Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Just change a few words here and there. . . NOT.

Few things make me angrier than cheating.  And in today's writing game there are two main ways to cheat.  I've already written more than you probably want to read (or for that matter have read!) about fake reviews and sock puppet "fans."

And I've written about copyright infringement, complete with the evidence.

As I wrote on my review of Sylvie F. Sommerfield's Fires of Surrender, this is one of the more blatant cases of copyright infringement I've ever come across.  How Ms. Sommerfield thought she could get away with it, I will never know.  Perhaps the tale of having an "assistant" who did the copying from Jan Westcott's The Hepburn was true; we may never know.

But for anyone who wants to see the evidence, I present it here.  I have copies of both books within five or six feet of where I sit at my desk.

I've highlighted some of the pertinent passages in the Sommerfield book; I tend to resist marking even duplicate copies of books I love.

From The Hepburn, by Jan Westcott, (c) 1950, Crown Publishers

From Fires of Surrender by Sylvie F. Sommerfield, (c) ? 1990, Zebra Books/Kensington Publishing Corp.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

The words in delicate balance, part 2

When I wrote Part 1 of this rambling little (okay, not so little) essay, my point was to search for a possible balance point between on the one hand saying or doing whatever it takes to sell copies of the book and on the other hand being honest with myself and the rest of the world.  I used a friend's experience with Amway as one illustration, and a manuscript I'd judged in an RWA contest as another.  While writing about that manuscript, I remembered the judging of the Nora Roberts book, which hadn't been a planned part of that blog post.  But it worked right in.

However, that particular example led my thought process down another pathway as well, which is what I want to explore in Part 2.  It's a rather twisted, winding pathway, so bear with me.

As I explained in Part 1, I've never been able to read Nora Roberts's books since Promise Me Tomorrow left such a bad taste.  So I can't select one of my personal "favorites" of hers; there aren't any.  Instead, I'm going to use as an example one chosen almost at random from her listing on GoodReads:  Key of Light.

The book has between 23,000 and 30,000 ratings on GoodReads (depends on which stat you read).  The average rating is 4.10 stars.  That means a helluva lot of people loved it.

But it also means not everyone did.  Yes, there are even people who leave negative reviews.

And Nora Roberts goes on.  Her success does not seem to be impeded by negative reviews.

The starting point here is that no matter how wonderful your book -- or my book -- is and no matter how many fans it has and no matter what wonderful things they have to say about it, it's a pretty sure bet that someone somewhere out there isn't going to like it, but that alone doesn't mean the book -- or you as its author -- is a failure.

As I've discussed often enough before, the traditionally published book goes through various processes before it reaches the reader in final form.  Whether a print edition or digital, it will most likely have very few errors of grammar, spelling, punctuation, etc., and it will be formatted according to the general standard.  Paragraphs will be evenly indented with consistent margins, the font will be readable, the pages will "disappear" as the reader becomes lost in the story.  When we were judging published books for RWA contests, product presentation wasn't even scored; it was taken for granted.

The self-publishing author has to take care of all that herself:  the proof-reading, the formatting, the cover art, everything, so that her product as it appears in the marketplace is much more analogous to the unpublished manuscript in an RWA contest than to the book printed by a traditional publisher.  In that sense, all aspects of the author-published book become fair game in a review.

When authors have no control over their cover art, when they entrust their novel to the copy editing department, when they have 24 hours to give a final check of their page proofs, they are rarely held to account for the occasional typo or the inaccurate portraits of the characters on the cover.  When authors have total and absolute control, then they have no reason not to be held totally and absolutely accountable.

Manuscripts laced with typographical errors would never have passed muster when I was submitting my first efforts to publishers in the early 1980s.  There were no self-correcting typewriters then, and certainly no personal computers with software capable of checking the spelling of every word.  Yet we were held responsible for the accuracy of our presentation of a manuscript before it went through the publishing process.  Why should self-publishing authors expect to do any less?

Poor presentation isn't the only aspect of a book that will bring criticism, though it is often the one that many defensive authors whine about the most.  They plead the expense of hiring a proofreader, or they claim they are incapable of catching all their own errors.  That's one element.  But there are also the problems readers encounter with narrative style, factual research, story continuity, character consistency.  These are elements common to all fiction, and all writers have to deal with them.  Some, of course, are more successful than others in terms of the raw quality of their writing.

The critic, also of course, brings her own experience level and her own personal preferences to the review process.  Some of her comments will be objective -- Was the grammar standard or was the language mutilated?  Did the  characters' names change without explanation?  That sort of thing -- but most will be subjective.  Did she like the story?  Did she find the characters' reactions to events appropriate or off the wall? 

In many cases, the reviewer's comments will be more an expression of how much she did or did not enjoy the reading and less an analysis of why she did or didn't enjoy.  And in most cases where the reader did enjoy the book, her comments are taken at face value by the author.  She may thank the reviewer or she may simply leave the comments stand.  The author rarely if ever questions the validity of a positive review.

