Friday, December 5, 2014

And another dangerous word


Honesty.

It does not pay to be honest.  It is not safe to be honest.  Honesty is a very dangerous commodity.

In the past, with my blogs and reviews and other writing, I have tried to be as honest as I can.  I believed very sincerely that that was what was needed.

Honesty may have been needed, but it was not wanted.  I learned that over a year ago when Goodreads instituted the infamous September 2013 Purge.  I learned it again last month when Goodreads permanently banned me. 

It doesn't make any difference.  I don't know how to be dishonest about these things.  I can lie about other things -- I assure you, I'm no saint -- but what point is there to lying in a book review?  Or in a discussion related to books and writing and reading?  What's the freaking point?

Authors need to get a clue.  I am amazed, yes truly amazed, that there is so much ignorance out there still, after all this time.  Maybe it's more willful ignorance than the innocent kind.  And yes, this is the kind of not-nice-but-honest comment that gets me into trouble.  No doubt I will get into trouble again before this post is finished.

Reviews are not commercials.  Reviewers are not there -- wherever there is -- to write ad copy for authors.  How difficult is this to understand?  Leaving out the semi-pro reviewers -- by which I mean those who have formal book blogs and regularly obtain advance copies for the explicit purpose of reviewing -- most reviewers are just readers.  They're consumers.  They bought the damn book, or obtained it free when the author was giving it away, or checked it out of the library, or whatever, and then they read it.  Where in that commercial transaction is it decreed that the reader owes the writer anything at all?  Where is the requirement that the reader help the author sell her book to other readers?  Or help the author become a better writer?  Or fix the mistakes in the present book?

That's right.  It's not there.  Readers do not have any obligation to review at all.  They don't have any obligation to rate a book on Goodreads, or shelve it on Leafmarks, or proofread it or anything else.  None. At. All.

And readers are most certainly not obligated to lie for you, the author of a terrible book.

You know who you are.  I don't have to put your name out here for everyone to see.  You know who you are.

I've read your books.  Or at least I've tried to.  And they're terrible.  And you just can't stand to have that truth held up in front of you.  You just can't stand it.

Truth is a very powerful thing.  It can be painful, very painful, but if it has the power to hurt, then it must indeed be very powerful.

You will hate me, if you don't already, but you cannot stop me from being honest.  You can, like someone else about whom I dared to tell the truth, take revenge against me.  I already know, however, because I am capable of at least a certain amount of honesty with myself, that I cannot be anything but honest with others, especially if they are being dishonest in a way that would hurt the innocent.  I know, because I do try to be as honest with myself as I am with others, that this makes me Not a Nice Person.  I know that people will dislike me because of it.  I know that I have almost no defense against them or that revenge, because my only defense is the same damn honesty that got me into the mess in the first place.

Your book is terrible.  Whether you're so ignorant that you can't see it for yourself, or you're in total emotional denial, or you know it but you've decided to just lie about it anyway, the fact remains:  Your book is terrible.  But you want me to lie about it so someone else will buy it?  Is that the name of your game?  You want me to try to get someone to believe that they will be sufficiently entertained by this piece of tripe you have written and published so that they will fork over $2.99 or $3.99 or whatever the asking price is?  The only way anyone will think this piece of garbage is readable is if people lie about it.  People like me.   Well, no, not exactly.   People like me won't do it.  We won't lie.

What will you do then?  You can, if you so choose, pay people to lie about it.  You will pay them to post online that they loved your book, that it's the greatest thing ever written, that it should be made into a movie starring George Clooney, Orlando Bloom, Taylor Swift and Kim Kardashian.  Some people will believe those lies.  Most, however, won't.

Your writing stinks.  But you don't want anyone to point that out.  Rather than be honest and want honest "reviews" of your book, you want to silence the honest voices.  You throw up a litany of reasons why low ratings and negative reviews are by definition  invalid.  You think no one should read books they aren't enjoying, that they should not rate or review books they have not completely read, that they should think of the author's feelings and only review books they can give five stars to.  You declare only other authors are qualified to write negative reviews because they are the only ones who know how much blood, sweat, and agony goes into the writing of a book, any book.  And then you accuse any author who posts a negative review of being jealous and cruel and unsupportive of her "fellow authors."

By that standard, authors are only allowed to post positive reviews . . . or none at all.  And readers, who by that definition are disqualified from leaving negative reviews, can only post positive ones.

You want readers to lie by omission.  You want them to shut up and say nothing about your awful book, as though that will make your writing any better.  It won't.

Your book is indeed awful.  You can't write.  Your story is banal, your characters are wooden, your plot is implausible.  Your cover looks like something knocked together by a couple of 12-year-olds, and your formatting is an embarrassment to MSWord.  This product has no redeeming features whatsoever.

Yet if I say that, and if I provide evidence to substantiate my claims, you will call me a troll and a bully and a meanie.  You've done it in the past.  You will accuse me of jealousy, and I will laugh hysterically because there is no reason for someone who is reasonably competent with the English language to be jealous of you and this file of putrescent gibberish that you call a book.

You will tell me that I should think of your tender feelings, but I should not care at all about the potential readers to whom my silence is a lie of tacit approval.  Those readers are nothing to you, or at least nothing more than their credit card numbers on their one-click accounts.  To you they have no feelings worthy of respect, worthy of honesty.

You want me to be what I am not.  I am not a liar.  And I will not lie for you. 

A few people stood up with me when I took on Goodreads (which is well on its way to becoming nothing more than the advertising arm of Amazon if it isn't already) but most did not.  A few have spoken out since my banning, but most of gone back to their previous silence.  It is one thing to "take one for the team" by reading and then reviewing a terrible book, because of course that is done voluntarily and there are a lot of laughs to go around in the process.  And one really doesn't take any kind of risk when doing that.

I took one for the team over and over and over.  Under my real name.  The blog posts are still on Booklikes.  And here.  And there are screenshots of many of the now-erased posts on Goodreads.

I put my Goodreads account on the line in the name of honesty.  I am not one to blow my own horn when it comes to my books, but I will blow my horn 'til the cows come home over what I did on Goodreads:  I documented the dishonesty.  And that's what I was banned for.

