awful alliteration alienates all

Sean Penn wrote a book. By all accounts, it lingers awkwardly between over-ambitious and flat-out dreadful.

A couple of excerpts (via Huffington Post):

Whenever he felt these collisions of incubus and succubus, he punched his way out of the proletariat with the purposeful inputting of covert codes, thereby drawing distraction through Scottsdale deployments, dodging the ambush of innocents astray, evading the viscount vogue of Viagratic assaults on virtual vaginas, or worse, falling passively into prosaic pastimes.” ― page 36

“While the privileged patronize this pickle as epithet to the epigenetic inequality of equals, Bob smells a cyber-assisted assault emboldened by right-brain Hollywood narcissists.” ― page 99

Now, I applaud anyone with the creativity and tenacity to write a book. As we all know, many begin but few finish. And to do so as a celebrity, heightening the attention and, perhaps, the vitriol, takes definite courage.

So I’m not going to slam Mr. Penn. Despite the accidental horror found between the pages of Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff, he’s not the problem.

What I find interesting is what this predictable misstep says about the Big Five Publishing Houses. (Or is it Big Four now? Big Three? I forget.)

First of all, the bar for what they publish – when celebrities are involved but more and more just generally – is increasingly low. Almost nonexistent. If you have a bold-faced name and something of a Following – or write in certain one-click-heavy genres – they’ll apparently pay you a generous advance and then print whatever you turn in.

They shouldn’t.

Secondly, I’m now convinced the Big Houses no longer employ editors. Period. Of any kind. In fact, I suspect the Big Houses are assigning what meager editing duties there are – spelling? punctuation? – to their first-year college interns who, themselves, struggle with the basics when it comes to putting pen to page. How else to explain the consistent disasters I find in those few – and fewer and fewer nowadays – Big House books I read?

Now, those two alone are annoying. But this is why those two combined really worry me: writers will begin to believe that bad, horrible, terrible writing is the way to get published. That the shyte they read on the page is somehow “good.”

Young writers – hell, writers of any age! – will forget what makes a great book great and a breathtaking sentence breathtaking.

We’ve already seen this in the romance genre with its endless avalanche of breathless, poorly-written e.l.james-wannabes. And now, with Mr. Penn’s overwritten opus, there’s a strong chance people out there will think THIS is how to write. Heck, even Salman Rushdie gave it a blurb (he claimed Thomas Pynchon would love it) and Sarah Silverman compared it to both Mark Twain AND e.e. cummings!

See the problem here?

Because the Big Houses have placed profit above quality, writers in search of inspiration and readers seeking a great story are inundated with consistent examples of what NOT to do. We are buried under bad sentences and atrocious grammar. An almost careless misuse of words – per Penn’s “an elderly neighbor sits centurion on his porch watching Bob with surreptitious soupçon” (note: that’s not even close to being a wise use of “soupçon”) – and what feels like a wholesale abandonment of cohesive narrative.

The awful has become normal.

So, it’s not just Sean Penn’s overwrought disaster of a debut novel. Like I said before, he’s not the problem. The problem is an industry that has the bar set so low that it’s forgotten what good writing, believable characters and a great story are. The problem is an industry that has, I suspect, lost any sense of pride about what lands on the shelf stamped with their name.

And it’s readers who’ve come to not only expect the worst but who support, encourage and applaud it with sales and pithy Five Star reviews.

So, where does this leave writers who can actually write? Who work hard creating stories with an emotional arc? Who wince when they’ve stumbled onto a bad sentence and immediately self-edit it out of existence? Who people their pages with characters who feel real, sound real and, for all you know, could be real because they leap off the page with such sincerity and force?

It leaves us with small, independent publishing houses who care about what they publish. Who aren’t burdened with the massive umbrella of being a corporation and, because of this, know that a few sloppy books could mean the end of them (something the majors apparently don’t consider anymore). Who take a personal interest in their authors, knowing, if their authors feel cherished, their work will reflect that.

It leaves us realizing that the name of a Big House emblazoned on a book no longer guarantees quality.

Read that again:

The name of a Big House emblazoned on a book no longer guarantees quality.

