I’m right and you’re not, or, A case of People Behaving Badly

In this post, I had intended to focus on the second idea I mentioned in my previous one, about readers taking on the role of critiquer. However, the vast array of shiny things that is the Web has diverted me from my purpose, seduced me into thinking about a not entirely unrelated issue that has emerged in the cyber-world of books recently. I can’t resist putting in my two cents’ worth, I’m afraid, but I will get back to my main point eventually.

Bear with me.

You may have possibly experienced it firsthand (particularly if you go to goodreads a lot) or you may have read about it—a literary war that is currently raging with the fire of a thousand suns in the too small universe of E-land. Allegations of bullying have been bouncing back and forth between a number of reviewers and authors. Each has accused the other group of making derogatory or inflammatory remarks that go far beyond what they deem to be spirited discussion,  even beyond what could be construed as impassioned responses to criticism. As a result, websites have been created, bloggers have blogged, and insults have been flung like a monkey is wont to hurl its poo.

At least the monkey helps to fertilize the soil.

If you aren’t familiar with the brouhaha, the essence of it is this: certain reviewers have posted negative reviews, certain authors have responded by arguing against points made in these reviews, responses have been made to these responses, and the discussion has apparently gone downhill quickly. Reason and logic have given way to comments along the lines of, “You are stupid and so’s the horse you rode in on.”

It has all gotten sordid and hearts are broken.

My flippant tone may lead you to think I have no sympathy for the real, live people who have been caught up in this nonsense, so I hasten to add that I do feel for them. I don’t wish to trivialize the effects that negative, cruel, seemingly personal attacks have on the receiver, whether author or reviewer in this case. Not being personally acquainted with the person who is insulting you doesn’t make the insult any less hurtful.

As for the rest of us, it’s easy to get caught up in all the sturm und drang whilst remaining at a safe distance from it all. Opinion is rampant. Of course, amidst all the insult flinging, there is reasoned debate going on. Some excellent posts are out there if you care to Google them.  I just don’t personally have anything worthwhile to add to what has already been said.

Nevertheless, the whole kerfuffle interests me because, apart from the fact that it adds a bit of drama to our day, it all revolves around one core component that every writer (everybody for that matter) has, whether s/he thinks so or not.

Ego.Flame war

Note that I did not use the term author. Or novelist. The term I chose is intended to include every reviewer who has ever written about a book, good or bad, every commenter who responds to a blog post, every member of a forum, as well as anybody who has published a book.

No one likes receiving criticism. Unfortunately, we often have to take it with good grace, especially if it is intended to be constructive feedback, to help us grow and improve. To make our (fill in the blank here—if you’re a writer, insert the word writing) better, stronger, et cetera. It can and does actually work to make us grow and improve, if we can acknowledge its truth without curling up into a shriveled ball of hurt.

Yet deep down, the only feedback we really want is not feedback at all. It’s positive reinforcement. Warm fuzzies. Being told we are a worthwhile person. Being told we are good enough.

Every time you write something and send it off into the big old world of the Internet, you are sending off a part of yourself with it. A smidgeon of your psyche. A taste of your soul. And revealing that part of your soul publicly can leave you very vulnerable, especially if somebody responds to your soul-bearing by grabbing the little bugger, biting a hefty chunk out of it and spitting it back in your face.

It is immaterial whether you penned War and Peace, or Wow, your book really sucked. When someone doesn’t appreciate, or worse still, disapproves of what you wrote, it’s personal. It’s the equivalent of telling a mother her baby is ugly. No wonder people don’t respond well when someone they don’t even know picks on their darling.

The other problem with writing on the Internet is that you can choose, to a certain extent, to remain anonymous. Even authors are able to keep a certain amount of anonymity through the use of pseudonyms. So it’s easy to become more daring, more flippant, snarkier, more reckless … more of anything you want to be, or already are.

PeopleBehavingBadly is going on everywhere on the ‘net. Why? Because we all have the capacity to behave badly, except that personal interaction, morality and manners generally tend to save us from the worst parts of ourselves. When the first of those elements, the face-to-face interaction with other human beings, is taken out of the equation, the other two can get forgotten somewhere along the way.

The trouble is, nobody knows when they are indulging in a bout of PeopleBehavingBadly. Every villain, as someone wise once said, is the hero of his own story. Ego makes us not only oblivious to our own affronts, but also more sensitive to the affronts of others. Considering that it’s much more difficult to gauge a writer’s tone without the accompaniments of voice, gesture and facial expression, it’s a wonder we don’t have even more virtual brawls.

