Friday, February 22, 2013

Private words, private pain; public words.......

In my previous post, I wrote about the steps many new, digitally self-published writers have skipped on the road between writing and publishing, and how I believe very strongly that the lack of criticism that's gained via critique groups has led many writers to publish works that really are far from ready for publication.  After I had put that blogpost up, I thought of another aspect of that process, and I considered revising the post to include this other point.

I've decided instead to give it its own post.  I think the issue is sufficiently important.

I am somewhat notorious for my DNF reviews of self-published books, and it's not likely that I'm going to change that habit.  A single page is often enough to tell me the writing in the book is so far below standard that my time would be better spent teaching my Australian shepherd to sing "Largo al Factotum."  Unfortunately, any such review is an opinion expressed in public.  A review is not meant for the author; it is meant for other readers.

The author had her chance.  Before she published her novel, she had all the time in the world to make sure it was well written, that her grammar and punctuation were correct, that her plot had no holes, that her research was accurate.  Once she publishes, she in essence certifies that she's done with it.

The reviewer's comments may in fact read like a critique, and those comments may be harshly critical of the writing.  They may be the first critical words the author has received, and if she doesn't have the experience of dealing with criticism, she may react vehemently to them.  If her reaction is extreme and it's in the public arena of an Amazon or Goodreads review, she may become labeled a "badly behaving author."

Which leads me to the purpose of this post: 

A critique group is small and private.  The comments made in it are personal, but they are not public.  No matter how outrageous the author's errors, no matter how poorly written her work is, she does not have to endure the criticism in front of The Whole World.

I've mentioned here before an evaluation given to one of my novels by an author unknown to me and to whom I had not given my consent to critique the book.  I was quite stunned by some of the comments she wrote on the manuscript, and I was outraged that the penpal/critique partner I had shared it with took it upon herself to give the book to someone else.  Regardless, whatever pain, embarrassment, anger, outrage, or other emotions I felt at the time, there were only three people who knew about it.  I could physically rip the manuscript to shreds, burn it, bury it in a dresser drawer, and no one would be the wiser.  I could tell everyone, "Oh, I just decided I didn't like it all that much," and who was to argue with me?  I could lick my wounds in private, then when my pride healed a bit and my anger cooled, I could look at the comments again and see if maybe the critic hadn't had some good points after all.

It's much easier to learn how to deal with criticism if you don't have to deal with it right off the bat in a public place. 

So it's not just that many new writers have never had the kind of constructive, work-in-progress criticism that comes in Steps 2 through 7; it's also that their first taste of criticism comes where they're least prepared to deal with it: in public.   If their friends and family members have given them unconditional support and encouragement, and posted five-star reviews, these authors may be utterly gobsmacked when someone they don't know blurts right out on Amazon something like "This is probably one of the worst written books I ever read.  Do not buy it.  Do not pass Go and do not collect $200.  Just run away from this garbage as fast as you can." 

No one wants to be humiliated in public.  Private humiliation is bad enough, but in public it's even worse, and the temptation to defend oneself is enormous, almost irresistible.  Fortunately, it is very easy to spare yourself the grief of having the book you labored so hard over ripped to pieces by an online reviewer.  If you're a new writer, one who hasn't gone through any form of private, personal critique, do yourself a favor and don't publish your book until you get a truly qualified, independent opinion of your work.  Not a friend, not a family member, not a paid editor.  Someone who is qualified and who has no incentive whatsoever to lie to you.  And get it in a setting where you, your book, the critic's evaluation, and your reaction are all out of public display.  Keep it private.

In this age of instant electronic gratification, many writers may not have the patience to go through the process.  Those who do, however, will probably end up not only with better written books but also with the thicker skin that will allow them to weather the crank reviews, the stupid reviews, the retaliatory reviews with a mere shrug while they go back to writing their next -- and even better! -- book.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

The write words require time

Back in the old days -- by which I mean the 1980s and 1990s -- when the romance fiction market was exploding, writers followed a process that led to enormous success, not only for themselves but also for their readers and their publishers.

I call this a process rather than a formula because the latter word more appropriately applies to the stylistic conventions of each of the various genres and subgenres of popular fiction and most specifically to the subgenres of the romance novel.  But the process of actually writing and then getting published in the romance genre went something like this:

1.  Write the book.
2.  Join Romance Writers of America
3.  Subscribe to Romantic Times.
4.  Share the work-in-progress with fellow writers via some kind of critique group based in either RWA or RT or both.
5.  Revise the work-in-progress based on input from critiques.
6.  Enter the book in RWA contests.
7.  Attend local and national RWA conferences.
8.  Repeat steps 4 through 7 as needed.
9.  Submit manuscript (query, partial, or full ms.) to potential agents and editors.
10. Repeat steps 4 through 9 as needed until the book is sold.

Because most of us writing in the 80s and 90s had been educated in the school systems of the 50s, 60s, and 70s, we had a firm grounding in the basics of spelling and grammar.  Not all of us, mind you, but most.  And that's why there's nothing in the 10-step process for learning how to write.  It was simply taken for granted that the writer knew how to write before Step #1.

And because most of us writing in the 80s and 90s had been long-time readers of popular fiction, we were also osmotically familiar with the basic structure of the novel as a literary form.  The explosion of the romance publishing industry in the 1970s -- it had existed before, but was nowhere near as large or powerful or open to newcomers -- gave us the opportunity to read both extensively and intensively in a genre we were already somewhat familiar with.

Steps 2 through 7, therefore, helped us to fine tune our writing, so that by the time we reached Step 8, we had accomplished two things.  The first, taking our novel from rough/first draft to polished manuscript, could be deemed a complete success if and when we proceeded through Steps 9 and 10 until the book was ultimately purchased by a publisher.  The second accomplishment, however, may have been even more important in terms of our careers than the first:  We learned how to deal with criticism.

