Saturday, March 1, 2014

The words that I needed

The Poldark saga came to PBS' Masterpiece Theatre in 1976.   In rural Indiana in those days, our television reception wasn't the best from either Fort Wayne or South Bend, but each Sunday evening I somehow managed to watch an episode of Poldark.  I was awaiting the birth of my first child -- she'll be 38 this coming week -- and hoped I wouldn't be in the hospital on a Sunday.  I wasn't.  (And she escaped being born on 29 February, which was her original due date!)

Just a couple of weeks ago, one of my online friends announced that her library had acquired copies of some of Winston Graham's "Poldark" books and wondered if the series was good.   I told her she would love them.  I owned the first seven volumes, had read three subsequent books, but had never got around to the last two.  I determined that evening to acquire the rest of the books, and immediately ordered used copies from . . . various places.  The last of them arrived just this past Tuesday.  I haven't had time to read them yet, but that's high on my priority list for what looks to be a fairly lazy, very rainy week-end.

But by 1976 I'd been a devourer of historical romances for 15 years or more; Graham's novels were not my introduction to the genre.  The post-Woodiwiss boom was in full flower, and I had already written a couple of novels myself.  Whether my exposure to Poldark sealed my fate or not, I'll never know, but I would certainly not deny it.

My daughter was born in March of 1976, my son in July 1977, so I had my hands full for the next few years.  But in spare moments here and there I found the time to flesh out a slightly gothicky, slightly swashbuckling novel that had been percolating in my brain for a while.  It's never been published, and probably won't be, though I suppose it has potential.  Through that experience, however, I studied and practiced the various aspects of the art of writing, so that by the time I started Legacy of Honor in 1980, I felt more confident that I'd created a story worth sharing.

Legacy was, of course, the child of many parents, including Frank Yerby, Samuel Shellabarger, Leslie Turner White, Rafael Sabatini . . . and Winston Graham.  My writing was also influenced by my visual experience of movies and television.  I wrote as I "saw" the scenes in my mind, as if they were played out on a big screen in a theatre or a little screen in my living room.  And so I "heard" the voices of Errol Flynn and Tyrone Power, Basil Rathbone and Olivia de Havilland . . . and Robin Ellis and Angharad Rees.

(Photograph: Ronald Grant Archive)

Legacy of Honor begins in Paris, adventures through Russia, and ends in Cornwall.  I've never been to Cornwall (or Russia, for that matter), but in writing the scenes I drew upon Daphne du Maurier's novels and her non-fiction Vanishing Cornwall, and upon what I remembered of the BBC Poldark series.  We had no internet then, no world wide web and Google with its millions upon millions of photographs and videos.  I built up a small but very precious personal library of books on Cornwall, and did the best I could.

The past couple of years, since I began republishing some of my novels including Legacy of Honor, I've struggled to find the time to write new stories.  Though my children are now grown and on their own, other responsibilities demand my time and attention.  As much as I want to write, as many stories are still bubbling and simmering in my brain, I never seem to find the time.

Then the process of editing Legacy last summer and getting it ready for digital publication really brought back the marvelous, indescribable pleasure I always got from writing.  I knew I needed to get back to it.

A few weeks ago, right around the same time I decided to order the final five volume of the Poldark saga, I resolved to take concrete steps to make more writing time.  I won't bore you with the details of that, but I feel more determined than ever to get back to doing what I love instead of just what I feel obligated to do.  It's not going to be easy, but I've actually made some progress in that direction.

What prompted all this?  I don't know.  Maybe it was that friend's comment that turned me back in the direction of Winston Graham and the Poldark books.  Maybe, maybe.

I not only purchased the last five books in the series; I also ordered the companion book Graham wrote, Poldark's Cornwall.  I've only had a few minutes to skim through it, not read anything, yet it sits here beside me, a temptation I have to resist if I'm going to take care of the day job, the dogs, the house, the everything that commands my time and energy.

