Category Archives: Reader Reactions

The Siren’s Song

Okay, things have been a little hectic on this end – so much so that I forgot Monday’s Micro Monday until Tuesday. Just the usual health issues with my mother, but she’s on the mend now, and my wife and I are actually starting to catch up on our sleep and are approaching humanhood once more.

Over the weekend, I did manage to get through editing Act One, Scene One of the play. Sunday night my son was over and saw the binder on the lap desk and decided to start reading it. Right off the bat, he asked what soap-on-a-rope was. I was using this as the kind of unwanted gift that you would only accept from your child, but my wife had noted that it was passe. I had already made the decision to write it out in favor of a cheap, gaudy tie, but that cemented the deal right there.

Next he started asking questions about things I had written. Some of his comments were legitimate, but a lot of them were nitpicky. After he left, my wife said, “It’s interesting. He hasn’t learned to trust you as a writer yet. He doesn’t know that you know what you’re doing.” Which was a good point, and something that my wife learned many years ago.

There might also have been a little bit of old H.G. Wells’ warning in my son’s questions, too: No passion in the world is equal to the passion to alter someone else’s draft. Had the book of the published play been on the lap desk, he would have picked it up and read it without a second thought. But it was the manuscript lying there. And what a siren’s song that presents.

I know that happens. Trust me. I work in advertising. And there is no person so devoid of talent that they don’t entertain thoughts of picking up a pen so they might make that manuscript “more better.”

I’ve seen that more than I want to really talk about.

So this is nothing against my son. If I took every manuscript to him for his evaluation, he’d learn, as my wife did two-decades-plus ago, that I’d take some suggestions and ignore others, and come out of it with an improved version of the story I wanted to tell. Rather, it’s a cautionary tale – be careful with whom you choose to share your manuscript. Even the janitor will have an opinion.

Then there was one who recently asked if she could read A Father Christmas when it was done. I sent her the pdf, and she e-mailed back, asking “would you like a full critique, or just want to know about small stuff like typos?” Bless her for asking.

Of course, she is also a writer. She’s been there, too.

Listening:
I sing a lonely song
I sing it all night long
Sometimes I’m part of it
And when I’m tired of it
It just goes…

(via iTunes)

They Get It

In an off moment I decided to do a little experimentation and figured out how to surf Google Russia using (what else?) Russian. I went to one of the Russian web sites that mentions my books, copied my name to the clipboard, and since I installed Cyrillic on my Mac as a system font, it was able to paste the right characters into the search pane at Google.ru.

I wasn’t sure what I was looking for, or even if I was expecting anything at all. I’m a realist at heart, and I frequently recall Wesley’s admonition from The Princess Bride: “Get used to disappointment.”

So I clicked the Russian equivalent of Search and got a whole bunch of hits. Clicked on the first one, expecting a book store listing.

Instead I got a review of Boddekker’s Demons. One I’d never seen. And it was quite enthusiastic, once I’d run it through Babelfish or Paralink.

Well, this is interesting, I thought. So I tried another one. Another review. And another. Before long, I’d collected half a dozen reviews for one or the other Pembroke Hall books, all from news or literature web sites. This was, I should note, more than I saw ten years ago when the books were coming out in my native tongue (and while I’m at it, let me add to that – I’ve also gotten more response from Russian readers about these books than from English-speaking readers).

Not all of the reviews were positive – at least from what I could tell given the torturous translations that Babelfish and/or Paralink put them through (the former seemed to be the most understandable, but crashed more – the latter was more reliable, but missed more words).

Here’s some of what I found, with highlights:

And No Happy Ending!” Critic Anna Andersen delights in Boddekker’s Demons, and in the comments section a fake Joe Clifford Faust writes in and offers to write a new novel for her. So I put in a comment saying that I was much nicer than the impostor made me out to be. This one came out the clearest in all of the translations, which speaks volumes for Anna’s writing ability.

Their urine, reptiles!” The Bookshop Window, which previously gave a nice nod to Ferman, tackles Boddekker, saying it was as if the two books were part of the same story (!). The strange headline (“Their urine, reptiles!”) is repeated at the end of the review along with some words that didn’t make the trip into English. I suspect it was a Russian idiomatic version of one of the parodistic catch phrases in the novel.

The given novel is a fertile field” is a reader’s review that concludes that Ferman is a “desirable read” with something for everyone.

one calorie for the mind” This was the most difficult to understand of all the articles, again, probably because of the original source. It isn’t a positive review, but it didn’t seem to be blisteringly negative, either. I don’t think. I’m not sure.