So how does this relate to the reader’s role in providing feedback to writers?

As I promised in my last post, I will get to the point.

… in part two.

Help me write my book … and pay for the privilege, or, Why authors should get feedback before, not after, they publish

My topic today does not have to do specifically with historical romance, or even romance in general. It has to do with a phenomenon in the publishing world that seems to exist across the genres: authors selling a book, then revising it as a result of feedback from readers.

When this started happening, I’m not really sure. I wasn’t paying attention, I suppose. As a grumpy old chick, or GOC (who is old enough to remember when the word ‘chick’ was considered demeaning), I tend to focus only on what I’m interested in. Let’s face it, there’s a lot of white noise on the Interwebs, particularly when it has to do with the confusing world of publishing. But when some of the interesting people I read online made me aware of this phenomenon, I had one of those “What the …?” reactions.

When did people start paying for the privilege of rewriting somebody’s book?

I am not talking about the issue of gaining feedback for your work. I think we all know that a writer needs to have other people read his/her work before submission, no matter how painful it might be. In the old days (I’m sensing a theme here) we used to call tTyping on keyboardhem critique partners. On the ‘net, everyone seems to call them beta readers. I think there is, or should be, a distinction between the two terms. A critique partner is a writer who writes in the same genre as you. A beta reader may be a writer, or may be a reader who has no interest in writing and will give you a slightly different perspective. Both are valuable.

Whatever you wish to call them, these are the people who will read your scene/chapter/book and make comments—hopefully constructive ones—that will help you see areas that need improvement. If you’re lucky, they’ll also serve as a support and a cheering squad, pointing out where you’ve been especially brilliant. Romance writers—I can’t comment on those of other genres—have always been generous in their willingness to help each other out.

Nowadays, there are also public forums and websites, e.g. wattpad and Absolute Write Water Cooler, where you can seek out other writers and/or readers to read and comment on your work. Some brave souls even choose to post their work on their own websites for all the world to pick apart. For those who have the money, professional freelance editors are another option.

All this critiquing happens before the writer submits his/her work to a publisher or an agent. Certainly before the book is published.

So when did it become acceptable for an author to publish a book, obtain feedback from readers, then use that feedback to revise or rewrite that book, and re-release it? From the discussions I’ve read, consumers don’t seem to be worried about the concept in general, but they do take issue with having, or not having, different versions of the novel and the confusion this version-itis could cause.

I, on the other hand, take issue with the concept as a whole.

Now, before I get accused of being a ‘trad pub’ groupie, or anti-self-publishing, as well as a GOC, I wish to say in my defence: No.

I’m not. Truly.

But it’s also true that this is really only an issue with digitally published works. No publisher is going to do another expensive print run just because the author realizes her ending is weak. That is why a publisher employs editors, whose job it is to work out and try to help fix such problems beforehand. This is not to say that books in print form haven’t had to be reprinted because of errors.  There is even the odd book, usually written by a bestselling author, that sees the light of day in a new-and-improved version years down the track. Occasionally, BigName Writer likes to eliminate that scene that is no longer acceptable to a contemporary audience, or rewrite some of the not so stellar bits of prose. Some authors, in reissuing their print books in electronic format, have taken the opportunity to revise.

It is simply less of an issue with print publishing simply because of printing costs and all that $$$ stuff.  It’s just not worth it.

With e-publishing, and particularly self-publishing, where the author is in control of production and distribution, these costs don’t come into play. Do e-pubs tend to release revised versions of their published books? I can’t say for sure, but I seriously doubt it. Not only would it damage the reputation of their editing staff, but version control (is that even a pub term?) could create more than a few headaches. And who would it benefit? The author, perhaps. The publisher, not so much.

So that leaves self-pubbed works, I guess.

Self-publishing is an area that is way beyond the scope of my humble post, and this is not even about self-publishing. It’s about an idea. Two ideas, really.

The first idea is that a piece of writing never stops morphing, never reaches a final form. That it’s never good enough just as is.

The second idea (which I will address in the next post because I prattle on too much) is that anyone who reads a piece of writing has not only the ability, but also the right, to improve that piece, or at least to influence change.

When you think about it, these ideas are massive. Both in the nature of the idea, the idea-edness, if you will, and in the consequences that arise if you put these ideas into practice.

Massive, I say.

Let me address the first idea. It probably won’t come as any surprise to non-writers to discover that writers get insecure about their work. Many tinker with their words endlessly. Many look back a year later, a month later, a minute later, and cringe at the utter dreck they’ve produced. It doesn’t end when a writer becomes a published author. I’m willing to bet even Stephen King does it.

