March 3, 2017
I’m an ardent sports fan, so it’s hardly surprising that three of the four novels I’ve self-published so far deal with sports teams and their fans. It’s challenging, to say the least, to describe the drama and excitement that live games can produce. My attempts along these lines are based, somewhat loosely, on actual DC-based baseball and football teams that I have known and loved over the years. Accordingly, the question has arisen: how permissible is it to use actual names of sports teams in a fictional work?
Most legal experts who give advice on this subject seem to think it isn’t a big deal, unless one of two situations applies: you’re a famous author whose use of the name is likely to attract widespread attention, or you have a beef with the organization and are attempting to sully its reputation. Neither of these situations is all that likely to come up in a self-published novel, or at least to be noticed by many readers. In any event, there are far too many books published each year for the legal profession to monitor.
Nevertheless, this issue is getting more attention in the self-publishing industry than it used to. In my 2003 novel Secretarial Wars, football is a peripheral part of the story, merely a stimulant to the secretaries who follow the team as fans and cherish hopes of meeting the players. My editors back then made no objections to my using the actual names of longtime divisional rivals, the Washington Redskins and the Dallas Cowboys. I didn’t use real names for my star players, although I suspect their real-life counterparts would have been easily identifiable to a long-time fan.
Fast forward a few years, and it seems the self-publishing industry has advanced far enough to take the trademark and libel issues almost as seriously as traditional publishers do. So by the time I published my third novel, Let’s Play Ball in 2010, I was advised to change the names of the baseball teams I had referred to in the original manuscript. Thus, the Washington Nationals became the Washington Filibusters, and the Miami Marlins became the Florida Keys. The story includes a well-traveled player who managed to wear the uniforms of both New York teams in the same year. They were supposed to be the Yankees and the Mets, separated only by a long subway ride, but they were called something else.
Now I have a novel-in-progress, tentatively entitled “Sycophants,” in which football is a more integral part of the story. It revolves around a movie producer operating in Washington, DC, who is married to a star football player for the Redskins. The success of her current film-making endeavor depends at least partly on the fortunes of his playoff-bound team.
By the way, I’m sidestepping the entirely separate debate currently raging about the name “Redskins,” a team moniker which has been in use in Washington since 1937, and four years before that in Boston. It seems likely that modern racial sensitivities would prevent a new team from receiving that nickname today, and would also preclude many other team names and mascots that are still in use. I sympathize with those sensitivities, up to a point. I’m a progressive when it comes to politics, but I’m not a big fan of political correctness. In cases like long-enduring nicknames, I feel that context is everything. These names have sentimental associations and historical significance to fans. By some accounts, the original Redskins nickname was intended to honor a member of the Sioux tribe who coached the team during its Boston days. Further, polls have shown that Native Americans, who presumably have the most at stake in this debate and the most reason to be offended, actually care very little.
That leaves me with a nagging temptation to call my fictional team by a genuine, 84-year-old name. Somehow, it makes the team I’m writing about more real to me. It also complicates matters by being set in a past, around 1990, that many fans can remember. How confounding would it be to give them an altogether different past from the real one? Since it’s fiction, I can theoretically do anything I choose. Still, an author depends on the willing suspension of disbelief, and messing with that can be dangerous.
December 2, 2016
Remember the good old days when strict gatekeepers had total control over what got published? It wasn’t all that long ago, when you think about it. Some of us still have scars from trying to crash those gates. Getting slapped down by relentless rejection was bad enough, but what about all the rules that these guardians of literature enforced? If we were fortunate enough to get replies from them at all, we’d receive a dressing down about all the strictures we had violated in our pitiful attempts to write. We would not merit a second glance, much less true consideration, until we mastered the various commandments they had set up to keep the barriers in place.