The excuse that will probably be given, if there ever is one, is that I wasn't nice enough.  And that much is true.  I wasn't nice.  I was honest, but I wasn't nice.

When authors came onto Goodreads threads and asked whether or not they should buy reviews, I was honest:  I told them they shouldn't.  I told them those reviews might be removed.  I told them those reviews could be identified and then their books would be labeled as "This one is so bad the author has to pay people to pretend they read it."

Could I have been nicer?  Could I have written, "Oh, dear, I don't think that would be a very good idea.  What if people found out you bought those reviews?  What would they think of your book?  What would they think of you?"  Yes, I suppose I could have written it that way.  Would it have got the point across?  Maybe, or maybe not.  Would it have been me? 

No, it would not.

I understand the allure of reviews.  I recognize that they are repeatedly touted as the key to making sales.  One has only to read the posts of the frankly desperate authors who beg for reviews because reviews are, they believe, needed to generate sales.  They believe this as surely as they believe night follows day.  Except that night really does follow day; unfortunately, reviews do not generate sales.

Amazon, however, has a vested interest in fostering that belief. 

Amazon wants people to keep uploading books.  The cost to Amazon is negligible, since they do none of the actual work of publishing.  They do not edit, provide artwork, or market those author-published works.  They do, however, get a cut of each one that's purchased.

Though these are rough numbers and there are exceptions on all, these are the basic figures.  On a 99-cent Kindle book, the author's royalty rate is 35%.   Amazon keeps 65 cents off the top, the author gets 34 cents.  The same percentages hold up to $2.98.  At $2.99 and up, the author can elect a 70% royalty, which means Amazon's cut is 90 cents plus they charge a few cents to cover the cost of digital storage and delivery. 

Amazon is much better positioned to cover the minuscule costs of those thousands of free downloads than the authors are, even the perma-free titles.  Will that benefit someday disappear?  I expect it probably will, but that's another discussion.

So who benefits from the Kindle Direct Publishing platform the most?  Amazon.   And it doesn't matter how good or how bad the product is, Amazon still gets a cut.

Crappy books do not sell.  Not even hundreds of glowing 5-star reviews can push crappy books into best-seller status -- and profits for the authors.  Some of you who are reading this are very well aware of what you've done to rack up those reviews and ratings.

Have you given the books away free and then asked readers to leave a review?  Have you used social media to make friends with your readers, in Facebook groups or on Twitter, on Goodreads and Amazon and Booklikes, and then solicited just a short review from them, telling them how much it would help you?  Did you make them feel obligated to do so?  Of course you weren't really pressuring them.  You just sort of left the suggestion in their minds, and they of course being flattered were more than eager to do so.

Why is it then that the next book, the one you didn't give away free and didn't pressure readers to buy and read, didn't get hundreds of 5-star ratings on Amazon and Goodreads?  Why do you suppose that is?  Maybe because people didn't like it?  Maybe they lied in their reviews on the first book because they'd been flattered by your attention, but in reality they knew the book was garbage?

Amazon doesn't care why your second book didn't sell.  Or your third, fourth, or any of the subsequent titles.  Did it ever occur to you that maybe Amazon is using you as their loss leaders to put the competition out of business?  Probably not.  Probably not any more than it ever occurred to you to read the 1- and 2-star reviews that were left for your crappy books on Amazon and Goodreads, on Leafmarks and Booklikes.

Nor does Amazon care if you buy reviews.  Many of you do, of course.  Many of you have been caught red-handed on fiverr.com.  Many of those reviews have been removed from Goodreads and the reviewers' accounts have been terminated, but very few of you have lost your author status there, unless like Michael Beas and Cheryl Persons you were also selling reviews on Goodreads.  But do you remember how this paragraph started?  "Nor does Amazon care if you buy reviews."

Amazon doesn't care because they've got that wonderful "Verified Purchase" button.  It's supposed to imply that the accompanying review is a legitimate consumer opinion, the kind that's required under Federal Trade Commission guidelines.  There are probably a lot of genuine consumers who trust that label.  But you've figured out a way around that, which is exactly what Amazon wanted you to do.  So now when you buy your "reviews" from fiverr and the other shill outfits, you buy another "gig" so the reviewer can buy your book and get that "Verified Purchase" stamp.  And Amazon gets their cut and they're happy to turn a blind eye to the transaction. 

How's that working for you?  Two fiverr gigs are going to cost you $10.  On your $2.99 book you'll net roughly $2.00.  You'll get that back when the reviewer buys your book, and then you have to hope they don't return it and pocket the extra $2.99.  Even if they honor the agreement and don't ask for a refund, that review has to generate four more sales just for you to break even.

Amazon got 90-some cents for doing pretty much nothing.  That's why they don't care if you buy reviews that say your paranormal YA chicklit book is better than Tolkien and Herbert and Martin and Gabaldon and Rowling all wrapped up together even if anyone with more than twelve functioning brain cells can see it's absolute dreck.  Amazon has a vested interest in not caring about, well, about honesty or integrity or ethics or quality or any of that bullshit.  Honesty and integrity and ethics aren't profitable.  And Amazon, like all corporations, is all about profit.

None of the Amazon accounts identified as belonging to fiverr "reviewers" have been removed from Amazon by Amazon.  None of their reviews have been removed by Amazon.  Some of those individuals attempted to establish new Goodreads accounts but were quickly identified and quickly removed.  However, Amazon doesn't remove them.  Even though Amazon's review guidelines explicitly state that paid reviews are a violation, no amount of reporting "abuse" will get them removed.  I know this because I've reported them.  Repeatedly.  They're still there.

During the months that I routinely monitored Goodreads and Amazon reviews to connect them with fiverr "reviewers," I came to be very familiar with the names under which they posted their reviews.   They're still posting.  That means you're still buying. 

And yes, in case you're wondering, I'm still monitoring.  I'm still taking screen shots, though not as many as I did before.  And of course I'm not reporting to Goodreads.  Why should I?

I already took one for the team, a big one.  I did my part.  Now it's someone else's turn, if they care enough that it.  My guess is that they don't.

Does that mean you're in the clear?  Well, maybe it does and maybe it doesn't.  Maybe I'll get angry enough with you again and start posting more screenshots to Booklikes.   Because remember,  I'm not a nice person.  I have no reason to be nice any more.  My being nice or not nice really has nothing to do with it, does it?  No, the real issue is that I'm honest, and you just can't stand that.  You just can't stand it at all, can you.

