Thursday, March 26, 2015

E for Effort, EF for Epic Fail

We were on our way home from the Phoenix Highland Games, I was shot-gunning in the front seat, half-asleep and bored to tears, when I looked out the window and saw a huge billboard. Nothing strange about that. The roads are littered with 'em - everything from Viagra to vampire movies. But this one was for a book, and so it caught my attention and caused me to give it a second look.  I'm not normally a billboard snob, but I did notice that the graphics were somewhat less than perfect, the readability was a bit questionable, and it didn't really communicate anything to the observer other than the title of the book, accompanied by the words, "A medical thriller."

Out of curiosity, I looked up the book on Amazon when we got home, figuring that any writer who would foot the bill for a gigantic sign is a writer who is as desperate as the rest of us to find his audience out there in the big, bad world. So that gained him some kudos just for effort.

Unfortunately, when I read the "Look Inside" feature, I was not only appalled, but outright embarrassed for the writer. While punctuation existed, it was clear that the writer could have used a competent line editor. Words that should have been capitalized weren't, commas were distant rumors, and character point of view changed from one sentence to the next, sometimes in the same paragraph. And that was only on the first page! The fact that the book had three reviews (all 5-stars) also spoke volumes - the writer has at least three friends or family members who thought enough of him to support him. That's great, but hardly a recommendation for anyone who went to the bother of actually trying to read the "Look Inside."

I've heard the old argument (usually coming from bad writers) that it's the story that matters. And while that may be true on one level, if readers can't even get to the story because of all the obstacles and road blocks left by the writer, then the story is lost and the book may well be doomed. But even that isn't the whole issue here - not entirely. As with everything, there are levels and layers, and if you want to be a good writer as well as a good story-teller, you'll go to the bother of learning the craft so that when you do break the rules, it will be obvious to your readers that it was intentional rather than just a blunder of unparalleled ignorance.

So here's the thing... I can admire this writer's tenacity for renting a billboard near a small town where lots of older folks live (folks who might actually read books and enjoy the kind of story this writer was trying to tell). But - if you're going to spend that kind of money on advertising, don't you want your product to be the best it can be so that you might run the risk of getting return customers? As it stands, if I had bought this book and tried to wade through its multiple layers of errors upon errors, I would never-in-a-billion-years buy another book from the same author. No, not ever.

What to do? In an ideal world, everything a writer writes would come out perfect the first time, a flock of doves would descend to carry the book to the publisher, choirs of angels would proclaim the book's publication, and reviewers and readers alike would sing the praises of the author's exemplary work and recommend him for a place in heaven. The reality is a bit different, of course. And no writer (no, not a single one) is going to be a good judge of their own work - particularly within the first year after the book has been written. Time and distance are the only things that will give a writer any sort of perspective, and sometimes even that isn't enough. I've re-read something I wrote 10 years ago and thought it was crap. And I've re-read something I wrote 20 years ago and actually dared to think it was pretty good. So the writer is the last person who should be the final judge of when a book is ready for publication.

Point being - if this guy who sprung for a billboard has that kind of money to burn, why not enlist the services of a professional editor? There are reputable ones all over the internet. There are also writer's workshops all over the internet - where other writers (and sometimes even editors) will help you with your book before you embarrass yourself right out of a career. My feeling was that the story was probably fairly good, but no reader with an IQ above room temperature was going to wade through the horrendous, glaring errors just to get to that story. And the sad thing is that all of these blunders are fixable.

And this raises another point. Whatever happened to having a good story and good writing? Let's talk about Ray Bradbury, who wrote some of the most lyrical stories ever written, and told some stories that still haunt readers years later. And then there's Anne Rice. Stephen King. And plenty of relatively unknown writers who produce some damn fine work... only to be relegated to obscurity.  One may ask, "Why?" but I sometimes don't think any answer exists to that question. It sometimes seems to be a matter of saying - one either gets struck by the happy lightning fairy, or one doesn't. It's a crap shoot.

But here's the rub: if you're a writer who wants to have any chance of success in this brave new world of indy publishing, the very first thing you have to do is to produce a book that is readable, and as close to perfect as it can be (with the understanding that nothing is ever perfect). Sure, the first time you read your book in print, you'll discover a typo or two. You may even run across a place where you left out a comma or added a semi-colon that's out of place. Minor details - it's gonna happen, and in today's world of ebooks, it's usually relatively easy to correct. But those kinds of errors (in moderation) are insignificant and usually won't stop a reader from reading on if you have done your job as the writer.

What's your job? Simply this: tell a good story with compelling characters, and - hopefully - do it in such a way that the writing itself is not a long string of cliches strung together to express an idea that isn't even your own.  Encourage your reader to think outside the box and read between the lines. Bring your characters to life through a thorough understanding of who they are - in other words, think before you write. As a reader, I'm much more interested in knowing why Joe is burying a body than I am interested in knowing what he ate for breakfast (unless, of course, he had an allergic reaction to coffee and became homicidal...)

And finally... if you are going to invest a lot of time, energy and money in your book, if you are going to rent an expensive billboard, please do yourself the service of having your book properly edited before you put it up on Amazon. It's the only way that billboard is ever going to earn its keep.

...and, no, I am not going to tell you the title of the book for a couple of reasons. 1) I don't want to embarrass the writer; and 2) you might be tempted to buy it and I don't want to be accused of encouraging you to waste your money.  :)

Carry on.