Saturday, March 23, 2013

As the words change. . . . and stay the same: Legacy of Honor

There is a temptation, when preparing a work for republication many years after its debut, to alter it and make it more suitable for the present day's audience. Some authors have done this as they've put their older print books into digital format, and the reviews seem to have been rather mixed.  Some readers preferred that the books stay the same as they remembered them from earlier editions.  But certainly authors have a right to try to reach newer readers who might not find those old 1970s and 1980s tropes quite as attractive.

When I republished Firefly, I did make some changes from the version that had been print published in 1988.  Most of those changes were along the lines of restoring elements that had been removed from the original.  My digital files predated most of the editorial changes that had been made for publication, and so the 2012 edition was actually closer to the 1980s original rather than "updated."

There wasn't anything about Firefly that would have been considered politically incorrect by today's standards anyway; if anything, the original contained material that was deleted as objectionable then which would not draw a comment today.

Secrets to Surrender (the digital version of Desire's Slave) and Shadows by Starlight (formerly Starlight Seduction) were virtually unchanged from their print editions except for minor clean-ups; story and content and style remained.  In both of those books, a reader would really have to sit down with the new and old versions side by side for a page by page comparison to find the changes.

With Legacy of Honor, which was my first published novel, the question I face going into a digital republication is a quite different, for a number of reasons.

Written over a period of roughly two years between 1980 and 1982, Legacy endured rejections by most of the major paperback publishers before finally being contracted by Leisure Books/Dorchester Publishing in 1984.  I trimmed the text from an unwieldy 250,000 words in the original version to approximately 200,000 for the complete version Leisure requested after seeing a sample, and that was the version contracted.  There were no editorial requests for revisions.  Editor Jane Thornton did require that I make additional reductions that brought the word count down to about 180,000 for publication, but after I made those cuts, she altered virtually nothing further in anything resembling an editorial process.

Editing was one thing; typesetting was another entirely.

I never saw page proofs of Legacy prior to its publication in February 1985, and I have to say I was appalled at the number of errors in the typesetting.  Sections of sentences were omitted, paragraphs were switched, and generic typos abounded.  As the author I was embarrassed, but there wasn't anything I could do about it.  (Again, one of the advantages of traditional publishing is that the author has lots of other people to lay the blame on!) 

So it stayed that way for almost 30 years.

Now, in 2013 and not having a digital manuscript of Legacy to upload for republication, I was faced with the task of transcribing the whole thing, either from the print edition with all its typesetting errors or from the original uncut, unedited 250,000 word and 888 typed page manuscript, which Leisure had never seen.  Neither of those alternatives was an attractive proposition.

I began with the print version, but after only a few pages decided to see if my printer-scanner's OCR software would do a halfway decent job generating a text file from the mass market version.  I was willing to sacrifice a copy if it meant saving myself the typing of 200,000+ words.  It worked, and in a few days' spare time I had the complete text file.  It's a mess of bizarre page breaks and weird formatting, but it can be fixed in far less time than it would take to retype the whole blasted thing.

The process of cleaning it up, however, exposed a lot of unexpected problems well beyond typos and missing lines.

When Jane Thornton requested those cuts to bring the book within reasonable production length, she gave me just two or three days at most in which to do them.  I had to go through 600+ pages line by line looking for words and sentences that could be trimmed without affecting the flow, the continuity, the plot.  There was no time for major rewriting.  And as a first-time author who had little knowledge of how the editorial function was carried out by a traditional publisher, I also trusted that if I made any egregious errors, Thornton or someone else in the editorial department would catch them and fix them.  Errors along the line of a character returning to a room she hadn't left -- because the line about her departure had been cut.  I expected any errors of that nature to be fixed.

Guess what.  They weren't.  And now, almost 30 years later, I didn't have a copy of the actual manuscript from which the book had been typeset.

Or did I?  Being an inveterate pack rat, I save everything, and I began a search in the hopes I did in fact have a copy of that intermediate typescript.  To my surprise and relief, it didn't take long to locate the old-fashioned carbon copy of that revised manuscript, complete with my hand-written edits.  I had over-nighted it to Thornton, and sometime after publication it was eventually returned to me.  And I kept it, neatly filed with a bunch of other pre-computer manuscripts.