Maybe you're one of those authors who self-righteously brags that you never bought a review and you didn't stoop so low as to give your books away to anyone.  You put time and effort into your books and you don't think you should let someone benefit from your effort without, by God, paying you for the right to read it. 

But when I look at your book on Amazon, I see more familiar names.  No, not fiverr shills but the names of other authors, other self-publishing authors, other self-publishing authors who have been desperately looking for people to buy and read and review their books and they'll do the same in return.  It's different, you insist, when you agree to swap honest reviews with each other. 

You and I both know those reviews aren't honest in the least.  You and the other author are going to stroke each other's egos because you're afraid that if you don't tell him his steaming pile of manure is the next Hunger Games, he'll retaliate and let the world know your book isn't the next Interview with a Vampire.  Both of you believe that 5-star reviews will generate sales, and that's what it's all about.  You're no different from Amazon in that respect (pun intended).  You don't care one fig about honesty.  You only care about sales.  You will lie, and you will ask someone else to lie, in the name of selling your terrible, terrible book.

The CJRR continues -- that nefarious group of self-publishing authors who rate each other's absolutely suckworthy spewings with unalloyed 5-star ratings and attack anyone who dares do otherwise.  The sockpuppet ratings continue unabated.  The fiverr shills haven't missed a beat.  It gets worse instead of better on Goodreads and Amazon, because that's the way Amazon wants it.

Readers may ask, "But why?  Why does Amazon want to promote crap?"

Because it sells.  If it doesn't sell itself, it at least sells advertising.  Every time a reader clicks on a free book, other items pop up.  Try it sometime.  Recommended.  Readers who bought this also bought.  And so on.  And Goodreads is just an advertising platform for Amazon.  So Goodreads doesn't really care either.

They cared a little bit for a little while.  They cared long enough to remove a few of the shadier accounts.  Michael Beas with more than 350 purchased reviews.  "Meghan" from Manila with almost 800.  The publicist and her sock puppet army who had over 2500 5-star reviews posted on Goodreads.  Did someone from Amazon come along and tell the Goodreads staff that they had to axe Linda Hilton's account because Linda Hilton wasn't being nice? 

Did Amazon not like it that I was posting screen shots that linked Amazon "Top Reviewers" to fiverr accounts? 

Were publicists like Kelsey McBride buying enough ads for their clients on Goodreads and Amazon that those websites took the cash over ethics to let those publicists, their employees, their sockpuppets, continue to post reviews in violation of FTC regulations and didn't want Linda Hilton to publicize (pun intended) that information?

Yes, I'm angry at you uploaders -- you're not really authors at all -- because you've fouled the nest we all need to live in.  I despise you, and I know the risk I'm taking even in posting this screed.  Amazon is big enough and powerful enough, and I am insignificant enough, that they could refuse to publish my books.  Believe me, the loss of my sales wouldn't hurt them financially.  (Actually, it probably wouldn't hurt me financially very much either.)  If they do that, you'll know and I'll know that what I've written here is important enough for them to want to silence me. 

They don't go out of their way to silence the insignificant.  Honesty is never insignificant.  It's too dangerous to be insignificant.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Words that fill unusual needs

Once again, I need to remind myself that I do not believe in omens.  Really and truly, I don't.

Coincidence?  Yes.  Even serendipity and luck.  But omens, with their implication of supernatural manipulation of human events?  No.  Just, no.

On the other hand. . . .

Several years ago, a rather unusual sequence of events put me in possession of a faceting machine.  Though I have played around with rocks and stones and gems for a very long time, I had never considered faceting.  The equipment was too expensive for my budget, for one thing, and I had no clue how to go about learning the craft.  But the machine was offered to me for free and would have ended up in a Dumpster otherwise.  So I took it.

I subsequently found out what it was worth and was more than a little astounded.  Flabbergasted is probably a better word.  I also learned that a few small and inexpensive but absolutely essential accessories were missing.  They were quickly and easily replaced and the machine was fully functional. 

As I wrote in Really Neat Rocks, faceting is one of the lapidary arts that requires significant investment.  The basic machine can cost several thousand dollars, but then there are the accessories -- laps and dops and transfer jigs and so on -- not to mention the rough rocks.  Facet-grade rough is a lot more expensive than the agates and jaspers that can be found out in the desert for free.  The machine I acquired came complete with all those expensive accessories and with a modest supply of rough as well. 

I should have been all set.

I wasn't.

The machine came with a little booklet of maybe 60 pages, Facet Cutter's Handbook, that purported to be all one needed to learn how to facet.  For me at least it was woefully inadequate.  I already had an old edition of John Sinkankas' Gem Cutting: A Lapidary Manual, which was likewise inadequate as well as out of date.  I needed a well-illustrated, step-by-step manual.  If I have that kind of guide, I can usually figure out how to do just about anything.

The books that might have filled that niche were, unfortunately, long out of print and subsequently priced way out of my budget.  I played with the machine a couple of times, and managed to achieve some results, but I didn't really know what I was doing.  So I quit.

But I did join an email discussion list sponsored by the U.S. Faceters Guild.  Almost every day I receive emails from the other participants, most of which comments are way above my head because I know so little about the craft.  There's never been a temptation to unsubscribe, however.  Though I delete most of the emails -- they're archived should I ever decide to revisit any of them -- I do read them all.  Now and then there's something that either adds to my store of knowledge about other aspects of lapidary or is something tucked away for an indistinct future when I will actually get to use the machine.

As I recorded yesterday, I gave notice two weeks ago to quit my day job.  Just a couple days after I made that rather scary decision,  one of the members of that USFG email list posted that he had published a book.  Two books actually, because two volumes were needed to contain all the information. 

I bought the books.  Immediately.  They arrived yesterday.  I've read the first chapter of the first book, and I'm very, very impressed.  Tom Herbst has done an excellent job, and if the rest of the books live up to the promise of the first chapter, they will fill a huge need.

