My Fiction Site

In the right sidebar are clickable images of the covers of my novels, which will take you to their Amazon listings. Other posts will link to available free works – mostly shorter ones – and assorted thoughts on the writing of fiction.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

When It’s This Easy: One Writer's Problems In The 24-7 Internet-Enabled World

     As the indie-publishing revolution has gained steam, a mated phenomenon has risen as well: the swelling of the writer’s email inbox. Readers like to open dialogues with the writers whose work they enjoy, and email makes it easier than it’s ever been before. Moreover, most writers enjoy hearing from their readers, and do little or nothing to throttle the incoming missives. Communication in the Internet age has become almost effortless, at least as long as it’s one-way.

     As I’m aware of the possibility of misinterpretation should I fail to respond, I try to make it two-way. Yet despite all the time I spend chained to this Cyclopean monstrosity, I do get behind on my communications now and then. I get a lot of email: perhaps two hundred pieces on any given day, not counting the spam. Should I fail to answer a particular item immediately, it will sometimes “fall off the back of the stove.” I hope my Gentle Readers won’t conclude that I’m ignoring them, though inevitably some will. I’m sure I’m not the only writer who has this problem. If I may speak for my colleagues in this matter, please think kindly of us. We do care what you think. In fact, we care about you personally, and more than you might imagine.

     But there are hazards. Some of them are more serious than one might imagine. Now that essentially every literate person on Earth has Internet access, those hazards are becoming unpleasantly visible. As the news remains unpleasant and ho-hum – yes, it’s possible to be both simultaneously – I thought I might spend a few words on the subject.

     The first aspect of this I’d like to discuss is the division of the globe into time zones. A writer who has readers in faraway places will sometimes receive email from them that he won’t see until many hours later, simply because his morning is their night or vice-versa. If he hasn’t responded promptly, it’s likely to be for that reason alone.

     Shortly after I first published Chosen One and On Broken Wings, I received a large number of emails from readers in India. That surprised me at first, as I hadn’t reckoned on the international reach of electronic publishing. (I also hadn’t factored in the status of English as the de facto international language.) Those emails were almost uniformly positive, which warmed the cockles of my spiny little heart. I tried my best to reply to each of them promptly and individually.

     However, one young Indian woman believed that because ten or twelve hours would elapse between her missive and my reply, I was ignoring her. Over time her emails became rather shrill, accusatory, and eventually sarcastically self-deprecating and despairing. I tried my best to dispel that notion in my replies, but to no avail. Eventually I ceased to hear from her. I’ve worried over that ever since.

     I suppose there isn’t much one can do about such a phenomenon, but those Gentle Readers entering into the electronic publishing realm, or considering doing so, should bear it in mind.

     The second aspect of the thing is the inability or unwillingness of many readers to grasp the immense difference between a writer and his characters. I’m nothing much, really, just a retired engineer who writes. I hope that by doing so I can both entertain and edify my readers, while making a few bucks in the process. But a surprising number of my correspondents assume that I resemble my male protagonists in important ways.

     That’s dangerous, Gentle Reader. Especially in my case. In fact, my kinda-sorta bios at Amazon and Smashwords are tongue-in-cheek attempts to disillusion anyone who might think that when I write about Louis Redmond, Todd Iverson, Armand Morelon, or Stephen Graham Sumner I’m actually writing about myself. I’m not! Really! I’m not a hero; I write heroes. Genuinely heroic figures are desperately needed in our time. Few other writers are producing any such icons, though there are exceptions.

     In short, I can’t solve anyone’s problems, be they political, legal, economic, academic, or romantic. I wish it were otherwise, but...well, I’m only what I am, a retired engineer who writes. (Also, I’m married.) I’m sure other writers have this problem, too.

     The third and final aspect I’d like to address today is the weirdly stout resistance of the creative faculty to direction. On this subject I can’t speak for anyone but myself. Other writers might not share this problem with me. However, I suspect that it afflicts many of us, maybe even most of us.

     Now and then I receive requests from my readers to write about a particular subject or hero, or to continue a particular saga. This is immensely flattering, and I love them for it. Often the request will mesh with my own desires. In such a case, I might sit down to this monstrosity fully determined to do as I’ve been asked, as it accords with my own inclinations and has verifiably pleased at least a fraction of my readership...and get absolutely nowhere with it.

     I can’t explain this. If I want to do it and my readers want me to do it, then by the Law of Wishful Thinking Regnant I should be able to do it, right? But in the great majority of such cases I can’t make it happen, and I don’t know why.

     For example, this short romance novel has evoked a slew of requests for more about Jana and Tim. Believe me, I appreciate the feedback, and I love those of you who’ve read and loved that little story. It’s a book I sometimes can’t believe I wrote, simply because romance has always seemed alien to me. (To any Gentle Readers contemplating romance with an engineer: beware! Here there be tygers.) I can’t even remember the chain of events and impulses that led me to write it. I doubt that I could produce more along those lines, at least at the moment.