And, knowing that, seeking out those writers – regardless how they’re published – who know what they’re doing. And then supporting, encouraging and applauding their work with sales and sincere, heartfelt reviews.

It means we need to take responsibility for what we read. If it sucks, put it down. Return it. Get a refund. Demand better. And leave a review that calls out what you felt was wrong with it. Will that change anything? Probably not. Or at least not anytime soon.

But if enough people start demanding better and taking their business to those who care about creating great books, at some point the Big Houses will have to change.

And perhaps then we can get back to reading fantastic writing and leave the Bob Honeys of the world in the dust bin of literary history.

 

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Fisting Immortality

I’ve decided Martuk needs to do more fisting.

It’s something I’ve been thinking about for weeks, nay months, actually, but after watching the sudden and quite unexpected success of the obscure author E.L. James (Google her) newest book in her very difficult to find Fifty Shades of Baby Got Back series (is that what it’s called? I think that’s what it’s called), I think it’s time to take a deep breath, find my quiet space, remember my Safe Word, relax everything and just let it happen. Just allow the Writer in me to open up to Martuk and the rest of his merry Martuk … the Holy crew fisting things.

For instance, E.L. James writes:

“He grabs me suddenly and yanks me up against him, one hand at my back holding me to him and the other fisting in my hair.

So, with that in mind, in the pivotal scene between Martuk and The Elder (before the sacrifice and the demons and the bloodshed) in the first book, what had read:

“He took a sip, allowing the liquid to linger in his mouth, on his tongue, obviously savoring the sensation.”

would now be

“He took a sip, allowing the liquid to fist his mouth, fist his tongue, obviously enjoying the sensation.”

See? Instant bestseller, right?

Or in 1st century Jerusalem, after he’s cursed with Life Everlasting, when Martuk sits with the Messiah:

He shoved the bread in His mouth, the glass of wine now in hand. Silently chewing, His eyes watched me as He washed it down with a healthy drink. Swallowing, He then sighed, focusing, inhaling deeply, exhaling, growing quiet as His eyes narrowed.”

would then become

“He fisted the bread in His mouth, the glass of wine now in hand. Silently chewing, His eyes fisted me as He fisted it down with a healthy drink. Swallowing, He then sighed, focusing, fisting deeply, exhaling, growing quiet as His eyes narrowed.”

Now THAT’S a memorable passage, right? RIGHT?

Wow. I think this might actually work!!!!!

You think the second book, Martuk … the Holy: Proseuche, could do with some good ol’ fashioned fisting?

Let’s see.

Okay, let’s start with Martuk talking with The Sister, his friend, in her apartment in modern day Paris:

I sat back as well, my arms stretching up and along the back of the sofa. “And I will continue my tale, if this is what you’d like.”

With a gentle smile on her lips, she nodded, urging me to begin.

Wrapped in the comfort of her apartment, the dark of a Paris night outside, the cool air from the open windows kissing my flesh, my heart feeling safe, my soul feeling secure, I took a deep breath.

And cradled in her kindness, I dove back into the blood-soaked memories of this, my life.

might be

I sat back as well, my arms fisting the back of the sofa. “And I will continue my tale, if this is what you’d like.”

With a gentle smile on her lips, she nodded, fisting me to begin.

Wrapped in the comfort of her apartment, the dark of a Paris night outside, the cool air from the open windows fisting my flesh, my heart feeling fisted, my soul feeling fisted, I took a deep fist.

And fisted in her kindess, I dove back into the blood-soaked memories of this, my life.

Hmmm, I might need to think about this one.

Okay, okay, I’m not throwing in the towel just yet. How about later, when Martuk discovers his friend Tiber in the hills surrounding 3rd century Antioch?

His skin rippled with the swarming of those that feast on the dead. Their small white bodies crawled out of his ears and wiggled from his nose and spilled from his lips to litter the smattering of hair on his slender chest.”

could easily be

His skin fisted with the swarming of those that fisted the dead. Their small bodies fisting his ears and fisting his nose and fisting his lips to litter the smattering of hair on his slender chest.”

Um … that’s probably another one I need to carefully consider.

You know what? Perhaps this E.L. James-style of, oh, what’s it called, writing? — yeah, I think so — might not be the right fit for Martuk.