For some of us, that second lesson was much more difficult than for others.  And more often than not, those who learned to handle criticism via regular participation in a critique group or frequent contest entries were also those who used that criticism to bring their writing up to publishable standard and ended up with publishing contracts in hand.

Many of those who couldn't handle the criticism, who took everything personally and defended their work as perfect and refused to change a word, who argued with their critique partners or insulted their contest judges, who flew into rages or sank into abject depression in reaction to negative comments, were unable to succeed in a writing career.  I've already detailed some examples from my personal experience of writers who had the talent and skill to write well enough to succeed but who didn't have the emotional fortitude to deal with criticism.

The writer who, in 2013, dashes off her first draft and immediately uploads it to Kindle Direct Publishing or Smashwords has never gone through the process.  She goes immediately from Step 1 to Step 11.  As a result, she has no experience at all of the process.  In fact, she may have virtually no awareness even of its existence. 

Criticism can be cruel.  It can be malicious.  Not all critics are honest.  Not all critics are competent.  Not all critics are fair.  Not all critics are right.  Going through the process toughens up the writer to the inevitable less than glowing review that she'll receive after publication, but it also helps her to improve her craft.

Even a cursory examination of the many self-published novels flooding the digital bookshelves these days is sufficient to suggest -- if not outright confirm -- that many new writers are woefully unprepared for the realities of the marketplace.  Too many of them, to judge by their blogs and reactions to the critical reviews their books receive, fully expected to publish their books and start collecting huge sums of money.  Period.  Write it, publish it, and get paid.  Nothing else.  And they are beyond disappointed when it doesn't happen.  They are personally outraged.

The blockbuster success of certain works of fan fiction that have been altered for mainstream publication (both digital and print) has not helped to mitigate the expectations of these new writers.  If anything, it has heightened their already lofty expectations.  It has also exacerbated the problem of fan fic fans -- those groupies who may or may not be good guides for Steps 2 through 7 that are essential for success.  They may be supporters, even to the extreme point of being enablers, but they almost never help the writer improve her skills.

Being "kind" to the new writers with their poorly produced books will not help them become better writers.  Being cruel to their books, however, may be the only hope they have.

Sadly, many of these new writers take all criticism of their work as personal insults, and once they've fallen into that mindset, there's not much the critic can do except repeat the basics:

Your books are not yourselves, they are not your babies.  Criticism of them is not bullying.  They are indeed a product, like toasters or bicycles, pencils or baseball bats.  The consumer of your product does not care how much or how little time, effort, or love you put into the making of your product; she only cares about whether or not the product functions properly by her personal standards.  If your product does not meet her standards -- regardless whether it meets your own -- she has the right to complain.  And you, who put the product out there, have no right to challenge her.  Absolutely none.

If you, as a new writer, have not learned the lessons of Steps 2 through 7, if you have not learned both how to write and how to deal with criticism, you might want to step back and start learning.  In the end, you will likely not only be much happier, but you will also probably be a much better -- and more successful -- writer.

The rise of digital publishing has allowed so many new authors to enter the marketplace in ways not available when print dominated the industry.  Writers of novellas no longer have to wait for the right anthology to justify a print publisher's bottom line.  Writers for niche markets can be successful without a publisher's investment.  Prolific authors are no longer restricted in the number of books they can publish.  But digital publishing has not eliminated the need for good writing and good writing manners.  Both, unfortunately, take time.

Take the time, and learn to do it write.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Putting the chips where the words are

Books are funny things to sell.  All you really have is imagination in coherent form, like a dream taken out of sleep and into the waking world so you can share the experience with someone else.  But once put into a tangible or at least shareable form -- is digital really "tangible"?? -- the book becomes a product that has to be sold.

Traditional publishers of course have advertising budgets, and they had put print ads in Publisher's Weekly or Time or The Wall Street Journal.  They can book the author on a talk show tour or whatever.  These efforts may catch the reader's attention, but the reader still has to make the effort to buy the book.

At the 1991 Romance Writers of America conference in New Orleans, each attendee received a "goodie bag" upon registration.  Many of the publishers took this opportunity to distribute copies of some of their books, or collections of excerpts or whatever else they thought would serve as effective promotion for their product.  One publisher, however, took it one step further.  Each of the 1600+ attendees of that conference received a free hardcover copy of Diana Gabaldon's debut book Outlander.  Romance novels were just starting to move into hardcover and book club editions at this time, so the readers and writers who attended that conference were impressed that Dell had not only published Outlander in hardcover first, but that they were promoting it so lavishly. 

The book had been published in January and the conference was in July, so maybe Dell just had thousands of unsold copies lying around because it hadn't found an audience.  It wasn't marketed as romance, but maybe someone at Dell decided maybe there was enough of a romance in the story to justify moving it into that market.  At any rate, they gave away a bunch of copies to romance writers and readers.

The rest, as they say, is history.

One of the current schemes for selling books is to tie the sale to a charity, with the author promising to donate a portion of the proceeds to her favorite organization.  There's usually some connection between the material in the book and the issue addressed by the charity, but not always.  And there have been some alleged abuses of this tactic.  Authors have claimed they're making donations to a charity that doesn't exist, or they claim affiliation with an organization that later says they've never heard of that person.  Or the charity demands any links to their group be removed from the author's website.

Not that I think the unethical writers will pay any attention, but for those who do still have some scruples and are reading this, maybe the message will sink in:  Don't try to guilt your potential readers into buying your book.

