June 2, 2016
Traditional publishers will probably never embrace independent authors as equals. They will be loath to admit that the terms of engagement in this ongoing battle are changing, that the combatants are becoming more equal, and that some authors even find a way to go “hybrid.” It’s becoming increasingly clear that the trads are losing the high ground they once held in the area of editorial standards.
Examples of bad editing crop up more and more in the traditional world. For example, there are few authors more successful at traditional publishing than Anne Rice. She also specializes in the hottest subjects in fiction, vampires and werewolves. Yet Floyd Orr, editor of the long-running review site PODBRAM, and a rabid Rice fan, reports: “Anne Rice’s 34th book contains more errors than I have ever seen in a top-selling, traditionally published hardback! There are errors of every kind: repeated common words, misused spellings of words that are real words that actually mean something else, misuse of tense, and various other types of boo-boos. What do these errors all have in common? They are the sort that appear in books because human eyes did not read and reread and proofread the text before publishing it. There was an obvious reliance on computer programs to find the errors. Was this by Ms. Rice, her editor, or Knopf in general? Who knows?” Floyd kindly goes on to point out that the error count of Rice’s book easily surpasses those of several of the self-published books he has reviewed, including my own Handmaidens of Rock.
Trads were guilty from the start of not fighting this war honestly, but things have progressed to the point that self-published authors don’t have to suffer the same nonsense anymore. They can take or leave “friendly advice” from self-appointed arbiters of what deserves to be published. No doubt these experts will persist in warning us against “vanity” publishers, a term that should have been deep-sixed years ago. We can now call out websites that masquerade as help for the self-published, but are actually designed to discourage us. Certainly there are bad self-published books, but the argument that we’re all equally bad doesn’t hold water, any more than the argument that traditional publishing guarantees quality.
Several years ago, I sent my 2007 novel, The Rock Star’s Homecoming, to a site called “The Self-Publishing Review,” a blog run by an author who’d had a fair amount of success in publishing non-fiction. Some speculated that her generic-sounding name might be a pseudonym to protect herself from backlash. Certainly the name of her blog was misleading. Once I had read a sampling of her “reviews,” it became clear to me that these were something else altogether. By any fair standard, a reader who purports to provide a review must, at the very least, read the book. Her object was to throw cold water on authors by subjecting them to the kind of treatment they would receive if they sent their manuscripts to a “legitimate” publisher. Admittedly, that might be a useful service, but it was not what she advertised.
To be fair, she warned us: “I’m an editor, and expect published books to be polished. I’m going to count all the errors I find in spelling, punctuation and grammar and when I reach fifteen I’m going to stop reading. I’ll work my way through up to five pages of boring prose or bad writing before I give up.” Despite that stern warning, I felt okay about sending her my novel, although it had to be shipped overseas at some expense. I’ve been something of an editor myself during many years of technical writing for the Federal government. I knew I had gone over my novel carefully and that it had been edited by professionals.
My book, like almost every other that this hot-shot editor “reviewed,” was discarded after about seven pages because of alleged mistakes. I was sure there were not fifteen errors of the type she warned against in the whole book, much less in the first seven pages. When I asked for an explanation, she admitted that there was nothing wrong with my “spelling, punctuation and grammar” per se. My sin was “exposition,” apparently a common complaint against self-published authors, and a handy one if the arbiters can’t find more obvious mistakes.
What does this sin consist of, exactly? Wikipedia defines exposition as “the insertion of important background information within a story; for example, information about the setting, characters’ backstories, prior plot events, historical context, etc.” The article quotes fantasy and science fiction author Jo Walton on the importance of “scattering information seamlessly through the text, as opposed to stopping the story to impart the information.”
My problem with this criticism, legitimate though it might be, is that famous authors do it with impunity. I pointed out that two of my favorites, Pat Conroy and Gail Godwin, tend to not even start their stories until the scene is thoroughly set. If any arbiter tried to impose rules on them, about exposition or anything else, they’d laugh in that person’s face. Ah, the arbiters say, but there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it. All I conclude from this is that it’s always wrong when self-published authors do it.
What about the credentials of these arbiters? Despite their successes in the non-fiction realm, they tend to be sitting on piles of unpublished novels like everyone else. Ironically, that’s where they’re offering their harshest criticism. Since self-publishing is for losers, they disdain that route—although they might admit to putting excerpts of their novels on the Internet, as if that were not a form of self-publishing.
