A few weeks ago, I went on a research binge for a couple of novels — one complete, one in the works — and in the process sent out a lot of e-mail asking for help. I was amazed at how many people were willing and eager to answer questions and provide leads to other experts. I was equally surprised by those who were standoffish and almost suspicious.
I haven’t contacted the nearby police department yet — there’s time enough for that – but efforts to speak to any of several local paranormal investigation teams were in vain. Nary a reply. Maybe they’re afraid of being mocked by a skeptic or an unbeliever. Maybe they have no time for someone not in need of their services. Maybe they’ve given up the gig, and all their contact information is obsolete. (Given up the ghost? Ahem-ahem-ahem)
A few hours spent with writers at the OWFI conference, however, yielded an investigator who answered my questions with far more information than I expected, and in the process gave me new ideas for a scene involving teenage ghost hunters.
He did mention that I could pay for a training session, and participate in an actual investigation, but those are for true believers. Although it might help my research, it’s not my scene.
More in line with my interests, and one group that welcomed me, is the Barony of Namron, part of the SCA (Society for Creative Anachronism). They invited me to their annual Beltane event (a far milder and less pagan May Day than some). But rituals and pagan practices were not my focus, but smithing and all manner of crafts and weapons. No swordsmith that day, but a blacksmith named Simon, an archer named Lawrence, a few other craftsmen and warrior types, including female archers in Viking garb, and a whole lot of friendly folk willing to share their knowledge (and, in some case, volunteer other people as resources, but no one seemed to mind my nosiness).
There’s still much to ask, but first I have to know which are the right questions. Although I learned that I set up the smithy correctly in the novel, my blacksmith is limited in his knowledge due to my own ignorance.
He doesn’t have to know everything, because the story isn’t about the everyday life of a blacksmith — he just needs to be convincing and not sound or behave like an idiot. And, thanks to Simon, he won’t.
After all, no matter how excellent the information, if I don’t use it correctly, my characters will suffer.
One solution is to be somewhat familiar with the topic before conducting interviews or gathering specifics. For instance, when I said I’m a writer doing research in order to make a fantasy novel more realistic in its details, people assumed knights and castles and tournaments and such.
Nope. The fantasy novels are set in an earlier era than that of plate armor and heraldry. Still, it was fun to watch the combat.
Other topics to research further: archery terms and equipment, chain mail, swords (their making and their use), cooking, leather-working, and clothing.
No one looked sideways at me during the SCA event. Fellow geeks and all.
But what’ll they say at the police department when I start asking questions about homicides?
I love books. However, due to being an editor, when I read for pleasure and not work, I don’t necessarily finish every book I attempt. Call me jaded. I won’t argue.
When I was younger, my mother scolded me for having too many novels stacked by the bed, bookmarks sticking out, because she said I started more projects than I finished. That was a valid concern. But I was voracious and not very discriminating: If a book was even remotely interesting, it was read. Or, at the very least, it was skimmed for the good parts.
Recently, I posted a review of a novel that shall remain nameless. It isn’t a glowing review, as many of them are, yet despite being in the minority, it isn’t the only review to point out a glaring fact: Although the artwork and premise of the book are good, the writing is not.
I don’t make a habit of posting negative reviews, and I generally have to feel strongly one way or the other (positively or negatively) before reviewing anything. In this instance, I really wanted to like this book. It had been talked up and marketed, and the artwork is fantastic, so I opened up the book in anticipation of a great ride.
Disillusion in the first paragraph.
But I kept going.
As the pages piled up, so did my disappointment.
I would have let the matter lie, and just walked away in search of something else to read, but this particular author and his enthusiasts acknowledge and even defend the poor writing while extolling the virtues of the overall story. After all, they say, many bestsellers aren’t necessarily written well (Twilight and Harry Potter have been cited to me several times, as if they are the standard).
There was a time, years ago in my wide-eyed youth, when I might have joined their parade, and berated any ol’ jaded editor for being hung up on the sentences and missing the big picture.
Now, though, after years on the other side of the writing and publishing biz, I thoroughly understand the need for the writer to take pride in his own work first. After all, if he doesn’t, why should anyone else? Why should an editor fix all his mistakes?