You might want to take a lesson from my local coffee shop:

Customers who bring in their own cups are offered a choice of a 15-cent discount or paying full price and receiving a poker chip which they can drop into one of three jars.  Three local charities -- one protecting animals, another providing shelter for domestic violence victims, and a third that helps disadvantaged students with school expenses -- receive a check each quarter based on those 15-cent donations.

The shop also sells a variety of coffee and tea cups and carriers to facilitate the bring-your-own, and of course those mugs and bottles are emblazoned with the shop's logo.

This costs the coffee shop nothing.  If they give the customer the 15-cent discount on the price of their drink, that's partly made up by the actual cost of the paper or plastic cup that would have been used.  If the customer pays the full price and takes the donation chip instead, the coffee shop owner gets the charitable donation credit on her taxes.  Sales of mugs and carriers of course generates profit, as does the advertising on them.

The charities, of course, get the direct benefit.

Does the charitable contribution actually bring in traffic?  I don't know.  Probably not.  But it's a measure of the owner's sincerity that the program has continued for over a year, with no signs of stopping. 

So what's the tie-in between the Gecko Espresso coffee shop in Gold Canyon, Arizona, and Outlander?  It's that advertising your charitable donations isn't enough to bring in business.  You've got to have a product that appeals to your target audience first.  Your generosity alone isn't going to bring you customers.

Write a good book.  Write a damn good book.  Then, when it sells, make your donation to charity. 

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Different words for different folks?

Yeah, I know.  It doesn't rhyme.  In a way, that's the point.

My day job involves work for major insurance companies, and about ninety percent of it is auto claims.  I've heard a lot of excuses for why and how people get into accidents, and most of them are pretty much bull shit.  A few weeks ago, however, I worked on a claim that involved a 16-year-old driver in a nighttime rainstorm on an unfamiliar road.

First of all, let me explain that I'm disguising the details lest my employer think I'm revealing any confidential information.  I'm not.

Second of all, let me assure all readers that the claim in question did not involve any injuries to any parties.

Here's what happened:  The inexperienced driver was on a two-lane road he'd never driven before.  The posted speed limit was 35, but the left hand curve warning sign included a 25 mile an hour limit.  Caught in heavy rain in the dark and with all his attention focused just on seeing the road in front of him, he didn't see the warning sign.  When he saw the guard rail reflectors directly in front and realized he was heading into the curve, he turned the wheel too sharply and veered across the double yellow line into the other lane. 

The driver of an oncoming vehicle in the other lane was traveling extra slowly because of conditions and also because he had seen the approaching headlights.  Experience told him it was quite possible that someone might not see the warning sign or might be driving too fast or might not have their car completely under control.  When he noticed that the approaching car had in fact gone into his lane and was now coming toward him head on, he was able to slow even more and safely turn to the right, thus avoiding a direct hit. 

Both cars sustained substantial damage, with the young driver's vehicle having to be towed from the scene.  He was also given several traffic citations, among them driving too fast for conditions and crossing the double yellow line.  As a result of the multiple violations, his license was suspended until he completes a state-mandated driver education course, and he will not be allowed to drive without another adult driver in the car with him until he reaches the age of 17.  Any subsequent violation will result in automatic revocation of his license until age 18. 

The young driver and his father did not dispute the facts surrounding the accident.  Both of them admitted that he was driving the speed limit of 35 miles an hour, and that such a limit applies to optimum conditions which was not the case at the time of the accident.  Both of them admitted that had he been driving slower he might have seen the curve warning sign and been able to slow down sooner.  Both of them admitted he lost control and didn't have sufficient experience to regain control in a timely fashion.  Both of them admitted he panicked and stepped on the gas rather than the brake at the last second, which sent his vehicle into the other at an even higher rate of speed.

So what's the point?  They're admitting it was his fault, right?

Actually, no, they're not.  Both of them said that the 16 year old driver with barely three month's driving experience should not be held to the same standards of driving safety as the more experienced driver and therefore he's not to blame.

The claim representative, however, points out that other drivers on the road would have no way of knowing that.  The young driver is granted exactly the same driving privileges as other drivers, so why should he not be held to the same driving standards?

To (sort of) quote the father:  "The citation was for driving too fast for conditions.  But he's only been driving for three months and this is the first time he's ever driven in the rain.  How is he supposed to know what's too fast for conditions?"

To quote the claim rep:  "If he doesn't know how to drive in the existing conditions, he shouldn't be driving in them."

To quote me:  "ARGH!"

With privileges, of course, some responsibilities, and I don't think anyone would argue that point.  Nor would most people argue that putting an inexperienced driver behind the wheel of a full-sized automobile is much more dangerous than publishing an unedited manuscript on Amazon or Smashwords. 

But being an inexperienced writer does not excuse one when readers complain about the shoddy product.  The reader who invests her money and her time reading your book deserves a quality product.

If you think it's okay to put your unedited manuscript out there with all the other books but that it should receive special consideration because you're a new writer without any experience and you really aren't sure if your grammar and spelling are as good as that of a professional writer and you can't afford to hire a professional proofreader or editor, then I recommend  you attach a disclaimer to your book's listing.  Something along the lines of: "This book may contain spelling, grammar, and formatting errors.  The author is not a professional and did not hire a professional editor.  Read at your own risk and don't complain."

Many independent or self-publishing writers who receive negative reviews believe they should be held to a different -- and much lower -- standard than anyone else.  But there are independent and self-publishing authors who do care about their work, who do make sure the spelling and grammar are correct, who do pay attention to factual accuracy and internal consistency.  Unfortunately, they don't have an independent rating system to certify their work as "professional."  Is it fair for them to be tarred with the same brush as those authors who can't even correctly spell the words in their book's Amazon description or use the correct verb tense?