It must be so tempting for an author, having read comments by readers that resonated with them, to go fix whatever was wrong immediately. Make it right. Make everyone love their work even more.

The only problem with doing so is this: I believe when you part readers from their money, you enter into a contract with them. You have sold them something that you considered was worth whatever price you placed on your book. You have sold them not only the license to read an artistic work but a consumer product as well. They in turn expect to receive a finished item.

Literate LOLcatI realize there are plenty of readers who are more than happy to go along with the writer’s desire to make that product better, more polished, or more in tune with what those readers want. In fact, I imagine it would give you a real buzz to think you’d helped make a favourite book even better.

But I think there has to come a time when the author steps away from the work. And I think that time is when you decide it is good enough to be published. To be put out in the marketplace.

If you have written what is essentially a first draft, don’t publish it. Redraft.

If you think it needs editing, don’t publish it. Get it edited.

If your readers make suggestions that are helpful and constructive, incorporate them into your next novel.

If you get reviews that are hurtful, buy a voodoo doll.

Keep moving forward.

At least leave the damn book alone.

Too much of a good thing, or, Why some series should be given the True Death

Television seems to be annoying me more than usual at the moment. It could be that I am becoming more persnickety in my old age. It could also be that the quality of writing in many shows has gone downhill. Or it could be that I am just not in tune with what many other people enjoy.

It could be all of the above.

Watching the fifth season of True Blood has served as a sort of catalyst for me to explore this feeling of annoyance. I began to get sick of the whole thing about halfway through the previous season, and I didn’t even watch the final episodes. I’m giving the new season a try, but I have to say, irritation is festering. Sometimes I wish these ridiculous people would just go away.

When I think about how I enjoyed the first few seasons, how I appreciated the outrageousness that would build to a doozy of a finale, complete with a cliffhanger ending worthy of that title, I wonder where it all went wrong. I have a theory, and it has to do with the fact that this show is based on a series of books—an extensive series of books.

Charlaine Harris will have written 13 books in the Southern Vampire, AKA Sookie Stackhouse, series (along with novellas and short stories featuring the SV characters) by the time the series finishes. I have not read the books, so I know nothing about them apart from the fact that the TV series is based on them. I do know that Ms. Harris has a legion of fans and her books are bestsellers.  She has obviously built a loyal readership who love Sookie and the band of vampires, werewolves, shape shifters and other beings she consorts with.  I don’t doubt Harris’ books are entertaining, and I am not taking issue with the fact that many people enjoy getting to know their favourite characters over the course of more than one book.

I am not opposed to the idea of a series with recurring characters, per se. It is just that, there’s only so much that can happen to these people—and heaven knows a lot has happened already. How many more times can they be killed off, turned, have sex with other characters, get in trouble, get out of trouble, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera?

True Blood is not an isolated example, mind you. Anyone remember the convoluted interrelated plot shenanigans of Lost? I got lost myself, and, considering that I guessed the Big Reveal at the very beginning, I felt more than annoyed that it had taken so long to get not so very far. The X-Files, which began as an interesting paranormal detective show, degenerated into this weird conspiracy against Scully and Mulder. Fringe is going the same way. House has mercifully been put out of its, and my, misery. Come to think of it, it’s harder to come up with examples of shows where plots and characters haven’t run amok and done stupid, stupid things.

My irritation stems from the simple fact that the longer you write about the same characters, in the same situations, in the same world, the greater are the odds that you will begin to write more and more absurd plots to keep these characters busy.

When it comes to books, series with recurring characters are more common in some genres than others. My favourite genre, the historical romance, does not generally feature recurring characters who come back book after book. Unlike the kick-ass urban fantasy heroine, or the hardboiled detective character, the Regency rake usually gets his one shot at fame. Of course, heroes and heroines do make the odd cameo appearance in other books, and that’s fine. The reader can see how they’re doing, what they’ve been up to since they got their HEA.

However, the historical romance genre does make use of another sort of series, in which the writer tells the stories of a group of siblings, or friends. Each one gets his or her own book; the other characters may or may not put in an appearance, and only occasionally do they play more than a minor role. The idea is that, not only are the minor characters interesting in their own right, but hopefully, the reader will like them enough to want to read each book in the series to see them take centre stage in their turn.