He acknowledges right at the beginning that self-publishing is the way to go for this kind of specialty books.  Digital print-on-demand allows authors to create the special-interest volumes that just can't be commerically viable for a traditional publisher.   Are these POD editions lacking the glossy full-color photos that many of us in the arts-and-crafts fields are accustomed to?  Yes, they are.  Though Herbst's books are loaded with black and white drawings and photos, there are no color pictures.  Because I've researched it myself, I know that the cost of including color printing in a CreateSpace product shoves the cost into the stratosphere.  In a way, these new books are a step backward in terms of the illustrations.  They're more like Sinkankas' 1963 hardcover than James Mitchell's 2012 Gem Trails of Arizona.

But today we have the internet and the www and Google images and Flickr and if we need color images, we know where to get them.  We don't need the glossy color photos; we can get more and better pictures online.

Tom Herbst's books arrived, in more ways than one, just when I needed them.  A few weeks ago, I probably would have ordered them but maybe not.  A year ago the probably drops down to possibly, but not very likely.  But last week there was no question.  Everything came together at just the right time.  I have the equipment, I have the time, and now I have the books.

What does this have to do with writing romance novels?  Ah, I'm so glad you asked.  ;-)

We never know, as readers or as writers, how our words are going to impact other people's lives.   We never know, as writers, how our product is going to be received.   It behooves us, then, to make sure our product is the very best that it can be.  I'm not an expert faceter.  Hell, I'm not even a beginner yet!  So you can bet I'm going to be watching the reviews, even the informal ones, that show up on the USFG email list.  And I'm going to pay attention to what those people have to say.  Because they are the experts.  I've seen the kind of work they produce and I know they know what they're doing.  As reviewers, they may not have perfect grammar or spelling, but that's not the expertise they're utilizing.

And they won't hesitate to criticize if necessary. 

Monday, December 1, 2014

The first words of the rest of my life

I do not believe in omens.

Really, I don't.

What I wrote a few weeks ago was a tale of connections and coincidences, nothing more. 

At about the same time as I wrote that blog post, I gave notice of my intention to quit my day job.  The reasons were many, some practical, some irrational.  I had been doing this work for six and a half years, and that is longer than I had ever remained at any other paid employment.  My tenure was not due to the lavish pay (I can't even laugh at the absurdity of that notion) or working conditions (I worked at home); I stayed as long as I did because I needed some income and because this was a job where I never had to interact directly with real people.

I do not always get along well with real people.

Perhaps that has been one of the attractions writing has always held for me, too.  In the world(s) I create, I can control the things that are uncontrollable in the real world, and I do not have to deal with the frustrations that sometimes overwhelm me here.

So today was my first day after the end of the day job.  I still feel overwhelmed by how much there is to do in my real life that I had not been able to do because of the day job.  I feel as if I want everything done, right now, today, and yet I know that isn't remotely possible.  One day at a time, I remind myself, because I'm no longer rushed, no longer trying to squeeze ten hours of productivity into two hours of free time.

I began this morning much as I always do:  Rising early and checking the email.  But early is no longer the crack of pre-dawn.  I got enough sleep and didn't feel the pressure to get right to work.  I did have an Etsy shipment to take to the post office, so I packaged the orders and set out shortly before 9:00 a.m.  And because the post office is just around the corner from the local municipal complex, I finally -- eight and a half years after moving here -- got a library card.

My personal collection of reading material is more than enough to keep me occupied.  What I've lacked, though, is the time to read.  It doesn't matter that there are 2,500 books in the house, 3,300 more on my Kindle, another 800 or 1,000 in boxes stored in the workshop.  There is no such thing as having enough books, let alone too many.

But it takes time to get a library card, time to go to the library, time to browse the books, time to check them out, time to read them and then return them.  I didn't have the time.  Now I do.  So I got my library card and checked out two books.

Then it was home to the work of having a life again.  I had more listings to post to Etsy -- that will be a major on-going project -- which meant photos to take and edit.  I didn't have to rush through the process, however, because there will be more time tomorrow, too.  I can experiment with light and backgrounds, indoors or outdoors.  I can edit the descriptions of my wares rather than slap something together and post it as "good enough."

Did I address the cleaning that needs to be done in my studio?  No, not yet.  Maybe tomorrow.

Did I even look at the mountain of sewing that awaits?  No, not yet.  Maybe tomorrow.  Or the next day.

Did I read?  A little bit.  Not much, but I'm in no rush.

Did I write?  Ah, that's what the evening is for!

Thursday, November 20, 2014

On the trail of words connected in twisted circles

There is both blessing and curse in capacious memory, but more blessing I think than curse.

Based on the information I've been able to dig up -- for which I have to thank Google in part -- I must have read the story in the spring or summer of 1959, when I was roughly ten and a half years old.  It appeared in The Saturday Evening Post, one of several large-format, heavily illustrated magazines my parents subscribed to.  I don't think I actually read the story more than twice, and perhaps only once, before that issue of the magazine went into the trash.

I did not, however, forget it.

Why one particular story would stick with me, I don't know.  But it did.  The story did, but not the title or the author.

Science fiction was never my favorite genre, and this was science fiction, so perhaps I didn't remember the peripheral details simply because I never encountered the author again, never had the footnote of that particular story brought to my attention again.  It didn't matter.  The story was there.

I do remember that at the time, when I was hardly even a pre-teen, the cleverness of the ending was eye-wideningly superb.  Nothing else impressed me so much as that ending.

Years later, when I was much more of a budding author, I went in search of the story.  I was in high school then, and had started or perhaps had already finished my first complete novel.  I have no idea what prompted me to go searching for the tale but I did, at the public library.  Again, I did not know the author or the title, and the passage of five or six or seven years since childhood had somewhat dimmed my memory of which magazine and which year, but I began the search anyway.  whatever indexes -- the search engines of the mid-1960s -- were available then, I used them to advantage and finally identified the story.  To my delight, it had been reprinted in an annual collection.  To my further delight, the library had a copy of that collection.  I found it on the shelf and sat down to devour this much-remembered story.

And of that reading I remember almost nothing.

Was I still as impressed with the ending?  I don't know.  Did I glean any other kernels of story-telling skill from the rest of the tale?  I don't know.  Had the story lost its magic with my own maturity, or whatever maturity it is that a teen-ager has?  I don't know.

What I do know is that I remembered the title of the story.