Independent and self-publishing writers are driving on the same roads and highways as the traditionally published best sellers.  If they don't want to end up in the ditch, they need to learn the rules of the road.

Friday, February 1, 2013

The words in delicate balance, part 3


I wrote Part 1 and Part 2, and I had pretty much made up my mind how I was going to approach my personal dilemma regarding reviews.  Not that it was really all that difficult a choice; the whole thing was more a little thinking aloud to make sure I hadn't overlooked anything important enough to make me change my mind.

After that, I was prepared to resume what passes for my normal life.  It wasn't quite that simple.

Let me start with the onset of panic.

One of my long-time non-writing online buddies read Part 1 and Part 2, and she sent me an email.  She warned me against being too honest, because it can be dangerous.  "Are you crazy?  Some of those people can go a little nuts when you don't tell them what they want to hear, or do tell them what they don't want to hear," she wrote.  "Sometimes they go real nuts."

The panic was hers, not mine.

To be sure, not all the reaction has been, shall we say, positive.

But to say that the backlash has begun is not at all true.  The backlash against honesty started a long time ago, and it has pervaded our culture so thoroughly that virtually every coffee shop these days is likely to have at least one conversation dominated by defenders of Lance Armstrong's career of lies.  Yeah, really.

Nor am I personally unfamiliar with the more negative, even hostile reactions.  Because this blog is about my resurrected writing career, I've decided to dig deeper into that personal history book, not so much to enlighten you, dear blog reader, but to refamiliarize myself with a few details.  I may have identified my particular balance point, but it's sometimes a slightly unsteady balance.

The backlash against my personal honesty -- at least in terms of writing -- started in the mid-1980s, when I dared to tell one of my penpals that her novel-in-progress had some rather significant plot holes.  We had been swapping a few chapters at a time, back and forth through the USPS, offering suggestions and criticisms.  Mostly we were positive, and the good goddess knows neither of us was anything of an expert.  My infallible guide in those days was Larry Block's Writing the Novel from Plot to Print along with selected magazine articles.  So when I found what I thought were some pretty big plot holes, I made sure I pointed her toward what I thought would be Larry Block's advice.

My penpal was not happy with my comments.  In a series of unpleasant letters, she lashed out at my daring to criticize her, but then changed virtually everything I'd recommended.  When I mentioned to her that I was glad to see she had revised it and I thought it would probably sell as result of those changes, she denied having changed anything on the basis of any suggestions I'd made.  I thought her reaction was a bit odd, but I didn't really get upset about it.  When in fact the book did sell -- to the same publisher and editor who had bought my first book just a few months before -- again my input was dismissed.  Well, okay, fine.  I mean back in those days we were all eager to sell and I hadn't really learned how rotten people could be.  Yeah, okay, she had asked me if it would be all right for her to send her manuscript to the same editor, and yeah, I had said sure, why not, we're all in this together, and I had given her the editor's name.  So why would she deny she had done it?  Or why insist that even if I had given her the information, she could have gotten it elsewhere?  Indeed, she could have.  So why did she ask me?  Did she include my name in her cover letter, suggesting that I had recommended her?  (Long before there was doc-dropping there was name-dropping.)

I don't know.

Thinking back on that experience isn't something I enjoy doing.  It's painful to feel you've been used by a friend, and I admit that I've always been a kind of obnoxious person who hasn't had many friends, so the betrayal was especially bitter.  Unfortunately, it got worse. 


Although she'd been offered a contract, she delayed accepting and signing because her book was a finalist in a major writing contest open only to unpublished writers, and she hoped that if she won, she could negotiate more money.  Well, she did win, but she didn't get much more money.  What she did get was an agent who, when I attempted to congratulate my "friend" on her triumph, physically turned her away from me and said to her, quite clearly to make sure I heard every word, "Dear, you don't need to associate with people like her any more.  You're going places."

Was I hurt?  Was I stunned? 

Do you really have to ask?

Did she go places?

She didn't. 

For reasons I was never really able to understand, she proceeded to tell several of our mutual friends that I was jealous.  And mean.  And that I had tried to sabotage her book.  (How I would have or even could  have done this, I don't know.)  They stopped speaking to me, and I didn't know why.  In fact, I didn't find out why until several years later.  All I knew was that a lot of people I'd been friends with suddenly wouldn't answer my letters.

Why didn't I confront her?  Well, in part it was because I didn't even know what she was doing, at least not in terms of what she had told mutual friends.  Also it was because I'd been so shocked that I didn't believe she really had done it.  There was also the part of me that believed somehow it was my fault or I deserved it or . . . . something.  But the ultimate answer then and now is a simple I don't know.  Even if I had, what would I have said?

Yet even after all this, even after she had told other people not to communicate with me, she continued to do so and even asked for my advice again, on another book she was writing.  I warned her that I would have to be honest, because I just couldn't be anything else.  Her agent -- yes, the same agent -- was giving her a hard time about this follow-up book and she wanted my opinion.  And when she didn't like my opinion, she had another meltdown. 

At that point I recognized that it would be a waste of time to ever offer her my opinion again, and in fact I never did.

Somewhere during all this drama was when I mailed her a copy of my contemporary romance, detailed in a previous blog post.  After telling me how much she liked it, she handed it off to a friend of hers without so much as informing me, let alone asking my permission.   Was it before she asked for the second critique?  After?  I don't remember now.  And maybe I took some of the comments her friend had written on my book as a kind of retaliation-by-proxy.  Did I believe I deserved it?  I guess maybe I did.

But through all this, the fact remained that my suggestions may have helped her sell her first book, and the second book that I said had huge plot holes never did get published.  Not even her snotty agent, who had told her "you're going places" was able to sell it.  After the publication of just a few more books, and dismal sales on all of them, this friend pretty much disappeared from the writing scene.  I have no idea where she is now. 