With one of my other online friends I tease that it's been a series of "omens" that has been slowly propelling me back to writing, away from the frustrations of the day job that barely meets my financial needs.  From a friend's chance mention of a former publisher's obituary to a chance encounter with an old writing friend online, I laugh and say they aren't really omens and I'm not really superstitious (I'm not), but yeah, there's always that little bit of doubt, that little bit of . . . maybe.  Maybe.

My budget doesn't allow for many extravagances, but as I eased back into writing and reading and publishing, building up a library of digital editions of both old and new books, I splurged on another Poldark-related book, actor Robin Ellis's brief memoir Making Poldark.  Part of it was to recapture that visual sense, that ability to write, as someone put it, cinematographically.   And part of it was to reconnect with the sense of adventure and romance.

A year or so later, I splurged on another luxury, this time the expanded version of Ellis's memoir.  And I subscribed to his blog, admittedly out of silly romanticism while I tried to find my writing stride again, but also because there had been some other odd omens ... which of course aren't omens because I don't believe in them.

Today I woke up to a day of threatening rain.  We desperately need rain in our Arizona deserts, but that's always the case.  I had hoped maybe if it rained and I couldn't do anything else, I'd find some time to curl up with all those new (to me, at least) Poldark books.  All the obligations and responsibilities remain, of course.  They don't go away just because it's raining or because I want to read.  I still have three art shows coming up in the next few weeks that I'm not ready for.  I still have a house that needs cleaning.  I still have the day job, waiting as always.

But today there is another omen, another reminder from the cosmos or karma or fate or whatever, that what I really want to do, more than anything, is write.

The BBC is going to remake Poldark.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Selling words under the table

Since my earlier blog post here regarding how some sellers on Amazon and elsewhere seem to be buying positive reviews for their products, my cynicism has been growing.  More and more evidence emerges that honesty is a more and more rare commodity in the marketplace.

While I suppose it's somewhat understandable that sellers of products might be inclined to hype their  wares perhaps more than warranted, what I find most confounding is the negative attitude of buyers and potential buyers toward those who advocate honesty.

If you need to read that sentence again to make sure you understood it, feel free.  I'll wait.  ;-)

What it boils down to, though, is a pretty simple set of questions:  Do readers not want to read good books?  Do readers not know what a good book is?  Do they not care at all any more?  There is usually very little resistance or complaint when someone posts a positive review.  And as such, there are groups and organizations that purport to grant some kind of "seal of approval" to those books that pass some perhaps arbitrary criteria for professionalism.  That's all well and good, but how does the reader ever know what to avoid, if there are no negatives?

Ah, that's when it gets really dicey.  Because there's very little marketplace support for the person who dares to write a negative review, the kind that says loud and clear, "This book is utter crap."

When a book reviewer contemplates posting a negative review, she has to confront a series of Catch-22 situations, the first of which runs something like this:

Did you read the whole book, first page to last?

If yes, you read the whole book, you're permitted (!) to write a negative review, but you run the risk that you'll be accused of stupidity, because only a stupid person would keep reading a book they hated.  In other words, if you read the whole book and hated it, your negative review is invalid and a lie and you shouldn't post it.

If no, you didn't read the whole book, then you're not permitted to write a negative review because the book might get better toward the end and you'll find you really liked it.  In other words, if you didn't read the whole book, you can't be certain you really hated it, and your negative review is invalid and a lie and you shouldn't post it.

Negative reviews of anything less than the whole book aren't fair to the author.  Even if you clearly state you didn't finish the book because the characters were flat, the writing was flawed, and the story made no sense, it's not fair to the author if you review without finishing.  After all, the author wrote the whole book and somehow or other that seems to imply that the reader must read the whole book -- or shut up.

There's another Catch-22, too, related to that "fairness to the author" routine.

Are you an author?  Have you ever written a book?

If yes, you have written a book, then you are qualified to write a negative review but you shouldn't because you should understand how hard it is and should have an appreciation for what the author went through.  If you criticize her work, you're not being fair, you're not being kind, and you're not being supportive of your colleague.  If you criticize her work, you must be a jealous competitor, and you should not be allowed to review.  (By the same token, if you are an author and you post a positive review, you must be just boosting the ratings of a friend and your review is dishonest and you should not be allowed to review.)