There were various telltale signs, the gatekeepers said, that pegged you as an amateur. One of these was overuse of adjectives and adverbs. Well, maybe the occasional odd adjective could be allowed, they conceded, but adverbs were strictly verboten. Likewise, if a character said something, he or she could only say it. No declaring or exclaiming or expostulating. And no exclamation points, ever! Above all, we must avoid overwriting and exposition, two deadly sins that went hand in hand. But even the masters do that, I might protest. What about John Updike with his multiple metaphors, and Pat Conroy with his lush descriptions? But those are famous guys, I was told. They get to play by their own rules, or none at all. Someone without a name had to grab the reader’s attention on the first page, if not the first sentence, since even in those pre-social media days, there were distractions at every turn to keep people from reading. In fact, the average attention span was so minuscule that if a prospective reader didn’t get instantly hooked, he couldn’t be blamed for turning on the TV rather than proceeding to page two.
Prior to the advent of self-publishing, when it seemed next to impossible for a beginner to publish a novel, I tried my hand at a few short stories. It proved equally difficult to penetrate any but the most amateur story markets, the type that paid in copies of the magazine. I decided the only way to get beyond the endless “not suitable for us, but good luck” responses was to pay for advice from a reputable source. I sent several stories to a critique service run by the editor of a well-regarded literary magazine. She tore them to shreds, although not without offering tidbits of encouragement here and there. She offered to go on working with me, since I showed a hint of promise. I didn’t take her up on that offer, since I soon gave up trying to write stories and instead decided to work on novels, which would at least offer a greater reward if successful. My critique contact likewise gave up criticizing stories, saying she was inundated with too many bad ones. She, too, decided to concentrate on longer manuscripts.
I recently reread one of the stories I submitted to this service. It was called “Cheryl’s Lunch Hour,” and was based on what I thought was a clever, if somewhat implausible plot twist. It centers on a Federal government secretary in her mid-twenties, who is mentoring her sister, twenty-year-old Rosie, a gifted dancer. Both girls live with their parents, who are fairly unimaginative about the sisters’ goals. Cheryl frequently uses her lunch hour to take an arduous trip from her Washington office to the Maryland suburbs to watch Rosie rehearse for an upcoming small theater production. She believes in her sister, although she is embittered by her comparatively boring job and a jealous streak she can’t quite suppress, since she once had theatrical aspirations herself.
One day, Cheryl runs into a talent scout outside the theater who mistakes her for her sister. For a fleeting minute or two, Cheryl wonders if she can utilize this instance of mistaken identity for her benefit. Maybe if she dieted and practiced, she could dance again herself, with perhaps less skill but with a depth of maturity that her sister does not yet possess. Her head explodes with dreams. Could she possibly carry off this deception? By the time she gets back to her job (which she had had dreams of quitting on the spot), she’s shaken off the fantasy and resumes her main chore of typing spreadsheets.
No doubt I put both the story and the critique aside for many years because the criticism was harsh. Was my critic too enamored with little rules? Perhaps, as she jumped on every instance of sentences close together that repeated common words and phrases such as “she,” “the,” “it is,” and “there was.” She pointed out the redundancy of sentences such as “She scolded loudly.” She denounced as a cliche the opening device I used of the main character waking up in the morning with yesterday’s problems swirling through her head.
I violated plenty of bigger rules as well. I was scolded for having no hint of the central story problem on page one. In my critic’s judgment, the story lacked a sympathetic viewpoint character, since “Cheryl is jealous of her sister, yet wants to use her to feel good about herself.” But she’s not a total bitch, I protested, just discontent with her life and understandably envious of her talented, younger sister. Is she any less sympathetic than the pedestrian parents or the arrogant, oblivious Rosie? It seemed the critic found all of them pretty despicable, except perhaps the superior at Cheryl’s office who has agreed numerous times to cover for her during her prolonged lunch hours. Even he has an ulterior motive … to start a relationship with her. “Central characters and villains shouldn’t be all good or all bad,” my critic lectured, rather obviously. Additionally, what I considered the clever trick of the tale, the case of mistaken identity, was judged to be unrealistic. Maybe so, I thought, but for crying out loud, it’s fiction.