I relate this story to illustrate that from very early in my writing career, I had experienced the backlash that comes from an honest but  negative critique/review.

Similar things happened when RWA contestants bewailed the low scores I gave their manuscripts.  I was accused, in letters that I have in my files to this day, of taking out my frustration on the poor, innocent unpublished writers who just wanted to get published.  For some reason or other I was never able to figure out how my personal frustrations became their poor grammar or inconsistent characterization or lack of dramatic conflict.  They rarely challenged my assessments; they just didn't like my honesty.

Because it hurt.

And it wasn't just the big national contests that earned me the nasty responses.  

In one case involving an individual RWA chapter contest, I was accused of changing the scores on the manuscript that ended up winning.  The problem was that I was only one judge out of three and I had no idea who the other judges were or what the scores were on the entries I hadn't judged.  I wasn't the person who kept track of the scores either, yet she was my accuser!  Kinda hard to manipulate what I couldn't even access.  Even harder when I found out the person leveling the accusation had in fact changed the very scores she accused me of changing!

Of course, in that little fiasco, I made the mistake of trying to defend myself, and while others involved in the situation admitted I was in the right and my accuser was in the wrong, guess who they stood up for?  Well, let's just say they didn't stand up for me.

Why?  Why did any of them do it?  Was it because, as one of the chapter members told me, I was the most active published author in the chapter and therefore it was my fault none of the unpublished members had become published?  Were there personal animosities because I had given a negative critique to a friend of my accuser?  Were they jealous of my tiny bit of writing success?

Some of the writers involved in that little bit of nastiness are still active in the writing game -- some trad published but most self-published digitally -- so I won't post any details that might lead to their being identified, but I will say that that experience, even more than the initial betrayal by my award-winning friend, stunned me to the point of at least a partial withdrawal from the contest judging arena.  I'd had enough.

Even while some RWA members were writing letters to the editor decrying the lack of qualifications for contest judges and expressing their desire for honest critiques from published authors, others bitched and moaned about their low scores and the meanness of the judges.

"Bullying" wasn't a buzz word in the 1980s and 1990s.  Then the word was "jealousy," which hasn't gone away.  Jealousy provided a convenient motivation for just about any nefarious act.  Unpublished writers were jealous of published writers.  Published writers were jealous of individual authors for their stories; fear of story theft by a contest judge was voiced often.  And of course the sad truth was that many of the stories we judges saw in the RWA contests were nothing to be jealous of.

There was no way, it seemed, for the published author -- who might actually know something about writing -- to win in this battle.  Many published authors in RWA simply refused to participate as judges because they feared the backlash, either to their careers or to their personal lives.  I can't say I blamed them, and then finally I joined them.

But then there were the critique groups.

The dynamic in a critique group is very different from judging a contest entry, and because of the various formats a critique can take, the reactions can be different, too.  Whether the material at a critique group is read aloud or taken home for advance reading and commenting, the response to criticism can be stiff and minimally polite, or openly hostile, or enthusiastically grateful.  I experienced all of those, and I also experienced vicious retaliatory spite that led to some of the most malicious treatment I've ever received from fellow writers.

Imagine this scenario, if you will.  A member of your RWA chapter, whose manuscript you read in progress and offered suggestions on, sells her first book.  The entire membership, which is 95% unpublished, is overjoyed that one of their own has made it.  A year later, when the book is finally in print, the chapter arranges to host a book-signing at the local mall on the same evening as the regular monthly meeting.  Yes, dear readers, this is in the days before the big stand-alone stores.  The chapter member in charge of arranging the event invites the only other two published members of the group to join the newly published.  I was one of those two.  I was asked to contact the bookstore and give the manager the details -- title, publisher, ISBN -- of my books so the store would have a sufficient supply on hand.  I did so, talking directly with the store manager.

By the time this happened, in the early 1990s, the online writing communities had begun to flourish, and via the Prodigy network I had established a casual friendship with another writer in another state.  When I told her about the book signing, she telephoned the store where it was to be held and purchased copies of two of my books.  She left detailed instructions with the store manager on which books, who they were to be signed for, and how to send them to her.  She had paid for the books and the shipping via credit card.  I had no idea she was going to do this; she only told me about it after she had made sure all the arrangements were finalized.  She had had enough experience with long-distance purchasing to know the store manager might forget or the right clerk might not be working that night. 

The chapter member in charge of the event kept in touch with me to confirm the time and other details.  The third  author included in the book-signing had also contacted me to get exact driving directions to the location, as she wasn't entirely familiar with it.

With all these advance preparations and with all these confirmations of preparations from various people involved, you'd wonder how anything could go wrong, and if anything could, what would it possibly be?

I arrived at the mall with a friend -- also a member of the chapter -- and we grabbed a bite to eat before the booksigning.  Then, well in advance of the actual event, we strolled to the bookstore where a lovely table had been set up with lovely stacks of the books by the newly-published author and. . . . the other published member of our chapter.  There were two vases with rosebuds, two name signs.  There was nothing for me.  Not my books.  Not a name tent.  Not a vase with a fucking rosebud.

To say I was a bit disconcerted would be putting it mildly.  I was hurt and angry and devastatingly embarrassed that I had to go into the store and ask what the heck was going on.  When questioned, the store manager rather rudely told me she had been informed that I would not be attending.  She had already sent all copies of my books back to the warehouse.  When I asked her about the copies I was supposed to sign for my friend, she said she thought those might still be behind the counter since they were paid for.

The friend who had accompanied me to the meeting and I were able to salvage the evening by finding copies of my books that hadn't been sent back to the warehouse and a more helpful store clerk made another name sign and few of the other members of our chapter ever suspected that the night was almost a disaster . . . . or at least a disaster for me.