If no, you have never written a book, then you are not qualified to write a negative review because you are unable to appreciate what the author went through to produce it.  Her effort, her dedication, her desire are far more important than your experience of 20, 30, 50 years as a reader.  If you criticize her work, you are just being mean and ignorant, because above all else, her feelings are important..

Is it a majority of readers who react this way?  Probably not.  And as for the authors of those badly-reviewed books who respond angrily to their critics, they, too, are in the minority.  Unfortunately, both groups are very vocal and, dare I say, aggressive in their behavior.  It truly takes a brave soul to go up against them.

It's even more difficult when the reviewer who dares to post a negative review is assaulted by the fangurlz and the friendsandfamily and the shills and the sockpuppets and the tit-for-tat review swapping circles.  Having been there more than once, I can tell you it's not a fun experience.

And for an author who truly does care about the marketplace and the quality of the material being published because of the effect it all has on the ability of self-publishing authors to have any hope of breaking the stranglehold of the traditional publishers, it's particularly daunting.  Is there a sense of mission?  Oh, absolutely.  Can that mission become an obsession?  Oh, absolutely.

What's the alternative?  To just let it go on?  To let the spammers and scammers and purveyors of crap to ruin the marketplace?  Maybe it is.

Or maybe we just have to be more aware of what kind of insidious disease we're up against and adopt some kind of resolution not to let it win.  Maybe we owe it to our readers, both the ones we already have and the ones we hope to have.

Because if we aren't writing for our readers, why in the ever loving hell did we ever publish it?

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Words as a medium of exchange

In light of all the usual moaning and groaning and accusation-flinging about negative reviews -- on Amazon and elsewhere -- I thought this experience of mine was particularly telling.  It's not the negative reviews you should be suspicious of; it's the positive ones.

The transaction was, I thought, a simple and straightforward one.

A few weeks before Christmas, I ordered two items from an Amazon affiliated vendor, to be given as gifts to two different people.  The items were similar, but not identical, and the slight difference was important in determining which recipient received which item.

The order arrived in plenty of time for the holidays, in excellent condition and with a couple of bonus items that were a pleasant surprise.  Unfortunately, the two primary items were packed in identical, unmarked, sealed boxes, with no way to determine which was which.  This was annoying.

My only option was to wrap the gifts and hope that they went to the correct recipients.  If not, I would have to explain the problem and then the two individuals could either swap the gifts or, if the difference wasn't significant enough to them, they could keep them as is.   It turned out that I guessed correctly and there was no problem.   But I was still annoyed and planned to post a review to that effect after the holidays.  It would have been a simple matter, it seemed to me, for the vendor just to stamp the distinguishing feature on the otherwise unmarked boxes.

I was surprised, however, to discover a separate piece of paper included in the box with the merchandise and my Amazon invoice.

It read:
Thank you for your order.  We would like you to write a product review for our [insert product #1 name].  After you have written and submitted the review we will send you a second [insert product #1 name] for FREE to the address on your invoice.  Please allow 7-14 days for the package to arrive.

And then it is signed by the vendor.

After this text is an image of a typical Amazon order page, showing the buyer's account and orders, a description of the product, and the various feedback buttons:  Return or Replace Item; Leave Seller Feedback;  Leave Package/Delivery Feedback; Write a Product Review.  Then comes more text:
We would like you to write a product review!  Product reviews are fun and simple to complete.  Under your account select the "your orders" tab, find this order and then select the button that says "write a product review".
There is a big arrow pointing to the appropriate button on the image.

And then there's a big black line under all that, followed by more text:
If for any reason you are not satisfied with this order please let us know before you write your review.  We have a complete customer satisfaction policy and believe this is an excellent 5-star product!
The note closes with their email address and phone number.

When I went to the product's page and discovered it has well over 50 5-star ratings, I began to feel a niggle of suspicion.  Had all these 5-star ratings been purchased by the seller with a promise of a another free [insert product #1 name]?

