Sunday, October 27, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

My response in all cases was the same:  Reviewers have the right to say whatever they want.  They don't owe the writer a damn thing. friends protested.  Didn't I have any compassion for my fellow creative artists?  (A non-friend basically said the same thing, publicly, on this blog.  We won't go there.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 18, 2013

Letting go of the words. . . . again

So, it's done.

Legacy of Honor is live on Amazon.

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

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

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

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

I was wrong.  Very wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because there were some other issues. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then I let it go.

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

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

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

I hope you enjoy it.

Three little words

"Save and Publish"

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

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

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

Friday, October 11, 2013

Groovy words

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

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

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

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

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

But there was more.

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

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

We liked books.

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

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

Mary and I didn't.

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

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

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

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

And still nothing happened.

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

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

Nothing happened.

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

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

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

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

And they all had meanings.

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

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