More years passed.  Many more.  I left the community of that public library, married, had a family, wrote and published more books than that horrible adolescent thing I called a novel.  Walked away from writing, went back to college, was suddenly widowed, and life changed.  And that ending did not leave me.

Again, I am not a great reader of science fiction.  I have a nodding acquaintance with it, and I have read some.  I have probably read more about science fiction than I have actually read in the genre itself.  (Fantasy is another matter entirely.)  I watched Star Trek TOS more in syndicated reruns than the original broadcasts, and I've seen a few of the films.  I caught perhaps one or two episodes of TNG, but no more than that.  Star Wars, yes, the first/middle three chapters, and some of the similar films of the '70s.  The three novels I remember most clearly were apocalyptic: Larry Nivens' Lucifer's Hammer; Pat Frank's Alas, Babylon!; and Max Ehrlich's The Big Eye

A few short stories -- aside from Rod Serling's Twilight Zone collections -- stuck with me in a fashion similar to this one.  Poul Anderson's "The Light" was one, and again it was because of the ending.  The same with Arthur C. Clarke's "The Nine Billion Names of God" and "The Star."

As I began the journey back to my own writing, I knew that I had those stories, long and short, in my personal vault of memory, and some were also within easy reach on the bookshelves in my home.  But one was missing.  Title known, ending still astonishing, but I did not have the text.  In 2010, perhaps 40 years after I rediscovered it the first time, I went on another search.  This time it didn't take flipping through paper indexes to find it; Google brought it to me in mere fractions of a second.  I had only to key in the title.

Now I had the rest of the information:  author, publication data, even the reprinted annual collection from Saturday Evening Post.  Within a week, I had a copy of the collection, purchased for one cent (plus shipping, of course) from Amazon.

It was not a short story but a novelette, so there was more on this 40-years-on reading for me to absorb and analyze.  The basic premise was exactly as remembered, and of course that ending, but except for that I might as well have been reading it for the first time.  Nearly everything else had been forgotten:  Details, motivation, circumstances.  Reading with a more mature experience and more critical eye, I found flaws that had not been apparent to my 10-year-old self or even my teen-aged incarnation.  I also found something else, however, that transcended the flaws and brought them into the perspective of that still awesome ending.

This was more than an adventure story, a treasure-hunting story, a character-versus-monster story.  Like all truly well-constructed stories, this contained more than one conflict.  Character versus self, character versus society, character versus fate/the gods, even a bit of character versus technology.

I wondered how it would have been written differently, if some of the flaws had been addressed and revisions integrated to highlight the other aspects of the deeper story.  I began to play editor, but only for a while.  There wasn't time to do more.

But I also wondered what had ever become of the author.  I had never heard of him before, nor had I ever encountered him during my various travels through science fiction and fantasy.  Again, I turned to the Great Google and learned more.  Much more.

"The Tale of the Fourth Stranger" was written by Australian Anthony Coburn and published in the 4 April 1959 edition of The Saturday Evening Post.  On the surface, it is a treasure-hunting tale, sparked by an oft-told legend of a monster guarding the riches.  And that is enough.

Coburn, born in 1927, had left Australia and gone to the UK, where he worked for the BBC as a screenwriter and producer.  Just a few years after writing "The Tale of the Fourth Stranger," he wrote the script for what would become the first serial for the Doctor Who program, "An Unearthly Child."

I have never seen a single episode of Dr. Who.  I know virtually nothing about it.  Coburn's IMDb page does not include a credit for "The Tale of the Fourth Stranger."  Further reading suggests there are other things, including some related to Dr. Who, for which he has not received credit.

Following words and following ideas can take one into unusual territory, sometime enlightening, sometimes frightening.

A Kirkus review of that collection of Saturday Evening Post stories is such territory.  The entire review is but a middling-long paragraph, yet it contains one of those sentences that can have more impact than expected.  Not all the stories included in the anthology are mentioned, but Coburn's is:
.. . . and the adventure of a hero of mythological proportions -- his battle with a sea monster, discovery of buried treasure and his realization of the self-deception of the cynical -- in Anthony Colburn's(sic) The Tale of the Fourth Stranger.

Anthony Coburn died in April 1977, not yet 50 years old.  At the time, he was the producer for the BBC series Poldark.

I do not believe in blessings or curses.  I certainly do not believe in omens.

And yet, and yet. . .







Sunday, November 16, 2014

You have my word: As of 15 November 2014, I will not buy, read....

. . . rate, or review or in any other way promote any book published by HarperCollins.  Period.  I refuse to support a publisher that supports a stalker.

Will such a boycott harm innocent authors?  Well, if I'm the only one boycotting, then probably not. And as far as I know KH is the only HarperCollins author who has stalked and harassed a reviewer to the extent she did.  All the other HC authors, then, are innocent and by some reasoning don't deserve to be boycotted.

Let's be honest with ourselves.  Brutally honest.  Let's admit that we really just don't want to deprive ourselves of the pleasure of reading those other authors.  We're sympathetic to Blythe Harris's plight and we really think that author was totally 100% wrong, but doing without our favorite HC authors, well, that's more sacrifice than some of us want to make.  And so we're hiding behind the excuse that we don't want to hurt innocent authors.

Blythe Harris was stalked, harassed, and silenced.

The message being sent right now by HarperCollins is that they have no problem with that.  They really don't care about Blythe Harris or about any other reviewer.  The silence from the HC authors also says they have no problem with it.  They don't care that Blythe Harris was silenced for not liking a book.

Right now, HarperCollins is supporting, with their contract and with their silence, an author who proudly admitted stalking a reviewer who didn't like her book.  They are implicitly saying to all their authors, "Hey, if you want to stalk and harass and threaten people who find fault with your books, go right ahead."

How much solidarity are you, as readers and reviewers and maybe even as authors, willing to show with Blythe Harris?  Are you willing to do without a few books over the next few months?  Are you willing to say to your favorite HC authors, in effect, "Sorry, but I can't buy or promote your books.  I can't support a publisher -- who makes more off your books than you do anyway -- who supports stalking.  I just can't."

If you can't do that much, then I guess maybe you really don't have a problem with supporting a stalker either.