Because no matter what I do or how hard I try, this fisting just isn’t working. I’ve done it this way and that. In modern Paris and ancient Uruk one thousand years before Christ. Even 1st century Jerusalem with the frickin’ Messiah! I even had Martuk’s friend fisting up in the hills of 3rd century Antioch and, still, nothing. It just feels somehow wrong. Off. Not right.

Yet it worked so well for E.L. James. Her fisting seemed so natural! A bit clumsy at times, yes. And painful to experience on the page, most definitely. Still, though, she really made that fisting work. Just jammed her fist into any sentence she could find, regardless how well it fit or even if it should fit. Forget being gentle. Forget being kind. Miss James took no prisoners! She shoved it into everything everywhere.

But when it comes to my fisting, I think it might be time to pack it up. Call it a day. Obviously, despite silly things like hopes and dreams, it’s not for everyone. Not even my immortal Martuk.

In fact, now that I think about it, maybe the last thing he needs to be doing is Fisting Immortality.

Dumb it down?

A friend of mine, someone with the best of intentions, said something the other day that nearly stopped me in my tracks.

“Maybe you’d sell a lot more books if you dumbed your writing down.”

Now, I had to think about that for a second because he wasn’t referring to my subject matter — the immortal Martuk slaying his way through a lifetime of endless centuries — but more to the way it’s written. It’s intelligent. It has a unique voice that still follows the basic rules of sentence structure and grammar. It’s ambitious but still accessible. The sentences are more lyrical than not. There’s character development and several story lines all spinning around a central narrative held together in a clever framing device. And this narrative is designed to not only stand alone, but stretch over a three-book series as well as an ongoing collection of short fiction.

Ah, you see? There’s the problem.

Publishing these days — and I’m talking about indie, single author, and the Big Five — isn’t as focused on quality as it could be. The mediocre is applauded. The abysmal is celebrated. Anyone writing anything that would be considered “normal” ten years ago — story, appropriate dialogue tags, realistic conversations from people who could actually exist — is thought of as an anomaly. Something new. Different.

And that worries me.

That the bar would be so low that the telling of a story would be thought of as something newsworthy is not a good thing. In fact, as I said in a recent interview, we, as Writers, should be expected to tell a story. Telling one should not be seen as something cool. It’s our feckin’ job, for Christ’s sake!

But so many have found success doing so little. Or doing so little so poorly that their attitude is, Well, people seem to like it, so why change?

Why change?

Because you can do better. Because your readers, whether they know it or not, want you to do better.

Because if you keep half-assing it, that will become the New Normal, you won’t grow as a writer, and there will be generations of readers who won’t know Good Writing from a hole in the ground. Though you know damn well at least the hole will have a backstory as to how it got there whereas your book will be a long series of events that end up leading to a big fat Nothing.

So, here’s the deal:

I’ll continue writing the way I write. That’s the little I can do to change the tide. And when readers tire of piss-poor writing revolving around non-existent stories peopled by cardboard cutouts murmuring, sighing, giggling, growling, breathing, whispering, moaning, laughing inane ridiculous dialogue no one would actually say, my work — and the work of hundreds if not thousands like me — will be there waiting for them.

‘Cause I’ll be damned if I’m going to dumb it down.

 

 

Facebook Bestsellers and the Death of Writing

Writing is dying a very slow, painful death at the hands of self-publishing.

Actually, that’s not entirely true.

Self-publishing alone isn’t killing Great Writing, though it has set the bar increasingly low.  Facebook Bestsellers are what’s killing Great Writing.

Let me explain:

A Facebook Bestseller is a book that ends up on the Amazon Top 20 list, or something, due entirely to the Clicks of thousands of FB “Friends”.  Usually they’re derivative, repetitive, absolutely painful, damn near unbearable, poorly written pieces of crap.  If you can make it through the Free Sample without screaming out loud or falling into fits of laughter, I applaud  your strong constitution.  I can’t.  I’ve tried.

And you can spot a Facebook Bestseller pretty easily.  Take a look at a handful of those couple hundred five star reviews.  Do they read something like “OMG, this was SOOOO good!”, “Loved this SOOOO much”, or “YES! Another winner”?  If so, then it was probably written by someone who A) hasn’t read the book, but B) wants to show their support for their FB “Friend”.

