Sunday, January 27, 2008

Thinking Dirty Thoughts...

...about the Postal Service. And not even fun dirty thoughts, but thoughts about incompetence and retaliatory mayhem. :/

It turns out that my royalty statement was mailed out well before the fifteenth so I most definitely should've gotten it by now, and then some. They're only three states away, and even out on the western chunk of the country that's not far enough to justify it taking two weeks to get here. So Lorna said they'd cancel the check and cut me a new one and try it again.

My father-in-law worked for the Post Office for a long time, and the husband says his dad had talked about what happens when things take ridiculously long to arrive. One possibility is that when they grab a mail bag and empty it into a hopper or bin or whatever, they might forget to check carefully at the bottom (which they're always supposed to do) to make sure all the mail actually fell out. Sometimes a letter will get stuck in the bag and the "empty" bag gets tossed to one side. It might sit there for quite a while before it's grabbed again, and if the mail put into it is sent round the Horn to Madagascar on a cargo ship (or even put on a plane to Maine or Alaska or wherever) then it could be a few thousand miles away before anyone comes across the stuck letter and realizes that it got quite a ways off track. So my old statement might actually show up on Monday, or in April, or whenever. I'm just as happy to be getting a new one, though.

It's funny, I'm actually more eager for the statement than I am for the check. [wry smile] I mean, the money'll be great, however much or little it ends up being, but what I'm really bouncing up and down about are the specific sales numbers. Since my last (which was also my first) statement only covered three days' worth of sales on my first story, I'm not taking that as representative over a longer period. (Although if that story and all the others sold seventeen copies per three days, every three days since their publication, I certainly won't complain. :D ) At this point, though, I still have no clue how anything is selling, and that's what I want to see. So I'll just sit here and tap my fingers and glare at the mailbox....


Thursday, January 24, 2008

First Publication

Is your first published story really all that different?

I'm wondering, seriously. Daniela is talking about how many strikes she gives a writer before she stops buying their books over at Romancing the Blog today, and Sarai said in comments:

Being an aspiring author I try to read the first books of everyone with a grain of salt. Why? Because we all start off rough and work to improve with every book.

Now, I agree that someone who's just starting out isn't usually as good as someone else who's been doing something professionally for twenty years; practice definitely counts. But on the other hand, I've known other people who've made similar statements about first books or first stories, about how allowances should be made and the next one is usually better, etc., and I really have to wonder whether there's such a huge difference.

Because seriously, we're not usually talking about a writer's first book or story here. We're talking about the first one published, and while there are occasional stories about someone's very first story or novel getting published, we all know how rare that is. My first story published was more like the fortieth I've completed (no clue exactly -- I don't have most of my earlier stuff to be able to count) and probably around the hundredth story I've at least begun and done some work on, going back to my first scribblings as a kid. [wry smile] Am I really that weird? That much of a slow starter...?

The whole point of having that gateway to publication, of having to get past an editor and a couple of assistants, and maybe an agent too, is that we're supposed to do our practicing before our work gets out there with a price tag on it. Not that I ever expect to know all there is to know about writing, or to stop learning and improving, but there is -- theoretically -- a bar we all have to clear before anyone is ever asked to pay money to read one of our stories. We need to achieve a certain level of skill and craft and professionalism while we're still banging away in the solitude of our writing dens, wherever they may be. Whenever I've said, "Well, it's their first story -- they'll get better if they keep working on it," I personally have always been talking about someone who's more or less new to writing itself. I don't recall ever saying or thinking that about someone whose story I read in a book or magazine.

I mean, yes, it's true that even published authors will improve, or at least they might and I think most do if they keep going and working at it. But I would hope that no one who's actually been published needs to improve so much that people would have to make "Well, they're just starting out" type excuses for them. There's a difference between, "Well, hopefully she'll get better with practice," and "Wow, imagine what she'll be like if she keeps getting better!"