It got worse. Most painful of all was the critic’s judgment that the prose tended to be “unnatural in both narration and dialogue.” My heroine was in the habit of delivering long monologues. For example, she sarcastically describes her State Department job to her father, a higher-up in the department: “You may think all I do is type operating budgets for the Weapons Evaluation Division. But I have the secret knowledge that keeps the operation going. Nobody else in that office knows how to set up charts on the computer. You think it’s easy getting those huge numbers to fall into neat columns? If I were to quit today, I don’t know what you administrators at Main State would do without your nifty charts. And if you didn’t have those numbers always at hand to feed to the negotiators, what would they bargain with? That might be the end of any hopes for world peace in our time!”
Have I gotten better at this stuff over the years? I knew even then that my critic made excellent points. It was kind of her, after all that, to find a shred of hope for me as a writer. Nowadays, I choose to look on the bright side. If I cringe at my earlier efforts, it must mean I’ve improved, at least a little.
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.
February 26, 2016
Nobody needs to be told by now that self-publishing and marketing novels is no picnic. We all knew that from the start. Some of us have been at it for more than a decade now, and it hasn’t gotten much easier. True, there is far more acceptance for our efforts than there was at first, and that’s a great development. The drawback to that, of course, is that there’s also far more competition.
The trouble with enduring truisms like “it’s no picnic” and “it never gets easier” is that there are some indie authors who are making it look easy. Although it’s still like winning the lottery, there are a handful among us who’ve mastered the art of the self-published best-seller.
How do they do it? It’s not that they have more time than the rest of us, because many are encumbered with jobs and families like “ordinary” people. It helps if the jobs are flexible and the families are understanding, but that isn’t always the case. Some of these self-sustaining authors are generous enough to explain their methods on KindleBoards and other sites. What they do requires writing fast, and writing a lot of books, often in a series. These hot-shots seem to have enough physical stamina to stay up all night if they have to in order to meet some self-imposed goal, possibly one book every two months. I’d have to guess that they’re decades younger than I am, as well as much more into currently hot genres like zombies, sci-fi, apocalyptic, and historical romance. If they’re particularly lucky or prescient, they hit on a winning formula the first time, something involving characters or a fantasy world so compelling that it only needs to be tweaked slightly in order to churn out numerous sequels. They build up a fan base that is enthusiastic enough to forgive a lack of arduous editing. That is not to suggest that just because these books are done fast means they aren’t good. If they weren’t serving a need for readers, they wouldn’t sell.
Even those authors who are making real money with their ventures are not easily satisfied. I come across plenty on the Boards who complain that they “only” sell a hundred or so a month, a result which sounds mighty good to me. In fact, selling 1,000 a year would be a pretty good result for self-publishing. It would enable most authors to cover the investment they made in advertising and printing, with maybe coffee money left over. The problem for the truly ambitious is that it’s not a living. The real measure of success among the aspiring big sellers is to be able to quit their day jobs. Or better yet, attract the notice of one of those traditional publishers who have proven themselves perfectly capable of swooping in to reap the benefits of an indie author’s preliminary hard work.
How do you pursue goals like this if your writing style doesn’t lend itself to speed? You probably can’t. I’ve always preferred mainstream fiction to genre fiction, and I like it to be “literary.” My favorite novels take their time unfolding, and emphasize character development over action. That’s what I try to emulate. I was greeted with incredulity on the Boards when I said I had taken three to four years to write each of my novels. They have numerous characters and complex plots that hopefully fall into place for a reader patient enough to stick with them. I’m still not good enough at writing to do it fast. I make outlines, but don’t stick to them. I run my stories piecemeal through a tough critique group. Even after I have a whole product, I reread it relentlessly and put it through several rounds of editing from outside critics.