I fired off a Seller Feedback note explaining only that I would love to leave a product review, but I couldn't follow their directions because the button wasn't active.  I wrote:
Packed in the box with my order was a note from you regarding product reviews.  I would like to leave a product review but can't because the "Write a Product Review" button doesn't show on the "My Order" page.

FYI -- I was very pleased with the products and with their prompt arrival, in plenty of time for the holidays.  I did have one minor complaint/suggestion, but you'll have to figure out how to allow me to leave a genuine product review.
Within a couple of hours -- on a Sunday afternoon! -- I received the following reply via email:


What is your minor complaint/ suggestion?

Please advise.

 My scamdar was pinging wildly.  So I wrote back:
Excuse me, [vendor's name redacted], but my complaint/suggestion is intended for the review, not for private discussion. 
The note included with my order says: 
"Thank you for your order.  We would like you to write a product review for our [insert product #1 name].  After you have written and submitted the review we will send you a second [insert product #1 name] for FREE to the address on your invoice.  Please allow 7-14 days for the package to arrive."
It is then followed by a screen shot of a typical Amazon order page, with an arrow pointing to the "Write a Product Review" button. 
HOWEVER -- my order page does not have that button; instead it has "Contact Seller" and "Leave Seller Feedback" buttons, neither of which leads to the product review page.
Or am I required to submit my review to you for approval before it can be posted? 

Is it possible that this vendor is essentially buying 5-star reviews with a promise of free merchandise?  Is the vendor requiring that any product reviews be vetted by them in order to "qualify" for the free merchandise?  Is this practice potentially a violation of Federal Trade Commission regulations?  Did any of those reviewers state that they had received a free [insert product #1 name] in return for their review?

I wanted to leave an unbiased, honest review of this product.  Would my review -- which would probably have been at least a 4-star -- be buried under all those glowing 5-star reviews that no one will ever know might have been "bought" with free merchandise?

Recent events in the book review community have suggested that perhaps false positive reviews are much more readily ignored by those who have a vested interest in selling books (meaning, Amazon and now GoodReads as part of Amazon); and that sales-damaging negative reviews, even though they're scrupulously honest, may put the reviewer's account and reviewing career at risk.  Writers have inveighed against the negative reviews of their books even while establishing sock puppet accounts to 5-star their own or their friends' books.  (And, to be sure, they've often 1-starred their reviewers' books whenever possible.)

With the integration of Amazon and Goodreads, I think we really have to wonder which will win out:  The quest for sales, or the honest reviewer?  I'm afraid we probably all know the answer to that question already.

After I had written that, the issue continued to develop.  The latest update:

A few hours after I had sent my email to the vendor, I received a reply which stated:


Thanks for ordering from us and bringing to our attention that you were not completely satisfied with your purchase. 

We have refunded you the full cost of this item with shipping. This should appear in your account in the next 24 hours.

Please continue to enjoy the [product] and we appreciate any honest and fair feedback you would like to provide.  We prefer that complaints/suggestions be discussed prior to leaving product feedback and reviews (as a reply to this message or by calling us).  In this way, we have a chance to correct or explain an issue or concern.  This will insure your feedback and/or review would include how we dealt with your complaint or suggestion. 

Links and buttons for feedback and reviews are only accessible to the buyer (you).  We do not review or edit feedback or reviews before you (the buyer) post.


At that point I didn't know if they were going to refund the purchase price of both items or only the one that was mentioned in the note requesting a review.  Either way, however, I felt very uncomfortable with this.  I felt as if my silence had been purchased.  How can you complain about something you got for free?  Ultimately, the refund was processed for just the one item, which was fine.  I guess.  I'm still not comfortable with it.

I'm even less comfortable because the issue should have been handled differently.  Apparently the reason I can't leave a product review directly from my order page is because the page is designed to give the vendor the chance to fix problems, and the vendor should have known that.  In looking at my ordering history, any order that is fulfilled by Amazon -- even if purchased from another vendor -- can be reviewed directly from the order page via the "Write a Product Review" button.  If the order is not fulfilled by Amazon, then there is only the "Leave Seller Feedback" option. 