We’ve all heard plenty of those traditional “success stories,” touting the efforts of authors who kept writing and rewriting the same story for fifteen or twenty years, submitting it to numerous agents and publishers, revising and starting over to suit each new critic, perhaps even trying to re-envision their stories as plays or screenplays. Sometimes two decades of effort and perseverance are indeed “rewarded,” but that’s not my idea of success. How many other stories could these authors have been writing during those endless years spent twisting their original vision a hundred different ways to suit one critic after another? Was the original inspiration even recognizable by then? Fortunately, no one has to settle for this kind of treatment any more. The fight rages on, with one of the combatants, in my opinion, looking increasingly desperate.
December 5, 2015
These days I feel an urge to occupy something. As a progressive from the school of aging baby boomers, I find the current political climate and level of discourse in the US increasingly scary. As far back as I can remember, political institutions have never been as dysfunctional as they are now. We baby boomers have a tendency to exaggerate our exploits and insist that we used to be more astute and involved than today’s kids. Back in our day, we stopped the Vietnam War, invented civil rights and women’s liberation, pulled off Woodstock, and accomplished much of this while half-stoned. My Republican parents tried to steer my brother and me toward their brand of conservatism, but it didn’t work. The “Greatest Generation” and its values were just too different.
My parents’ party has now gone off the rails, as they would agree if they were still around. The two front runners for the 2016 presidential nomination as of this date are astoundingly unqualified for high office. The more childish and bizarre their pronouncements, the more their fan base cheers. Worse, they’ve managed to intimidate more mainstream Republican candidates into adopting equally crazy or demagogic positions. Listening to these gentlemen debate, I wait in vain for the rare reasonable statement based on verifiable facts, or a policy proposal that could actually be implemented, or even a message that isn’t hate-filled venom. That is a very low bar for our national politics.
It’s a relief to have a forum where I can state my beliefs plainly, but it’s not a good technique for writing fiction. Since my stories tend to harken back to my youth, politics has a way of sneaking into them. Critics justifiably warn us of the dangers of turning what should be entertaining stories into polemics. Two of my novels feature fictional presidents who are corrupt and bellicose, and are obviously Republicans. Still, they don’t hold a candle to the real-life buffoons of this day and age. You couldn’t make up candidates like Trump and Carson. It’s even getting difficult for comedians to satirize them, as the reality almost matches the caricature. My writing inevitably reflects my beliefs and career experiences from over 40 years in government and quasi-government, but it’s best to keep these things understated while telling a story. I prefer to think I’m standing up not for a particular candidate or platform, but for reason and compassion.
My 2003 novel, Secretarial Wars, was inspired by my first permanent job after college. I spent more than five years during the 1970s at the Fulbright grants program, an international exchange program for scholars. My novel describes an agency called, somewhat ironically, the Peace Council. It’s an organization that awards grants to send professors and researchers overseas to disseminate American values. My heroine, Miriam, is a secretary at the Council and an aspiring investigative journalist on the side. She suspects that the program is serving to mask a corrupt administration’s interference with the political and economic systems of certain vulnerable nations.
Nothing like this ever happened in real life, to my knowledge. But it could have, if an evil deputy director got into bed, literally and politically, with an evil President. Miriam tries to gather enough evidence to write an explosive article for an underground rag, but she is hampered by her conflicting desire to advance in the organization, as well as her unhealthy attraction to the lecherous newspaper editor. One reader who critiqued Secretarial Wars thought the corrupt president was inspired by George W. Bush. It’s true the book was published during W’s term, but it took so long to write that the era it depicts more closely resembles his dad’s.
In Let’s Play Ball (2010), I mixed up sports and politics, to the confusion and disapproval of some critics. The story centers on fraternal twin sisters Jessica and Miranda, baseball fans since childhood, close but competitive in their personal relationship. Jessica is the founder and editor of an innovative sports magazine, while Miranda has a more traditional but important job as a bureaucrat in the Department of Homeland Security. While they share a liberal outlook, Miranda accuses Jessica of taking her beliefs to an extreme, especially when the intense reporter sets out to investigate her suspicions of racism on the local baseball team. Jessica’s Cuban-born fiancé, the right fielder, is soon to be a free agent, and she fears he won’t get the contract offer he deserves from the biased owners. Then her world blows apart when he is kidnapped from his own ballpark after a season-ending game. Now she envisions a vast criminal conspiracy in which the team owner and his daughter are complicit.