“Yes, but that’s your job,” you say.
Agreed. An editor’s purpose is to help a writer shape and polish his work.
It is not my job to pat him on the head and let him get away with crappy writing just because his noggin is chock-full of cool ideas.
Below are excerpts from my original review, as well as a brief exchange with one of the author’s fans who is not pleased with what I wrote. (Excerpts, because the original exchange is rather long.)
The artwork is fantastic, and this book appears to have an enthusiastic audience, which bodes well for the author’s future…The story may very well have been as intriguing as all the glowing reviews indicate, but I could not get past the awkwardness/clunkiness of the writing.
Someone else who also attempted reading the book wasn’t bothered by the writing so much as by the execution of the story. When I pressed for more details, this person just handed back the book and said she lost interest after the first few chapters.
You are an editor… your job is to find problems with books. Some of the most poorly written novels sell in the millions (Twilight, Harry Potter). This is because the masses are not editors but normal people who enjoy a good story. As someone who works for a competing publisher the ethical move would be to remove this review.
As for the argument that poorly-written novels are often bestsellers, I have no argument there. They are.
However, it’s not in me to lie about writing quality — to simply go along to get along, because, hey, everyone else seems to like it, so I should just shut up. No, this is my craft, and it matters to me…So when I expect excellence from fellow writers, that’s not unethical or negative. It’s simply a matter of course. After all, I’d much rather walk over the bridge built by the meticulous craftsman than walk over the one constructed by someone content with “good enough”.
And as to your craft, is it only to give negative criticism? I was not aware that this was an editor’s job. Is it so hard to find redeeming qualities in a book (granted you only read two pages) when I see a multitude of people making a laundry list of redeeming qualities…(W)hat I read is “Your writing sucks; how did you get published? This was a mistake. Don’t quit your day job.” There was nothing positive and you made it sound like the worst book in the world. I do not want him to quite writing, I loved the story. You mention a bridge that is good enough… But that isn’t what you said. You didn’t say that his novel was good enough. You said that the dung was so rank that you had to walk away before vomiting. (comments truncated due to being more of the same)
I never said I quit reading after page two (“the first few pages”), nor did I tell the author to quit writing. As a teacher, I would never tell someone to quit writing. And you’re the one who mentioned dung and vomit — not I.
You also seem to be saying that, since I’m an editor, I have no right to an opinion regarding any book, nor should I post a review unless it’s positive. To the contrary, only saying positive things would be unethical, because I wouldn’t be completely honest…I can appreciate a person’s creativity and effort without enjoying how those efforts and creativity are employed.
…I never attacked his creativity or his ability to conjure up intriguing stories. In your first comment, you stated, “Some of the most poorly written novels… .” Seems you already know that the author, while creative in his storytelling, could have spent more time on the way he presented his story. And that, (dear reader), is my original review in a nutshell.
Proverbs 26:4 comes to mind: “Don’t answer the foolish arguments of fools, or you will become as foolish as they are” (The Bible, New Living Translation).
Just as I don’t often post negative reviews, I don’t often become mired in online debates. I’m not one who enjoys arguing or conflict. What would you have done? Would you have posted any review at all? Would you have let Disgruntled Fan have his/her say, and remained silent?
No, I’m not going to dive into a point-of-view lecture (I’ve done that too many times, and have borrowed from the lectures of others).
Yes, point of view is eminently important in shaping a story, lending it tone, flavor, expression.
What about perspective? How does the mountain look from your hero’s point of view? From the villain’s? From the guy on the street’s? From the guy who lives in a yurt at the top?
This photo makes the water tower appear small and the tiny barbecue grill seem greater.
We know that’s just a trick of the eye, made so by where we stand.
How do your characters view their world?
How do those perspectives conflict, mesh, create new perspectives?
How do those perspectives affect the story?
I’m a Jane Austen fan, ever since I read Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice as a young teenager, and giggled at the subtle, gentle humor of those comedies of manners. Before opening the books, I was warned they might be difficult to understand for readers used to being spoon-fed ideas, so I’d best pay attention.
I did. And I loved them.