If, of course, the favorable review comes from a reviewer who was compensated for an agreed-upon-beforehand favorable opinion, or comes from a friend or family member or sock puppet of the author herself, the review is not an unbiased expression of an independent reader and as such has no value to other readers at all.  Such reviews may serve to generate some sales for the author but they cannot, by their very nature, help her improve her writing.  These very biased reviews are expressions of a denial on the part of the author that anything needs improvement.

If neither the writing nor the story needed improvement, the book would sell on its own merits and would not need shill reviewers.  This was true before the rise of online reviewing, but it is even more true of digital self-publishing.  All the hype and promo in the world will not sell books that people don't want to read, regardless why they don't want to read them.

So let's look again at the negative reviews, the ones that point out that the book does need improvement, at least in the reviewer's opinion.  For the independent author, the one who doesn't have a traditional publishing house behind her, negative reviews should be valued above pearls.

And not just the negative reviews her own book receives.  The indie author should be seeking out the negative reviews of other indie books, then reading those books to try to learn -- free from the bias toward her own writing -- what readers and reviewers mean when they say they don't like a book.

We do not learn from our successes nearly as much as we learn from mistakes -- our own and other people's.

But how much can a writer learn from a negative review that gives few if any details?

0 of 3 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Not a memorable one..., September 21, 2012
Amazon Verified Purchase(What's this?)
This review is from: Earl of Scandal (London Lords) (Kindle Edition)
Not much too say about this book, except that it does not deserve more than 2 stars. It was not a memorable story and I do not think that I will be buying more books from this author.

I chose this review by going to the Amazon Kindle listings for historical romance, selecting the current freebies, and looking for those with a few reviews.  This was the first skimpy negative review I came to.  I'm not picking on the book, the reviewer, or the author; this just happened to be the one that turned up.

How is an author supposed to use this kind of review to improve her work?

Oh, wait, let's back up a second.  Reviews are for readers, not writers, and that's absolutely true.  For those of you who think I might be contradicting myself, I'm sorry to disappoint you.  Reviews sit out there in the public marketplace to help readers determine what they will buy/read and what they won't.  Reviews are for readers.

But only a fool believes writers never read reviews.  Indeed, writers should read reviews, and they should pay attention to them, and they should use reviews as one of the many tools in their tool box for becoming better writers.  Reviews are not, however, an open invitation to a dialogue between the writer and the readers.  The writer is never implicitly invited to that conversation.  The writer must, absolutely must, remain a fly on the wall.

It's not just a matter of ethics or etiquette.  Being the silent, unobtrusive fly on the wall allows the writer to listen in on all the conversations, to take all the comments back to her work space and incorporate those comments (in whatever way she chooses) into her next work.  And yes, that "next" work may, in this day of instant new editions, be a revision to an existing work.  Once the author enters the conversation, however, she becomes a party to all future conversations, and she will never be able to trust for 100 percent certain that what she's hearing is unbiased commentary.

So, okay, reviews are written and published for readers, but yes, writers can use the information contained in them.  While a review like the one above is perfectly useful for readers, it's totally useless for the writer.

That is not the fault of the reviewer.

Allow me to emphasize that again:  A short, negative review that does nothing to help the writer improve is not the fault of the reviewer.

That's because no reviewer has any obligation whatsoever to the writer except to give her honest opinion.  None.  N.O.N.E.

The reviewer has no obligation to justify her opinion, nor does she have any obligation to write her review well.  She doesn't have to spell the words correctly, use good grammar, or even make sense.  She's not asking anyone to pay her for her work, and she's only expressing her personal reaction to the book.

Nor does the reviewer have to have any qualifications for the"job," and if she does have any (regardless what they may be), she is not required to disclose them, either to other readers or to the author of the book she's reviewing.  That reviewer "Dorothea Dungelford Loves Books" could be a retired  art history professor, an insurance adjuster, a labor and delivery nurse, an auto mechanic, a flight attendant, a barista, a stay at home mom, anything.  Absolutely anything.  Both the reviewer and the author can only take her words for what they are.

All too often, a negative review is greeted with the classic response from the author (or her supporters or her fans or her sock puppet) "Yeah, well what books have you written?  Do you know how hard it is?"  And most reviewers haven't, in fact, written a book.  They don't know what's involved, and that includes not just the labor of putting all those words together, but also the production process.  The editing and revising, the proofreading and, in the case of digital publication, the artwork and formatting.

Sadly, the commercial book site that sells the most and has the most reviews is also the one that perpetuates the worst aspects of reviewing in terms of how reviews can help writers improve

Amazon does not allow authors to leave negative reviews of "competing" works.  The author whose books are not selling -- free give-aways don't count -- has almost no way to get the kind of professional feedback she may need from the place that sells the most digital books

Oh, of course she doesn't want it.  She wants praise and 5-stars and pats on the head and encouragement and affirmation.  We all do, if we're even remotely human.  Criticism is painful, no matter how sugar-coated it is.  It hurts to be told, by anyone, that your work isn't perfect and wonderful and wonderfully perfect and perfectly wonderful.  We can smile and laugh at our little mistakes (usually), but the big ones really wound.