My intention at that point was only to make sure I corrected, in the new digital edition, the worst of the typos and other typesetting errors exactly as I would have if given the opportunity to check the page proofs prior to the actual publication in 1985, so that the product that hits the ebook retailers isn't the kind of mess Leisure put out.  But what I was finding were exactly those errors that I trusted would have been fixed during the editorial process.  A character opens eyes that had never been closed, takes off clothes that had never been put on, re-enters a room that had never been left, dismounts a horse that had never been mounted.  That sort of thing, if not those exact examples.

And of course I now have the opportunity to fix those errors.

Do I also want to avail myself of the opportunity to update the book to the conventions of 2013 that might be very different from those of 1983?

Um, no, I don't.

There are elements in Legacy of Honor that might not be politically correct today.  I'm not even sure they were politically correct in the early 1980s when I wrote it.  As someone who has railed against some of what I've seen as misogyny in those early post-Woodiwiss historical romances, I'm probably going to take some heat for not making major changes to Legacy of Honor.  But in fact I think the book will stand the test of feminist times.

Whether it does or not, however, I feel it should remain in its own context.  As I've written so often before, books aren't written in vacuums.  They, and their authors, exist in contexts.  Legacy of Honor was written in that exciting, adventurous 1980s context when the historical romance as a literary type was going through revolutionary changes.  Authors, too, were changing and evolving.  If I were writing Legacy today, it would probably be a slightly different book.  But I'm not writing it today, and I have enough respect for it and for myself not to want to change it.

The version that will be digitally republished (soon, I hope!) will remain true to its original form and context.  Cleaned up, yes, with its typos and continuity corrected.  Some details from that original manuscript will be restored, and there will be an author's note added regarding research and . . . and another little bit of personal background to the story that I've often told in person but never had the opportunity to put into print.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Strong words, wrong words

Every once in a while I get an idea for a clever pun, then find out I had the wrong reference.  This is a bummer.

I was trying to think of an alternative to "grammar nazi," since that kind of hyperbole can be more than a little offensive.  One can be a stickler for good grammar without being a jackbooted thug capable of real atrocities against real people.  Hyperbole has its place, and it can be amusing as well as effective in making a point, but this particular one can be very offensive.

So I came up with the idea of "grammar ratchet."  There are lots and lots of tools around my house, including several ratchets -- those little gizmos that tighten (or loosen) nuts depending on which way they're set.  And I had thought to use that term as a play on the inflexible, by the book, mean as dirt Louise Fletcher character in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, until I discovered her name was Nurse Ratched. 

I've only seen the film once, and I can't say I enjoyed it.  I'm not a big fan of that sort of film.  The problem with Nurse Ratched, as I saw her, was that she couldn't see beyond the rules.  They were there in and of themselves, not as tools or -- to pull a term from another popular film -- guidelines.  Reality had to be bent to the rules, in Nurse Ratched's world, no matter what.  She found her security, her rightness, in those rules, but she never found a soul.

Well, my pun on ratchet didn't work.  I'm still looking for one.

But I guess that's as good an opening as any into an examination of what I find is a disturbing trend to compare negative book reviews to physical violence, and for the authors of books that receive negative reviews to liken themselves to the victims of rape, murder, and genocide.

Yes, indeed, one self-published author has said in public that the existence of a group of readers on who address issues of "Badly Behaving Authors" reminded him of 1942-1945 Europe.  The self-published author did not, of course, reference any of his own abusive posts on Goodreads, yet all anyone did to him was . . . . not like his book.

Words have meanings.  Nazism, genocide, murder, rape, bullying -- all these words have very distinct meanings.  "I didn't like your book" doesn't come close. 

Even if one reader rallied her friends to collectively bash someone else's book, how can that equate to the experience of having armed men invade your home in the middle of the night, take your family into an alley, and shoot them all in front of you right before they shoot you?  We're not talking apples and oranges; we're talking butterflies to B-52 bombers.