Then, in my twenties, I encountered Persuasion, and my first attempt at reading it ended after the first chapter or so: too many commas, as if Austen had found them on sale at a punctuation store, and made free with them all over the page. (Those extraneous commas may have loomed large due to my state of mind at the time rather than any quirk in the writer’s presentation.)
However, a friend had given me the book, despite herself not liking Austen, so I determined to overlook the excess punctuation and finish the story. When I did, I found a lead character with which I could identify, having myself been persuaded despite my heart.
Now, I own copies of each complete Austen novel, a biography, some of her early writings (fun!), and various incarnations of her stories on film (three versions of Pride and Prejudice, for instance, and two of Persuasion, and have owned up to three copies of Emma, though one has since gone away).
Although amused at the recent romantic comedy/horror story mash-ups of the novels (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters), I wasn’t intrigued enough to read them, and although many modern writers have created sequels or spinoffs of the original material, I hadn’t read any until checking out a library copy of Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James, an author whose mysteries I’ve enjoyed reading on occasion. (She is also the author of a dystopian science fiction novel, The Children of Men, that became a movie starring Clive Owen, and her Adam Dalgliesh novels were adapted for television; I watched them on Mystery! on PBS.)
Happy to have a stack of books to relish, I chose Death Comes to Pemberley as my first course in a literary meal.
The prologue amused, because it mimicked Austen, and I thought, “Well done, Baroness James!”
But then I hit chapter one. Then chapter two. And realized this was neither as scintillating as Jane Austen nor as mysterious as P.D. James, but some strange, bland mess that respected neither the authors nor the source material.
The characters from Pride and Prejudice lost their personalities, and became strangers to the reader, with Darcy and Elizabeth questioning their marriage: Should they have married at all? Did they love one another? Did Elizabeth choose Darcy only for his money?
James seems to have missed the fact that Elizabeth was a great one for irony: she would say the opposite of her true feelings or thoughts on a matter, just to poke fun at herself or to spar with a conversational partner. Therefore, she was not being serious in Pride and Prejudice when she mentioned falling in love with Darcy only after seeing his sumptuous estate.
Before the visit to Pemberley, she also had his letter, revealing some uncomfortable truths as well as making himself plain. I figure that went a long way toward kindling romantic feelings, which were likely present beforehand, although disguised as conflict. (There is a distinct push-pull when one is attracted to someone one believes is not quite acceptable, and Elizabeth and Darcy kept circling one another in social situations, never quite able to not engage.)
So, just those three things — the letter, the pre-existing attraction, and Elizabeth’s character — negate the doubts and second thoughts presented in James’s novel.
There was a distinct lack of suspense about this mystery. There’s no tension, intrigue, or interesting quality in the writing.
I didn’t care that Wickham was accused of murder. I never liked him anyway. He was a scoundrel and cad — as presented in P & P — and therefore why should I care now? Also, and I didn’t like the fact that a likeable, reasonable character (Colonel Fitzwilliam) was being written as the unlikable side of a love triangle, as well as a potential suspect in the murder of another somewhat likeable character (Captain Denney).
I tried liking Death Comes to Pemberley, but could only slog through until several pages after Wickham was found beside Denney’s body, and then I had to admit I was too bored and annoyed to continue reading.
We writers all have times when the words are enemies we fight, or when the stories are mountains we can’t climb with any grace, and I have loved James’s novels in the past. This one book is not the end of that affection. It’s an aberration. I shall not recommend it to other readers, because there are far better examples of her work elsewhere.
When I (briefly) wrote freelance human-interest stories for a small newspaper, my focus was on “found” stories: not major events, not orchestrated photo opportunities, but the everyday lives or histories of people in the community. If a story crossed my path, I followed it: welcoming home a deployed spouse; surprising parents with a new house; caring for an indomitable adult son stricken with multiple sclerosis; hosting bluegrass and gospel jams each weekend at an old schoolhouse; reuniting with classmates fifty years after they scattered to serve in World War II.
Photography is much the same: whatever strikes my fancy will be captured by the camera. The photo here is from 2011, taken at sunset on my way home along a backroad. Wildflowers (weeds) in a ditch caught my eye, so I stopped and spent a several minutes shooting them. Most were discarded, but I liked the bit of whimsy here.