There is also a culture being created -- in part thanks to Amazon's policies of not letting authors leave negative reviews -- that casts authors into an unfortunate and unnecessary adversarial role.  While many self-publishing authors are quick to dismiss negative reviews as coming from people who don't know what it's like to write a book, they are often just as quick to dismiss negative reviews that do come from people who do know what's it like to write a book as coming from jealous competitors out to slam the new kids on the block.

In other words, they don't want any criticism at all. 

Compounding this, of course, are those groups and websites that promote the idea that any and all criticism is mean and bullying, and that the meanest bullies are other authors.

A bazillion years ago, when I was a relatively new published author and relatively new member of Romance Writers of America, a mild controversy erupted over the "qualifications" for those who were going to judge in the national contest for unpublished writers, the Golden Heart.  Disgruntled contestants complained that at least some of their judges had little to no writing experience or other qualifications.  Not only did these contestants feel their scores were unfair because the judges weren't qualified, but they also believed they couldn't learn from the experience if the judges didn't know any more about writing a good romance novel than the writers whose work they were judging. 

Though most RWA members -- like most people today -- weren't willing to bring the issue to the attention of, well, anyone, I wasn't shy.  I wrote a horrendously long (surprise!) letter to the editor of the Romance Writer's Report, the organization's newsletter.  My letter was printed not only in its entirety but, contrary to then-current policy, anonymously.  And it sparked a discussion that continued for months, all because aspiring writers wanted -- wanted -- the opinions and comments and critiques from experienced, already-published writers.

To be sure, at that time the term "published" meant that the writer had met certain qualifications in an industry that has now changed to the point that those qualifications are moot.  Anyone can be "published."

But successful writers, those whose books are selling more than a dozen copies to friends and family or whose books are on the permanent Amazon freebie list, know that the only criticism that can help the writer improve is the criticism from people who know how to write.  And while there are some non-writer critics who can provide that, successful writers by definition know how to write.  What aspiring writer in her right mind would turn down the opportunity to get an evaluation from someone with more expertise than she herself has?

Allow me to dig into my personal way-back machine again.  In the mid 1980s, when the contemporary category romance market was booming, I tried my hand writing a couple of them.  The first, titled Magic and Roses, was never sent to any publishers.  I did share it with one of those aforementioned penpals, and she liked it very much.  So much, in fact, that she gave it to one of her  friends who had published several category romance novels.  She did not ask my permission first, and so I was rather stunned to receive the manuscript back covered with extremely harsh criticisms from someone I did not know.  I had not asked for this critique, and I never intended my friend to pass the manuscript around to others.

At the time, I had already sold one novel, so I had a pretty good trust in my basic writing skills, yet many of the comments written on the manuscript called those skills into question.  I quickly recognized that in some aspects -- grammar, word choice, punctuation -- this woman knew less than I did about writing.  I also discovered that some of her questions about the story had already been answered, and this suggested she had not read closely.  (For example, in a scene where the hero and heroine are talking in the garage at his home, my critic had written, "How did they get in the garage?  Is there a door or something?"  In fact, the door to the garage had been mentioned a page or so earlier, plus the hero had said something to the heroine about the car "...and reached into his pocket for the keys while he opened the door to the garage.") 

It would have been easy for me to dismiss all of her criticisms because she had been wrong on a lot of details.  And I won't deny that all her criticisms hurt, not least because they came with absolutely no warning.  But she was also right about a lot of things, elements of the story that as its creator I couldn't see as well as conventions of the contemporary romance market that I was not familiar with.  I determined, based on her comments as well as my own research into the market, that the book was not worth the substantial effort needed to rework it.

I could have relied on my friend's much more encouraging evaluation, but the bottom line was that I needed the truth.  As sincere as my friend was in liking the story, she didn't have the professional expertise to see its flaws.  As painful as the stranger's comments were, and as inaccurate as some of them were, her overall assessment was the more valuable one.

A few years later I wrote another short contemporary romance novel that came close to finding a home at Silhouette Books.  The editor liked the sample and the outline and and loved my writing, so she requested the completed manuscript.  Though she ultimately rejected because of what she perceived as a paranormal element, I felt I had improved vastly from the previous effort.  Needless to say, that hint of the paranormal would not be a problem in today's market, but in the late 1980s it was; maybe I should update this one and publish it?  Maybe?

But I'm getting even more sidetracked than usual, so let's come back to the original subject, which was a search for the balance between doing what's best and/or necessary to make sales of one's product and being honest even if it hurts my sales.

I wrote at the end of the previous part of this monster that my heroes have always been teachers.  I've always looked the critiquing process as a teaching/learning opportunity.  Much of what I post here is an effort, however feeble, to share some of what I've learned with other writers.