A full list of HarperCollins imprints is here and includes Avon, Harper, Harlequin, William Morrow, Thomas Nelson and Zondervan Christian, HarperCollins Children's, and Caedmon audio books.

If the HC authors aren't speaking out because they're constrained by the company, then that is another reason to boycott.  If the authors aren't speaking out because their afraid, then that is another reason.  And if they aren't speaking out because they agree with the stalking, then that is yet another reason.

HarperCollins, which is a part of the Rupert Murdoch News Corporation empire, is not going to do the right thing just because it's the right thing to do.  Corporations don't operate that way.   Their sole motive is profit.  If their silence can be shown to harm their bottom line, then and only then will they do the right thing.



Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The worst word of all

Of course it's a four letter word, at least in English. 

Fear.

We human beings do terrible things out of fear.  Fear begets loathing, fear begets hatred, fear begets violence.

We're afraid of all kinds of things.  Some of our fears are justified, many are not.

We're afraid of flying, of snakes.  We're afraid of caves, of disease.  We're afraid of being poor, we're afraid of being alone.  We're afraid of failure, of rejection.

We're afraid of difference, and we're afraid of the unknown.

We have a difficult time facing up to some of our fears, usually because we're afraid of something else.  We're afraid to admit we've been wrong about something or other, because we're afraid that if we admit to being wrong, other people will laugh at us or shun us or lose respect for us.

When we live surrounded by fears, many of them manufactured by outside interests, we can very easily lose sight of how foolish our fears are, and how destructive -- even self-destructive -- they can become.

Here's an example:

In recent years, in the U.S. at least, there's been a quiet build up of fear about germs on grocery store shopping carts.  For probably a century or so, no one gave this a single thought.  Then suddenly we began to notice people bringing little disposable wipes with them to swab off the handles of the carts before using them.  Next thing you know, there were dispensers of little disposable wipes at the entrance to every supermarket.  For a while a few years ago, one of the supermarkets where I shop had a huge machine sitting outside that was used to disinfect (using ultraviolet light???) the whole fleet of shopping carts every evening.  Of course, the germs came back right away.

Few people ever do more than wipe off the handle.  I've watched customers carefully extract one of the disinfecting wipes from the dispenser, rub it along the handle before they even touch the cart, and then go merrily on their way.  They put their groceries in the main basket of the cart, which hasn't been disinfected.  Women put their purses in the child seat, which hasn't been disinfected.  Just a few days ago, I waited patiently while an elderly woman went through the ritual, taking care not to touch the cart's handle until it had been safely cleansed, and then she settled her cane, which had been in direct contact with the unsanitized parking lot pavement, in the main basket where she was going to put her groceries.

It seems like a harmless fear, and I know there will be plenty of people who think there's nothing wrong with eliminating even a few of those flu germs from the shopping cart handle.  After all, we don't know what kind of illness the previous user had.  Might have been a child with a runny nose, or someone who didn't cover up when they coughed or sneezed.  Many of us are afraid to admit we're afraid of something someone else told us to be afraid of that we weren't afraid of until we were told to be.

You've got to be carefully taught, as Richard Rodgers told us in South Pacific.

So how do we fight the fear?  Any fear? 

The greatest enemy of fear is knowledge. 

How often have we seen this scenario?  The child, cringing in fear, clinging to its mother, terrified of the friendly looking dog.  The mother, smiling and confident, urging the child, "Come on, pet him.  He won't hurt you.  He's a nice dog."  And then the child, taking confidence from the mother, reaches out tentatively until the dog wags its tail and licks the child's hand.  Lifelong friends have been made, because now the child knows the dog is not something to be afraid of.

Caution is not the same as fear.  We are cautious around dogs we don't know, because we know that some are dangerous.  We are cautious when driving in unfamiliar cities because we don't want to get lost.  We are cautious using power tools because we know they can cause serious physical injury.

We justify irrational actions based on irrational fears, and sometimes we take that irrationality to extremely violent ends.  Does one nation become so terrified of running out of a vital natural resource that it invades another nation, killing thousands, to take possession of their natural resources?  Does that kind of national fear blind an entire population to the possibility of finding alternatives?  Does it lead to an irrational fear of anyone who might pose an obstacle to obtaining that resource, including anyone who might look like someone who might post such an obstacle?  How elaborate can we build that chain of fear?  How strong are the bonds that secure us to our fears?  What, if anything, can we do as individuals to break those chains?

And what in the hell does any of this have to do with writing?

Okay, let me bring this all back down to a more personal and manageable focus.


The following is a quote from one of the comments made by Courtney Milan on the July 2012 Dear Author opinion piece on bullying:
The power dynamic explanation cannot explain the entirety of my loathing for the kind of attack the goodreads bullies are using, because I can think of extremely powerful woman(sic) who have been subjected to threats of physical violence precisely because they are powerful. In that case, those threats exist to weaken the women themselves, and also to threaten those who watch. It sends a clear message: Don’t you dare reach for power, because if you do, you too will get this. 
There is something particularly loathsome about the people who posted Sandra Day O’Connor’s address in DC and suggested that she should get raped, or people who talk about lynching Barack Obama, or people who threaten to hang out outside Oprah’s studio and shoot her. Regardless of what you think about those people, I hope everyone agrees that this is wrong. Those people are very powerful–no doubt about it. There’s no doubt in my mind that they have more power than their attackers. But those attacks are designed not just to attack, but to disenfranchise. 
You do have power, Jane [Litte, of Dear Author]. So do many other reviewers. I’m not saying that the power is equal. I am saying that your stalker targeted you–and the STGB targeted the reviewers they did–because you have power. It’s intended as an object lesson to others who are less powerful: that if readers stick their necks out, they will be chopped off. Sending the message that powerful women need to be cut down to size by any means necessary is, to me, the more despicable aspect of this issue than the the power dynamic.
Since the publication of that opinion piece and the subsequent discussion, Jane Litte herself has come under recent personal attack in the form of a lawsuit.  Another reviewer who dared to be critical of a book has been stalked to her home, with the stalking publicized by the author.  Another reviewer who dared to be critical of a book has been harassed on the telephone by an author who admitted to tracking down the reviewer's personal information, and who then bragged about it online and dismissed her actions as not harmful, not stalking, not threatening, even though they were.  Another reviewer who dared to be critical of a book was stalked to her workplace and physically attacked by the author.