My astute critique group accused me of using Jessica to lecture my readers about the insidiousness of racism. I was preaching to the choir in that group anyway, they pointed out. But how can that be, I protested, when Miranda is the viewpoint character, and she rolls her eyes whenever Jessica gets too strident for her? Furthermore, Miranda is friendly with a few of the teammates whom Jessica has pegged as racists, and is having an affair with one of them. Even so, my friendly readers insisted, we can hear your political voice bellowing through.
Politics turned out to be unavoidable in Handmaidens of Rock (2014), my tale of a young musical trio and its groupies. I tried to recreate the turbulent era of my high school and college days, the late 1960s and early 1970s. Wherever their budding careers take them, the musicians can’t escape the threat of a military draft. Scared and confused, they write and perform both peace-and-love and militant songs. The threat of violence follows them, and real bombs go off around them. This was an era when radical leftists co-opted the antiwar movement with their bombings and crime sprees, giving all of us who protested the war a bad name.
I recently finished reading Days of Rage (2015), Bryan Burrough’s fascinating account of the political violence that permeated that era. He quoted at length Joseph Conner, whose father Frank, a 33-year-old banker, was killed in the infamous Fraunces Tavern bombing by Puerto Rican radicals. The younger Conner deplores current efforts to rehabilitate some of the self-styled revolutionaries of that era on the grounds that they’ve lived exemplary lives since then. “To think that America thinks none of this ever happened, that it’s not even remembered, it’s astounding to me. You know, I blame the media. The media was more than happy to let all this go. These were not the kinds of terrorists the liberal media wanted us to remember, because they share a lot of the same values. They were terrorists. They were just the wrong brand. My father was murdered by the wrong politics. By leftists. So they were let off the hook.”
I agree with Joseph Conner up to a point. The bombers and bank robbers of that era were indeed terrorists. But I disagree with his assertion that liberals are incapable of calling these criminals by their right name, when I know many of us do. I’d like to see more right-wingers who are equally capable of condemning the bombers of abortion clinics. Political messages delivered with hate lose any high ground they ever had, and become more pernicious than the wrongs they claim to be fighting.
September 15, 2015
When I self-published my first novel, Secretarial Wars, in 2003, the industry was less advanced than it is now, and both readers and reviewers were hard to find. Only a few were willing to take on my fairly long and complicated tale, inspired by my own secretarial experiences, friendships, and romances when I was a twenty-something in Washington, DC. The story focuses on three women, aged 24 to 35, with 27-year-old Miriam as the viewpoint character. There are numerous secondary characters, especially gossipy office colleagues and troublesome boyfriends.
I was fortunate enough to attract a thoughtful, if rather brutal review from a reader based in England. She did say, encouragingly, that she “enjoyed the banter between the three friends and wanted to know what would happen to them.” But that was somewhat negated by “lack of pace and over-complexity of plot.” In short, I was accused of writing a saga when the chicklit-style story didn’t support it.
The three friends, I must admit, are rather bumbling, as the reviewer said. She complained of too many details about “American football matches” that the girls take in, mostly for the purpose of trying to meet players after the games. Nobody can say the women aren’t ambitious in their own ways, yet the reviewer accused them of lacking “gumption.” Miriam, for example, wants to write an exposé that would blow her own government agency out of the water, yet fails for months to uncover the corruption simmering at her workplace. Perhaps overly cautious, she can’t afford to lose her job for the sake of investigative journalism.
The reviewer complains that “there are far too many characters for a story that is neither a saga nor a blockbuster.” But how, exactly, does a story qualify as a saga? Does it have to be multi-generational, like The Forsyte Saga, or about a family caught up in historic conflicts, like War And Peace? Can’t my story be a mini-saga, since the girls do manage to shake up their own little corners of the nation’s capital?
Maybe the places where they hang out are just too seedy. At their favorite night club, which one of the girls co-manages, they get to hobnob with a second-tier elite, including a faded football star and an underground newspaper editor. The climactic scene of the story features a fundraiser held at the club for a long-shot Mayoral candidate. Things get out of hand, and the girls end up spending the night in jail. Through all their tribulations, they don’t really resolve anything, except to grow up a bit. So how often do we start out writing stories that feel like epics/sagas/blockbusters at first, only to fall a little short?