But I've also always been conscious of the overall image of the writer, and specifically the romance writer.  Now that there are so many romance novels -- as well as novels in other genres with important romance elements -- being digitally published by their authors, it's almost impossible not to be aware of the negative image many of those books and authors are constructing.  It's amazing to me that 20 years after the publication Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women, all the defenses are still in place.  Not only is it politically incorrect to question the values in romance novels, but it is also politically incorrect for writers to criticize other writers because the quality of the writing, and that includes the content as well as the form, is less important than that the image and perception of women as a monolithic class be maintained. 

There is some really, really, really bad writing out there.  There are some writers who flat out refuse to accept criticism.  There are writers who will label any critic a bully rather than examine their writing in light of the criticism to see if there is any validity at all in it.  I personally find that far more offensive and far more detrimental to the image and reputation of romantic fiction and its writers than an honest review that says, "This book is horribly written and here's why."

I don't believe in astrology, but it does come in handy now and then.  Like now, for instance.  I'm a Libra, so finding that balance is supposed to be important to me.  Even after all these words, even after a lot of thinking and digging into the old records and dredging up some not always pleasant memories, I'm not sure I've found a balance that serves both needs equally.

There's another experience from many years ago that I could tell, but won't, because it's even more painful than the others.  I will only say that when I'm confronted with a choice between honesty that might hurt for a while but do some good in the long run and not hurting someone's feelings even though they could be hurt far more down the road a bit, it's a pretty good bet I'm going to choose the former.

My balance has tilted in favor of honesty.

As a sportswriter for the Chicago Daily News wrote many, many years ago, 'Tis better to be honest and hated than corrupt and despised.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

The words in delicate balance (part 1)

Those of us who put our own products and services into the marketplace no longer, in a sense, have lives of our own.  We are inextricably linked to our products.

This does not mean, as I've blogged before, that we should consider our products -- whether they are novels, paintings, agate pendants, restored classic cars,  or personal accounting services -- living beings that we are as emotionally connected with as we are with our children.  That's not what I'm talking about at all.

I'm referring instead to the idea that if we are trying to sell a product (or service), we have to go into each and every situation in our daily life, whether it is related to that product at all or not, as having a potential for a sale.  Standing in line at the grocery store, waiting to get the oil changed on the car, watching the grandkid's soccer game, chatting online about preparations for approaching bad weather or how to plan a vacation: Any time we are in contact with other people, we could be presented with an opportunity to hawk our product.  Therefore we must always be in salesperson mode.

That's the concept.  And it makes sense.  Sort of.

It's that "always" that bothers me.

If we must always be in that salesperson mode, even when we don't feel like it, have we crossed into some kind of mercenary, maybe even predatory, zone where the sale becomes the only thing that's important?  Is there a point, then, at which we cease to be a self and become only the product?  And if not, then where is the line drawn between the end of self and the beginning of product?

Since this is all very abstract, allow me to offer some examples to illustrate.

Many years ago, an acquaintance of mine became a distributor for Amway products.  She and her husband began going to weekly meetings at which they listened to the Amway sales pitch and were encouraged to use only Amway products.  Over a period of several months, she replaced all her household cleaning products with the Amway brand, as well as many of her personal care products (shampoo, soap, cosmetics) and even clothing items (pantyhose!).  She always had a few samples in her purse, so that no matter where she went, she was always prepared to offer a sample and expound on the merits of the Amway product over any other brand.

In an unguarded private moment with me, she complained about the inferior quality of a particular Amway item compared to the brand she had used for many years.  When I asked her why she didn't just use the other brand if it made her happier, she drew back in horror.  Her personal comfort and satisfaction, she insisted, were far less important than promoting the brand in every way possible, because it was essential to making sales

She stuck with the program for about a year, then became disillusioned when she lost some very good friends over the quality of some of the Amway products.  It wasn't that she constantly pushed the products at them, but rather that she finally admitted she had lied to them about her own experience with the product, telling her friends how wonderful it worked when in fact she didn't think it did.  When she asked her distributor (or whoever her immediate superior in the multi-level marketing plan was) how to handle the loss of the friendships, he told her to forget friends like that and concentrate on selling product. 

Too late, she realized she could have been honest about not liking one product and kept her friendship, through which she might have sold more products.

Honesty is the best (sales) policy.

This past holiday season I sat down and watched Miracle on 34th Street for the first time.  I'm not much of a movie buff, so yeah, I was one of the few people on the planet who had never seen any version of the film.  This was the colorized original, with Edmund Gwyn, Natalie Wood, Maureen O'Hara, and John Payne.  And I knew most of the basic storyline before seeing it.  But putting that notion of always being in selling mode into play, what Kris Kringle did seemed to be counter to Macy's best interest, but of course it developed in totally the other direction:  By sending customers to the rival store, Kringle boosted his own employer's reputation and thus increased their sales as well. 

So when an online discussion among a group of writers turned to whether or not writers should review other writers' books, it's not surprising that there were a variety of opinions.