Personally, I don't make those kinds of allowances once a writer's been published. Maybe I'm mistaken, but I usually assume that by the time I'm being asked to pay money to read someone's fiction, they've worked and honed their craft and have done most of their learning and improving. It's like with athletes -- the difference between your average person out for a jog or running to catch a bus, and someone who can compete and win a few ribbons or medals is pretty huge. The difference in, say, the 1500 meter pace of your average American and someone who competes is going to be a matter of minutes. There's a huge gap there. In contrast, the difference between runners who can win a few ribbons in the 1500m at a local meet and those who have a shot at an Olympic gold medal is much smaller -- a matter of seconds. But the amount of work and skill and talent and just plain luck it takes to close that gap is huge, moreso than what's needed to get Joe Average onto a local competitive track team.

I'm assuming that any writer whose work I'm asked to pay money for has made it onto that competitive team and is running with the dedicated athletes. I'm assuming that those writers have achieved a certain standard of quality and skill, and if I read their work and find out that this isn't the case, I'm going to assume that not only does their writing still need a lot of work, but so does their judgement. I'm going to assume that that is what this writer thinks is professional quality work, and I'm not interested in spending my money on a writer whose judgement is that lousy.

Your first professional publication still needs to be of professional quality. Yes, it's the editor's job to act as gatekeeper and make sure that everything that makes it out there into the commercial pipeline meets professional standards, but even when the editor blows it (and they do sometimes, we all know that) it was still the writer who submitted that work in the first place. Most of the time I don't know who the editor was, especially if I'm reading a book rather than a periodical. But I know the name of the writer, and fair or not, that's the name I'm going to mentally circle or cross out if a story was really outstanding or wincingly bad. Our stories represent us to the reading public, even our first one, and I honestly don't think a first publication does or should get all that much of a pass, just because the writer is a newbie.


Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Plagiarism Again -- The Bigger Picture

For anyone who's been in bed the last week, the Smart Bitches blog has discovered that well-known romance writer Cassie Edwards has been plagiarizing text from her source material for a number of years. Last I heard, the number of her books which include material lifted without credit from other people's writing was up to about a dozen, and the sources stolen from included not only non-fiction sources (which were what it was all about at the beginning) but also La Farge's novel Laughing Boy (Pulitzer Prize winner in 1930) and Longfellow's "Hiawatha." There are several megs of commentary all over the blogosphere if you're interested.

What I'm really concerned with, though, is the bigger picture.

Aside from this specific case, and the sheer outrage that a well-known and extremely experienced novelist thinks she's done nothing wrong by lifting lines out of other people's work and selling them as her own, a few other things have been bothering me about this whole mess, and others like it.

First, the sheer bulk of people who honestly don't know what plagiarism is. Ms. Edwards denies she has plagiarized anything, despite the many displays of side-by-side text showing she clearly did, and she's not the first plagiarist to make such denials in recent memory. And there are many people who've defended plagiarists and/or attacked the people who've pointed out the plagiarism, insisting that no wrong has been done. There've been discussions and explanations and arguments over just what plagiarism is and isn't, and why using passages from a source which is out of copyright without giving credit still is plagiarism. Why don't people know this? Why don't writers know this? How can people follow rules they don't understand or can't define?

Second, and related to the first, I'm wondering how many more plagiarists there are out there. We've had a nice handful pop up lately and I'm starting to suspect, sadly, that we haven't caught all of them. Not even close. I suppose this might just be a statistical glitch, over the last six months or so, but it's more likely a trend.

Thinking about it, it even makes sense. Ten years ago, it was a lot harder to catch plagiarism. Someone who recognized the source text had to read a book or story and actually think, "Wait, I recognize that!" They had to have access to the source, and be willing to go to the trouble of finding the book (magazine, whatever) and finding the actual lines in the book, and then figuring out what to do about it.

Nowadays, it's just a matter of firing up Google. Checking for plagiarism is incredibly easy, and it's getting easier as more text sources make it onto the web. And once the fact of plagiarism has been established, telling people about it is much easier than it was even ten years ago, much less in the pre-internet days. Before, it'd have to be a pretty slow news day for this sort of plagiarism to go before the public, unless you were accusing someone as famous as Helen Keller. (Who did commit unconscious plagiarism, by the way, of a few passages from a fairy story which had been read to her as a child.) But now, the net is bulging with bloggers eager for material, and no matter what area of publishing your story is focused on, there are dozens if not hundreds of special-interest bloggers who'd love to post about it.