The same self-published authors who bitch and moan and whine and complain about the negative reviewers who gang up on their books never say a word about the rallying cries they send out to their own fans and supporters to flood the review sites with five-star fountains of praise.  And the truth is that very few of those fan-rallies are ever really called out.  Oh, some of the more egregious sock-puppet masters have been exposed, but for the most part your average self-published novel that gets five or ten or even 25 glowing reviews and a few one-star comments that are basically, "What the hell were they reading?  This is crap!" get a pass.  If customers on Amazon alert the system that there are obvious shill reviews, or the author's spouse is blatantly promoting the books, the reviews might be removed.  But most of the time, Amazon and the other retail booksellers are in the business of selling books and they really don't care. 

Needless to say, neither do the authors who are benefiting from the fandom.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again, to lurkers, to readers, to my (so far) innocuous stalkers:  You are not your book, and your book is not you.  Criticism of it is not necessarily criticism of you, and very often even the most scathing criticism contains seeds of wisdom.  It is only your own fault if you don't pay attention.  Claiming that your critics are just meanies and trolls and bullies, Nazis and rapists and murderers is just childish exaggeration, and it will not change the quality of your writing.  Only you can do that, if you really want to.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The meaning of the mean words

For something close to 30 years, I've been an admittedly harsh critic when it comes to writing.  I don't deny this, and I've never attempted to moderate my comments when asked for them.  And yes, I've received criticism for my harshness.  From my earliest experiences as a judge in RWA contests, reaction to my analyses has ranged from gratitude for an honest if painful review to outrage and accusations of bias and crimes against humanity.  It's all okay; I live with it.

Several months ago, an author whose work had elicited a one-star rating from me on Goodreads contacted me and asked for an explanation.  I had "shelved" the book in a variety of descriptive groups that indicated I thought it was poorly written.  Because I had not posted a review, she wanted to know why I had only given the book one star -- "I didn't like it" -- and whether or not my "poorly written" designation came from actually reading the book.

There is, of course, no requirement on the Goodreads site that readers post reviews along with their ratings.  Readers don't even have to rate the books, and they can "shelve" books however they wish.  Nor is it required that readers have read the book prior to rating, shelving, or reviewing it.  (How would they prove that they had?  Take a test?)

Now, I have frequently stated here and elsewhere that I don't believe authors should ever, ever, ever contact anyone who has reviewed, rated, shelved, or commented on their book unless they are specifically and explicitly invited to do so.  Therefore I politely but firmly told this author that I was not going to provide her with an explanation then, but that if I ever did so, it would be in a publicly available review. 

Her action was understandable.  The book was her first, and she had self-published it via Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing and via Smashwords.  This information was readily available from the book's front matter.  She was not rude in her request to me, nor did she post anything public about the exchange.  (If she posted one-star ratings to my books, I honestly don't know.  I pretty much pay no attention to those.)

The Amazon listing for her book had received half a dozen or so five-star reviews, several of which read like they'd been written by friends or family members.  The couple of one- and two-star reviews cited poor grammar and clich├ęd characters; one of those reviews was a variation on the "don't waste your time; even free this book isn't worth it."  That's not an uncommon remark made on self-published novels. 

I generally glance at the reviews, especially the negative ones, when I'm contemplating a digital purchase, but since the book had been offered for free, I wasn't too concerned.  I downloaded it, then glanced at the contents.

I was not favorably impressed with the writing, but at the time of posting the book to my Goodreads collection, I didn't have time to do a complete analysis, so I shelved it as poorly written, gave it one star, and moved on.  I heard no more from the author and I thought that was the end of it.

A few weeks ago, I learned that she had posted a comment on another books-and-readers-and-authors site in which she lambasted the refusal of a reviewer to justify their negative opinion of her book.  She described this person as what amounted to a serial review bully; I won't post the exact phrase because I don't want to give anyone the ability to locate the author via a search on the phrase.  Was she referring to me?  I don't know for sure.  I had never reviewed her book, only shelved and rated it. 