Some said absolutely not.  No writers should ever review other writers, because the reviews would always be seen as biased.  And because some of them very well might be.  Given what's been seen with reviews on Amazon and increasingly on GoodReads, where authors plot (pun intended) to give each other 5-star reviews, this kind of perceived bias is understandable.  Especially when all too often the authors involved hide behind screen names or don't let anyone know that they are personal friends.  And to be sure there are also the cases of authors who get into the online venues and trash their competition's books. 

Others said they would only post favorable reviews, even if that made them seem dishonest.  They would not post a review at all if they couldn't give the book (based on Amazon's ratings) at least three stars.  Some defended the practice on the basis of general good will and not wanting to trash anything in the marketplace, even though they agreed some of the stuff out there is. . .trash.  But more than one admitted they did not want to suffer any personal backlash.  To paraphrase one, "I don't sell that many books as it is, and I'm not going to jeopardize those sales by antagonizing anyone."  Another went even further than that and confessed she was afraid of being the victim of a revenge review or even being personally stalked by an angry competitor.  Again, to paraphrase: "We've all seen how some of them go after non-writer reviewers who don't like their books; can you imagine what they'd do to someone who was writing the same genre?  No, thank you.  I don't need threatening phone calls at three in the morning or seeing my kids' school pictures posted on some 'I'm gonna get you' blog."

Out of all the writers in this discussion, more than half said they would not review self-published material at all because they read almost none of it anyway.  And they agreed that the choice to limit the type of material they read also limited the possibility of the need to leave a really negative review.  As more than one of them wrote, "Sticking with the tried and true that's been through the standard process pretty much eliminates the real crap."

Some of us -- the vast minority, I might add -- insisted we would continue to review and review honestly even the self-published real crap.  One or two stated that they felt comfortable enough in their professional standing (meaning, sales) to withstand any negative response.  Another modified her claim by saying she did not post lengthy reviews of books she didn't like because she really didn't care enough to, but she didn't hesitate to label them as "DNF" (Did not finish) or something else that indicated she didn't like them.  She, like all of us in this discussion, had experienced some retaliation or at least response from an author of a book she didn't like.

It's not important how many of us there were or who we were.  Although I was not the only one who said I would continue to read self-published work and comment on it, there weren't many of us at all.

In the course of the discussion, I mentioned that I had judged RWA contests for many years and that had kind of thickened my skin for the comments coming back from the unhappy authors.  One other member of this little impromptu group (I know none of them personally) gave a cyber shudder and said she had done that once and never again.  But I laughed and said I'd had both good and bad experiences.

And that reminded me I hadn't completed a comment tossed into one of my earlier posts here on this blog.

Remember when I said (I'll look it up for you later if you don't remember) there was one manuscript in one RWA contest that I scored really high and was the only one that didn't get published?  It's been well over 20 years now, and after a couple years of corresponding with the author, I lost track of her.  I knew she had some difficulties in her real life and I suspect they interfered with her writing, but if by some chance she's out there and by some chance she sees this, maybe this will spark the spark again.

I remember the plot and I remember some of the details of that particular contemporary romance novel.  I hated judging contemporaries because it wasn't my favorite genre to read and so I didn't feel as competent to judge as I did with historicals, but this one I knew was a winner.  If I still had a copy of the manuscript I might be tempted to quote some of it, but since it was never published and I don't have the author's permission, I wouldn't even try, and anyway I don't have it.  But the one scene, in the funky little dive-y bar, where the heroine is trying to drink a frozen strawberry daiquiri from a plastic soft drink glass and the hero watches her struggle to suck the thick, pink slush up the clear straw. . . . .

It was a great story, with great characters in a believable conflict and . . . . that scene. . . . and it still ticks me off that it never got published.

But that online conversation also dredged up another memory from another RWA contest. 

I joined RWA  in the spring of 1984, so I think the first contest I judged in must have been 1985, just before we moved to Arizona.  My packet of five or six single-title romances arrived and I set to work reading them.  Again, this wasn't my chosen sub-genre, but because I was already published in historical romance, I wasn't allowed to judge in that category.  I vaguely remember a couple of the books -- one was by an author I had met briefly but didn't really know -- but one in particular stood out, mainly for its awfulness.  Yes, a published book that was embarrassingly awful.  I had never heard of the author but it was a cinch I was never going to read anything by her again.  Of the books in that batch to judge, I gave Promise Me Tomorrow by Nora Roberts the lowest possible marks.

Over the ensuing 28 or so years, Ms. Roberts has gone on to phenomenal success.  I've met her briefly at a couple of conferences and have had a couple (fairly public) online conversations with her, but I certainly can't say I know her.  But even she has publicly pretty much disavowed that particular book.

I just wish I hadn't been so conscientious and returned the books to the contest coordinator the way we were told to.  Many of the judges didn't, and if I'd been unscrupulous, I'd have a $100 book in library.  Well, nah, probably not.  I really didn't like it and I'd probably have taken it right to the book exchange!