These are the cases we know about.  How many more are unknown?  How many more reviewers and bloggers have just quietly stopped reviewing because they're afraid?    How many readers have taken reasonable caution to a fearful extreme and allowed themselves to be more or less voluntarily silenced?

When I came back to the writing game a few years ago, the game had changed.  There was now instantaneous digital publishing available to just about anyone with a computer.  There were countless blogs and websites offering readers a wide variety of reviews and opinions.  There were discussion groups and paid reviewers and circle jerk review swaps.  As both a reader and a writer, I had to learn the new rules, familiarize myself with the playing fields, and even buy a program to identify the players.  And like any rookie, I made some mistakes.  Some of them were rather embarrassing.

In my early explorations of the Amazon/Kindle universe sometime in  2010, before I knew how to sort the offerings for the low-cost and free books that fit my budget, I stumbled across a free book that looked interesting.  I downloaded it, read the first couple of pages, and was astonished at how terrible the writing was.  In all my years of judging RWA contest material, in all my years in various critique groups, I had rarely come across something so bad.  And yet, as I had noticed on the Amazon listing, this book had several five-star reviews.

I couldn't believe what the reviewers had said about this book.  That the descriptions were vivid and made the reader feel as if she were "right there."  That the characters were well drawn, and that the writing was grammatically flawless.  That the book was wonderful, they couldn't put it down, they couldn't wait for the author's next book, that they couldn't wait for this book to be made into a movie.

Had they read the same book I did?  If they had and they couldn't see the errors I had seen, was there something wrong with them?  Or was there something wrong with me that these things mattered?

When Amazon sent me a little email some time later asking "How many stars would you give to __________?" and provided a handy link to the book's page, I took them at their word.  I left a very brief "review" in which I wrote that I had purchased the book but was unable to read more than the first chapter or so because it was so badly written.  I gave it one star. 

Within a day or so, I received notice in my email that people were commenting on my review.  In my naiveté, I anticipated notes from grateful readers thanking me for pointing out how terrible the book was, or even from the author thanking me for giving her tips on how to improve her writing.  Therefore the anger in the responses shocked me.  How dare I, they fairly spat, criticize this wonderful book if I hadn't read the whole thing.  If I remember correctly -- this was in the days before I knew how to take screen shots or had any clue they'd be necessary -- there were three such responses, all in the same vein, and two of them were from other reviewers of the same book.

My first reaction was simple shock.  I had never expected such venom toward a simple review that simply stated facts.

My second reaction was anger.  I had not been rude in my assessment, and I had not attacked the author in any way.  I only wrote that I had found numerous errors of spelling, punctuation, and syntax and that I quit reading after the first chapter or so.  Yet these people whom I didn't know had turned on me with obvious anger.

My third reaction was fear.  How many more people like this were there out there?  Had I in fact done something wrong in posting that I couldn't read the rest of the book?  Had I broken some rules?  (Actually I had, sort of, but I didn't know it at the time.)  Because I didn't know the rules of the game and therefore didn't know how to defend myself in that situation, I immediately figured out a way to delete the review.

I silenced myself.  Out of fear.  I'd been bullied into silence.  I'd been bullied into questioning my own judgment.

As a result, I did some research.  I learned the rules of the game.  I learned who the players were and which side they played for.  I vowed not to be bullied into silence again.

Since then, I've been the target of other intimidation tactics in efforts to silence me.  I've been called names.  I've been cyberstalked by more than one author with a bruised ego.  (If any of them have tried calling me at home, I don't know about it.  I do not answer calls from people I don't know, and I often don't even listen to voice mails that come from unfamiliar numbers.)  My books have been revenge rated, poor things, and I've been featured prominently on a website that shall remain nameless.  Most recently, I've been banned from another website, without explanation but probably for the cardinal sin of not being nice enough (although there may be other reasons).

I will not give in to fear.  Being banned from that site didn't shock me or even really surprise me.  It certainly hasn't silenced me, and it won't stop me from reviewing books, including books I think are badly written.

By the same token, writers should not be afraid of negative reviews.  Again, knowledge is the greatest enemy of fear, and the more you as a writer know about negative reviews, the less you'll have to fear from them.  If your book is good, a bad review can't hurt it.  Not just won't hurt it, but can't.  If your book is bad, you can either learn from the reviews or not and either improve that book or the next, but you should also learn that if your book is bad, no quantity of good reviews will save it. 

If we have to be carefully taught to hate and fear, then we can also learn not to.

If you let your fear of a negative review blind you to the opportunities presented, then you probably have no business being a writer in the first place.  Writing for publication requires both a certain amount of rational caution and a certain amount of fearlessness.  What it doesn't have room for is the worst word of all:  Fear.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Secret Places, Secret Words

This one is gonna ramble.  Sit back and relax.  ;-)

After a particularly stressful week, I finally got a good night's sleep and feel almost human again.  Last week-end was our local Artists' Studio Tour, which I participated in, and while it's a lot of fun and I actually make some money at it, it's also exhausting.  Monday was back to the day job and all the other routine, so I'm just now really recovering.

One of the first chores on my List of Things to Do Today is calculate my annual budget.  As I contemplate the very real possibility of quitting the day job and trying -- trying -- to enjoy a productive retirement, I need to know if the finances will permit it.  I can tell you right now, I won't be surviving on the strength of my book sales

Well, at least not based on past performance.  But when I came back to the writing something over three years ago, I had no illusions about that anyway.  I came back to it because I had always loved it . . . and because I needed the creative respite from the stultifying boredom of the day job.  Though I've not been as productive directly on the writing in that time, it has given me the creative balance I'd been lacking.  And that's a good thing.

Quoting Martha Stewart is also a good thing for reasons somewhat connected to yesterday's post about the cultural silencing of women, especially women perceived to be uppity or just more successful than men. 

Martha Stewart doesn't have to worry about a budget; most of the rest of us do.  Many of us are so caught up in the daily grind, plus a constant cascade of mini-crises, that we don't have the luxury of even thinking about how to find a way off the vicious carousel.  Even if we did think of a way, we don't have the time or the energy to implement it, let alone the financial means.  In our frustration and desperation, we blame everyone and everything else for why we can't have nice things, because we just don't seem to be able to do anything else.