I've written a lot of words on this subject, and I really get upset that I find myself doing it again.  More than likely, the message is completely lost on those who need it most:  the authors who have somehow come into the belief that their work can never ever receive a negative review and that anyone who dares criticize it must be a mean bully, a sociopath, a jealous competitor, or something.

More and more and more of these authors are taking to the blogosphere, to Goodreads and Amazon's forums, to their own websites, and slamming any and all reviewers who are cruel and mean and malicious enough to leave hurtful comments.

There are still comments being posted to Dear Author's thread from July 2012 regarding the efforts of some authors and fans and readers to silence negative reviews. 

I can understand authors having hurt feelings.  I can understand the disappointment of a bad review.  I've been there.  I've suffered through the rejection letters.  I've had publishers hold a manuscript for a year, sending me occasional encouraging updates, only to receive the material back with no explanation beyond a form letter rejection.  I've had bad reviews.  I've had malicious reviews and retaliatory shelving and one-star ratings from trolls.  I've been there, kids.  And I survived.

So what's different now from 20 or 30 years ago?  Is it, as I've blogged before, that some of these authors have never experienced any kind of criticism of their writing and just don't know how to handle it?  Personally, I think that's far more likely than another explanation, which is that they are the sociopaths and just have it in for anyone who dares criticize anything.

Reviews are for readers.  Not just for the people who have already read the book -- actually, that's a pretty stupid definition of "reader" -- but for readers who might buy the book, potential readers.  Any reader who has any experience with the book in question or with its author has the right to leave a comment.  On Amazon, on Smashwords, on Barnes & Noble, on Goodreads, on any other site where books are discussed.

Reviews are not for the authors.  I'm not sure how many times or how many ways I can write that.  Reviews are of material that's already been published.  The author has said she's done with it, it's ready to be read, and now she's moving on.

If she's not finished with it, if she's still looking for feedback, she shouldn't publish it. 

How difficult is this to understand?  Amazon and B&N and Kobo and Smashwords are all retail stores just like Target or Kroger's or FootLocker or Lowe's.  Customers go to them to buy products ready to be used.  And if the products don't perform as the customer expected them to, the customer has a right to complain, to demand a refund, to tell her friends and family about it.

Authors, your books are no different from tires or flashlights, sneakers or toasters, pillows or two-by-fours, ground beef or asparagus.  No one cares how much time you put into writing your stories.  If people cared about the labor involved in producing consumer goods, they wouldn't buy sneakers made in Chinese sweatshops.

And here's the thing:  I do care about the labor that's involved, in both the sneakers and the books.  I do my best to avoid buying goods made by companies that I know employ what amounts to slave labor.

But I also make an effort to instruct readers -- some of whom might also be writers -- what makes a good book.

When I read a book, regardless of genre, regardless whether it's fiction or non-fiction, I expect it to meet certain minimum standards.  I don't expect every book I read to be a five-star, and I have enjoyed many books that weren't, in the Goodreads rating system, "amazing!".   I also recognize that not all readers will like the same things I do, nor will they have the same standards.  I don't have any problem with that, either as a reader or as a writer.

I also know that the skills necessary to achieve those minimum standards are not beyond the capability of most people of average intelligence.  Basic English grammar and spelling and usage, basic story construction, basic factual research, and basic digital publication formatting are not difficult skills to learn.  They take some time and some effort to learn, and more time to master, but all of them are essential to the creation of an end product that will appeal to and satisfy the reading preferences of most reasonably educated potential readers.

When a writer chooses not to learn these skills, when a writer chooses to publish a product that fails to meet the reader's minimum standards, then that writer must accept the criticism the product receives.

I have tried, because I honestly do care about writers and helping them to write well-crafted, interesting, entertaining books, to put at least some information into many of my blogposts directly addressing issues such as punctuating dialogue or preparing an MS Word .doc file for Kindle Direct Publishing.  I've written some very very detailed critiques of samples of writing chosen specifically to illustrate concepts of what I consider good writing.

I have never, at least not intentionally, criticized any individual author as a person.  And I have advised and encouraged authors to separate themselves from their books.  Books are not children, not "babies."  Books cannot be killed or raped -- except by their own authors, of course.  A review is, for better or worse, the reader's opinion, and the author is always free to take any advice or ignore it.