The unfortunate thing is that I've never been able to read Nora Roberts since then.  I've tried.

The fortunate thing is that I doubt Ms. Roberts holds that miserable contest score against me.

And who knows?  Maybe my honest score and comments (I think I made some but I'm not sure) helped Nora Roberts become a better writer. I don't know what other scores Promise Me Tomorrow received in that contest; maybe everyone else told her it was, um, not the best they'd ever seen.  Maybe she took those comments to heart and looked at her work with a reader's eyes and learned something.

Do I take credit for making Nora Roberts what she is today?  (Where's the GIF for laughing my ass off?)  No, not hardly.  But that contest experience combined with Nora's eventual success is just one of the things that keeps me from backing off my criticisms.

Will I risk losing sales of my books?  Oh, of course I will!  I'm not delusional, for crying out loud.  But I still believe that books must sell on their own merits.  If my books are good enough, if they reach an audience (and remember, most of them are 15 to 20 years old, so the market and the audience has changed), they will do well.  But I am in this to be a writer, as I was when I wrote my first novel at the age of 15.  It's the writing that matters to me, and always has.

So yes, I take the risk that when I post a snarky comment about another writer's misspelling it will backfire on sales of my own books.  (And what sales are those, you ask?  I need that lmao GIF again)  But I also take the chance that my honesty will resonate with others, so that when I find a good self-published book, like Trish Albright's The Time Keeper  (except for the ending) or The 19 Dragons by S. M. Reine, that opinion too will be taken seriously.

But my heroes have always been teachers, and maybe that's what I should have been.  Because when I see a book that's not well written, a story that isn't well told, I want to make it better.  I want to help that writer realize her dreams.  Not her dreams of selling lots of copies, but her dreams of telling good stories well.

To be continued. . ..

Saturday, January 12, 2013

"Oops" is a word. Learn to use it wisely.

If you make a mistake -- and you will -- fix it.

If someone else catches your mistake, thank them, admit it, and fix it.

If someone else catches your mistake and you don't think it's a mistake, double check your facts before you defend yourself.

If someone else catches your mistake and you don't think it's a mistake and you don't double check your facts before you defend yourself, be prepared to end up making a complete ass of yourself.

If someone else catches your mistake and you don't think it's a mistake and you don't double check your facts before you defend yourself and you end up making a complete ass of yourself, do not call the person who caught your mistake mean or jealous.  You made a mistake all by yourself.  It's not their fault.

An author was caught in an error here:

And I posted my comment about it here:

A month after I posted that, the author responded:

Down there at the bottom of the screen shot.  Can you see it?  She asks, "Exactly what is misspelled in your quote?"

When another reader, not the reviewer, points out that the word "chieftan" should be spelled "chieftain," rather than admit the mistake, the author goes on the defensive.  The aggressive defensive.

What the author either forgot about or didn't know or was too wrapped up in her embarrassment to pay any attention to was that the commenter might be feeding her comments to her GoodReads friends.  Truth is, I'm not experienced enough with GR to even have thought of that myself right away, and since I don't have many friends or followers anyway, my review and my comments don't spread directly to many other people.
The same can't be said of the people who responded.  They have many, many, many friends and followers.  And they warned the author not to argue.  *I* warned her. 

But she said she wasn't afraid of me, that she had not made a mistake at all, and I was just a jealous, failed author who should have helped her (but it sounds like she doesn't need any help because she hasn't made a mistake and has legions of fans).

So she proceeded to criticize her critic and insist she didn't mind "legitimate" comments. 

But some of those people who had been receiving the feeds from this discussion began putting in their own comments, and asking the author to provide sources for her contentions.  What she first provided were just statements without supporting facts.

In fact, she kept posting more and more and more evidence, and lashed out more and more at her critic.

Of course, the "critique" of her work was so inflammatory that no one responded to it for a month. . . . until she did.

And when her claims didn't satisfy the other people who had joined the conversation -- especially when her final authority seemed to be her own superior knowledge and education -- they began to provide counter evidence.

Of course, that wasn't good enough for her.

Again, the author was warned that she might be doing herself more harm than good.

At this stage of the conversation, other people had joined and begun doing a little more research, research that I had already done and that the author could have -- and should have -- done.  Well, she would  have if she'd admitted from the start that her spelling was an error and that what appeared in other instances to be agreements with her were in fact just other errors.

But the other readers were also warning her yet again that she might be doing herself more harm than good.

And they were noticing, too, that the author was contradicting herself.

It reached the point that even the person who had sort of been defending her -- or at least not defending me! -- came back into the discussion with another warning to the author.

Most of the evidence the author cited to back up her contention was easily proven to be wrong, and she kind of ended up being a classic example of the Streisand effect.  (Hey, that's okay.  I didn't know what it was either, so I looked it up!)

If the author had simply gone to the review and admitted she made a mistake and then took steps to fix it, I probably would have removed the comment entirely.  No one else would ever have known about it.


Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Where often is heard a discouraging word. . . . or ten

On the evening of 7 January 2013, my personal time at the computer was interrupted on several occasions by someone who just had to inform me how accurate were his predictions for the Notre Dame - Alabama Championship Bowl Game (or whatever it's called).  He has been claiming for weeks that Notre Dame would be crushed, that they weren't ready to go up against a real championship program like Alabama's, and that the choice to put Notre Dame in the game was made more on the basis of television market share than anything else.

I don't know for sure about that third claim, but the first was obviously accurate, and that accuracy probably validated the second claim.

So Notre Dame was embarrassed, and they'll no doubt have to put up with the cutting criticism from the sportswriters and fans and armchair quarterbacks and keyboard coaches.

That's what happens when you're not ready for the big game, when you're playing out of your league, when friends and family and people who have a vested interest in it tell you you're better than you are.  You get beaten, and sometimes you get beaten pretty badly.

Some of the Notre Dame supporters may eventually accept some of the reality.  The players will always have the experience of playing in a championship game and thus may not look at with the disinterest needed for objective analysis.  The armchair quarterbacks and keyboard coaches will debate it for a long time, but at least they have the advantage of being able to step back from their own emotional involvement.  (Whether they will actually do so is another matter!)

Approximately 25 years ago, in a moment of financial flushness and impulse, I bought a piano. 

I've wanted to learn how to play piano ever since I was six years old and Donna Braunsreuter next door got an old upright with chipped keys and a tinny sound.  Of course, her parents got her lessons and she stuck with them, and when they decided she was good enough for a better piano, they offered the old one free to my parents if I wanted it.  My mother turned it down, saying "Oh, Linda would never stick with it."  Grrrrr....

We all got music theory at South Junior High School in the early 1960s.  Mrs. Helen Raasch was the teacher, and she put us through learning to read music.  From that basic, I've always been able to kind of figure out how to play certain things on the piano, so when we borrowed my in-laws' old piano for a few years in Indiana before we moved to Arizona, I taught myself a little more and I took a few lessons and I bought a lot of sheet music -- but I never really learned to play the piano because I never had time to practice.

By the time we bought the Kimball in 1988, I hadn't progressed very much, but I still wanted to learn.  I was working, I was writing, I had two kids in junior high, so I was busy.  I started taking lessons from the older sister of my son's best friend, but as before, I had very little time to practice.

My teacher, Jessica, was in high school at the time, but she was an accomplished pianist and had half a dozen or so youngsters she taught.  I was her only adult student.  She helped me with pieces I wanted to play and went over technique with me, but my main problem was that lack of time to practice.  So when she announced she was going to have a recital for all her students, I laughed and declined.  She pressured, and I continued to decline.  She pressured some more, and I declined some more.

What she said to me to persuade me finally to give that recital is forgotten in the mists of time and terror.  I did agree, though reluctantly, and she asked me to play the piece I'd been trying so very hard to learn, a watered-down (pun intended) version of Bedrich Smetana's "The Moldau."  It has always been one of my very favorite pieces of music ever.  But I knew I wasn't ready to perform something that difficult.  No way, no how, not to friends and family and certainly not in front of total strangers.  Jessica pressured, and I gave in. 

There was not, of course, ever enough time to practice.  And even if there had been, my skills weren't up to that level.  Not even close.  So when it came time to sit down at the big grand piano and play for all the assembled family members, I experienced the absolute worst fear ever.  I knew I wasn't ready, and I knew even if no one else recognized how badly I was playing, I knew, and I was embarrassed for myself.

Now, what does all this have to do with writing?

Whether my friend who claims Notre Dame was set up is correct or not, the players still went out there and played the game.   Some of them may go on to professional careers and some may end up coaching other football teams, but they will always be able to say they went to the BCS Championship Game and played.  Unfortunately, that doesn't change the fact that they got beat, and they got beat badly by a better team.

I participated in that recital to please my young teacher, but I knew well in advance that my performance wasn't going to bring her any acclaim, and it certainly wasn't going to be a proud moment for me.  In fact, I was so embarrassed I didn't touch the piano again for years.  I still won't play when there's anyone else around to hear me.  But as one of my friends said after I'd told her about it, "Well, at least you got up there and did it.  How many of us would have done the same?"

Well, there are a lot of people who apparently don't mind getting in front of the public and making fools of themselves on American Idol and whatever else those shows are.  (I can honestly claim that I have never seen even one episode of any of them.)  But most of us know those people have no talent and we laugh at them and we ridicule them and when they're yanked (figuratively) off the stage, we sigh a sigh of relief that they're gone.

And when the sportswriters lambaste the losing teams, regardless what sport, no one jumps in to say they need to be kinder and gentler to the athletes who tried so hard.  They don't win just for trying hard.

Writing a book is no different.  You don't win if you're not good enough.  You don't win if you don't have the skills, if you don't learn the notes, if you don't practice, if you aren't brave enough to admit you need to learn more.