Of course, one of those other members knew.  It took a little time, and a lot of heartache, but I did learn who had called the store and told them that I wouldn't be there:  The newly published author.  Why?  Why would someone do something so cruel?  I never did find out the answer to that one.  I did learn that once again, people I had thought were my friends were not.  And of course, by the time I discovered who had done it, her anger at me had festered. 

Shall I go on?  Are you tired yet of my tale of woe, my bitching about the meanies who didn't like my meaniness?  Shall I tell you of the Big Name Author who joined me and my husband for a casual dinner at a conference I had chaired, laughed and joked and drank wine with us for several hours, and then the very next morning lied about me to my friends, accused me of refusing to grant her a special, unscheduled workshop at this conference, even though she had never asked me?  Why?  I had never done anything to her.  Never critiqued her manuscripts, never reviewed her books, nothing.  She had no authority to demand a platform to speak at an RWA chapter's conference, but she never even asked! 

Why?  Why would anyone do something like that?  There was no reason for her to be jealous of me; she was a best-selling author, had won numerous awards, was liked and respected by a whole lot of people.  I had read some of her books and I had enjoyed them.  Because of the type of conference this was and the location it was held, a bunch of us had gone to a nearby supermarket and bought deli stuff to take back to the hotel that evening, and she invited herself to join us.  She was welcomed eagerly, and she spent several hours with two or three other writers, myself and my husband.  We sat on the floor around a coffee table in our hotel room and ate sandwiches and chips, laughed and talked and got a little drunk.

The next morning she spread lies about me that haunted me the rest of the time I was in RWA.
I never really found out why she did it.  Hurt, angry, confused, I didn't pursue the issue.  When I asked other friends why they hadn't set her straight, I got the usual answer:  They didn't want to hurt her feelings by pointing out how wrong she was.  And what about my  feelings?  Oh, I was strong, they told me, and I'd get over it.

I didn't.

Some of you reading this now may recall that I posted on a private forum in a discussion of a somewhat related topic, "I rarely forget, and I almost never forgive."

I have not forgotten any of those events, nor have I forgiven any of those people, published or unpublished.   And there are many more examples.  I seem to have a big red target painted on me that says "This person is strong and smart and can take your abuse.  Abuse her to your heart's content."

They seemed to think that if you're strong it doesn't hurt.

It does.

In the course of the 15 or so years I was active in critique groups, I saw some pretty pretty awful stuff.  Sometimes writers didn't stay in the group after a first brutal critique; sometimes they stayed only long enough to retaliate.  Some couldn't handle even the slightest criticism.  But there is another aspect of critique groups that often isn't explored in a post mortem.  It's not just the members who can't handle receiving a critique that cause a group to collapse; it's also those who don't know how to give one.

In my last group, in the early 1990s, I was sharing chapters of one of the books that eventually was published by Zebra.  Our standard procedure was to distribute copies of the material at one meeting, then it would all be taken home for reading and mark-up, to be discussed at the next meeting, when another batch would be handed out.  This sometimes caused problems if errors were noted that affected the next section that had already been distributed, but we seemed to work around that fairly well. 

One of the members, whom I shall call Jane for the sake of this discussion, was sharing her work-in-progress which was a very poorly written historical romance.  The book featured two heroines, the classic "identical cousins" named Joanna and Jeanne.  After reading only a few pages, we all recognized that both characters should really have been named "Mary Sue," since they were very thinly disguised avatars of the author herself.  One was the absolutely perfect, absolutely lovely, absolutely saintly person that the author so often said she personally wanted to be; the other was the much abused, imperfect but trying to be good person the author apparently saw herself as in real life. 

The obviousness of the Mary Sue situation and the defensive posture of the author in the face of any criticism had us all backing off.  In one scene in a convent, one of the heroines is reciting a prayer she had composed .  The author got the Latin wrong, which I recognized from my one year of high school Latin.  I looked up the correct Latin and marked it on the copy of the manuscript.  Even confronted with the evidence, and having no evidence to support her own contention, the author insisted she had not made an error.  She, after all, had gone to Catholic schools and was herself a devout Catholic (never mind that pesky divorce thing) and knew better than someone who looked it up in a Latin text book. 

Understand that this prayer was not a memorized prayer from church ritual that may indeed have contained incorrect Latin but still have been been "correct" according to canon.  This was something the character had written herself based on her own convent instruction in Latin.  Jane, who had never actually studied Latin or taken a course in it, had made up the prayer by taking words from her missal.  They were, like, really really wrong.

But the point that really came from the event was we all knew now criticism of Jane's work was therefore off the table.   We knew she would take everything personally, because she had written herself so thoroughly into the book.  The wider effect, however, was that everyone began to pull back on all other critiques.  Jane's aggressive defensiveness set a precedent.  The next writer who received pointed criticism jumped to her own defense, and even though she was every bit as wrong as Jane had been, the others acquiesced. 

To test a theory I developed about this, I deliberately put a huge glaring error in the next installment of the book I was bringing to the group.  If I remember correctly now -- this was roughly 20 years ago, you understand -- the error involved a character dressing in explicitly described clothing in one scene and later removing very different explicitly described clothing.  I wanted to see if anyone would catch the error and, if so, what would they say.

Some caught it, some didn't, but no one said a single word.  When I asked them afterward -- I explained that I had caught the error after distributing the copies; I never told them I'd done it deliberately -- why they said nothing, the responses fell into two types:  In the first case either they thought that because I was a published author I wouldn't make such a mistake and therefore it couldn't actually be a mistake, or they thought I had done it intentionally for some published-author reason unknown to them and therefore it wasn't a mistake.  In the second type were those who didn't say anything because they feared that if they said something negative about my work, I would retaliate and say something negative about theirs, so that by saying nothing about mine, they were trying to guarantee that I wouldn't say anything about theirs.  Of course, in the two years or so that the group had been in existence, I had never engaged in retaliatory critiques, but that apparently was lost on them.

