Friday, April 29, 2022

Why some words get read and others don't

 Life has a way of intervening in the best laid plans.  When the plans are less than best-laid, the intervention can result in massive chaos.  My life the past several years has been, you guessed it, massive chaos.

I put on a good front, I think.  Most of my online companions would be aghast at what goes on behind (or in front of) the screen.  While this post is not intended to elucidate that reality, I'm using it as a justification.

Justification for what?

You'll see.

In the spring of 1999, as I was enjoying my much-delayed return to higher education at Arizona State University, I began collecting the research material for my proposed honors thesis, an examination of the cultural impacts of romance novels.  Completion of the thesis was planned for May 2000, so I had plenty of time.

I amassed a considerable library, though much of the material was a bit on the disappointing side.  Few of the academic analyses of romance fiction actually included much romance fiction.  Oh, there were references to it, of course, but little actual analysis of the texts.  "How," I thought, "can you even hope to explore the impact, whether positive or negative, of romance novels if you don't even offer some examples?  How can you support your thesis -- pun intended -- if you don't present any evidence?"

So I set out, over the next twelve months, to write my thesis on that foundation.

I had what I thought was a reasonably unusual, if not unique, vantage point from which to write.  Not only was I an avid reader of romance, but also a published writer thereof.  I had sold seven historical romance novels to four different New York publishers between 1984 and 1996.  Not a particularly prolific career, but it certainly put me into the "published" category, rather than just an aspiring scribbler.  (Yes, that's a pejorative, to be explained later.)

I had also been a member of Romance Writers of America for well over a decade, had served on the committee for the RWA national conference, founded a local Phoenix chapter of RWA and served as its president.  Through that chapter I organized a contest for unpublished romance writers and judge in that contest's first three annual iterations.  I also founded a special interest chapter solely for published authors.  As president of that latter chapter, I organized three national conferences -- two in New York and one in Los Angeles -- focused on the professional interests of professional writers.

Even after leaving RWA -- and my romance writing career -- in 1998 to return to college after a 25-year hiatus, I continued to read romance fiction.  And though I had given up on ever writing more of it, I retained my interest in the genre beyond just a means of entertainment, escape from the daily grind of housework, parenting, and study.

If there was one quote that focused my endeavor, it was this line from Dale Spender's The Writing or the Sex, or why you don't have to read women's writing to know it's no good:

I have long wanted to place a D. H. Lawrence novel between the covers of Harlequin/Mills and Boon, and to test its status when seen in this light.  (p. 79)

Because I read Spender in 1994, before I even thought about going back to college, and because I had read Lady Chatterley's Lover decades before that and recognized it as a romance novel, her statement struck deep.  Romance novels, far more than Rodney Dangerfield, got no respect.  They didn't when she wrote it in 1989.  They didn't when John Cawelti gave the entire genre only one-and-a-half pages in his Adventure, Mystery, and Romance in 1976.

I proposed to change that in 2000.  Of course, life intervened and my thesis, titled Half Heaven, Half Heartache: Discovering the Transformative Potential in Women's Popular Fiction ended up being much, much shorter than originally planned.  It was still more than enough to grant me my honors degree, and also more than enough to surprise the members of my committee when I defended it.

And that's what really surprised me.  

Two of the three were professors of English, the third of history.  They had known the subject matter of the paper for weeks ahead of time, and one had known for several months.  I gave them copies a week or two before the defense, anticipating tough questioning because I knew the topic was at least mildly controversial.  But their questions were more founded in curiosity than in an attempt to prompt a serious defense of a serious position.  They knew nothing about romance fiction.  Nothing.

Well, I take that back.  They knew enough to be somewhat befuddled by the idea that all romance novels aren't Harlequins, and they knew enough to ask what, if any, difference there was between romance novels and television soap operas.

(If you rolled your eyes at that, please, pick them up off the floor so you can continue reading.)

But again, that was 2000.  I had a serious nibble from a respected publisher on a book-length version of the thesis, but life intervened and I was never able to put it together.  I went on to graduate school and got my master's, and shortly after graduating I found myself suddenly widowed and forced to focus on the harsh realities that accompanied that change in status.  Even so, that long personal involvement with romance fiction never left me.  I continued to read in the genre, though not as extensively as I had before simply because I couldn't afford to buy all the books!

And I kept all my research material.  There were those who urged me to "clean house," so to speak, but I resisted.

Then came digital self publishing.  I knew nothing about it and discovered it almost by accident.  I found it more than a little intriguing.

In 2011 and 2012, I explored the possibilities of re-issuing some of those historical romance novels I'd published in the 1980s and 1990s.  I had no budget for hiring someone to do the work for me, so I did everything myself, except the cover art.  I blew more money than I could afford on covers for re-issues of four of the seven, with mediocre results.  But I was reasonably happy.  I was in control, and I found that to be a very heady experience.

My last publisher, Pocket Books, would not revert the rights to me, so neither Moonsilver nor Touchstone were mine to re-issue.  After the horrible experience I had with that publisher, the horrible editing, the beyond horrible cover art, the utter lack of promotion, I already disliked them intensely.  Their refusal to allow me to republish the books sealed the deal, and when they put trade-paperback editions on Amazon with outrageous prices, I knew they didn't want to sell the books; they just wanted to keep me from doing likewise.  I lost what tiny little bit of respect I had for traditional publishing.

I took a little gamble and put a digital edition of Half Heaven, Half Heartache on Amazon, with cover art I did myself.  It wasn't an effort to make money so much as it was self validation.  How many copies has it sold?  I don't know, but I'm sure it's fewer than a dozen.  I don't care.  It's there.

Around the same time I was putting my thesis on Amazon, I engaged in some online conversations with credentialed academics on the subject of romance fiction and feminism and empowerment, but I felt somewhat dismissed, if that's the right word, because I wasn't in their world.  When I questioned the tiny sample of romance fiction used in one academic research project, the researchers told me they didn't have sufficient budget.

Hello?  You can pick up used paperback romances at thrift shops and used book stores and church rummage sales!  Check them out of the library!  (Personally, I think it was just an excuse: they really didn't want lower their academic selves to actually read romance novels.)

I rolled my eyes and picked them up off the floor, then silently wailed that I still didn't have the means, the time, or the academic reputation to pursue the project that had been lurking in the back of my head for over a decade.

Instead, the writing spark touched me again and in 2016 I finished a novel I had begun in 1994.  The Looking-Glass Portrait went up as a Kindle edition on Amazon with a cover I made myself using artwork purchased on Etsy.  I had no advertising budget, wasn't even on Twitter or Goodreads at the time, but over the next year or so I made more income from that book than from any of the traditionally published books I'd written.  In fact, more than from the first five put together!

I not only made more money, but I made it quicker.  None of this waiting weeks before signing a contract, waiting months for the advance money, then years for publication, then more years for royalties (if any).  

"Why," I wondered, "would anyone still mess around with publishers who pay maybe at best ten percent royalties when I can collect seventy percent from Amazon?"

To my way of thinking, digital self-publishing should have meant a massive revolution to the romance fiction industry.  I began thinking about that analysis of mine again.

One thing held me back, and one thing only.  

In 2003, Pamela Regis published A Natural History of the Romance Novel.  I knew I couldn't compete with a real, credentialed academic.  No way.  For a long time I couldn't even afford to buy a copy of Regis's book, and I would have been secretly humiliated to read it.  Was this imposter syndrome at work?  Probably.  But then I found an inexpensive used copy of the book and grabbed it, even though I still expected to be humiliated within the first few pages.

You're not good enough, my inner critic warned with a malicious chuckle. They're all professors of this and professors of that, and you're not.

The problem was that as I began to read Regis, I found myself immediately disagreeing with much of what she wrote.  Of course that meant my ideas were wrong and hers were right and I needed to just go back to being a failed romance writer no one paid any attention to.

Maybe, just maybe, some of that changed today, all as a result of a serendipitous post on Twitter that led me down a research rabbit hole, where I discovered a few books and a doctoral dissertation.

The books for the most part are outrageously, even obscenely expensive.  Over $50 for a Kindle edition?  Paperback nearly $60?  Hardcover over $200?!

But as I looked at the sample of that $50+ Kindle edition, I recognized something I hadn't thought of before, not when I was writing my little thesis in 2000, not when I was reading Regis in 2016, not when I was reading that dissertation a few hours earlier.  

These are all books written by professional academics for professional academics.  They're priced out of the reach of readers of romance fiction and probably out of reach for many of the writers of romance fiction.

And then there's another academic on Twitter tonight:

"Make our work more public facing."  Hmmm.....

How can the public afford a $200 book?  How many romance readers can afford it?  Or have the academic language to appreciate it?  Oh, wait, it's not written for romance readers.  Or for romance writers.  It's written, published, and priced for other academics.  I guess they think if we don't have PhD after our names, we're not worthy of their lofty opinions.

So I bought Laura Vivanco's $0.99 Kindle edition of Faith, Love, Hope and Popular Romance Fiction.  

When I wrote Half Heaven, Half Heartache I intended it to be understandable by the average romance reader and romance writer, people just like me.  I had been a member of those often overlapping groups for almost all of my life.  In the spring of 2000 when I was defending that thesis, I was 51 years old.  I had read my first adult historical romance at the age of 12 or 13, maybe younger.  I began writing adult historical romance at the same age.  I wrote my first complete contemporary romance in 1963 at the age of 15.  It's not very good, but I still have most of it.