It's not about how hard you try; it's about whether you produce a winning product.

Winning a football game is hard work.  Learning to play the piano takes time and practice.  Not everyone who plays football will make it to the BCS or the SuperBowl, just as not everyone who plays the piano will sell out Lincoln Center.  It doesn't seem to take a rocket scientist's brain to figure that out and accept it as simple, commonsense truth.

Why then is it so difficult for some people to grasp the fact that not every book that's written is going to be a best seller?  That many authors will never sell more than a half dozen copies of their book?  That many of those books will get terrible reviews?

Notre Dame's loss to Alabama was a one-shot event, just like my piano recital.  Over and done with and put in the past.  Oh, there may be videos of the game to linger in posterity, but the game itself is over.  And as far as I know, no one recorded that recital.

When one publishes a book, however, that document goes out into the public.  It stays there, and other people "own" it and can, by virtue of their ownership, make comments about it, just as the sportswriters and bloggers and fans will go on and on about Notre Dame.  It may very well be that some of the players will get hurt feelings when they hear criticisms of their individual play or their team's performance.  But that's what happens when you put your performance in front of the public.

Criticism doesn't mean the critic hates the person being criticized.  It means they found fault with the performance.

Notre Dame doesn't get a do-over on the BCS game.  Alabama won, and that's it.  Too bad, so sad.

I don't get a do-over on that piano recital, and I will never give another one.  I play, rarely to be sure, for my own enjoyment.  I will not put myself or my piano playing on display for anyone else.

The writing is a different matter.  The digital books that are getting eviscerated (I love that word!) for bad grammar and improper formatting and shoddy research can be fixed.  No one hates the authors personally; the readers just aren't happy with the performance.

I can't help the hurt feelings of the authors whose books I review/critique.  I'm only dealing with the text(s) they put out there.  And in virtually every instance, I'm not alone in my criticisms.  So why are people searching my blog with phrases like "Linda Hilton hates _____"?  

I don't hate anyone.  I just think some books aren't very well written.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Words, and rumors of words

To those of  you who may have seen a prior version of this post, my apologies.  I hit the "publish" button when I meant to hit "save."  So what you saw was an inadvertent but incomplete post.

Here goes the whole thing.

It has been brought to my attention that some people -- and they know who they are -- have taken exception to some of my comments, specifically my analyses of their writing and their comparison to other people's writings.  They don't like my opinion.  Well, they're allowed not to like it, but I'm still allowed to have it.

When you write and publish, people read and compare.  It's as simple as that.

Now I know perfectly well that this is not going to sink into the already-made-up minds of those people who know who they are.  Others reading this, however, might actually learn something.

I can understand that a writer would be upset that someone, whether that someone is a reviewer, a reader, a contest judge, another author, or whoever/whatever, doesn't think their writing is stellar.  I can understand it even though I think it's something all writers need to accept as a normal part of the writing life.  But what kind of jerk takes out their frustration, their anger, their spite, their hurt over a negative review on a totally innocent person, a third party who's not even involved?

For the record:  I don't know Courtney Milan.  I've exchanged a couple posts with her on her blog (months and months ago) and  a few on Dear Author and maybe a few other places.  I haven't read a whole bunch of her books.  I don't know her personally at all.   I've never met her in person, never talked to her on the phone, never exchanged an e-mail with her.  So if someone is pissed off at me for not liking their book, why take their rage out on Ms. Milan? 

Who would be so petty, so thin-skinned, so spiteful as to bad mouth Courtney Milan solely because I used one of her books for comparison? 

For the record, I don't think Courtney Milan is the greatest writer on the planet.  Nor, for that matter, do I think I am.  In fact, I don't think any writer is "the greatest."  Too many variables enter the picture to single out anyone.

Spite and juvenile retaliation have no place in the already cut-throat world of digital publishing.  And please note that I didn't qualify that as trad-pub or self-pub.  Readers don't always recognize the difference; all they want is good books to read.

And that's where the discussion should stay -- on the books.

I don't give a rat's behind who likes me and who doesn't.  If I did care, I'd be in a world of hurt, because there are a helluva lotta people who don't like me.  And mostly they don't like me because I'm opinionated, and I don't apologize for it, and I rarely back down.

But y'know what?  Most people have opinions.  I'm perfectly aware of that, and I'm perfectly aware that their opinions may be very different from mine.  I also accept that other people may be just as pig-headedly stubborn in sticking to their opinions in the face of countering evidence as I am.  That's life.

A writer who gets a negative review has a variety of ways to respond.  She can get all upset and angry and throw a tantrum.  She can totally ignore it.  Or she can use the comments in it -- even if she doesn't agree with them -- to write a better book, to prove the reviewer wrong, to sell a bazillion copies and gloat all the way to the bank.

Ultimately, the marketplace will be the decider.  If people like your book and buy it, regardless what the critics think, you have your victory over the naysayers.  If people don't buy your book. . . . . . . . .