Saturday, September 28, 2013

A few words to set your hearts at ease

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, I have a lot of books.

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

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

Here's what I did:

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Meteoric words

Take from this what you will.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Neither do I.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Tracking the words to their source

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

It ought to be interesting, to say the least.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They know who they are.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Afterword

The moon is setting over my computer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

To get away from the snow and cold of Chicago and to pursue my almost life-long dream of being A Writer, I had flown to Luxembourg on the last day of January that year.  After taking a train to Paris, I hitchhiked to the Spanish border, then took several more trains to Málaga and eventually settled in Torremolinos on the Costa del Sol.  Several weeks later, I took a job in a chintzy little bar in the downtown tourist section of the city.  

At the moment, I don't even remember the name of the bar.  The owner was a Swiss woman who didn't hang around the place much; my two fellow bartendresses were an English girl from Manchester and a young Scot from Glasgow.  I've since forgotten their names, too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I mean, one minute he had it in his hand and was smoking it, and then ... it wasn't there any more.  And it wasn't in the ash tray.  And it wasn't on the floor.

So I asked him where it went.  He held out both hands, neither of which held a cigarette, and insisted he didn't know.  I knew I was being set up for something, even if I didn't know what it was.  And of course while we were still puzzling over the cigarette, it somehow reappeared.

As if by magic? 

Hold that thought.

Neither of my companions behind the bar had any particular sleight of hand skills, and my only "tricks" were the ability to slightly wiggle my ears and to bend my fingers backward.  After we had all laughed about this -- and after the cigarette had disappeared and reappeared a couple more times -- the tall young man announced, in Spanish of course, "My friend eats glass."

No, that's not a typo.

He went on to explain that his companion would, if supplied with a fresh mug of beer, eat a glass.  Not one he provided that could be suspected of trickery, but one of ours from behind the bar.

The translating of all this prompted a lot of laughter and speculation, and of course we worried what would happen if the owner of the bar returned, but we decided what the hell.  We refilled their mugs and I handed the little bald guy a stemmed cognac glass.

He took a look at, then put the upper edge in his mouth and bit off a chunk.   He chewed it up, swallowed, and washed it down with a swig of beer.  Over the next ten minutes or so, he proceeded to consume the entire bowl of the glass and the flat base, leaving only the stem.  That part, he explained, was too hard to chew with his false teeth.

There was no broken glass in the bottom of the mug.  The beer was gone, and so was the glass.

Well, we were more than slightly astounded, as you might expect.  To this day, I can only assume he actually ate the damn glass.  I have no other explanation.

Or at least no complete explanation.  Some explanation came from the younger man, when he introduced himself as the owner of a nightclub around the corner from the bar -- and a magician.

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

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

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

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

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

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

¡Qué mundo pequeño!

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Almost perfect words

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

You probably won't like these words

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

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

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

But I wasn't silenced.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Putting the words back together again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Sticks and stones? How 'bout words and cookies instead

Remember the old taunt from those long ago playground days?  "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me!"

Apparently there are some people (and they know who they are) who never learned the truth in that old saying.

So let's go back to that playground again and see what happens. . . . . .

Little Arthur goes to the playground with a bag full of cookies he baked.  He hands free ones out to the kids he sees at the playground.

Kid #1:  Gee, thanks!  (takes a bite)  Gawd, this is terrible!  It's so dry and hard and overbaked I can hardly chew it!

Kid #2:  (struggles to swallow)  I know!  It's like his mother didn't teach him how to test the oven setting or something.

Arthur:  But you didn't eat the whole thing!  You only ate one bite! 

Kid #1:  I don't need to eat the whole thing.  It's awful, and it isn't going to get any better.  It's a lousy cookie, for fuck's sake.  Did you even try one yourself?

Arthur:  I don't have to!  I know they're good!  I made 'em!

Kid #3:  (spits his out on the ground)  Ugh!  It's got coconut in it!  I hate coconut!  You shoulda warned me it had coconut in it!  I think I'm gonna throw up!

Arthur:  You guys are mean!  Those cookies took me all morning to bake!  and I gave 'em to you for free!  How dare you say you don't like them!

Kid #1:  They're still terrible!  I don't care if you took two weeks to bake 'em.  They suck!  Look, mine's all burnt on the bottom.

Arthur:  My mother told me she loved those cookies!

Kid #3:  Well, duh, that's what mothers are supposed to do. 

Arthur:  Why are you being so mean to me?  You're a bunch of bullies!  I'm going to sue you!

Kid #2:  Sue us?  For what?  'Cuz you made some overbaked coconut cookies that we didn't like?

Arthur:  You're ruining my career as a baker!  I'll have you all arrested and thrown in jail for a hundred billion years!

Kid #3:  Are you crazy or somethin'?  You wanta be a baker, then go home and learn how to bake good cookies.  Quit bein' a whiny little fuckwad and wasting our time.  It's not like these are the only cookies in town.

A week later Arthur comes back to the playground with another bag of cookies, which he hands out free.

Kid #1:  I'll pass.

Arthur:  You didn't even taste it!

Kid #1:  No, and I ain't gonna. 

Kid #2:  (takes a bite and spits it out) Holy shit, it's hard as a fuckin' rock!  This is even more overbaked than the last batch!  Christ on a crutch, Arthur, didn't you pay any attention to what we told you the last time?

Kid #4:  Here let me try one.

Kid #2:  Don't say we didn't warn you.  Arthur's cookies are shit.

Kid #4:  (takes a bite)  What the fuck?  I think I broke a tooth!

Arthur:  You're lying!  You didn't really break a tooth!  You didn't even take a bite!

Kid #4:  I couldn't!  The damn cookie's too damn hard!

Arthur:  (offering cookie to another kid)  Here, it's free.

Kid #5:  No way!  If all my friends think your cookies are this bad, I'm not touchin' 'em with a 10 foot pole.

Arthur:  (lies down in the dirt, screaming and kicking)

Moral of the story:  Books are like cookies, and authors are like bakers. 

No one laid a hand on Arthur; no one told him to put his hand in a blender or go hang himself.  They just didn't like his cookies. 

Arthur can pick himself up, dust himself off, and go home to learn how to make cookies people will like and eat and tell their friends about and pay real money for.  No one is stopping him.  Of course, in order to do that, he will have to admit that his cookies need improvement and maybe he needs some help.   Or, if he chooses to be a martyr, he can continue to writhe in the dust until the ants that are drawn to the cookies decide they're inedible and eat Arthur's eyes out instead.