July 2, 2015
Several months ago, The Washington Post carried a heartbreaking story by Cynthia McCabe about a struggling writer, Dennis Williams (alternate name: Katry Rain) who became despondent and suicidal when he concluded that his writing life, and consequently his entire life, were finished. Williams published one book with a small press, had one play produced, and self-published several “philosophical” works and novels based on that philosophy. He was also a teacher of English in Japan, apparently popular with his students, and had garnered some press attention many years earlier with a stunt to protest the Nixon administration.
But the writing success that he longed for wasn’t forthcoming. In a heartbreaking “give-up” gesture, he dumped a load of his unsold books on the doorstep of a used bookstore under cover of darkness one night. Eventually, he planned his death and announced it in advance, e-mailing several prominent journalists, all strangers to him, one day in advance. Was this a ploy to get the attention he’d never had? If so, it was somewhat successful, but he didn’t stick around to enjoy it. He threw himself off a building, exactly as he said he would. He wasn’t interested in being talked out of it (although at least one of the journalists sincerely tried to). Nor was he forcing anybody to read his work. He was just “done.”
Can struggling writers learn anything from this sad story? I don’t believe “struggling” has to mean “despondent.” Most of us learn to embrace the struggle. If our wildest dreams are punctured, we settle for more modest success. Williams seemed to have failed even with his forays into social media, which in my opinion should be nothing but fun. He had very few “likes” on his pages, much less “friends.” I suspect he was desperately seeking the approval of followers instead of trying to get to know them.
As for his novels, Cynthia McCabe tried to read them sympathetically, only to pronounce them didactic and boring. He must have cared more about lecturing readers about the “truth” than entertaining them. A writer has to decide which is more important. If we’re not mesmerizing as many readers as we would like, can’t we at least entertain ourselves? And why should we ever consider ourselves through with writing as long as we’re alive and there are still stories to tell? My advice, if you ever feel devoid of ideas, is to check out the daily newspaper. It’s depressing as hell most of the time, but it’s a panorama of life, full of all the agony and ecstasy you’ll ever need for inspiration.
June 15, 2014
I’ve avoided reading bad reviews for a while now. I’ve heard too many cruel jibes about my 2010 novel Let’s Play Ball, which admittedly has a complicated plot. Recently, via Google, I discovered a couple of not-so-bad reviews. A few readers have had the patience to stay with the story until it resolved itself. At least they admit there is a story. But I recognize that complex plots, with lots of characters, need simplifying if we want them to be made into movies … and who doesn’t?
I submitted all three of my novels to professional screenwriters who attempted to transform them into cinematic products. I was warned in advance that large portions of the original stories would likely end up on the cutting room floor, as movies require a more streamlined plot and cast of characters than novels do. So how much do I miss the parts that had to go?
There was no getting around the fact that Let’s Play Ball needed simplification, although the basics were spared. It’s about a Cuban-born Major League ballplayer who is kidnapped from his own ballpark and transported back to his homeland. His sportswriter fiancée and her fraternal twin sister, sometimes assisted and sometimes impeded by the police, set out to discover who did it, and why. My story involves collusion between two filthy-rich and powerful owners with political connections that reach as far as the White House and the Cuban government. A militia movement assists with the kidnapping for its own racist reasons. The smoking gun is revealed via an Oval Office tape, secretly recorded by the President’s girlfriend as punishment for his perceived betrayal of her. Along the way, there are plenty of other sexual hi-jinks.
The screenplay, by contrast, boils down the evil governments and militias to single individuals with simpler motives than world domination. For example, a mechanic named Ricky tampers with a player’s motorcycle. He has no notion of trying to expose Oval Office chicanery. He’s merely working for a baseball owner whose motive is preventing an embarrassing revelation about steroid use on his team. The evil owner, whose son-in-law is a U. S. Senator, isn’t exposed via secret tapes. Instead, his daughter confronts one of the avenging twins, who possesses damning evidence against her, in the bathroom at a political fundraiser. This leads to the arrest of both owner and daughter in front of a roomful of supporters.
I’m not saying a book should try to be a movie, as they are vastly different animals. But my story became more cinematic by acquiring visual settings: a Congressional hearing room, a press conference, a raucous fundraiser. Eye-catching images were added: a smashed vehicle, a woman throwing out a first pitch, a car alarm that creates a distraction outside a ballroom. Not to mention the hot lovemaking, which I suspect would come across even hotter on the screen than it does in the pages of the novel.