One of the things that bothered me enormously through the five years I spent at ASU was that academia loved studying popular culture, but generally turned up its collective noses at the producers and consumers thereof.  In a course on 20th Century Women Writers, I made the remark that it seemed everything we read in class was depressing and discouraging.  "Doesn't anyone believe in happy endings?" I dared to ask.  The professor was horrified at the mere suggestion.

No, I did not tell her I wrote romance novels.  I think she found out eventually, but by then it didn't matter.  

In another instance, I gave one of my professors a copy of  one of my books.  She knew ahead of time that I wrote romance, but she told me later that as she was reading the book, she kept thinking it was more of a mystery than a romance.  There was a murder, after all, and romance novels don't have serious things like murders in them!  Well, sorry, but yes they do.   Even in 2001 they did.

Then there was that dissertation I found online today.  At least that was free!  I downloaded the PDF file.  It purports to be an ethnographic study of the popular culture of romance focusing on communities and feminism and fandom and all sorts of other things.  It's over 200 pages long, and I admit I only read about the first 25 before skipping ahead to the bibliography.

A lot of the sources the author used were very familiar to me; I had used the same references in 2000 writing my thesis. Others were newer, published since then, or on different subjects.  What was missing, however, were actual romance novels.  She cited only one romance novel.  

Listed in the extensive bibliography were Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities; Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice; and Kathleen E. Woodiwiss's The Flame and the Flower.  While I personally consider both the Dickens and the Austen works to be legitimately classified as romance novels, I'm seriously disappointed that there's any assumption that romance novels went into some kind of hibernation in 1859 and didn't emerge from their slumber until 1972.

But then I remembered that Kelly Choyke, the PhD candidate who wrote "The Power of Popular Romance Culture: Community, Fandom, and Sexual Politics," was writing for an academic audience who (probably) didn't care about the romance novels that preceded The Flame and the Flower or those that followed, and almost certainly didn't give a rat's behind about the readers or the writers thereof.

That phrase "sexual politics" jumped out at me.  Politics, the study of government, of power, of citizens collectively. (My definitions, not formal.)  Hoi poloi, as we learned in classical Greek at the University of Illinois in 1966, the people, the common people, the source of "politics."  But when it comes to romance fiction, the hoi poloi are just peasants unworthy of notice.  Oh, sure, college professors read mysteries for the intellectual challenge, and we all know science fiction is "the literature of ideas."  Romance, on the other hand, well, no one who is really educated would be caught dead reading a romance novel.

Now, you and I know perfectly well that's nonsense, but if you try to read Romance Fiction and American Culture: Love as the Practice of Freedom? I think you'll find that it's not addressed to the hoi poloi.  We're not worthy.  It's over our little heads.

My dear goddess, could they get any more patriarchal, any more hierarchical, any more condescending?

Born in 1948, I came of age in the storied 1960s, when popular culture impacted politics in a very direct way.  I wonder now if the true and transformative power of popular culture has been co-opted by the Establishment, who has in turn given us . . . influencers.

The romance novel has undergone changes through its lifetime, and even since 1972 when The Flame and the Flower burst on the scene.  But the romance novel as a genre does not exist in a vacuum.  As convenient as it may be to isolate it as an object of academic study, it is to the detriment of the readers, the writers, and the overlapping, intersecting, interdependent communities they inhabit.

Isolating romance fiction as an object of academic study, and to a further extent isolating its subgenres from each other, serves to limit and reduce its power.  Jayne Ann Krentz, in putting together the essays that comprise 1992's Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women, tried to bridge the gap between academic analysis of the power of romance and popular creation and enjoyment of romance.  Krentz came from the romance community, not academia.  Her work caught on with the romance fiction community in a way I don't think any other has.

Academia may lament, as Dr. Ashley Prybil did on Twitter, that they aren't having sufficient impact, but I haven't seen much effort on the part of academia to make their work accessible, by which I mean affordable and understandable. 

In the thirty years since Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women was published, has there really been anything written from inside the Romancelandia community, by and for the residents of Romancelandia?  I don't recall any.  I think it's time for something new.

Monday, June 28, 2021

Words That Go Bump in the Night: Does anyone even care about reviews?

 Full disclosure:  I obtained the Kindle edition of The Ghostly Grounds: Murder and Breakfast by Sophie Love on 8 May 2021 when it was offered free on Amazon.  I do not know the author nor have I ever communicated with her about this book or any other matter.  I am an author of historical romance, contemporary romantic suspense, and assorted non-fiction.

I have no way of knowing how many copies of any given author-published book are actually sold or at what price.  Whether Sophie Love made a profit on this book is her business. How much she paid to promote it is also her business.  (That's where I got the link to the free Kindle edition.)  How many reviews the book got from that promotion and the ratings on Amazon, Goodreads, and other sites is also her business.

As of today, Monday, 28 June 2021, the book has 1450 ratings on Goodreads for an average of 4.0 stars.  The written reviews number 160.  The breakdown by ratings is as follows:

5-star -- 500

4-star -- 558

3-star -- 299

2-star -- 79

1-star -- 14

On Amazon, it has 2361 ratings for an average of 4.3 stars.


So here's my first mostly rhetorical question:

If 1357 people liked it -- that's three stars and above on GR -- why is the author still paying a promoter to give it away for free?

The obvious answer, of course, is that by giving away the first book in a six-book series, she will interest readers in buying the subsequent books.  They will love Book #1 so much that they will plunk out from $2.99 to $5.99 each for the sequels.  That answer may or may not be accurate.


Look at the huge drop-off in just the number of ratings for those sequels!  From 2361 Amazon ratings for the first book to just 180 for the second? The sixth book, Disaster and Dessert, has only been published for a few weeks -- 8 June 2021 -- and only has 21 ratings on Amazon (none of which contain reviews that passed Amazon's criteria to actually be shown) and 16 on Goodreads.  The only text review on GR is a 1-star, in which the reviewer cites continuing problems with typos.  One might wonder why the reader continues with the series if this is a situation that bothers her enough to include it in a review, but she's absolutely entitled to leave that review.

Which leads to the second mostly rhetorical question: Who pays more attention to reviews -- readers or self-publishing authors?

I learned a long time ago, long before Goodreads and Amazon and Kindle Direct Publishing, that reviews are always suspect. They were questionable back in the days of Romantic Times and Rave Reviews and I knew that from first-hand experience.  Fast-forward from those 1980s and 1990s print reviews to the system-gaming swap groups and fiverr shills of the 2010s, and the writing should have been on the wall that no review is to be trusted on its face.  There were too many verified examples of fake reviews.

Do readers continue to trust them?  I have my doubts.

I don't choose books based on reviews.  Not ever.  I may go by the recommendation of a friend whose opinion I trust, but not by strangers' reviews.  Am I typical?  Probably not.

When I read reviews, I almost always start with the one- and two-star opinions.  In fact, I can't remember when I've ever started with the five-stars. From my earliest experience with Amazon reviews in 2012 and then Goodreads, I knew the five-star reviews were far more likely to be bogus than the one- and two-star criticisms.  To this day, I can read one-star reviews that overtly state they don't know where all the great reviews come from because the book in question is lousy.

I suspect, therefore, that few readers actually rely on published reviews when deciding what books to read.  They may look at the number of reviews and maybe even the rating, but the text review is far less important than genre and price.  Yes, price, because free is attractive to the voracious reader.  I personally download anywhere from five to twelve free Kindle books every single day, thanks to  (Don't ask when I'll read them.  That's for another blog post.)  When Kindle books by established, traditionally-published genre authors cost $12.99 and up, all that free stuff is mighty attractive.

Often a four or five or nine book series is available for free.  Even if the writing is utter garbage, it's reading material.  And for the non-discriminating reader, the person who just lies on the beach or curls up on the couch to while away a few hours in another place and/or time, quality may not be a priority.

Do (traditional) publishers care about reviews?  Oh, maybe, as long as they're good reviews that promote the book and drive sales.  Publishers are less interested in quality and more interested in quantity; their only concern is the bottom line.  Publishers -- and of course this includes self-publishing authors and small press independents -- do not appear to care if the reviews are honest.  

Can a reviewer collect free books from NetGalley and post the exact same five-star review, not changing a single word, not indicating anything about the book, multiple times and get away with it?  Sure, as long as she has a 4.99 average rating on Goodreads over approximately 5000 titles.  No one cares if she actually read the books or liked them.  As long as she puts down at five-star rating, it's all good.  Three, four, five books a day, every day, five stars here, five stars there.  It's all good.

So then comes the third somewhat rhetorical question: Do the authors care?

Okay, that question goes beyond rhetorical and into facetious.

Authors, and particularly the self-publishing ones, only want five-star reviews.  They don't care how they get them, and they don't care if they're honest opinions or not.  They will buy them from fiverr and other shill outfits.  They will solicit them from friends and family.  They will establish sock puppet accounts on Goodreads -- less easily done on Amazon, but not impossible -- and rate their own books the best evah.  