The group disbanded very shortly after that.   What had happened was that they were no longer critiquing the books, they were critiquing (or not critiquing) the writer.  A critique group that can't be honest about the writing, that deliberately pulls its punches, is worthless.

I still have some of the manuscripts from those groups, however, and over the past few months I've looked at some of them.  Oh, dear goodness, but some of them are so, so, so poorly written.  They make me feel sorry for the characters who are trapped in such inane dialogue and pointless actions.  I have more sympathy/empathy toward them than I do their authors.

When I left fiction writing in the mid 1990s, I thought I had put all that stuff behind me.  I worked my little jobs and dealt with the grief over my writing career, and then suddenly in 1998 I went back to college.  I pretty much knew nothing about writing academic papers, but at least I knew how to write. 

During my first semester I took a literature course in which we had to read and  analyze a specific category of novels.  They certainly weren't the popular fiction romances I was used to, but I recognized various elements as similar.  I was able to analyze them on that basis, even if it wasn't quite the basis the professor was looking for.  My first paper earned me a B, but with a lot of notations on it and a request that I rewrite the paper according to the suggested changes.  As I really hadn't known what I was doing with the first attempt in terms of academic writing, the professor's comments made perfect sense and I felt I now understood where I had gone "wrong."  I rewrote the paper and got an A.  That much didn't surprise me.

What surprised me were the comments that came with subsequent assignments in that class as well as others.  Not the comments written on my papers but on the papers of my classmates.  Most of them were 20, 25 years younger than I, were coming from an uninterrupted academic experience (they hadn't dropped out for a quarter century) and were familiar with the conventions of academic papers.  As the professors handed assignments back, I could see "bloody" papers going to the other students, pages covered with red ink, scarlet paragraphs written in margins and on the back and sometimes even over the printed text.

Mine never looked like that.  Oh, to be sure there were often short comments written in the margins or questions asked toward clarifying a point I'd made, but my papers didn't come back to me with more written on them by the professor than I'd put in the text.

Being a new student, and an older, returning student, I didn't have the confidence to approach a professor and ask what the hell was going on.  Besides, I was getting almost straight A's, so I really didn't need to be concerned.  After several weeks, when I did feel more comfortable in my new role as student, I broached the subject to one of my instructors, one who had consistently given my papers approving comments and even little smiley faces (yes, she did!) in the margins.

She chuckled, and her reply was something along these lines:  "Linda, you know you can write.  I don't know what your background is or where you learned it, but even if you don't have the academic background some of these kids have, at least you can express yourself and your ideas in a way that someone else can understand you.  Half the time these other people don't even know what they're writing about.  They put words on paper and think that's enough.  When I read one of your papers, I never have to stop and try to figure out what you've said."

A semester or so later, in another class, we had an exam that included a number of essay-type questions.  After the tests had been graded, but before they'd been handed back to us, the instructor put several of them on the overhead projector to show the rest of the class what an "A" answer looked like and what an "F" answer looked like.  I wasn't really surprised to see one of mine exhibited as an "A" answer; by that time I was in my second or third semester and had developed some confidence in my writing ability in this different form.  But when my second and third answers were displayed, and there were whispered comments around me regarding the now-familiar handwriting, I started to squirm a bit.  Afterward, I asked the instructor if she could please not display all my responses.  She laughed and said, "But yours are such perfect examples.   All of them should be writing like this."

In another class, an assignment intrigued me to the point that I surpassed the three-page length required by several pages.  I think I actually turned in about 15 pages, along with an apology to the professor for my wordiness.  The paper came back with the notation, "Reading your 15 pages was a lot easier and more enjoyable than reading 3 pages from most of the others."

In another class, the professor quite literally berated the students who had received low marks on a paper, telling them she was appalled that any institution of higher learning had produced students with such poor thinking and writing skills.  She hadn't handed the papers back yet, and so most of us were terrified of what we'd see when she did.  Maybe I shouldn't have worried, but I did, and yet mine came back with only a few minor comments.  Though the professor hadn't held up the papers for display or put them on the overhead projector, it was impossible not to notice some of the worst cases of "bleeding" paper, or to notice the few that were clean, including mine.

Two students left the class in tears.  One of them came up to me afterward and asked me what I had done to avoid the professor's wrath.  How could I tell her that the key to getting back clean papers was to write well?  My grades had little or nothing to do with whether the instructors liked me; I just knew how to write.

One of my last classes in graduate school was one of those "thinking" classes, as I called them, where the emphasis was more on analyzing ideas and concepts and putting them together in different ways.  The professor encouraged us to write papers that pushed the envelope, that looked at the issues from different perspectives, that took us out of our comfort zones and maybe did the same for her.  We weren't held to the standard format of the academic paper.  We were told be creative, inventive, innovative.  Mostly we weren't.

Toward the end of the semester, when we were supposed to be synthesizing everything we'd explored already, I wrote a paper that wasn't a paper at all.  It was short story.  I'm not a short story writer, but this one just kind of came to me in a flash.

Each of our writing assignments included a list of specific concepts or concerns or questions that had been raised in our reading assignments, such as conflicts between technology and industry, or whether ethics could be relative.   Our grade was based not only how well we addressed these issues, but how many of them from the list -- which differed for each assignment -- we were able to incorporate in a cohesive narrative.  What intrigued me as I wrote the story, fleshed it out from that initial inspiration, was how perfectly all of the items on that assignment's list fit into the tale.