Bridgerton novels by Julia QuinnNow, when put in the hands of a master, such as Julia Quinn, these tales of brothers, sisters, cousins and acquaintances can be delightful.  Her Bridgerton books can’t be beat for this sort of thing. Not only do we enjoy the main characters in each book, but we get the added value of a bunch of previously loved characters as well, plus the heroes and heroines of future stories thrown in for good measure.

The trouble is, a series can build up a character almost too much. Take, for example, the mixed reviews for a certain book that was part of a hugely popular historical romance series. One secondary character, who had taken on almost legendary status over the course of several previous books, finally got his own story. Fans couldn’t wait for it. But when they got it, a few of them didn’t much care for it.

Of course, the more readers were emotionally invested in this character, the more likely it was that his story, as created by the writer, would not be identical to the one stewing in their heads. It would also be extraordinarily difficult to give such a powerful, enigmatic figure the type of flaws and character arc required of a romance hero while still retaining that almost omnipotent quality he displayed in the previous books.  Not to mention the fact that he’d have to have a heroine worthy of him. A tall order, indeed. If a superior writer like the author in question didn’t—according to some fans—pull it off, then what hope do the rest of us have?

So what am I trying to say here, apart from the obvious—that great characters take on a life of their own, and that this is both a blessing and a curse for writers?

I think what I’m saying is that even the greatest series have a shelf life. That there is a fine balance between just enough, and too much of a good thing. How we find that balance, I don’t pretend to know.

I just know that some characters deserve the True Death. Sooner rather than later.

The scandalous hoyden seduced by the wicked roguish Duke, or, Invasion of the title snatchers

I believe there is proof of alien visitation.

Yes, proof.

Aliens have visited this planet. They came down in their spaceships, took the inventive, distinctive and apt titles that historical romance authors had come up with for their books, and left behind a scroll with about ten words on it, from which the unfortunate writers could create their own variation on a theme.

You don’t believe my theory, that it’s part of an alien conspiracy? You prefer to think that this is all just co-incidence?

I don’t think so. But if you can’t quite bring yourself to believe in the enormity of what I am saying, let us explore some other options.

Option 1: many authors have chosen titles that are similar to others. Lots of others.

Well, it’s plausible, I guess. After all, words like seduction and scandal and rogue are pretty sexy, and they fit in well with the idea of a romance. I can see why authors would choose to include them; I’ve used seduction in a title myself. It’s just that everyone else is using these words too. So they begin to lose a little of their sexiness—or at least cast doubt on the promise of what they can deliver—when they turn up here, there and everywhere. I begin to question whether anyone will actually be seduced in the book, and how roguish the hero actually is. When a title becomes generic, I can’t tell anymore what the style, or the tone, or the level of sensuality of the book will be.

Option 2: the authors’ publishers have suggested these titles.

Why, might you ask, would a publisher suggest a title that sounds like a hundred others?

It’s not by chance, of course, or because of a lack of imagination or because somebody likes the word wicked. It is because publishers employ marketing teams who can pull out all the stats that show that these words, these titles, sell more books. And no one can blame them for doing their job. I don’t begrudge publishers wanting to maximize the potential earnings of a book they have invested time and money in.  Market research is telling them what works. However, it’s the ‘saturation of the market’ aspect that has me stumped. One Seduced Into A Marriage of Convenience By A Rakish Lord is OK. But if that rakish lord sells like hotcakes, then more rakish lords pop up in titles and on covers until no one can stand rakish lords and they can’t be given away (compare where vampire books are headed in the paranormal romance world). Wouldn’t limiting the number of rakish lords over any given month work to ensure the longevity of said lords?Generic titled book cover

Hooks—the tropes or scenarios that are particularly popular with many readers— have always been inserted into romance titles. After all, if you’ve got twenty new books to choose from, how do you know which one you’re most likely to enjoy? The title helps. That is, it’s supposed to. (See Option 1 comments). If all titles sound the same, you’re none the wiser, and you may just put your credit card away and not buy any of the books on offer.

Nor do generic titles inspire confidence in the writing ability of the author of The Devilish Duke. Some of those who like to disdain the romance genre do so under the misapprehension that romances are poorly written. Some may be—just as there are plenty of crappy fantasies, mysteries and so-called literary works on the market. But I have read romances that are astonishing in their artistry. And as a writer, I can tell you that it is damned hard to get all the elements of a romance novel right. You wouldn’t get a sense of how great most romances are, though, just going by the titles. You wouldn’t get a sense of how witty, moving and profound they can be. You would think they are all the same, like widgets off an assembly line.