They will insist that no one should ever rate a book -- especially their book -- negatively without reading the whole thing.  If the book is so bad the reader can't get past the second chapter, is the reader not allowed to say so? Apparently not.  Maybe it gets better in Chapter Five.  Or maybe not.  Regardless . . . .

No negative reviews.

They will insist that no one should ever post a one- or two-star review who hasn't also written a book, because only someone who knows the work that goes into writing can be justified in criticizing a fellow writer's work.  But they will also insist that no fellow writer should ever do anything but support a colleague.  So if you're a writer, you're only allowed to post positive, supportive reviews even if they're untrue.

No negative reviews.

Writers will say -- on Twitter, on Facebook, on Goodreads, on Amazon -- that they welcome constructive criticism.  Negative reviews are allowed (of other writers' work) if they contain suggestions for improvement.  Of course, the reviewer has no way of knowing if the author will pay attention to those suggestions.  And the writer has no idea if the reviewer is qualified to make those suggestions.  And then there are the readers: Do they want to take a chance that the author ignored the advice?  Do readers even know what's good writing advice and what isn't?

I know, I know, I know.  We've been down this road before.  At the end, we always come up against that great big huge gate where the reviewer is accused of being a gatekeeper -- or just a plain hater, or even a jealous hater -- and nothing is accomplished.  Turn around, go back the way you came, pick up another book that's got 1500 five-star ratings on Goodreads and hope for the best. If it's not the best, or not even good at all, don't say anything.  It's not allowed.

If you're one of those readers who has been discouraged from writing honest, critical reviews and who has increasingly turned to traditionally published books that tend to get more honest reviews or to old favorite comfort reads, do you ever wonder if there are new authors you might be missing?  Or do you weigh that loss against the risk of finding just another piece of crap?

Okay, that's not a rhetorical question.  It's legit.  Even though the odds against finding something good are rather high, there is always the slim chance of finding a good freebie.

But even less rhetorical is the question to the authors who aren't being read.  The authors who are being pressured to give away twenty thousand free copies of their books in the hope that someone will read them and give a good review and prompt other people to buy the book.  That question is, How do you feel when you see all the freebies going out and the five-star reviews coming in and you know the books are crap?

Which gets us back to the book mentioned in the opening disclosure.

I forced myself to read just about half of Sophie Love's The Ghostly Grounds: Murder and Breakfast before I gave up in disgust.  The first two chapters were lively and interesting, and introduced the main character Marie, who is 39 going on 12.  Marie is locked in a dead-end job -- the book's description paints her as a successful dog groomer in Boston, but she's a down-trodden employee of the groomer -- and in a dead-end relationship. All the dead-endedness comes to a head, and Marie quits both job and boyfriend and takes off for Maine.  She inherits a seaside mansion from her great-aunt and decides to turn it into a bed and breakfast.  Three weeks later, she's up and running.  Sort of.

Marie has no clue what she's doing. Though she claims to have had this dream of running a B&B since childhood, she's never apparently done any research on how to do it. She sets up a website in half an afternoon or so and expects reservations to come pouring in immediately.

How is she taking payments?  What laws govern B&Bs in Maine?  Does she have insurance to cover liability if her guests get hurt?  What is she going to do for money?

Most readers won't notice any of this and won't care.

I noticed and I cared.

She starts major renovations on the house almost immediately; where is the money coming from? Her savings?  She had savings working as a dog groomer?  

Her contractor quits, or just fails to keep showing up, and Marie does nothing for several days until finally his assistant just starts doing the rest of the work.  The renovations in question are not one- or two-day jobs, yet she's planning to have guests in less than a month.

Oh, there's also a dog.  Named Boo.  Halfway through the book I don't know if he's a ghost ("Canine Casper") or not.

Halfway through the book, there's no murder, no breakfast. 

Halfway through the book, Marie gets her first paying customer and he does something to upset her to the point that she runs out of the house and heads for town, leaving this guy alone in her B&B.  I'm not sure if she runs to town or drives -- she has an ancient but reliable Saab (they stopped production in 2014) -- but she gushes out her tale of woe to her friend and no one suggests she go back to her business and, you know, take care of business.

It's not just Marie who is, well, TSTL.  Her paying guest, Brendan Peck, is just as bad.  

“I’m a photojournalist on assignment to sort of… well… hold on. Let me start again. Because I only tell people I’m a photojournalist when I don’t want to embarrass myself.”

“So then what are you?”

Brendan sighed and said, “I’m a paranormal investigator. I’m on assignment for a television network

Love, Sophie. The Ghostly Grounds: Murder and Breakfast (A Canine Casper Cozy Mystery—Book 1) (pp. 80-81). UNKNOWN. Kindle Edition. 

He's on assignment.  He's some kind of professional.  He has some kind of experience.  Or at least that's what I thought.

But then he gets video footage of something paranormal inside the B&B and he posts the video to Twitter.

“I know, I’m so sorry. I should have gotten your permission first.”

“You really should have,” she said. She wasn’t angry… not yet. She was more disappointed than anything else. “Did you post where it was taken?”

He frowned, his eyes still on the ghost on his laptop. “Yes. But I can delete it! No harm, right?”

Love, Sophie. The Ghostly Grounds: Murder and Breakfast (A Canine Casper Cozy Mystery—Book 1) (p. 85). UNKNOWN. Kindle Edition. 
Of course, it's all going to work out in the end, isn't it?  None of his 31K followers will have seen it, other than the 26 or 27 who liked or retweeted it . . . .

That's when Marie runs out and leaves him there.  She runs into town -- I don't know how far it is and I'm not interested in looking it up -- to have lunch with her friend.  While they're eating, the reservations come pouring in.  Brendan's tweet has saved Marie's business!  The one she doesn't know how to operate!  The one she just literally ran away from!

That's when I gave up.

Those are the structural issues, and they're serious.  The stylistic issues are less serious, but they're not inconsequential.  At one point Marie reminisces about sliding down the balcony in the house when she was a child visiting her great-aunt who lived there.  No, one slides down a banister.  Marie constantly refers to the house as a "manor." Well, maybe it is, but there are other words, too, and just using manor over and over and over makes it stand out.  

These are fine details a good critique partner probably would have caught and fixed.  Or a good editor.  It's pretty obvious to this reader that Sophie Love had neither.

I can't leave a negative review on Amazon because I'm an author of romantic suspense/gothic romance.  I can't leave a review on Goodreads because I'm banned there -- for writing honest but negative reviews.

Mostly I write reviews for readers, because I believe readers deserve honesty.  They also deserve to know there are better books out there and they don't have to settle for crap.  Sometimes that means writing a review based on one page, which invokes all kinds of anger from the self-publishing authors.  The writing problems manifested on page one are almost never resolved later in the book.  Writing problems that manifest on page one are problems with the writer, and the writer doesn't change.

But now I'm also reviewing for writers.  For those writers who really do want to improve, who don't want to be relegated to giving away boxed sets of a dozen full-length novels or selling them for $0.99 on Amazon.  Maybe they're making a lot of money via page views on Kindle Unlimited, but if so, why are they giving the books away for virtually nothing?

The Ghostly Grounds: Murder and Breakfast might actually have potential. I got notice that there's been an update just since I downloaded it six weeks ago, but of course I have no way of comparing the two versions because Amazon will erase the old one when it downloads the new one.

I'll continue to write reviews like this.  Read and follow them if you like.  Respond if you care to.  I won't tolerate abuse, and I won't edit for free.

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

The Same Words, Over and Over, or why you need to be your own best editor

Reviews are for readers.  Writers should be readers.

Of course, not all readers are writers, but a sojourn into the swamp that is author-published genre fiction quickly makes one believe that many writers are not readers.

I often ask myself what attraction does writing have for a person who doesn't read?  Is it the prospect of easy wealth?  Fame?  The easy wealth thing is easily (pun intended) dispelled: Writing a book isn't easy and too few writers achieve great wealth.  Fame?  How many really famous writers are there?

Maybe some of these non-reading writers have read a book or two, enjoyed it, and thought they could do the same.  If they don't understand the basic structure of fiction, the rules of writing, the elements of style (without capitals), it's not likely that they will enjoy much success in the way of wealth and/or fame.  Those skills have to be learned, and they have to be learned through reading until they become a part of who and what the writer is.  It's not enough to lean on your middle school classroom writing exercises.  They may have taught you the rudiments of grammar and punctuation, but the writing of successful popular fiction requires much more than knowing when to use a comma and when to use a semi-colon.

Nor is it enough to rely on an editor.  If you don't have the requisite skills yourself, you won't be able to recognize their lack when you hand your book over to someone who claims to be an editor.

It doesn't matter what the editor's credentials are.  They may be a retired English teacher or a multi-published author.  What matters is your ability to determine if their editing will make your novel better or worse.

Let's look at the opening paragraph to one book as an example.  Even though we don't have the original text and can't see what the editor has changed, if anything, we can at least look at the final (?) result.

The book in question is Not in the Cards by Amy Cissell, published by the author in October 2018.

And we know this book has been edited because the author made sure to thank the editor!

Special thanks to my editor, Colleen Vanderlinden and my cover artist Daqri Combs for helping put together such a polished book. No woman is an island, and a writer is nothing without a great editor and fantastic cover artist.

Cissell, Amy. Not in the Cards (An Oracle Bay Novel Book 1) (Kindle Locations 66-67). Broken World Publishing. Kindle Edition.