Regardless how or why the process didn't work the way it was explained with my order, I'm left wondering how many of those reviews were left by people whose opinions might have been colored by the prospect of free merchandise they received in exchange for a review.  And I also have to wonder if the offer of free merchandise violates Federal Trade Commission Regulations.  Most customers know nothing about FTC rules, or believe that those rules don't apply to individuals.  But Amazon does, and GoodReads does, and the vendors ought to know, too.

And maybe the vendor shouldn't require reviews in order to get free merchandise.  Back in the 1950s we called it Payola, and it's illegal.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

And the word for today is "overwhelmed"

That's me.  In plain and simple terms, the past six weeks or so have been overwhelming. 

There's the day job, of course, which never seems to let up.  And week-ends are barely enough to catch up on all the routine maintenance chores.  When I have week-ends, that is.

Three major arts and craft shows since the end of October have taken up three of those week-ends. 

Not only does that put me behind on the routine maintenance schedule, but I've been trying to squeeze in time to build inventory to replace what's been sold at the shows.  And I can't complain that there's been a lot to replace!  But I have five shows coming up after the first of the year, and my stock is very depleted.

Then there were the ongoing problems with the brand new heating/air conditioning system I had installed in the house last March, after the old one completely failed.  Three more visits from the service people, including one four-hour session during which they installed a whole new air-intake system, now seem to have it working properly, but of course we won't really know until summer.

The Thanksgiving holiday gave me a big break, allowed me to make up for some of that lost time, but I was also dealing with a major vehicle issue -- yes, the transmission went out, again -- which took time and energy and a large amount of cash, while also causing a horrendous amount of stress.

Now December is fully upon us.  I'm anticipating a holiday visit from my daughter and her family, so there are arrangements to be made, quarters to be prepared for them to stay in, and various activities to schedule.  Let's not even talk about trying to shop for gifts or put up decorations, because if we talk about that, I'll be even more overwhelmed.

So no, I haven't been writing, except for the occasional post on GoodReads or BookLikes.  I'm still settling in at the latter, still trying to catalog all the books, still trying to figure out the site and how to decorate my blog there.  Nor have I even been reading very much. 

All of that is going to change.

I'm going to make it change.

You just watch and see.  ;-)

Monday, November 11, 2013

Are silent denials words of shame?

This is going to be a very short -- for me -- blog post.  I'll expand it later, but you'll have to come to the blog itself to see the rest.  And no, I'm not sure when it will be.

Here's my question:

If several self-publishing authors formally associate with each other, whether as an organized "group" on a readers-and-authors website or on their own collective blog or face to face or whatever, and if they proceed to rate and review each other's books without disclosing that they have agreed ahead of time to do so, are they engaging in deception for their own gain?  Why would they not identify themselves as friends or colleagues or associates or . . . whatever?  Are they ashamed of something?

Let me reiterate:  Are they ashamed of what they've done?

I have said all along that reviews by real people should be allowed.  Not reviews by 25 sock puppets of the author, 19 sock puppets of her mother, and 769 computer-generated sock puppets.  Authors are real people, and there's no reason why they shouldn't be allowed to post reviews of their friends' books if they want to.

But shouldn't they have enough integrity to identify themselves?  If not, what are they trying to hide?

Those of you who have been following me at all know that I generally include a disclaimer in my reviews.  Not only do I review under my own name, but I let the reader of the review know when and where and how I obtained the book; whether I've had any contact with the author and what kind of contact that is; and that I am an author of historical romances.  Personally, I feel that kind of honesty allows the reader to make an informed decision about the validity of my comments.

How is a reader to make that kind of decision when a book has five, or ten, or 20 5-star ratings but not one of the reviewers admits to being a member of an authors' review swapping group?

Again:  Are they ashamed of what they've done?  And if they're not ashamed of what they've done, why won't they admit it?

Sunday, October 27, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 18, 2013

Letting go of the words. . . . again

So, it's done.

Legacy of Honor is live on Amazon.

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

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

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

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

I was wrong.  Very wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because there were some other issues. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then I let it go.

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

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

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

I hope you enjoy it.