     And once again, it’s not that I disdain to give you what you want.

     I hope my Gentle Readers won’t be put off by the above. I certainly hope you’ll continue to write to me. You matter to me more than you know. I just thought it appropriate that you hear about some of my limitations. When there’s so great a gulf between a writer and his fictional imaginings, the possibilities for failing his readers are many and vast. Louis Redmond would tell you so, but he’s dead.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Whose Story, Yours Or Your Editor’s?

     I’ve been making the acquaintance of an increasing number of other indie writers lately, in consequence of having joined Quite a few of them have expressed frustration at their difficulties in completing a project. Many of the complaints come from writers who have quite as much to say about their frustration with their editors.

     At least one category of the complaints involves the editor acting as if he were the creative force, and arrogating to himself the privileges thereof.

     To make that plainer and more sharply pointed, such an editor criticizes not the grammar, spelling, punctuation, timing, scene-setting, characterization, plausibility of sequence, naturalness of dialogue, or other technical or quasi-technical matters but the causal underpinnings of the story: in other words, the author’s theme. The editor then tries to steer it in a different – sometimes wholly contradictory – direction. And many a writer, insufficiently sure of himself and his aims, allows such an editor a wholly inappropriate degree of influence.

     An editor who does such things doesn’t deserve to be heeded; he deserves to be fired. But that, too, is often beyond the confidence of a relatively new writer.

     Maxwell Perkins, one of the most brilliant and effective editors of all time, was scathing about such editorial assertions of a co-creative role:

     “The first thing you must remember: an editor does not add to a book. At best he serves as a handmaiden to its author. Don’t ever get feeling important about yourself, because an editor at most releases energy. He creates nothing....If you have a Mark Twain, don’t try to make him into a Shakespeare, or make a Shakespeare into a Mark Twain. Because in the end, an editor can get only as much out of an author as the author has in him.”

     Perkins edited F. Scott Fitzgerald, Erskine Caldwell, Thomas Wolfe, and Ernest Hemingway, among other literary giants. No doubt the great gifts of those writers helped Perkins to remember his famous credo – “The book belongs to the author” – but he worked in the same, self-effacing fashion with other, less well known writers.

     Contemporary editors, both of Pub World and free-lance, have largely failed to grasp Perkins’s lesson.

     I’ve worked with a couple of gifted editors who did understand the Perkins maxim. One of them, Rafe Brox, was responsible for cleaning up On Broken Wings. The other, Kelly Tomkies, was instrumental in grinding the burrs off Shadow Of A Sword. I won’t go so far as to say their efforts were what made those books readable, but it wouldn’t be too far from the truth.

     By contrast, I’ve also worked with an editor, who shall go unnamed just in case he’s repented of his sins, who wanted to recast my story in a wholly different direction. Ultimately, I ignored his “suggestions.” (It was made easier by his predilection for exclamation points and writing in ALL-CAPS.) Though it took a while – I was a newly fledged novelist and still tended to pay excessive attention to an editor – I sensed, that what he and I both wanted to do was to write the book. I decided that he could jolly well hare off and write his own novel, without my financial contributions.

     Now, there’s a moral in this. Many an editor is himself an aspiring writer. Why he hasn’t struck out on his own might be a mystery, but that doesn’t really matter. What does matter is the author’s authority and the editor’s proper place in the scheme of things. Maxwell Perkins got it right. You, the author, should enforce Perkins’s dicta on any editor you entertain the notion of hiring.

     That can be a difficult undertaking, especially as many a free-lance editor requires payment before undertaking the job in prospect.

     The great irony of the overly intrusive editor lies in this: the most effective editor for your book will be someone who genuinely enjoys the kind of story you have to tell. Thus, he’s highly likely to be a writer himself, and one who writes in your chosen genres, at that...and that will predispose him to the very over-intrusiveness of which I speak here.

     It doesn’t matter. You must be firm. If you’re not, he’ll succeed in twisting your tale to point in a direction alien to your wishes. The final product might well contradict the premises with which you started your project. Indeed, it might express a theme you believe to be wholly incorrect, perhaps even evil.

     That makes membership in a critique group of like-minded writers one of the most valuable alliances a writer can form. Writers who hold to common moral and ethical values can serve one another as editors, often to far better effect than many a “professional.” Of course that, too, has its costs. The largest of them is obligatory reciprocity: if he agrees to critique your manuscript, you are morally obliged to do the same for him.

     I needn’t go on about this at great length. Remember, “The book belongs to the author.” Don’t allow an editor to snatch it out of your hands and transform it into something you never intended. Imagine the shade of Maxwell Perkins looking down on you from heaven and clucking – not at him for his unholy cheek, which is all too common these days, but at you for your boiled-vermicelli spine.

     [Cross-posted at Liberty's Torch.]