Disclosure:  I obtained my copy of Not in the Cards when it was offered as a free Kindle book on Amazon on 21 June 2021.  I do not know the author nor have I ever communicated with her in any way about this book or any other matter.  I am an author of historical romance, contemporary romantic suspense, and assorted non-fiction.

Now, about that opening paragraph:

Sandy unlocked the front door to the little shop she’d just rented and pulled the string on the sign that hung in the window, the sign that had brought her here— to this shop, to this business, and to Oracle Bay. The buzz of the neon broke the near silence. She walked outside to look in at her shop. From the outside, the windows appeared to have been cleaned with shortening. A large triangle of yellow neon framed the words “Alexandra’s Tarot Readings.” A red Eye of Horus and the outline of three cards took turns blinking on and off at the top of the triangle.

Cissell, Amy. Not in the Cards (An Oracle Bay Novel Book 1) (Kindle Locations 76-80). Broken World Publishing. Kindle Edition.
As a reader, I came to the first line and saw Sandy walking up to the door from the outside.  I don't yet have any mental image of her or of Oracle Bay, but I do see her approaching the door from the outside.  She unlocks the door, walks in, and turns on the sign.

The "walks in" isn't stated, but I inferred it because that's the scenario my years of reading have prepared me for.  So when Sandy instead walks outside in the third sentence, I have to adjust my mental images.  It takes a tiny bit of effort to do that and settle into the new scene of Sandy standing outside, perhaps on a sidewalk, looking into her new shop.

I could understand the sign having brought her to the shop, but did the sign in the shop in Oracle Bay bring her to Oracle Bay?  I'm already figuratively scratching my head.  

She pulled a string, so now I'm envisioning a swinging sign, perhaps wooden, perhaps cardboard, that hangs in the window.  I have to alter that image when the author informs me it's a neon sign.  Now I think maybe "cord" would have been a better word than string, to indicate she's turned on a switch of some kind for this electric sign.

Then comes that third sentence where I realize she's been inside and walks outside.  Instead of additional information being revealed with each subsequent sentence to clarify an established mental image, the narrative keeps changing what the previous text has implied.

If the windows looked like they'd been "cleaned with shortening," are they cleaned at all?  Wouldn't "smeared" be a better term?  Are they  just dull or do they look greasy and dirty?  Shop windows that are made of acrylic sheets -- Plexiglas (r) and other trade names -- can easily be scratched when cleaned with anything abrasive and over time become dull and lose some of their transparency.  But that wouldn't make them look "cleaned with shortening."  Would it?

That description interrupts further description of the neon sign, again disrupting the flow of the text.

After just one paragraph, I'm having doubts about the qualifications of the editor.

Now, before you jump all over me for being picky, let me clearly state that yes, I am very picky.  And yes, it's possible for a writer to become very successful without my suggestions!  If you as that writer, however, aren't as successful as you'd like to be, maybe stop and step back from the emotional reaction to my criticism and look at the work -- it's not yours, after all -- objectively.

Did the editor make Not in the Cards so much better that there weren't obvious weaknesses?  Even if we don't know what the original version was, is this the best it can be?

The next two paragraphs are backstory, narrative explanations of how Sandy came to be here outside the shop.  I had some issues with the phrases "it'd belonged to" and "Sandy'd made" because I thought "it had belonged to" and "Sandy had made" would have flowed more smoothly, but they weren't big issues.

Then came 

She turned the sign back off, opened a bottle of wine, and grabbed the cheese and cracker plate she’d picked up at the local supermarket. She made herself a floor picnic, complete with a couple candles to help add light to the dim room, and toasted herself and her newfound freedom.
Cissell, Amy. Not in the Cards (An Oracle Bay Novel Book 1) (Kindle Locations 87-89). Broken World Publishing. Kindle Edition.

Wait, what?  When did Sandy go back inside the shop?  We left her standing on the sidewalk, but there isn't a single word about her going back inside.  Did she have to open the door again?  Why did she go out in the first place?

Was the action of going outside just a device for the author to introduce the sign?

An editor or even a good critique partner could/should have caught that.  It's not a major thing in and of itself, but an author should be able to make sure the characters' actions are fully and clearly understood.  I stopped reading when I came to that fourth paragraph and went back to carefully reread the preceding three to see if there was any mention of Sandy returning to the interior of the shop.  

There wasn't.

Interestingly enough, a few pages later, Sandy does the outside-and-back-in-again routine, but it's spelled out.

She walked outside and watched [the sign] cycle through its neon advertisement a couple times before shrugging. [Did the sign shrug?] It was what it was, and there was no going back now. 

Sandy went back inside, pulled a book out of her expansive beaded hemp purse, and sat down to wait for her first customer.

Cissell, Amy. Not in the Cards (An Oracle Bay Novel Book 1) (Kindle Locations 114-116). Broken World Publishing. Kindle Edition.

In due course, Sandy's first customer arrives.

Her breath caught in her throat as the woman paused

Cissell, Amy. Not in the Cards (An Oracle Bay Novel Book 1) (Kindle Location 121). Broken World Publishing. Kindle Edition.

The woman paused and squinted

Cissell, Amy. Not in the Cards (An Oracle Bay Novel Book 1) (Kindle Location 122). Broken World Publishing. Kindle Edition.

 the woman took a tentative step

Cissell, Amy. Not in the Cards (An Oracle Bay Novel Book 1) (Kindle Location 125). Broken World Publishing. Kindle Edition.

 the woman jumped

Cissell, Amy. Not in the Cards (An Oracle Bay Novel Book 1) (Kindle Location 127). Broken World Publishing. Kindle Edition.
the woman instinctively grabbed

Cissell, Amy. Not in the Cards (An Oracle Bay Novel Book 1) (Kindle Location 128). Broken World Publishing. Kindle Edition.

The woman blinked

Cissell, Amy. Not in the Cards (An Oracle Bay Novel Book 1) (Kindle Location 129). Broken World Publishing. Kindle Edition. 

 The woman hesitated

Cissell, Amy. Not in the Cards (An Oracle Bay Novel Book 1) (Kindle Locations 133-134). Broken World Publishing. Kindle Edition. 

note of the woman’s name.

Cissell, Amy. Not in the Cards (An Oracle Bay Novel Book 1) (Kindle Locations 135-136). Broken World Publishing. Kindle Edition. 

The woman did as requested,

Cissell, Amy. Not in the Cards (An Oracle Bay Novel Book 1) (Kindle Location 139). Broken World Publishing. Kindle Edition. 

the woman sitting

Cissell, Amy. Not in the Cards (An Oracle Bay Novel Book 1) (Kindle Locations 139-140). Broken World Publishing. Kindle Edition. 

This woman was

Cissell, Amy. Not in the Cards (An Oracle Bay Novel Book 1) (Kindle Location 142). Broken World Publishing. Kindle Edition. 

the woman as she drew

Cissell, Amy. Not in the Cards (An Oracle Bay Novel Book 1) (Kindle Location 143). Broken World Publishing. Kindle Edition. 

the woman asked.

Cissell, Amy. Not in the Cards (An Oracle Bay Novel Book 1) (Kindle Location 149). Broken World Publishing. Kindle Edition. 

Did you keep track?  If not, it's thirteen times in less than four pages that the client is referred to as "the woman."  Only once is she called a customer and one more time a client, as well as a few times by her name, which Sandy has learned is Ann.  The rest of the time she is "the woman."

Is this wrong?  No, not really.  But it isn't good.  It isn't polished and professional and evocative.  As a reader or as a writer, can you think of other words that might have been used?  Customer and client are valid possibilities, and each was used once.  What about "stranger"?  "Visitor"?  "Guest"?  Any others?

But the multiple repetitions of one word are only one thing that's awkward -- I'm trying to avoid saying "wrong" -- about this scene of Sandy welcoming her first paying customer.

Ann isn't her first customer.

Remember how the previous scene ended?   Sandy goes outside, comes back in, and waits for her first customer.  It's normal to assume, then that the woman who walks in the door in the very next paragraph is in fact that first customer.

Sandy prepares to do the tarot card reading for Ann, but in the midst of those preparations, we get this:

The clients who’d come in earlier that day had all been vacationers looking for some happy news.

Cissell, Amy. Not in the Cards (An Oracle Bay Novel Book 1) (Kindle Location 142). Broken World Publishing. Kindle Edition.
Wait, what?  

The mental sequence of Sandy settling down to wait for her first customer, reading a romance novel while waiting, and then greeting the woman who walked through the door as her first customer probably should have been revised.  The story action isn't flowing smoothly.  It's been interrupted by the reader questioning what she's already read.

Could the editor have suggested that Sandy reflect on her first couple of clients as being vacationers and that this tarot-reading gig was going to be a lucrative cinch before Ann comes in?  Well, if I were the editor, I certainly would have.  As a reader I noticed the bumpy sequence right away.  

Do most readers notice things like this?  To be perfectly honest, probably not.  If you look at the reviews and ratings author-published genre fiction gets on Amazon and Goodreads, the numbers skew very high.  Few of these novels average less than 4.0 stars, and the one- and two-star ratings are few and far between.  Is that because the books are so good?  Or is it because over the past few years negative reviews and their writers have been so often attacked?  Is it because positive reviews are encouraged?  Do readers who have negative reading experiences resist writing reviews because there are so many pressures not to?

