going to write the book(s) I wanted to read.  I really never even considered the other people out there who might read it.

As I began to share Legacy with a handful of friends, however, my perspective started to change.  The feedback from those first few readers -- none of them were writers -- put me in a very different situation.  I was still writing for myself, but because they were reading it, I was also writing for them whether I wanted to or not.  That didn't mean I had to take their advice and change the book to suit their preferences, but I did have to take into consideration that they might not read the book the same way I had read it, or even the same way I had written it.

Letting non-writers like Suzanne, Johneen, and Connie read it was a bit scary.  Almost no one had ever read any of my fiction before, and I didn't know what to expect in the way of feedback.  But as it turned out, they really liked it, and even though I didn't entirely trust their assessment -- they were, after all, friends, so they'd be biased; and they knew nothing about writing -- they did give me enough encouragement that I sought out some writers to share it with. 

Through a variety of channels I began networking.  I had always had my personal sources for information about writing and publishing like Writer's Digest, Writer's Market and The Writer, but I needed more if I seriously intended to try to get this book published.  I bought several how-to-write books, some of which I considered invaluable and others not so much.  (Lawrence Block's Writing the Novel: From Plot to Print was one of the solid gold nuggets I still recommend.)  In addition to studying how to write, over the next several months I established a circle of pen-pals with whom I swapped manuscripts.  Those connections in turn led me to Romance Writers of America and Romantic Times magazine. 

At that point I was not just sharing with other people the story I had written for myself; I was beginning to write for them, with them in mind, with their potential reactions and comments anticipated while I was still writing.

Please understand that I was not consciously aware of this at that time.  Subconsciously I undoubtedly was, because I made a major change to the ending of Legacy in order to make it more marketable.  Or at least to make it more dramatic, to carry a particular thread through from beginning to end, to make the ending more intense -- all in order to make it more attractive to editors and other readers.

When did I begin to realize this on a conscious level?  I'm not sure.  Maybe I never did, at least not until beginning these revisions.

This was a really terrifying concept.  It had the potential to change how I wrote; more important, however, it had the potential to change why I wrote.  And even if it hadn't affected my writing 20 or 30 years ago, it certainly was now.

In fact, it did change both the way and the why I wrote.

Most of us have witnessed the painful meltdowns of writers who weren't prepared for any kind of negative criticism of their work and who took even the gentlest of suggestions as tantamount to ritual murder.   Their tantrums today quickly go viral via Twitter and Facebook, and their critics are instantly labeled trolls and bullies and criminals.  But the truth is that most writers, even those who are embarrassingly unskilled and who upload writing that would make a fifth-grade teacher weep, don't fall apart at criticism.  They either ignore it, deny its validity, or don't care. 

Maybe they are still in that blissful state of enjoying writing for its own sake.  Maybe they're still just writing for themselves and understand that ultimately, that's all that matters.

Writing is a supremely selfish act.  It's a supremely self-centered act.  No one should be surprised that there are so many "Mary Sue/Marty Stu" characters -- writers put themselves into their stories all the time and so the Mary Sueishness is really just a matter of degree.

Publishing, and especially self-publishing, is an act of profound contradiction that requires the writer to be both supremely selfish and supremely self-denying.  The writer must maintain her confidence and her pride in the work, making it a part of herself so that she treats it with the love and respect and care it deserves; but she must also prepare it to live on its own in the dangerous world of the literary marketplace where it may be slammed and shamed and stabbed and eviscerated by people who frankly don't give a shit about it -- or about her.

As I completed my revisions and then prepared to make a final proofreading sweep through the book, I realized how much more I worried about what other people thought of it than I had when I originally wrote the book.  In examining my personal history of writing, I realized too that there were all these various stages through which the book passed, virtually without my recognizing it. 

The old adage about writing is still true.  First you do it for fun, then you do it for a few friends, and finally you do it for money.  But it's also incomplete.  In between writing for your friends or those readers you've personally selected and making any money, you have to write for strangers.  It's all those unknown readers out there over whom you have no control who pose the greatest danger as well as the greatest potential.

At some point, the writer has to trust them.  More than that, however, the writer has to respect those readers.  Respect them enough to give them her very best work possible, and respect them enough to give it to them unconditionally.

I've reached the point of a final (I hope!) proofreading pass of Legacy of Honor.  It will be the best I can make it.  And then, dear readers, it's yours.