So what’s your reward, if wealth and fame seem out of reach because you’re just too slow? It can only be the personal satisfaction of doing the best work you’re capable of, no matter how long it takes.
August 12, 2015
Like most amateur writers, I wrote a couple of novels that were disastrous, meandering failures before I managed to produce one that at least had an identifiable beginning and end, and something of a coherent narrative. I thought these early attempts were great, at least while I was writing them. I didn’t yet have honest critics to tell me otherwise. Only when I started listening to those tough-but-fair opinions did I start to improve.
I see now that these early monstrosities broke every literary rule in the book. Not that I’m a stickler for rules, especially now that I’ve self-published four novels that probably continue to break a lot of them. Traditional publishers are always trying to convince us outsiders that there are all kinds of rules that we’re constantly violating, and that’s why they dismiss us out of hand. Only they can let us in on the secrets that make their authors successful–and only if they choose to. The only problem with that theory is that I often catch my favorite traditional authors breaking those so-called rules with impunity. They’d laugh at the notion that they should follow any vision other than their own.
Nevertheless, I realize there are common-sense tricks that you can ignore if you like, but at the risk of putting your readers to sleep. One of these is knowing when to “show” and when to “tell.” I once tried to write a novel called Sycophants, about a record and film production company based in New York. Besides not knowing much about the subject matter, I seemed to have a real flair for showing when I should have been telling, and vice versa. For example, there’s a scene in which a dynamic African American preacher bowls over a roomful of mostly white football wives, who never saw his like before. How does the reader know he bowled them over? Because I said so! I thought the reader should take my word for it.
Even worse than this is the wooden dialogue, which sounds about as realistic as a blowhard Senator filibustering by reading the Congressional Record aloud. That sin is compounded when the conversation is supposed to be intimate. For example, here’s the female CEO of the production company taking a telephone call from a boyfriend working on the other coast: “Hello, dearest! Just the man in whose ear I’ve been desiring to whisper all day … if you hadn’t called soon, dearest, I was about to fly off into God knows what stratosphere. You know how essential it is for me to touch base with you at least once a day, to maintain what little ballast I have in my hectic life.”
How do you deal with a pile of unusable crap from your past? Do you write it off, or do you return to it years later and try to salvage what you can? I’m now trying to eke out some story lines from the mess that was Sycophants. It still stings that I went so far off track in the first place. But I suspect there are no short cuts you can take when you don’t know what you’re doing; you just have to do it, and take your lumps.
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.
December 10, 2013
More than a decade into the self-publishing revolution, it’s hard to believe we’re still being subjected to dire warnings about “vanity publishing.” Can there possibly be a more tired phrase than that? If it’ll do any good, I’ll admit that I’m vain. Whenever I publish, I chose to pay dearly for the privilege. A complete package includes professional covers, copyrights, thorough editing, and at least rudimentary marketing. Those don’t come cheap, and all are absolutely essential for even moderate success.
Like many other aspiring authors, I have found the traditional path not totally unresponsive to my queries, yet ultimately unsuited to my type of writing. There are simply too many rules. I like to mix genres, which makes it next to impossible to fit into a publishing niche. My novels start out as chicklit, but then I complicate things by adding healthy doses of social and/or political commentary. Not an easy sell.
Traditional publishing is not only too limiting in that way, but takes too long. For someone who’s no longer a spring chicken, years of compromise, rejection, and frustration are not a good option. And yes, it takes “vanity” to believe that stories representing my own vision from start to finish, not someone else’s idea of a commercial product, are worth putting out. My only obligation is to make sure they’re not a half-assed job, but the very best I can do.
Does that make us indies any more vain than traditionally published authors? Not so much these days, I believe. On the contrary, it looks like even the trads are increasingly expected to do their own self-promotion, assuming they aren’t famous already. So can’t we just agree that all writers are vain? We must be, if we persist in thinking we have something to say that the world should hear.
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?