One of the most common and most vociferously argued is "Don't write a negative review unless you've read the whole book."  And if the book is so bad you can't finish it, writing a review saying so is therefore strongly discouraged.  Result: badly written books don't get negative reviews.  Subsequent result: authors of badly written books don't improve because they don't know their books are badly written.  Or, in some cases, badly edited.

(As an experiment, look at some of the reviewers on Goodreads who don't leave reviews but post five-star ratings.  How many of them have very high average ratings, 4.5 and above?)

To continue.  The first chapter of Not in the Cards contains two detailed tarot readings, one that Sandy does for her paying customer Ann and another she does for herself.  Tarot cards aren't all the same; today there are dozens, maybe hundreds of different decks featuring themes such as dragons and witches, angels and fairies, dogs and kittens, and in styles such as Native American, feminist, pagan, and so on.  To someone even slightly familiar with the Tarot, the lack of description of the deck used and especially of the individual cards that turned up in Sandy's readings was noticeable.  

Sandy is apparently using "her old college tarot cards" (Cissell, Amy. Not in the Cards (An Oracle Bay Novel Book 1) (Kindle Locations 83-84). Broken World Publishing. Kindle Edition.)  Nothing between that statement and her ushering Ann in for a reading suggests Sandy has obtained any other tarot deck.  So the reader doesn't know if the deck Sandy obtained in college is the familiar Rider-Waite deck or some other.

The reader is also assumed to be familiar with the cards and with the whole method of tarot divination.  None of that is given the slightest explanation in the text.

For instance:  What does it mean when a card is reversed?  What is the Celtic cross layout?  What does The World card look like?  What does The Fool card signify?  What are pentacles and cups, wands and swords and rods?  (I assume she meant rods and wands to be interchangeable, but I don't know for sure.)  A novel doesn't have to give all the details, but it should give . . . some.

I managed to get through the first full chapter but wasn't enticed to read further.  There were other minor issues that bothered me in addition to those cited above.  The one that stood out most was Ann described as 

her skin was the rich shade of brown.

Cissell, Amy. Not in the Cards (An Oracle Bay Novel Book 1) (Kindle Locations 123-124). Broken World Publishing. Kindle Edition.

"The" rich shade of brown?  Is there only one?

I can overlook the occasional punctuation/capitalization/grammar error, but things like that pull me right smack dab out of the story into  "Huh? Ugh!" territory.

Not in the Cards was published in 2018 but only has 26 reviews on Amazon, and 64 ratings on Goodreads.  When it was offered free on 21 June 2021, it shot up to #20 in the Kindle Free listings, so it will be interesting to see how many reviews it picks up on both Amazon and Goodreads as a result.




Saturday, June 19, 2021

Words of Confession, but not Words of Guilt

I have a confession to make:  I used to review books online under another name in order to hide my identity.

My confession is not complete, however.  I won't tell you the name I reviewed under or where online I reviewed.  All the books I reviewed were traditionally published romances, so all you self-publishing authors who think you know who I was on GoodReads or Amazon or anywhere else can quit hating on me now, because that wasn't me.  I never reviewed self-published authors.

It all happened quite innocently, and somewhat desperately.  

In the late 1990s I worked with a woman who had connections in the mystery publishing business.  Review websites were still pretty new, and she was trying to establish a group of reviewers who could read books quickly and provide semi-professional quality reviews on a reliable basis.  She received anywhere from fifteen to twenty books a week, sometimes more, directly from the publishers.  They wanted quality reviews and they wanted them on a timely basis, generally within a week or two of the books' arrival.  There was no compensation other than the free, usually hardcover books.  The idea was that the books could then be sold -- this was before eBay so I'm not sure where they would have been sold -- and the proceeds provide income.

At the time I joined her stable of reviewers, she had half a dozen people lined up.  She had me select three or four books from the stack on her living room coffee table, which I did.  The reviews, she told me, were due back to her in a week, which would give her just enough time to reformat the email text for the website.  I dutifully read the books, wrote my reviews, and emailed them back to her.

 She was overjoyed.  It wasn't that I had read the books and written the reviews and got them back to her in time.

"You actually know how to write a review!" she told me over the phone.  "A review isn't a book report!  How many more can you do?"

I think I did a total of ten or twelve for her in that first bunch, and one or two more similar batches before the whole operation collapsed.  Her stable of reviewers proved unreliable and full of excuses.  The local web person she hired couldn't maintain the website.  Her husband lost his job and she had to find something more remunerative than the part-time retail work both of us were doing at the time.  The publishers stopped sending her books.

Thus ended my second stint as a book reviewer, circa 1997.

But I wrote those reviews, as well as the ones I had done for Rave Reviews magazine in the late 1980s, under my own name.  The pseudonymous reviews came later, in the very early 2000s. 

I had given up on writing fiction and gone back to college in 1998, but after graduation, I was having difficulty finding a full-time job.  One night while cruising online, I stumbled on a website devoted to romance novel reviews.  All the reviews were gushing; nothing got less than four big red hearts.  The Big Name Authors always got "I'd give this ten hearts if I could!  It's wonderful!"

This bugged me, because I had read some of the books and thought they were, um, less than wonderful.  I also noticed that authors who weren't household names usually got only a paragraph or two about their books, but the aforementioned BNAs always got a nice big long review.  I went looking for other review sites.

This was entirely an exercise in curiosity.  I had been away from the writing game for five or six years or more and had no intention of going back to it.  I'd been away from RWA just as long.  But I remembered that stint of reviewing mysteries and thought gee, maybe I could review books online again and make some money selling the hardcover copies.  After all, now there was eBay!

I had reviewed science fiction and fantasy as well as non-fiction for Rave Reviews and mysteries for the now-defunct website of 1997, so I didn't limit my search to just romance.  As luck would have it, however, I found a website devoted to romance novel reviews that actually advertised they were in need of reviewers.  More books were being published each month than they could handle, and both authors and publishers were pushing them to review more.

I offered my services, but for a couple of reasons, I did so under a pseudonym. 

The main reason was that of course I still had a history in the romance publishing world.  I didn't want someone at Kensington or Leisure to complain that I only gave their author a bad review because I was still angry at the publisher. (I never had any bad feelings toward either house; Pocket Books was another matter entirely.)

Nor did I want the powers that be at the website to limit my choice of books based on my history as an author.  So I sent them an email using a spare AOL address just to see what happened.

A few days later, I got a reply. They asked me to write a sample review of a readily available romance novel -- not some obscure thing that they couldn't check -- and they'd get back to me.  I'm not sure, but I think I reviewed Judith Ivory's Black Silk as my audition.  [I don't know her, have never met her, have never had any communication with her]. Regardless, about a week later I got a reply that yes, they would love to have me as a reviewer.  I needed only to select three or four titles from the list provided and give them a mailing address to send the books to.

I expected, from the website's frequent comments about publishers applying pressure for timely reviews, that the books I ordered would arrive forthwith, but in fact it wasn't until several weeks later that the first batch of books arrived.  They were a mix of historical, contemporary, paranormal, even chick lit.  Once again, I dutifully read and reviewed them, and emailed back my reviews as quickly as I could.  

The chick lit didn't get a very good review from me, and only 2- stars.  I still have it, as a matter of fact, and just looked it up on GoodReads.  It was published in 2002, so well before GR started, but it doesn't have great ratings there, and the few text reviews cite some of the same problems I had with it.

The other three titles in that first batch earned from 3- stars to a full 4.

Anyway, I continued to review for this website for a little over a year, sometimes as many as nine books a month but usually only four or five.  I never ever reviewed books by authors who had been friends of mine during my active writing days, and only once did I review a book by an author I had met even casually.  Not all my reviews were posted online, though the ratings were.  Disagreements with my reviews were posted in comments, but for the most part my opinions were non-controversial and generated no heated arguments.  As far as I know, not a single author contested any of my reviews.

The only serious complaint I received was from a publisher/editor who objected to my 2-star rating of a contemporary single-title romance.  Without giving the title or identifying details here, I will just say that I defended my rating on the basis of the heroine having left one abusive relationship and jumping right into another; I had no quarrel with her starting the affair while still officially married, but the new guy was as much a jerk in his own way as the old one.  

I had given a couple of 1-star reviews, but no one objected to those.

Almost all the books I received were paperbacks, not hardcovers like the mysteries.  A few were bound ARCs/uncorrected proofs.  Though I didn't sell any of the books for cash, I did trade some of them -- most of the contemps, chick lit, and paranormals -- at a local used book store.  This was not a money-making proposition for me, but it was fun.

Until it stopped being fun.

The website was going through a major revamp.  I had never received any requests or orders or anything else to get a review done more quickly, but suddenly these emails starting coming once a week.  "Where's the review for X?  The publisher wants it up tomorrow ahead of next week's release date."  "Can you do a rush on Y?  The author is taking out an ad."