Who is Guilty?” This is a scholarly article about two recently published books with similar themes: Ferman and a British novel called Popcorn by Ben Elton. If that name rings a bell, it’s because Mr. Elton is a writer best known (in my frame of reference, anyway), for his work with Rowan Atkinson on Mr. Bean and the Blackadder series. Which thrills me to death.

What’s fascinating about this is that every review digs down into the book. The English language reviews I got talked about superficial things in the books, but these dig down into themes and influences and meanings. Since the Devils live in a demolished church building, they are in essence fallen angels. People flock to buy the products they advertise, but the irony is that they’re not an authentic street gang, not really – only Ferman could be considered a true street kid. As an author I applied the “pamphlets of my religion” to ad culture… the list goes on.

This whole thing thrilled my daughter. She’s fresh into literary novel awareness after being forced to endure Beloved by Toni Morrison, so she was grilling me about some of this last night: “Did you put that meaning into the book?” “No” “See! It’s a literary novel!” She couldn’t wait to get to school this morning so she could tell her English teacher that her Father was a literary figure in Russia (and she’s ready to pack her bags and go over).

My wife and I discussed this a bit last night. Part of it might be the whole “prophet without honor” thing, wherein I had to find an audience outside of my native tongue to be appreciated. That it happened in Russia is delicious. They’re new to the whole concept of capitalism, and from what we’ve gathered from talking to some natives we know, they admittedly have a streak in them that celebrates, or perhaps is simply fascinated by, suffering (for example, in Moscow On The Hudson, Robin Williams gives a brilliant little speech about how they embrace their misery and keep it as their own).

Whatever the reason, I’m still trying to keep this all in proper perspective. It’s nice to have the books appreciated and what I was understood – it’s like finally, someone “gets it.” Yeah, I know that no doubt there are people here who “got it.” But these folks are writing about it.

My wife said, “Wouldn’t it be funny if Russians ended up being the ones who make the books into a movie?”

Funny, yes. Ironic, yes. And fitting somehow, although I can’t quite put my finger on why. Maybe it has something to do with the reptile urine.

And to Anna Andersen, who responded to my impostor-debunking comment, I say: I love you as a cat sour cream, too.

Listening: Ben Folds Five, “Don’t Change Your Plans” (via iTunes shuffle play)

Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood

Sting expresses dismay at the fact that his song “Every Breath You Take” is interpreted as a love song – he wrote it as a creepy song about a stalker. Green Day expresses amusement at how their tune “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” has become a popular staple at weddings. As one of their friends says, “They wrote it as a ‘(bleep)-You’ song.” And a contributor to Maria Schneider’s excellent Pathetic Geek Stories confesses to tearfully requesting Duran Duran’s “Save A Prayer” be played after the Challenger disaster without realizing that it was a song about a one night stand.

There’s a funny thing that happens out there in the world of human interaction. The message you want to get across might not be the one that your readers receive. And yes, this means that it happens not just to pop songs, but to novels as well.

Once upon a time, I finished a novel that would become my first published book, A Death of Honor. I had one other book under my belt, Desperate Measures, but ADOH was such a quantum leap in my writing that I went for outside help.

My wife has always been my first and best editor. But I was concerned about the fact that, for the first time, two of the three lead characters were female. The only female character of any stature that I’d dealt with up to that point was Dawn, the prostitute in Desperate Measures, and she was the type who beat up one of the main characters during the course of the book (it was Duke – and if you don’t remember this happening, it’s because it was my favorite scene in the manuscript and I ended up cutting it.

So I asked a woman I worked with who was a mystery reader if she’d take a look at it. She was thrilled and, after reading it, convinced me that I’d done a good job of “writing women.”

And that would be the end of the story except for another comment she made. She said, “You must’ve had fun killing off Myra… you did it with such relish.”

That surprised me. I didn’t think killing off Myra was a gleeful sort of thing. In fact, I didn’t tell her that after I wrote that scene, I didn’t write for three days after that. I’d known Myra was going to die for a couple of weeks – in my original outline, she was going to live – but it wasn’t like I’d gotten some kind of sadistic glee in describing her dying in Payne’s arms, her torso dotted with cigarette burns from her torturers.

Any professional writer will tell you that “regular folks” misunderstand a lot about writers and the way they work. After I sold Ferman’s Devils, my immediate boss at a marketing company told me, “Well, you won’t want to work here anymore when all of that money from your book comes rolling in.” Actually, I didn’t want to work there anymore, but it had nothing to do waiting on royalty checks. I tried to explain that for every Tom Clancy or Stephen King, there were a hundred, nay, a thousand Joe Clifford Fausts who still had their day jobs. It didn’t do any good, but that’s a post for another day.