Many of us also have responsibilities to others that can't be shrugged off.  Sometimes it's very difficult to maintain any kind of balance when there are contrary demands that simply cannot be ignored.

So today I am grabbing for myself the luxury -- and it shouldn't be luxury but it is -- of sitting down and examining exactly where I stand financially and what I need to do going forward.

I know that I have certain assets that have lain idle because the day job has prevented me from putting them to work.  Though I have no way of even beginning to calculate how much income these assets might generate, I do know that they are not generating any at all right now.  One of those assets is, quite literally, a box of rocks.  And that's not as dumb as it sounds.

Something over twenty years ago, my husband and I sort of stumbled upon a rock hunting location that apparently hadn't seen very much activity.  We had actually gone looking for a different location and ended up more or less lost, in the sense that we knew where we were but it wasn't at all where we had set out to go.   Having neither cell phone nor GPS nor even a good topographical map to figure out if we had made a mistake or the information that had been given to us was wrong, we decided to explore the area we were in rather than get more lost, then retrace our route home.  The particular type of material that we'd gone in search of was nowhere around, but we found a few pieces of something else that looked promising. 

As it turned out, those few pieces produced some very nice cabochons that I made into jewelry and ended up selling.  Life being what it is, several years passed before we had the opportunity to try to find this place again and perhaps acquire more of the material we'd found there.  I felt confident that I remembered the roads we'd taken.  It was just a matter of whether or not the roads had changed!  For once, my confidence was well founded; I navigated us right back to the spot without a single wrong turn.  We turned off the road exactly where both of us remembered having turned the first time.

What we found, however, was not what we expected.  We didn't find any of the material we'd gone in search of, which we'd only found a few pieces of before anyway.  Instead, we were amazed at the abundance of another type of rock, not only in quantity but quality.  Why hadn't we seen them on the earlier visit?  They were literally just lying on the ground!  Everywhere!  Despite the temptation to pick up every piece in sight, we took only those that looked most likely to yield jewelry-quality cut stones. 

Over the next several years, we cut and polished a lot of those rocks.  I made them into jewelry and sold them.  And we went back for more. 

We never told anyone precisely where they came from.  "Somewhere in Arizona" was the extent of the information we gave out. 

As far as I've been able to determine, the site is not listed in any rock hunting guidebook nor has it been written up in any magazine articles or on any websites. 

I still have a box of those rocks.

Last week-end, during the Studio Tour, one of the visitors to my studio wanted to buy one of the rocks.  I have certain pieces that I use for display to illustrate the original material from which the jewelry is made, and those pieces are not for sale.  The lady tried very hard to get me to sell it, but I wouldn't.  In a way, it's one of those "nice things" that I do have and don't want to part with.

But it's also more than just a "nice thing."  It's a part of me, a part of my personal experience, my memories, my knowledge.  The secret of its source is my secret, even if someone else has by now been to that particular place and found those particular rocks.

I could drive out there now, today, and probably find more of them.  Google Earth tells me the roads are still where I remember them.  No Panoramio photos have been posted, which suggests few people have gone out there even to take pictures.  I see no new dirt bike, four-wheeler, or hiking trails so indelibly etched in the desert that they are visible from satellites.  Perhaps, my husband being gone almost ten years now, it's still my secret.

Does that secret have a value that can be part of the budget calculation?  Can I use that secret, that knowledge, that experience, to break free of the daily grind and crises?  At what point does the secret lose its value simply because it's a secret?

At last week's Studio Tour, I sold two pieces of jewelry that had been especially dear to me.  I'm not sure why, except maybe it's that "nice things" syndrome.  I hated to part with them, but I also knew that I myself was not personally ever going to wear them.  They might as well provide me with a little bit of income and provide someone else with some enjoyment.  So I let them go.

One of the issues I've railed on frequently throughout this blog is the failure -- at times I'm tempted to call it the refusal -- of the writing community to set and then enforce some kind of quality control standards regarding digital publication.  I know that it's difficult for some people, maybe even most people, to stick their necks out and be critical, even when they know the criticism is warranted.  Their reasons are many, and often valid.  My own experience this past week may have reinforced some of their caution.

Back in the days when writers were scrambling for the limited number of spots on publishers' lists, there was a sense on one hand that those of us who had made it owed it to our fellows to help them up the ladder, and yet on the other sense that we were foolish if we trained our own competition.  As I've said before, I served my time as an RWA contest judge; I saw the horrible writing, the flat characters, the transparent plots.  I bit my tongue at critique group meetings where other members just plain didn't get that they had to learn proper grammar and basic writing skills.  In the end, though, it didn't matter.  Those writers were never going to be published.  They were never going to be my competition.

Today they are both.

Today, as I work on my budget to find out if I can even begin to survive without the day job's income, I understand that certain secrets will lose all value if shared, but certain others have no value unless they are shared.   Last night I completed a book review that I had started over a year ago.  I have no illusions that my review is going to make this particular novella any better.  Even though I pointed out very specific problems with it, others have done so, too, and the book remains in digital print.  It also remains an example of some of the worst writing imaginable.  I read three pages and that was more than enough.  The review is not kind.  It is honest.  It is brutally honest, because the book is brutally bad.

Is it possible that the author will read that review and be hurt?  Yes.

Is it possible that the author, her friends and family and fans, will be angry with me and seek revenge?  Yes.

Is it possible that some other writer will read that review and learn something?  Yes.

Is it possible that some reader will read that review and learn something?  Yes.

I'm willing to risk the first two for the sake of the second two.

I'm never going to be the kind, gentle, nurturing soul who pats the author of a badly written book on the head and says, "But you tried and that's what counts,"  and then slaps a big gold star on it.  (Yes, "it" may refer to the book, the author, or just the author's head.  Take your pick.)

Nor am I going to give hours and hours and hours of my time to angry, self-entitled authors who think I owe them free editorial services to ameliorate the effects of my scathing reviews on their tender egos.

But I will share my secrets, my knowledge, my experience, with those who are willing to learn and then willing to work with what they've learned, because now they are in my marketplace and they are competing with me.  I owe it to myself to contribute to the professionalism of my profession.

Just don't ask me to tell you where the rocks come from.