I still got to choose the books I wanted to review, but what came in the mail often didn't match my requests.  I stopped getting historicals altogether, and often there were lots of paranormal extras, despite my repeated notes that this was not my preferred genre.  I continued to read all the books and write all the reviews, but it was becoming more like work than entertainment.  Sometimes the emails expediting reviews referred to books I hadn't requested and which hadn't even been sent to me! [It was one of these "extras" that was by an author I had met during an RWA conference, and I felt very uncomfortable writing the review, but I did it and was as honest as I possibly could be.]

Then came the day I got The Really Terrible Book.  I will only tell you that it was a vampire romance, chock full of graphic violence on page one, and incredibly poorly written.  The author was fairly well known, the publisher well established.

It was the first book I couldn't finish.  In fact, I couldn't even get past the first few pages.  I tried.  I really tried.  It was terrible.

I am right now in the middle of reading a book that's very difficult for me to read, and for a lot of reasons.  Eventually I'll finish it and write some kind of review, and I'll detail why it's so very unenjoyable. But it's not terrible.

The Really Terrible Book never got that far.  I wrote an honest review based on what little I had read and emailed it with my apologies. Almost immediately, someone wrote back to me demanding I finish the book and write a "legitimate" review.

I never responded to that email because I just didn't know what to say.  I finished reading all the other books, wrote all the other reviews, and promptly emailed them.  I never heard from the administrator of the website again.  About half those final reviews were posted, but not The Really Terrible Book.  In fact, that book was never reviewed on that site as far as I know.  I have no idea why. Did no one else like it enough to write a full, legitimate review?  I don't know.

The website is still in operation, though it has changed its format considerably since I did my last reviews for them.  I recognize a few of the reviewers' names from that time, but of course I have no idea if those are their real names or if someone else has come along and is posting under those pseudonyms.

So, what's the point of this post?

Two things.

First, even though I was honest in my reviews, and always stated (as required by the website) that I had received a free copy of the book for review, I always felt guilty not admitting that I was a published romance author.  As far as I knew, none of the other reviewers on the site were either, and in a way I felt better not kind of lording it over them.  Their opinion as readers was every bit as valid as mine.  But I still felt I was deceiving the readers.  That's a good part of the reason why, when I was reviewing on Goodreads and later on BookLikes, I always made clear that I was using my real name and that I was published in certain specific areas.  

That would come into play all too often when a negative review prompted the response, "Yeah, well have you ever tried to write a book?"  I at least could say yes, I had written a book.  Several in fact.  Not that it silenced the critics; they just turned it around to "Well then you should have more sympathy! You should be more supportive!"

In a way, you just can't win.

Second, revisiting this episode reminded me how important honest reviews are, especially the negative ones.  Of course they're important for readers, because that's who they're supposed to be serving.  But . . . .

A few days ago, one of my fellow writers on Twitter emailed me with a recommendation for a book to read, written by a mutual Twitter acquaintance.  The email hinted -- or perhaps I just inferred -- that the book's author could use some positive reviews to boost sales.  I wrote back that it wasn't a genre I particularly like, and since I don't review on Amazon or GR, what good would my reading it do anyway?

"You can review it to me," the return email said.  "I won't even tell her it's from you."

But then it's not a review; it's a critique.  That's what she -- the author, not the mutual who was emailing me -- really wanted.  She wanted someone to read her book and tell her why it wasn't selling millions of copies.  (I assumed it wasn't, anyway, based on its ranking on Amazon.)

After a few more of these emails, I gave in at least to the point of looking at the book in question.  In a lot of ways, including genre, it reminded me of The Really Terrible Book I had refused to read so many years ago.  That confirmed my refusal.  I wrote back, "I don't do private critiques for authors for free.  I got in enough trouble posting public reviews on GR for badly written books, and I'm still not entirely recovered.  I won't lie to her and tell her it's good if it's not. [I hedged; it's not.] I don't need another butt hurt author attacking me online and stalking me all over the place just because I dared not to love love love love love their book."

That was from the last email I sent, late Thursday evening.  As I write this now, it's Saturday evening, and I have received no reply.  I assume the discussion is over, and I'm in the doghouse because I refused a request from a "friend" to help out another "friend."

If before today I still felt any lingering shred of guilt for those pseudonymous reviews from roughly 2002 to 2004, I no longer do.  A review is an opinion, not a pass/fail grade that determines the author's career trajectory on the spot. Regardless who I was or what credentials I had at the time, my online reviews have always been my honest opinion.  Whether I was reviewing mysteries as Linda Hilton before Amazon or anything else as Linda Hilton after Amazon/Goodreads/BookLikes, I only ever gave my honest opinion.

What bothers me, therefore, is that someone with whom I've interacted for several years on social media believed I could be persuaded to be dishonest.

I joke around a lot about having an "I hate everyone" day, but today I really do. Tempering it with "the usual exemptions" doesn't even seem adequate this time, because it's one of the usual exemptions who made me feel . . . used.

If you're an author looking for "feedback," start by reading the negative reviews of other books in your genre.  Read a lot of them.  Don't dismiss the criticisms as coming from jealous haters or people who have never written a book or ignorant assholes who don't understand the author's sublime perspective.  But don't ask me for my opinion.  No, not even with an open checkbook; I'm not for sale at any price.

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Haunted Words

The effective demise of BookLikes as a viable venue for book reviews and conversation prompted me to spend some time -- okay, a lot of time -- archiving my own posts from the site.  Most, of course, were book related, but not all.  And because the site was not wildly popular and didn't have a huge readership, not much if any of my stuff got circulated outside the platform.  I wasn't terribly worried about the somewhat personal posts reaching a wider audience and maybe getting me into trouble, even though I had no idea what kind of trouble they could get me into.  If, for instance, I mentioned real people's names, it was in the context of publicly-available information.  Otherwise, names and other identifying details were changed to protect me as well as the unknown-to-others "them." 

Finally, having removed almost all of my posts, I didn't quite know what to do with them, but they were secure on my home computer.

I did, in fact, use a couple of them as the basis for some Patreon posts, but for some reason or other I'm still uncomfortable with Patreon.  Maybe I've just been a part of online communicating too long -- right around 30 years -- and it seems icky to require payment for my general blatherings.  I mean, I'm no one special.

Expecting payment for my books is different.

So I just leave it to people to pay me if they want or read my musings for free if they choose.  Somewhere or other I have a Ko-Fi account, but I don't know what it is.

And that's probably all I'll say about the monetary thing.

Much more important to me is to be able to share some of those musings, for good or otherwise.  

Though Hallowe'en is quite a long way off yet, a few days ago I was put in mind of a tale -- a true tale -- I posted on BookLikes in 2017.  There's no good reason why I can't post it here, with some follow-up for good measure.

 So here goes.

Cuba Road has been called by some the #1 Creepiest Road in Illinois.  I was on Cuba Road once, in the summer of 1965.  I saw nothing ghostly, but the experience did have some uncanny details that defied logical, rational explanation.

That was the summer before my senior year in high school.  I was "going steady" with Wayne, who had graduated from another suburban high school and would be attending the University of Illinois in the fall.  We had met at a local teen "night club" called The Cellar in my home town of Arlington Heights, Illinois.  One Saturday in August, Wayne and I went to one of the lakes in the Lake Zurich/Barrington area with some friends.  After a day at the beach, we all decided to go to a movie at the 53 Drive-In in Palatine.  Wayne and I went with another couple, Rich and Carol.

 [This is the photo originally posted to BookLikes, but I have more and better screen shots now.  The 53 Drive-In has been closed for decades.]

Several of our friends joined us, both individuals and couples in a veritable parade of cars; the four of us doubled in the white 1960 Ford that belonged to Rich's dad. Rich drove, with Carol in the front passenger seat.  Wayne and I were in the back seat.

Normally Wayne and I would have been in a car by ourselves, but Rich was excited because the Ford was going to flip over 100,000 miles, so we joined him and his regular girlfriend Carol in order to watch the odometer flip.

Though the day at the beach had been splendidly sunny, the weather that night was oppressively hot and humid and threatening to storm.  Throughout the movie, huge clouds were billowing to the northeast, illuminated with frequent flashes of eerie pink and purple lightning.

At some point during the movie, a few of the guys got together to talk about the possibility of visiting another friend who had just returned from an extended stay in California.  These were the days, of course, before cell phones or any other quick communications.  Whoever this other friend was, no one seemed to have a phone number for him, but several of the guys, including Rich, knew where he lived, and it wasn't too far from the drive-in.

Carol had a particular concern about the time.  Her dad insisted that she be home by midnight, and he didn't tolerate excuses.  She made it clear in the discussions about going to this friend's house that it not be so far and we not stay so long that she wouldn't get home on time.  Rich assured her that she would not be late.

We left the drive-in around 10:00 p.m.  Rich explained that it wouldn't take more than ten minutes to reach this friend's house, and he promised we wouldn't stay.  Carol's house was only a few miles away in the other direction; even if we didn't leave until as late as 11:30, she would still be home in plenty of time.

When we left the drive-in, the Ford had about 15 more miles to the flip point.

The house we were heading to was in a new housing development, which proved to be exactly where Rich said it would be.  But the streets within the development weren't laid out the way either he or Wayne remembered.  Wayne tried to give additional directions and provide additional information from the back seat, but both of them admitted they hadn't been to this friend's house for quite some time and there had been more houses built and nothing looked the same as they remembered it.  Plus it was dark, very dark, and they couldn't find the street or the house they were looking for.