Writers do not even have to read reviews, because reviews aren't written for them.  But if writers do read reviews, and especially if they read reviews of their own work, then they need to be prepared for the negative.

When I rip a novel to shreds -- and yes, I admit that I have done that -- it's because I believe the book deserves it.  Does the author deserve it?  Um, I don't really care.  She put the book out there as a finished product, and now it has to stand or fall on its own.  Can the author learn from it?  Yes, of course she can.  Will she be hurt by it?  Oh, probably, but she should have thought about that possibility before she published it.

There are ways to avoid bad reviews.  The two most obvious ones are:  Learn to write well, and don't publish until you learn to write well.

I am not going to stop writing "bad" reviews.  If your book is poorly written and it comes to my attention, there's a chance I will shred it.  It may be an object lesson for other writers as well as a warning to readers.  I don't care.  It may be the only negative review in a stack of five-star raves.  I don't care.  It may hurt your feelings and drive you to call me names.  I don't care.  It may enrage you and you'll rally your fans and friends and family to give my books one-star reviews.  I don't care.

What I do care about is my integrity.  I believe that anything I publish will be well-written, and if there are mistakes, I will own up to them.  I will never bash a reviewer, never threaten, never whine.  But by the same token, when I come across writing that I consider fails to meet my standards, I will reserve the right to shred it, to point out its flaws and weaknesses. 

Maybe other writers will learn from that.  Maybe other readers will see my reviews as helpful and honest and will "follow" my reviews on Goodreads.  Or maybe not.

But I will not lower my standards to spare the feelings of authors who cannot or will not take the time and expend the effort to at least learn how to construct a coherent sentence, compose a fluid paragraph, create an internally consistent plot.

If the author sees that as mean, then she is failing to put herself in the perspective of all the other potential readers she's trying to reach.  If the author sees that as potentially diminishing her sales, then she should have written a book that couldn't be shredded.  No one, absolutely no one, owes an author a living.  No one, absolutely no one, owes an author an apology for an honest review.

So to the little snowflakes whose feelings I have hurt and who are following me around the Internet, I don't know what you hope to accomplish.  Do you think I'm going to be nicer to you because you've done me some big honor?  Do you think I'm going to refrain from talking about your books because it might get back to you?  It's not going to happen.

Yes, I'm mean. Yes, I'm harsh.  But yes, I'm honest.  Deal with it.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

What lies lie behind the words

A novel is a world unto itself.  More than likely, there are elements in the novel that reflect or refract elements of the author's life and experience, but since the author isn't going to be on hand to explain all those nuances to each and every reader each and every time the book is read, the world of the novel must be complete, whole, and self-contained.

Even if it's not, it will be taken that way.

Which is why authors must be very careful about any and all messages that can be taken from the text they create.

We readers all know that we're perfectly capable of distinguishing between fact and fiction.  We know that romance novels -- as well as mysteries, fantasies, westerns, science fiction, supernatural horror, etc. -- are not true stories.  "Pictures are for entertainment, messages should be delivered by Western Union," Sam Goldwyn said, and the same philosophy is often applied to popular fiction.  It's not meant as educational material.

But contrary to that famous (or infamous) Goldwynism, can stories -- whether in books or films --  carry messages, even unintended ones?  Is even a simple, simplistic "Love Conquers All" or "Crime Doesn't Pay" enough of a message to qualify?

Is it possible to determine a novel's message, assuming it has one, just by reading the text itself?  Can a book have a message even if the reader doesn't "get it"?   Can a reader "get it," but get the wrong message?

One of my all-time favorite historical romances is LaVyrle Spencer's Hummingbird.  The only problem I had with that story was that Abby treated David so badly.  He hadn't done anything to deserve being jilted the way she dumped him, even if he wasn't the Great Love of Her Life.  Spencer did something similar in Twice Loved and also in The Fulfillment.  I felt especially uncomfortable with the treatment of the second "hero" in Twice Loved; at least in The Fulfillment the "rejected" suitor was fully aware of -- and even had a part in -- his own failure to win the heroine.  But the heroines of both Hummingbird and Twice Loved didn't seem to feel much remorse over their cruelty toward decent men who loved them.