Now, go ahead and take a look at those few, very brave One Star reviews.  You know, the ones written by “Friends” who are probably “Friends” no more?  That’s where you’ll find the real story.

Yet, still, there it sits at the top of the Amazon Bestseller List.

Because of the best of intentions of “Friends”, we now find ourselves faced with the stomach-churning reality of truly Great Writing by Writers with long, celebrated careers they’ve earned through hard work and talent, writers who actually know what they’re doing, sandwiched between Wannabes whose painful, amateurish prose wouldn’t make it out of an 8th Grade Creative Writing course.

This is the danger with Facebook and all those click-happy “Friends”.  Those who write Facebook Bestsellers, wrapped in the breathless, unquestioning support of FB, believe they’re really good.  They ignore the One Star reviews because, you know, they’re not nice, and continue on, having no clue how bad they really are and how deeply damaging their celebrated mediocrity is.

Readers who may be Writers someday are growing up believing Bad is somehow Good.  These Readers, surrounded by nothing but bad, will soon have no memory of what Truly Great Writing is, having to search before the Time of these Facebook Bestsellers for Good Writing.

You see, a Writer is more than someone who puts words on a page.  A Writer  listens to the words, hearing and honoring their rhythm.  A Writer knows that if there’s one word too many, or one word not enough, the structure will fall.  And that structure is everything.  That’s what cushions the Reader in this fictional world.  A Writer can recognize the balance in a sentence and know when it’s off, feeling, in his or her bones, that it’s not right and what to do to fix it.

A Writer would never be satisfied with what ends up in these Facebook Bestsellers.  He’d immediately see how amateurish and clumsy it is.  He’d FEEL it was wrong as he’s writing it.  He would not rest until it was edited and put right.  It would haunt him.  In fact, it wouldn’t even make it past his fingers TO the keyboard.

I believe a Writer, a True Writer, could never bring themselves to leave their worst masquerading as their best on the page and click Publish.

Yet these Wannabes do it all the time, without apology, without regret, and often to great applause.

I’ve often railed against Traditional Publishing and how, because of their penchant for guarding the Gates a bit too vigorously, a revolution like self-publishing was needed.  But at least, for the most part, we were spared moronic drivel ending up on the bookshelf, let alone the Bestseller List.

But now even that’s changing with Traditional Publishing abandoning all pretense of being an arbiter of taste and strong writing, and following the money to sign Facebook Bestsellers to contracts.  And, once again, the delusion that they’re “good writers” is perpetuated, their oafish efforts being celebrated and rewarded.

But a Publisher following the money is not supporting the writer.  A Publisher biting their tongue, smiling, and eagerly hoping to cash in on the last breath of the author’s FB Bestseller status — these “Friends” tend to tire within a year or two and move on to newer, equally abysmal voices, so it’s best to move quick if you’re a Publisher –doesn’t give a shit about the writer.  They’re read the words, they’ve winced and groaned and shook their heads.  They know this writer doesn’t have the chops to reach beyond their Facebook circle.  And they know, once the writer’s new books hit a wider audience, that’s when the chickens come to roost.  That’s when the One Stars outweigh the Five Stars and those “Friends” start second guessing that all important Click.

A Publisher signing a FB Bestseller is hoping to eke out a book or two before the jig is up, the lie is unmasked, the numbers drop, and people move on.

So, what can we do about this?  STOP FOLLOWING THE HERD!  If you’re one of those “Friends” who buys a book as a show of support to the Author, even when you know it’s not good work, STOP!  If you’re not sure about the quality, read the Sample.  If it feels off, read the lowest rated reviews to see if the issues you’re finding are issues they mention.  And, if they are, DON’T BUY THE BOOK!

It’s as simple as that.

Buying abysmal writing as a way of being “nice” doesn’t help anyone.  It doesn’t help the writer.  It doesn’t help the reader.  And it doesn’t help the industry produce and celebrate better, stronger work.

My hope is once we rid the publishing world of these Facebook Bestsellers, it’ll be easier to go back to once again celebrating the truly great writing of real Writers, not Wannabes who would be nothing without their Facebook Friends.