But was a short story, pure fiction, an appropriate paper for an academic situation?  When I handed the finished paper to the professor, I told her that it was very different, and maybe it was too different to fit in her guidelines.  If so, I was prepared to write another, more traditional paper, but it was up to her.  I wouldn't say anything more.

At the next class meeting, she handed back the graded papers.  "This is amazing!"  she had written on mine.

"So, it was okay?" I asked somewhat timidly.

"It was wonderful!  It's exactly what I meant by trying something different.  You really need to get this published."

Later, she told me that she had read the story while she and her husband were watching television and she kept interrupting the program to exclaim over the writing.  What amazed her was that she couldn't imagine how I was going to weave all those assigned issues into the story . . . and yet I did.

I know this blog post has gone way off onto tangents.  It was intended to.  And it's a very self-centered one, painting a portrait of the writer as abused critic and smug academic.  And there's a reason for it.

I recognize that I am in an unusual position.  Not unique, for I'm sure there are many others like me, but different enough to have a special perspective.  As a published author from the old days, when we really had to compete -- often directly against each other -- to be published and had to produce work that met accepted standards before it was published, I have credentials.  Regardless what my ultimate sales figures were (because some of the responsibility for that in those days rested with the publisher, not with me), I had reached the benchmark of success, which was print publication by royalty paying publishers.

I've also been the victim of retaliatory criticism.  I know what it feels like, and I also know it's counter-productive.  I have absolutely no reason to engage in it, no desire to do so. 

I no longer have to prove anything to anyone.  I proved myself to myself and that's all that matters to me.

Nor do I have any reason to be jealous.  In fact, I find that being accused of jealousy is both laughable and insulting.  Why in the name of all that's sacred would I be jealous of someone who can't write?  Even more, why would I be jealous of someone whose self-published books aren't selling?  Anyone can offer a book for free and get lots of digital downloads.  But sales figures are actually obtainable, and they don't lie.  Folks, those books you're claiming you sold 10,000 copies of?  The evidence strongly suggests you sold fewer than a dozen.

Nor do I appreciate the accusations that my reviews and criticisms are attempts to harm someone else's writing career.  To begin with, I don't have that kind of power.  Really, no individual does, unless that individual is the author.  Good books will sell, and bad books won't.  My silence won't help bad books.  The silence of all the reviewers who would post negative reviews won't sell bad books.

Nor will the lies of the authors.

After writing and posting Parts 1 and 2, I came under attack from an unhappy author and her sock puppets and supporters.  I use that word "attack" tongue in cheek because the whiny words of an outraged author do not inflict mortal wounds. 

As I wrote in my review on GoodReads, authors are entitled to promote their books.  They are not permitted, under GoodReads' Terms of Service, to set up fake accounts to rate and review those books multiple times.  There was substantial evidence that this author had done that.  In the body of the review I made it very clear that the tactic had been identified and reported to GoodReads.  The author and her friends and family and sock puppets excoriated me, claiming she had done nothing wrong, was an honorable person who didn't lie, blah blah blah.  If you're a regular reader of this blog, of the BBA threads on Amazon, of the BBA threads on GoodReads, or are just generally aware of the tempests brewed by this type of author when hit by a bad review, you know what I'm talking about.

She -- and her friends, family, and socks -- then took the most drastic action they possibly could, which I'm sure they believed would have me quaking in my flip flops.  (I don't wear boots.  Period.  I even avoid the aforementioned flip flips as much as possible.) 

Horror of horrors, they one-starred all my books.

The thing is, I couldn't care less if I tried.  Other people might not believe it or agree with it, but it's the truth.  I sincerely believe my books, like anyone else's, will sell if they're good, if they're good in the opinion of the people who want to read that type of book.  I don't believe bad reviews or one-star ratings will hurt my sales, nor do I believe pumped up reviews from friends, family, sock puppets and shills will boost my sales in the long term.

So sorry to deflate your bubble, folks, but all those one-star ratings didn't cause me to shed a tear, lose a moment's sleep, or do much more than shake my head at your stupidity.  And yes, I have even told people, right there in the discussion on GoodReads, that I'd really rather not have fake five-star ratings.  They make me look bad.

And now we come to the crux of the whole thing.  Finally.  After this long journey.

I received an email from someone -- I do not know her name, and in fact I'm only assuming a female identity for her -- who was outraged that someone, anyone, would be so petty as to one-star my books just because I'd pointed out how badly written their book was.  My secret defender offered to one-star all of their books, down-vote all their reviews, and basically avenge the stupid shit they'd done to me.

Her email had me in tears.  I had forgotten that what I considered a juvenile and unproductive exchange between myself and a butthurt author could have much wider implications. 

Especially on GoodReads, where the "friends" and "followers" of those who post a review or comment on another's review will also see the review and the comments, words have a way of spreading.  We don't always know who will read them or how they will react.

Reviews are for readers.  Some of those readers may also be writers.  They may be the author of the book being reviewed, they may be her friend or her son or her mother.  They may be her enemy.  They may be competing against her for a contest prize or for Amazon sales.

Regardless who those readers are or what they are, the reviewer owes them all the same thing:  Her honesty.  Nothing more, nothing less.

As a reader, as a writer, as a reviewer, as a human being, I have nothing if I do not have my integrity.  My books may be targeted by all the one-star reviewers on GoodReads, but that won't stop me.  Will that self-respect be cold comfort when my books don't sell?  Not all all; the two issues are not related, except in the sense that I must put that same integrity into my writing as I do my reviewing.

So here's the last warning to you all:  I will pull no punches.  I will sugar coat nothing.  And if you think threats of doxing or one-starring will change that, then you got another think coming.