January 17, 2014
One of my favorite novelists, Pat Conroy, has written a couple of memoirs that explore the roots of his fiction. The latest one, The Death of Santini, tackles the most painful source of his inspiration, the brutal treatment he and his siblings suffered at the hands of their father, a Marine Corps fighter pilot.
Conroy was always destined to be controversial, with such an array of dark and violent subjects to choose from. His first book, The Boo, was originally self-published (something we indies can take to heart). His second, The Water Is Wide, described his experience as an inexperienced teacher in an impoverished African American elementary school. His methods got him fired after a year, and his indictment of the segregated school system provoked a fair amount of outrage in the South. Since then, Conroy has continued to deal with the hot topics that roiled the nation during the 1960s, such as southern racism, civil rights, and the Vietnam War. He also tackles the most personally sensitive topic imaginable: his own experiences with mental illness, including the psychosis of a sister, the suicide of a brother, and his own periodic breakdowns.
Conroy’s writing tends to be lush and metaphor-filled, something that many so-called experts frown on. Certainly we indies get slammed if we’re perceived to be too flowery. That’s why I was delighted to read his blast against the naysayers: “I trained myself to be unafraid of critics, and I’ve held them in high contempt since my earliest days as a writer because their work seems pinched and sullen and paramecium-souled.”
A paramecium-souled critic! Has anyone ever put it better? I’m certainly not knocking constructive criticism, which authors need, but haven’t we all encountered our share of these paramecium souls? Don’t we know what it is to be willfully misunderstood by readers who refuse to suspend disbelief long enough to accept our vision? That kind of automatic dismissal precludes thoughtful judgment and lends itself to nit-picking. And don’t even get me started on the hordes of anonymous trolls who feel qualified to write a “review” based on a two-minute skimming.
Conroy also goes on to explain why he doesn’t write reviews, or at least bad ones: “I made the decision to never write a critical dismissal of the works of another brother or sister writer, and I’ve lived up to that promise to myself. No writer has suffered over morning coffee because of the savagery of my review of his or her latest book, and no one ever will.” We could all take a lesson from those words: a thoughtful critique is one thing, a hatchet job quite another.
June 9, 2013
I’ve never been a fan of crime mysteries in books or movies. All the shootings, blown up buildings, and car chases are plenty exciting but don’t lend themselves to the kind of character development I like. However, since I’m always looking for ways to expand the scope of both my reading and writing, I recently downloaded two classic examples of film noir on Kindle HD, “The Maltese Falcon” and “The Big Sleep.” I’m trying to see how much I can sympathize with detectives Sam Spade and Phillip Marlowe, both portrayed memorably by Humphrey Bogart.
How good are these stories at character development? It seems to me that the detective game forces the crime-solvers to be as diabolically clever and immoral as the crooks they chase, until the two are barely distinguishable. Spade and Marlowe fool around with attractive women clients and are at various times being investigated by the conventional police for the very crimes they’re trying to solve. For my money, neither cops nor crooks are particularly believable. Still, they can be intriguing in their mysteriousness. It’s the acting that brings the characters to life.
What’s astounding to me is that these two classics have many of the same flaws that we self-published novelists are constantly criticized for. The plots are complicated and full of exposition-spouting characters who act foolishly and whose motivations aren’t always clear. “The Big Sleep” in particular seems intent on driving its viewers crazy, dropping red herrings and murdered bodies all over the place. The main plot line involves a chauffeur to a rich family who is in love with the younger of two wild and beautiful daughters. He has apparently (although we can’t be sure of anything) murdered the blackmailer who holds her gambling debts, and then apparently ends up getting murdered himself. Then his murderer is murdered, and so on, except that in a few of these incidents it’s possible the wrong guy got murdered.
So if classic mysteries aren’t all that perfect, why can’t we self-published authors catch a break from reviewers when we try something similar? I made somewhat of an attempt at a crime story in my novel Let’s Play Ball, published in 2010. It has a kidnapping at the heart of it, but the real story is about the relationship between fraternal twin sisters who are buffeted by this event. The “whodunit,” if you can call it that, ultimately involves nefarious doings in high government places. It evolves into a political scandal that takes a long time getting resolved, and imperfectly at that. The main point is that the sisters, after enduring a rough patch, rebuild their relationship and incidentally, their marriages. Thus the book turns into the same old chicklit, which is what I like. I believe in the book, but it gets mostly scorned by reviewers. I can hear them asking: where’s the mystery?