Was this a pattern?  Was Spencer intentionally or unintentionally saying that it's okay to hurt innocent people who love you and to justify your behavior because you're just so much in love with someone else? 

I don't know the answer to that question, but I do know that element of those three books didn't sit well with me, even though I enjoyed all of them.

Another book that has legions of devoted readers/fans but that I absolutely couldn't stand is Patricia Gaffney's To Have and to Hold.  The heroine has been horribly abused, emotionally and psychologically as well as physically, and is just released from prison into the hero's custody.  Fabulously wealthy, politically powerful, and of course devastatingly handsome, he has her completely at his mercy.  She can do nothing without his consent, and because she has no money, she is utterly dependent upon him for her very sustenance.  She has no recourse when he sets out to seduce her.

And of course she falls in love with him even though he gives her no other choice.  (Or does she?)

To Have and to Hold is often compared to Mary Jo Putney's Dearly Beloved, in which the heroine is brutally raped by the hero after he has been tricked into marrying her.  Realizing what he has done, and acknowledging both his guilt and his responsibility, he abandons her but resolves not to divorce her and to support her.  Eventually she uses the funds he provides for her to set herself up in a position to exact revenge upon him.  Of course she falls in love with him. . . .

Why did I enjoy the Putney book and despise the Gaffney story, even though they had many similarities?  I puzzled this for a long time and then just recently determined that it was the balance of power that made the two stories so completely different.  Gaffney left her heroine totally vulnerable, totally powerless, and allowed the hero to take merciless advantage of her.  He did not do anything to heal her for her own sake, except as it would benefit him.  He did not want her to be a whole person; he only wanted her to be what he wanted her to be.

Putney, on the other hand, allowed her heroine to become whole.  When she and the hero meet years later and she is about to put her plan for vengeance into action, she is not powerless, not utterly at his mercy.  She can give as good as she gets, in that sense.  And the irony, of course, is that she is able to do that because of him.  Not just in spite of him, but because he has given her the means to do it.

Are there messages in these books?  Did Gaffney set out to say that if the guy is hot enough and rich enough, anything he wants and anything he does is fine and dandy, and the woman he dominates and forces to submit to him owes him her love?

Well, frankly, that's the message I took from that book.  I've read it twice and still can't reconcile Sebastian's behavior as suitable for a hero.  He never seems, in my mind, to atone for his sins against Rachel, never seems to experience real remorse.  Oh, he has his moment where he (sort of) realizes what an ass he's been toward her, but he doesn't change his course, doesn't alter his behavior.  It's as if his character arc is a flat line.

Putney's hero Gervase, on the other hand, immediately acknowledges the depravity of what he has done.  He does not excuse it or justify it, though he did try to justify it beforehand.  He assumes a burden of guilt -- not all of it deserved -- and shame that Sebastian never does.  And it's through that acceptance of responsibility that Gervase grows and changes and becomes a hero worthy of the heroine he has created.

Gervase's rape of Diana is brutal and forced.  There is no seduction, no coercion.  He is angry and drunk, has been tricked into marriage with a total stranger against his will, and he rapes her.

But is his physical brutality any more or less an invasion of the heroine's personhood than Sebastian's relentless seduction of a person over whom he not only has the power of life and death but to whom he makes that power known constantly?  Does Rachel ever have the free will to give her consent to anything?

I was able, as a reader with my own perspectives, to accept Gervase's growth into hero material much more readily than I ever could have Sebastian's. 

What each of us brings to a book or film or story affects how we react to it, whether positively or negatively.  For this reason, reviews and ratings and reactions to books differ.  That's something all authors have to keep in mind -- not everyone is going to like the "message" they read in the book.  It may not be the message the author intended to convey.  Or the reader may disagree with that message.  But authors do need to be aware that readers can and will take messages from the stories they read.  If the author has a specific message she wishes to impart, it is up to her to make sure that message is both as clear and as subtle as she can make it -- and then she has to let it go.