What doesn’t get said is that not only will readers have odd notions about your life as a writer, but they will also misunderstand or interpret your works in ways that you had not intended. Most of the time when you talk with one of their readers, they’ll put an insight or spin on your book that makes your head reel, at which time you can either blush and grin and take credit for your genius, or else say, “Wow, that’s neat. I wish I’d thought of that when I wrote the book!” I’ve done both, depending on who the reader was.

But then you get readers who completely and utterly miss the point of what was going on. I once had a prissy, naive, colleague who got it into her head that she wanted to read one of my books. Considering her background, I deemed ADOH to be the only book to be safe for her – The Company Man was brutal and bleak, the Angel’s Luck books were too “Sci-Fi.” Honor had a track record of doing well with non-SF readers, so I gave her a copy and didn’t look back.

A couple of weeks later – let me say that again – a couple of weeks later she came to me, embarrassed, with a burning question about the book. I figured she had finished it, so I was ready for anything. Anything but what she ended up asking me.

She said, “Well, um, what I need to know is if Payne and Bailey are gay. Because if they are, I’m just not going to be able to finish the book.”

Never mind that in the weeks that had passed she hadn’t made it past the first chapter. I’d had questions from readers before who weren’t clear on this plot point or that concept, but nobody – nobody else had missed the fact that Payne and Bailey were nothing more than bachelors on the prowl.

I told her that no, Payne and Bailey were all-American red-blooded heterosexuals, and put the question behind me. She never got back to me with any more questions. I haven’t seen her in nearly a decade now – for all I know she’s still struggling through the book, probably stymied by the fact that Payne and Trinina had a child but they weren’t married! (which, if I recall, becomes evident in chapter two or three).

There’s nothing you can do about this sort of thing, not if you’ve written your story to the best of your ability. You’re not going to cover everything that could possibly come up in the fertile minds of your readers as they travel through your little world of fiction. You may not even cover everything you thought you covered to build proper suspension of disbelief – if there’s a hole in your plot, someone will find it, and you can only hope that it is someone who can say, “But why didn’t she just call the police on page 13?” in a spirit of gentleness and fun. It helps to be ready for the unexpected, if indeed anyone can.

When it happens to you, just remember: you’re in good company.

Listening: Tom Lehrer, “It Makes A Fellow Proud to be a Soldier (Live)” (via iPod Shuffle)

Adieu to Vic and Ray

Now I have all the original ten pages of Deadline entered into the notebook complete with the necessary changes. But now I’m wondering if I shouldn’t start with the second chapter, which is the fortieth birthday of the lead character. I’ll have to see. The chapter I’m working on introduces five characters during its length, in a setting that is common for all of them. Probably better that way than to have a reader confused and saying who are all of these people and why are they trying to get this guy drunk?

As it is now, I realize there’s more material I needed to add in addition to what I’ve already inserted. Instead of doing it yet again, I plan to write on the back of the affected page, with notes on where it goes on the other side.

I’m may get this thing written by hand after all, but I’m going to make myself crazy in the process. I think I’ve been spoiled by the “insert here” nature of word processors over the last sixteen years (yeah, I bought one of the first versions of MS Word and have been using it ever since).

The development worth mentioning in my work on And/News tonight is the volume of stuff I left out of the reconciled outline while finishing off the chapter. At the time I put it in, I thought it was all necessary, but as I got to the point where I was using it, I decided that there was the risk of overplaying a character’s description of an emotional betrayal. I decided to give minimal details and let the readers fill in the blanks to their own level of comfort, as opposed to turning things into the Jerry-Springer-Show-In-A-Van-On-The-Way-To-Los-Angeles.

Also left out was a scene where Vic and Ray explained a plan that is of importance to Richard and K. When I was looking at the outline a couple of days ago, I realized that I had figured out a better way to do it. Instead of going through the explanation, I simply jumped to the implementation of their plan, alluding to the unseen conversation in other ways. All told, I probably jettisoned about a quarter of what I had scheduled for this chapter. Again, the audience is left to fill in the blanks (if either of these bits had something of dire importance, I would have taken a different approach).

In fact, I think that’s one thing that a lot of writers do that results in the tragic over-writing and over-description we see in novels: They underestimate the intelligence of the reading public and try to spoon feed everything into their brains.

It seems that Hollywood has been a bad, bad example on all of us.

I did all this and added a rhythmic guitar part to the anniversary song I’ve been recording. Of course, I can hear all my mistakes and buzzed notes, but I’m having a great time.