Nor could they find any of the dozen or so other friends who had left the drive-in with us.  Whether they had left earlier than we and were already at this guy's house or hadn't yet left, we didn't know.  We saw none of them in the housing development, though we seemed to have cruised every street.

The lightning was intensifying.  More frequent, a deeper and brighter purple against blacker and blacker clouds.  We couldn't hear any thunder, but we felt it.  The air grew heavier, more electric.

Somehow or other, we had been driving through this subdivision for ten or fifteen minutes and had managed to get somewhat lost.  Even though it wasn't yet 10:30, Carol started to panic a little.  Both Wayne and I were leaning over the back of the front seat, watching for that odometer to flip.

In the mid 1960s, there were still farm fields in the Palatine/Barrington/Arlington Heights area, and when Rich ran out of paved streets, he drove out of the subdivision onto a narrow tractor track into the surrounding cornfield, with the intention of finding a convenient place to make a U-turn to find our way back to the main highway.

To our consternation, there was no convenient place to make a U-turn.  The tall corn closed in upon the tractor track.  The hard-packed dirt was pocked with bumps and holes, forcing Rich to slow the Ford to a crawl.  Corn stalks scraped the sides of the vehicle.  Even the headlights seemed to grow dim as the ground and the encroaching crop soaked up every bit of illumination.  Backing up wasn't an option, and there was no place to turn around.

After a while, the corn gave way to more open country. but there were no landmarks, and the only light was that creepy pink and purple lightning overhead.  No roads.  No houses.  No buildings.  No lights.

The car reached its 100,000 milestone, and we watched the numerals roll over from 99999.9 to all zeros, but our excitement was tempered by the realization that we were . . . lost.

Rich didn't dare drive more than 5 or 10 miles an hour, because the path -- it wasn't really a road -- was too rough.  Carol was on the verge of tears, because we were headed due east after having driven several miles due north -- totally the opposite direction from her house.  As the miles began to rack up after 000000, she got more and more frightened of what her dad would do when she didn't show up on time.

I was the only one with a watch, but there wasn't enough light in the car for me to even see what time it was.  The dome light was burned out, and the car's clock didn't work.  Our only way to estimate the time was by the number of miles traveled and the speed at which Rich was driving.  When the odometer reached 000025, we knew it had to be at least 11:30.  There was no way Carol would be home on time.

Then, finally, we spotted other lights.  There was a road up ahead, with cars going in both directions across our path.  Not a lot of them, but enough that we knew we were closing in on civilization.

When we got closer, we discovered there was something blocking our way:  A gate.

It was a big wooden farm gate made of wide, weathered boards nailed together in a frame and criss-cross pattern, with barbed wire stretched between the boards and the heavy iron posts the gate was fastened to.  The gate was much wider than the "road" we were on, wide enough to accommodate a large piece of farm equipment wider than the tractor track.  And in the middle of the gate was a black and yellow stop sign.

US stop signs used to be black and yellow like other road signs, but by 1965 they'd all been switched to red and white.  The old black and yellow signs had been retired years and years before.  Yet here was one, a relic from the past.

Rich stopped the car.  We could see that just a few yards on the other side of the gate was a well-traveled main road.  Though traffic couldn't be described as heavy, cars zipped by in both directions.  So close!

I don't know who first saw the other tire tracks, but what we quickly discovered was that although the "road" we were on went straight through the gate to join the highway, there were faint tracks that veered off to go around the gate.  Rich had to back up and swing the car a bit to the right, and in the headlights we saw that the gate wasn't attached to any fence but just to those two big posts.  It was just there, blocking the road for no apparent reason at all.  Carefully, concerned that there might be a ditch to hang up the car or hidden barbed wire, Rich drove around the gate and back onto the farm track for the last few yards to the highway.

Not knowing exactly where we were, we had to figure out whether to turn right or left on this road, this nice, paved, two-lane country highway, to get us back to Carol's home in Palatine.  While we were discussing -- not really arguing but close to it -- our options, one of us noticed that there was an ordinary street sign on the other side of the road from where we were stopped.  Rich waited until there was a break in traffic, then drove across so the Ford's headlights shone on the sign.

According to the green and white reflective signs, we were at the intersection of Aptakisic Road . . . and Old Cuba Road.

A little ways down the road -- to our right as we had come off the farm road -- was another sign, this one announcing that the town of Long Grove was just ahead.

We knew now where we were.  We knew now how to get back to Palatine.  We also knew we had traveled some 30 miles at no more -- and often at much less -- than 10 miles per hour since 10:30 p.m.  But there was nothing we could do about it.  Rich pulled the car onto the highway and headed south toward Long Grove and, ultimately, Palatine.

Someone, maybe Rich, suggested we stop at a gas station or someplace that had a pay phone so Carol could call home and at least let her parents know she was late and hope her dad would go easy on her.  Her tearful response was that it was already too late.  If she weren't home by the midnight deadline, her dad would simply lock the door and not let her in.

But as we drove through the lights of Long Grove or whatever little town we hit, I finally had sufficient light to read my watch.

What I saw wasn't possible.

My watch registered 10:45.

There was no way we had racked up that many miles in fifteen or twenty minutes, or even half an hour.  Or even a full hour.  No way.  Not as slow as Rich was forced to drive.  No way.

Old Cuba Road.

The obvious explanation was that my watch had stopped.  Except that it hadn't stopped.  

Above is the map as I posted it on BookLikes in 2017. Aptakisic Road is essentially a continuation of East Cuba Road.  The two meet at Old McHenry Road, also known as IL-83.  The 53 Drive-In was at the intersection of Rand Road and IL-53, south of Dundee Road (just below the "E" in "Google").

The roads on the map above are as of 2017; they were undoubtedly very different in 1965, but I remember the route we took once we got onto the highway.  After going through Long Grove, we took IL 53 (which wasn't the multi-lane monstrosity it is today) to Dundee Road, then west into Palatine proper and Carol's house.  Carol jumped out of the car and ran up to her front porch, where the light was still on, before 11:30.  Her dad opened the door, let her in, and waved to the three of us still in Rich's car.

It hadn't happened.  It couldn't have.  But it had.

The next day, Sunday, all of us went to the beach again.  The first topic of conversation was that no one was ever able to find that friend's house, but no one else got lost looking for it.  The second topic of conversation was our sojourn . . . on Old Cuba Road.

But that wasn't the end of the story.

Wayne had picked me up Sunday morning; he was driving his own car, so it was just the two of us.  Heading to the lake, we retraced the route Rich had taken the night before.  We never found that intersection of Old Cuba Road and Aptakisic.  We even turned around and drove back to search, but there was no street sign, no farm gate, no farm road.

In broad daylight, none of it was there.

Sunday night, coming home from the lake, we drove that route again, and again saw nothing of the signs, the gate, nothing.

Everyone at the beach knew about Cuba Road's reputation for haunting, though no one had any specifics.  No one had ever been on it, no one knew anyone who had been on it -- except Rich and Carol and Wayne and I.

Forty years later, when I was back visiting the area in 2004, my dad would tell me even he knew Cuba Road was haunted, and had known about it when he was a teen, but he had no details.  What little I've learned since then has come by way of the internet.  During that bizarre drive in August of 1965, we had seen nothing that resembled ghosts or eerie lights, not even a gate or sign identifying a cemetery.  I never knew about any of that until 2004, after my dad talked about it.

Wayne and I broke up a few months later, got back together briefly, then broke up for good in the fall of 1966.  Seven or eight years after that, after I myself had married and moved to Indiana, I heard that he had married the girl his mother wanted him to marry, but I wasn't interested enough to try to verify.  Rich and Carol got married a year or so after the Old Cuba Road incident, and I heard they had a baby but then divorced.  I have no idea what happened to any of the rest of the group of thirty or forty friends we hung out with.  Rich's last name was far too common to conduct any kind of internet search on him; I looked for Carol once via her maiden name, but with no luck.

I've never been on Cuba Road again.

But the sign we saw did not say "Cuba Road."  It very clearly read "Old Cuba Road."  There's no "Old Cuba Road" on the map.  The hauntings allegedly happen on Cuba Road, not on Old Cuba Road.  Satellite images more than the map show that there's little if any farming country left along East Cuba Road.  

I have no idea what happened to us, or even where for sure it happened. Go figure.

In February 2009, I happened to be back in the area for my mother's 80th birthday.  I rented a car and drove out to that area in search of some other remembered places.  I hadn't been there in at least forty years, but I never got lost; my sense of place and direction was intact.  I thought briefly of trying to find Old Cuba Road again, but then I remembered the stories I'd read on the internet.  I didn't go looking.

I have no explanation.  None at all. I just know it happened.

Friday, May 7, 2021

Words in Review: Picture Perfect Murder and Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder, and then what happened

Full disclosure:  I obtained a Kindle copy of Picture Perfect Murder by Jenna St. James when it was offered free on Amazon.  I borrowed a Kindle copy of Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder by Joanne Fluke via Amazon Prime.  I do not know the authors nor have I ever communicated with them in any way about their books or any other subject.  I am a traditionally published author of historical romances, and self-published in contemporary romantic suspense and miscellaneous non-fiction.

Further disclosure:  I read both books in their entirety.

Review of "page 1" is here.