Don’t get me wrong. If I had a book coming out, and my publisher suggested I change my title from something I had come up with to something that would sell more copies, I’d be a fool not to think about it. If the marketing gurus told me that renaming my tome This book sux dead toads would ensure its bestseller status, I’d consider the change. That may sound desperate, but it’s not unreasonable. Every writer hopes to reach more readers. Every writer wants to make a decent living from her work, too (although even having the ‘hookiest’ title in the world might not ensure that).

But I am a reader as well.  I consider myself an intelligent person. I have been reading romances for many years, and I am able to find the ones I want, even if they have obscure titles like Mayhem in Mayfair or A Lady’s Dilemma (plucked from my brain just now). Such titles don’t tell me everything, but that is perfectly fine.  Let me read the book to find out its secrets. Let me discover it all on the journey.

So, aliens, if you’re out there, stop visiting us Earthlings simply to take away our titles. Leave us our creativity and individuality.  We need all the help we can get.

The mistorical, or, It’s the little things that get you

Lately, I’ve been reading some entertaining blogs, one of which belongs to Vacuous Minx, who has written some thought-provoking posts about romance writing and reading. A few have centred around the use of the term mistorical  (or ‘mistaken historical’) which apparently originated in a post at Dear Author.

A lot of debate followed about the meaning of such a term and when it should be applied. Many commenters agreed that an historical romance could be labeled in such a way if it met the following criteria:

  • The book contains historical inaccuracies
  • The book fails to create a world that ‘fits’ the time period and setting of the book, or the book doesn’t even try to create a convincing historical milieu

The discussion then turned to the thorny matter of determining what actually constitutes an historical inaccuracy, particularly when those who voice their dissatisfaction the loudest can turn out to be wrong. Sometimes the point in contention can be ‘verified’ in completely opposite ways according to one’s sources and interpretation, so that it remains debatable who is correct.

Broader issues of the representation of class, sex and race also arose, but the discussion didn’t really go anywhere. Was it beyond the scope of that discussion? Or are some elements of historicity valued highly, while others are left largely unexplored? I don’t know the answer to that.

I must admit I have conflicting opinions regarding the mistorical. I’ve read books that almost became ‘wall-bangers’ because of some element in them that irritated me to the point I wanted to drop-kick them across the room. I’ve read more books that I didn’t, or couldn’t, finish. I’ve read others that I finished, but I didn’t enjoy. I’ve read books that seemed so real in their depiction of the historical setting that I was there with the characters. I’ve also read books that I thought to be historically spot-on but as dry as dust, and others that were ridiculously implausible but I went along for the ride anyway.

That’s not to say that it’s OK for an author to just stick their characters in redingotes and breeches and off they go. There are some plot devices, character types and anachronisms that really piss me off, ones that have become not only too common in historical romance, but are almost now de rigueur. However, I believe we need to tread cautiously here before we start labelling historical romances as mistoricals, histericals, wallpaper historicals, costume historicals or anything else. Who exactly is going to do the labelling? What criteria will they use to make these judgments? How do I know their judgments are valid –i.e. how will I know they agree with how I see the world?

Sometimes I think we tend to want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. It is how the history and the romance intersect that really matters to me. One element cannot exist successfully without the other. For me, if the author has her hero and heroine acting in ways consistent with what I believe to be the mores and customs of the period, and the romance develops in ways that go beyond (but do not exclude) sexual attraction, then I’m willing to overlook something that I think is not quite right.

I’m hoping others will feel the same. Since I began formulating my thoughts on this subject, it became distressingly (and soon to be embarrassingly) personal. I wrote a short story, set in the Regency, which is shortly to appear online. A few days after I sent my baby off into cyberspace, I read a comment from someone who used the example of a magenta ball gown as something that would annoy them.

Uh. Oh. Guess who used magenta as a colour in her story?

Sure enough, I looked it up at the Online Etymology Dictionary, and it didn’t exist as the name for a colour until after the Battle of Magenta in 1859. I also used the colour turquoise. Now, turquoises have been around forever and a day, right? Not so the colour: its usage dates from the 1850s too.

The thing that really gets me is that I actually changed a number of other words I wanted to use, because when I checked them, although they might have been in use during the Regency, they could have sounded anachronistic. So why didn’t I check magenta and turquoise?

Because it didn’t even occur to me.

Will anybody care?

Probably. I bet it will be those people who actually recognize my booboo who will read the damned thing. Then they’ll label it a mistorical.

And no matter how people argue that the term is not designed to be used as a pejorative, I don’t think it will make me feel any better.