Today’s Scorecard:

And/News – Chapter Seventeen
587 pages (+10)
128238 words (+1294)

Deadline – Chapter One
10 pages (+10)
1120 words (+560)*

NP – iTSP (Peter Gabriel, “On The Air” [Live] )

Rejection and Writer’s Support

This threatened to become the world’s longest comment so I decided to post it here as opposed to sapping someone else’s bandwidth.

Cindy over at A Writer’s Diary posted an entry that discusses her anguish over giving a book a negative review. Her contention is that since she’s down there in the trenches, too, she empathizes with the authors over their struggle to get words on page.

This presents a number of interesting initial questions that I will not deal with in this entry. However, before moving on to my main point, here they are – just for the sake of floating a possible meme:

1) “Those who can’t do – review.” True or false?

2) Should novel writers review novels? They are qualified in the sense that they are experts in the field. Yet, they are going to pick up on things that nobody else would in the process of reading a book, perhaps criticizing for things an ordinary reader would miss (witness my own criticism of Stephen King’s Bloat, for example). That in turn poses this question:

3) Should the duty of reviews be left to readers who don’t novelize? I have trouble reading novels for enjoyment because I either pick them apart or turn green with envy. Perhaps reviews of books should be left to people who are the purest audience, those who read for enjoyment and aren’t involved in the writing process.

However, the issue at hand is whether Cindy should remove the negative reviews of books she has posted on her web site. Their removal is probably a done deal at this point since she made this entry yesterday, but here are my arguments against her doing such a thing.

First, I subscribe to the PR/Advertising theory that there’s no such thing as a negative review. If someone took the time to write it up, it meant something to him or her – even if it was simply a paycheck from a magazine. As my daughter now says every five minutes, “It’s all good.” That negative review is still a mention of book and author, or another hit for a search engine to find (the only exception to this rule might be a review that contains the phrase “I wish I could get the six hours I spent reading this book refunded to me”).

Second, a negative review isn’t negative when one explains why they felt the book was flawed or “didn’t do it for me” (as Cindy says she did, given her word count limitation). I once learned something from the most savage review I’ve ever received in my writing career. I had to look beyond the witch hunt tone of the critic, but once I did, I saw some valid points; I did have some trouble imagining how computers would be used in the future (I corrected this in the PH novels), and my characterization was thin (this led me to discover that in my quest to edit the book down by 20% per Del Rey’s request, I chopped out everything that didn’t advance the plot – namely, characterization).

Third, I am convinced that reviews do not make sales. Word of mouth does. How else would you explain the fact that the PH novels got the best reviews of my career, and yet were my worst selling books ever? The two of them combined did not sell as much as my previous worst-seller.

Fourth, negativity aside, there’s a chance that the author won’t see the review. Some agents or publishers insulate their author’s fragile ego from such things (I speak from experience – I always got clippings of good reviews, but I was always the one who found the bad ones – Editor: “Hmmm, why don’t you send me a copy of that?”). Further, the World Wide Web is a big place. Unless they’re doing really deep egosurfing, they may not find it.

Finally, even if you don’t believe that there is no such thing as a bad review, you have to accept that bad reviews are a part of the writing game – just like rejection slips.

I think that is one of the dirty little secrets of writing that nobody talks about. We all bolster each other up when a rejection slip comes. But what about rejection after the fact, in the form of a negative review? Perhaps it’s because, in the eyes of a writer’s peers, the act of Getting Published is the Be All End All – your name in print, game over. But it’s actually the beginning of a new game. It’s an interesting double standard and a fascinating anomaly, that.

Those are the general reasons for leaving the reviews up. Now here are some that are a little more personal, from me to Cindy:

1) Your reviews are as much of you as your WIP is.

2) If you can’t be honest with yourself enough to write a negative review of someone else’s book, how can you be honest enough to write your own book?

3) In spite of all the effort, there really are some truly dreadful books out there. I’m sure they got into print because a desperate editor on deadline said, “I need one more title for May of 2005, and I’m going to take the next manuscript that’s coherent and in proper form.” There’s no other way to explain some of the howlers I’ve read – or started and never finished. And you, Cindy, in taking on the mantle of reviewer, have taken a tacit vow to protect us from them. Or in the words of someone’s uncle, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

So my advice is not to censor yourself. I know your heart bleeds for these authors. There IS a lot of work that goes into the process of being published, and anyone that survives the lonely hours of writing, the rejections, the endless rounds of revisions and everything else it takes to get words published deserves a gold star on their paper.

Unfortunately, life isn’t always fair.

NP – iTSP (Marillion, “Warm Wet Circles”)