Openings are important.  If the opening of your book fails to hook the reader, you aren't going to be there to urge her to take a second look, read a few more pages, give the story a chance to develop.  The sooner you grab her interest, the less chance you have that she'll give up. Remember, there are hundreds of other books out there for her too choose from.  You can't count on her being one of those readers who reads everything and loves it; she might be, or she might not.

If, however, she does continue to read, you now have to continue the story.  All the rest of it is the ". . .and then what happened" part of the book.  At any point in that ". . .and then what happened," your reader still has the opportunity to give up, quit, toss it aside, DNF* and WNRTAA**.

(*DNF = Did Not Finish; **WNRTAA = Will Never Read This Author Again.)

Readers come to your book with expectations, and this is especially true for genre fiction.  The two books currently under discussion are categorized as "cozy mysteries," which means they are expected to follow certain conventions.  These include, but are not limited to:

1. Generally a small-town or rural setting.

2. Murder but not too gruesome, and generally not committed on the page.

3.  Amateur sleuth who has informal connections to law enforcement but is dismissed by them, until of course she gets lucky and solves the crime for them.

Both Picture Perfect Murder and Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder take place in small towns.  In the former, Ryli Sinclair tells us on page 1 that she lives in "my small hometown of Granville, Missouri."  She works for the local newspaper, so we learn right away that she qualifies as an amateur sleuth.  Hannah Swenson operates a cookie bakery and coffee shop called The Cookie Jar in her hometown of Lake Eden, Minnesota.  

Picture Perfect Murder opens with Sinclair called in to take photographs of a murder victim.  

 This dead body was spread out over the kitchen table, naked from the waist up, covered in blood, and missing a heart.

St. James, Jenna. Picture Perfect Murder (A Ryli Sinclair Mystery Book 1) (Kindle Locations 57-58). Kindle Edition. 
Because this is on page 1, it kind of breaks the rules/conventions/guidelines of the cozy mystery genre regarding the gruesomeness of the murder.

Hannah Swenson, on the other hand, doesn't even discover the murder victim until page 23 (of 289), at the very end of Chapter One.  All the preceding pages are devoted to background information about Hannah, why she's come back to Eden Lake (from somewhere else), about her family, about her cat, about her bakery, about every detail of her morning from six o'clock to approximately half past eight, when she finds the deceased.

Ryli, on the other hand, did not herself discover the body, but has been called by the police to take photographs.  After the announcement on page 1 of the murder, she (in first person viewpoint narrative) proceeds to dump a bunch of background information, primarily about herself and about the chief of police, who is on the scene as well.

Both books suffer from the same problem: The author fails to integrate background information with action.  Ryli is there in the kitchen -- whose kitchen? -- with various police officers and a mutilated corpse, but she stops the action to give some of her own history, the chief's history, her sexual attraction to him, and so on.

Is any of this background information, as presented in both books, absolutely necessary?  Maybe some of it is, or will be, but almost none of it is necessary at this point.

The key to keeping your reader reading is to mix necessary background information with action and/or dialogue.

The writing of a novel involves three distinct skill sets, two of which you may even remember from high school.  A hundred million years ago when I was in high school, those skill sets were labeled "Form" and "Content," and every paper we turned in was graded separately on each aspect.  "Form" was the writing technique skill set: the grammar and spelling stuff.  "Content" was the meat of the paper.

In writing a novel, "Form" is still the grammar and spelling, the punctuation and proofreading.  "Content" becomes the plot and story construction.  But then there's "Style," something our high school teachers didn't bother too much with.

A novelist's style consists of how she tells the story.  Does she stop the action to give fashion show descriptions of each character's wearing apparel?  Is she able to give each character a distinct voice and personality?  Are the characters' actions and interactions rational and justified?  Does the whole book have an internal consistency that allows the reader to believe this story could really have happened?

This can almost be summed up as: Was this book easy to read, hard to put down?

One page leads to another and another.  The flow of words and action is so smooth that there aren't any convenient stopping places.

Both Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder and Picture Perfect Murder had far too many places where the reading became difficult and the books became easy to put down.  I nearly gave up on Picture Perfect Murder several times because there were either stylistic absurdities or internal inconsistencies.

For instance, were Ryli and the chief of police, Garrett Kimble, actually dating?  Did she just have the hots for him but hadn't gone out with him?

I tried staying clear of him when he first came to town… mainly because he makes the spit in my mouth dry up. Whether it’s from sheer terror or sexual frustration, I don’t know, but more and more lately I’ve been thinking of finding out.

St. James, Jenna. Picture Perfect Murder (A Ryli Sinclair Mystery Book 1) (Kindle Locations 81-83). Kindle Edition.
suggests in the first scene that she's not had any social interaction with him.

Just a few pages later, when Ryli is snooping (!) in Kimble's office, he comes in and we get this:

I was almost nose-to-chest with him.

He reached out and lifted a curl from my shoulder, winding it around his finger. “Leave the investigating to me.”

St. James, Jenna. Picture Perfect Murder (A Ryli Sinclair Mystery Book 1) (Kindle Locations 282-284). Kindle Edition.

Later, Ryli and Kimble have been invited to dinner at her brother Matt's house, and she is arranging to leave work early to get ready for this "date." The following conversation takes place among Ryli, the owner of the newspaper she works for, and the owner's wife:

“What’s going on?” Mindy asked.

I didn’t know if I should tell her. After all, she’s my friend, but she’s also my boss’s wife. What do I say? That I’m going home to shave my legs because I may or may not fool around tonight.

“I’m going to Matt’s tonight for dinner,” I said. “I wanted to stop by the store so I can bake a dessert.”

Hank snorted. “One death this week isn’t enough?”

“Bite me,” I said.

Mindy laughed. “Hank! Be nice. So just the three of you?”

I stared at her. How does she do that? Like she knows I’m hiding something. “No. Garrett is picking me up. We’re going together.”

Mindy squealed. “You know what this means, right?”

“It means she’s probably gonna go and get herself knocked up,” Hank growled.

St. James, Jenna. Picture Perfect Murder (A Ryli Sinclair Mystery Book 1) (Kindle Locations 587-597). Kindle Edition.
Ryli is the newspaper's only employee, filling the roles of reporter as well as photographer.  Granville is described as a town of some ten thousand population; the paper is a weekly.  Ryli also helps Mindy with the layout of the paper.

So, okay, newspaper owner Hank is a jerk; no real boss in 2015 would be able to get away with that kind of comment to an employee.  But there are other aspects of Ryli's employment at the newspaper that just didn't ring . . . right.

Picture Perfect Murder has a copyright date of 2015.  When I worked for a small town weekly paper in the late 1990s, the staff numbered about 20: six or eight reporters, at least one full-time photographer, two editors, four office staff, five of us in the layout department.  Some layout was still done manually then, but much was already computerized.  There's no way Granville's weekly can be put out with a staff of three.  

Then there's this, as Ryli is finishing her photographing of the opening crime scene:

Half an hour later I finished off my last roll of film. I took plenty of pictures because after my run-in with Kimble, I didn’t want to take any chances of not getting everything possible.

St. James, Jenna. Picture Perfect Murder (A Ryli Sinclair Mystery Book 1) (Kindle Locations 173-175). Kindle Edition.

After Ryli leaves the murder location, she heads to the police station, to which she has a key.

I rifled through my keychain until I came up with the key to get into the station. Claire, the dispatcher for the graveyard shift, should be inside. Running the last few feet to the door, I unlocked it

St. James, Jenna. Picture Perfect Murder (A Ryli Sinclair Mystery Book 1) (Kindle Locations 218-220). Kindle Edition
Why is she at the police station?

“Hey, Claire. It’s me, Ryli. I wanted to drop off the rolls of film for Chief Kimble before I went home.”

St. James, Jenna. Picture Perfect Murder (A Ryli Sinclair Mystery Book 1) (Kindle Location 222). Kindle Edition.
Apparently Ms. St. James doesn't know about digital cameras.  I'm not a professional photographer, but even I have had a digital camera since 2003. 

These are the things that take a reader out of the story.  Most readers won't notice.  Most readers just see the words and turn the pages.

But here's something interesting I found just today.

This book was published in 2014; over the past seven-plus years, it has garnered over 5000 ratings on Amazon for an average of over 4.5 stars.  On 7 May 2021 (today) the Kindle edition of the book is offered free.

The second book in the series is priced at $4.99.  Though it was released almost seven years ago, it has only 400 ratings for about the same average.

 Looking at the third and fourth books in the series, the number of ratings has continued to decrease.

This doesn't necessarily mean the books aren't selling, but it does suggest that fewer people are reading -- and liking -- the books.

Looking at the 1-star reviews for All Eyes on Me gives the impression it's the form and style that tend to turn people off enough to leave a negative, rather than the content, or story/plot. 

Remember, I'm only one critic.  My word is not the final judgment on your writing.  I may be totally wrong, and your book that breaks all the rules may turn out to be the next million-seller.

The odds, however, are against you.  

As Stephen King has written:

And no matter how much I want to encourage the man or woman trying for the first time to write seriously, I can’t lie and say there are no bad writers. Sorry, but there are lots of bad writers.

King, Stephen. On Writing: A Memoir Of The Craft (p. 141). Scribner. Kindle Edition.