I also like pieces of history, such as this cabin, photographed several weeks before the clover.
Nearby is an old schoolhouse, a courthouse and jail constructed of stone, an old Army tank, a weathered barn, and a memorial to coalminers.
Something about the cabin, though, invites photographs.
A couple months later, a friend and I went on a writing-and-photography retreat for a weekend, and took a few shots of a town that clings to the mountains, full of history but now crowded with tourists, and overshadowed by social politics. Still, it remains a place full of photography opportunities.
We’ve been there many times on our own, I for writing conferences and history, she for exploring haunted places, but this time we decided to attempt a writing project together. After all, one of my favorite mystery series is written by a mother-son team; surely a couple of old friends who write all the time could collaborate on a novel, right?
Weeeellll, we attempted it, wrote a few pages and outline notes, and that’s as far as it went. Still, we had a blast, and those few days are a story in themselves, captured in memory and photographs that have, in turn, spurred imagination and the creation of fictional worlds.
Not so strange. A good photograph is like a story. It is a story.
E-mail flooded my inbox, and much of it looked interesting or required a response, but life (people) needed attention, and there was writing and editing to do, so the virtual stack of mail grew into a mountain.
Just the existence of all that information, all those questions, all those updates from friends, was enough stress to make my brain shut down.
Nothing to do but deal with the most pressing messages, compose responses, and then (sigh) toss the rest.
Cold, aren’t I?
Actually, none of my friends or colleagues were ignored, but newsletters, blog posts, industry news, reports — all jettisoned to lighten the load.
As a result, I may be less informed, less inspired, but, wow, do I feel free!
Bizarre, but I have been laughing out loud for no reason other than sheer freedom and joy.
Sounds cheesy, maybe a little old fashioned, but joy is the word.
A person can write wherever he chooses. I am not bound to a place.
A person can write no matter who loves him. I am not bound to a person.
A person need not write to find creative expression. I am not bound to a pen.
In my quest for freedom — not for license, but for true freedom — I have discovered that I have been my own jailer. I chose my chains and wrapped them around myself.
I sought comfort and safety, and erected bars around myself to keep out anything that interfered with those two gods. I wanted never to be hurt again, and so avoided rejection and conflict by telling myself lies.
If the truth were going to set me free, I had first to acknowledge that it is true, and then allow it to do its work.
But truth-telling — and truth-allowing — requires humility, patience, love, and even a sense of humor. If I have nothing to prove, no chip on my shoulder, no axe to grind, the truth has elbow room: it can roll up its sleeves and do its job.
Amazing how much room joy has, too, once I decided what I really and truly want; once I knew what matters most.
One certainty: there’s no use wasting time beating against what I cannot change. My efforts, thoughts, hopes, and creativity are better spent in doing those things that are within my scope to change and to accomplish.
In Hamlet, Polonius said to Laertes, “To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man,” to which I add this saying by martyred missionary Jim Elliott: “He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”
I know who I am. I have nothing to prove. I am free. The world lies yonder, waiting for me.
palpable as a caress—
brings to me faces,
dreams and memories
to people my solitude—
feeding the monster
that howls at my door
and prowls below the windows.
c. 2004, EE
For the confused among us, no, this is not a blue chair. It’s quite yellow, in fact, and it’s nowhere near as fancy as the one described in the poem below, but this is a favorite photo of mine, taken on a hotel balcony one autumn while I and a friend were on a writing retreat. The cropping is odd because there was clutter on the balcony, but the light was perfect.
The Blue Chair
It absorbs my attention
like a black hole vacuums light –
a lone blue chair
amid dull grey and faded black,
a flamboyant woman
attending a black-tie affair
in a periwinkle gown,
delicate scrolling arms
swirling in metallic mazes
c. 2004, EE
I turn my face up to the sky
and watch the slivered moon
hang upon a blue-black night
like the spindle of a loom.
If sky were cloth, and I were skilled,
and stars were buttons bright,
what a wond’rous garment we would yield,
and hem it up with light.
c. EE, circa 2000