We're still not used to seeing news of plagiarism -- the fact that Ms. Edwards's publisher initially tried to brush the incident off shows what likely happened in most cases in the past -- but I think we're going to get much more used to it in the future.

I'd like to think that most cases will be like this one appears to be, where the writer who lifted the lines and used them without credit seems to be honestly ignorant of what this "plagiarism" thing is all about, and didn't know they were doing anything wrong. It doesn't say much for their intelligence, I'll grant, but I'd rather think that people are just that ignorant than believe that there are a bunch of writers out there who've been coldly stealing from their fellow authors, living or dead, and profiting off of it, just because they didn't think they'd get caught.

But when I see so many writers (initially at least) jumping up to defend plagiarists, I really have to wonder about their writing habits. Added to the fact that so many people who commit these quiet offences don't get caught, I have to think there are a lot of writers out there who do this. I'm just hoping they're doing it out of ignorance, as opposed to sheer selfishness or malice.


Wednesday, January 9, 2008

New Column


Forgot to post this morning [facepalm] but I have a new column up at Romancing the Blog. This one talks about the Amazon Kindle and the number one reason I don't think it's going to take the market by storm any time soon.


Sunday, January 6, 2008

Mortgage/Insurance Issue

Check out this post by Colleen Doran. No matter what your real estate agent or insurance broker might've told you, it's possible that your mortgage and/or insurance are null and void if you have a home office or just do business from your home. She says:

I sat down and REALLY read the fine print in my home loan agreement, and even though I had been told that my home office was OK and that my being an artist would not be a problem, the actual language of the loan specifically forbid my running any business from my home.


For any reason.


And at any time, if I had been called on it, I could have lost my home. The bank could have withdrawn the loan and foreclosed on my home because I was drawing comics in my home. No kidding. One neighbor with a grudge and a little smarts, and I could have lost my HOUSE.

Same with insurance. If your policy specifically forbids a home office, then if your place gets flooded out or burned down or quaked into a pile of rubble, you could be left with nothing if you do any work out of your house.

Check the fine print on your mortgage and insurance paperwork. I'm going to. :/


Thursday, January 3, 2008


Well, I wrote about the good one, so I suppose I should write about the not-so-good ones.

"Spirit of Vengeance" has gone up on Fictionwise. They have a thing where people can rate your story as "Great," "Good," "OK" or "Poor," and it shows as a bar-graph thing on the story's page. As of right now, SOV has a Great, a Good, and two Poors. :P

Now, I'm like anyone else and I like having people like my stuff. But I'm realistic enough to know that not everyone will, and that's fine. But what's really frustrating me about those two "Poor" ratings is that I have no way of knowing why those readers disliked the story.

Did they think it was poorly written? Dislike my writing style? Dislike the characters? Did the plotline not grab them, or did they not buy the way the conflict resolved? If it's something like this, then that's a generally applicable "Poor" and I'd love to talk about it, or at least get a few specific comments, you know? Because you can't fix anything in the future without some data to go by.

On the other hand, it's quite possible that it just wasn't the sort of story those readers were looking for. It's categorized as Erotica/Romance, and it's quite possible that readers just assumed that it'd have a happy-fluffy ending where everything's fixed and the two main characters share a passionate kiss before going on with their lives.

That's not what happens in this story, though. It's a ghost story -- one of the main characters is dead at the beginning and that never changes. The ending is hopeful, I think, in that we know Josh and Kevin will be together eventually, but "eventually" isn't "now." I had a number of early readers tell me they ended up in tears after reading this, and that's pretty much what I'd hoped for.

It's more like the movie "Ghost" than it's like, well, any romance where both parties are alive. [wry smile]

Just looking at the ratings, though, I have no idea what the specific objections of those two readers might have been. If they simply didn't like the ending, well, it's just that kind of story and the fact that it didn't meet their expectations doesn't mean it's a bad story, or badly written. I knew going in that not everyone was going to enjoy a story with a sorta-sad-for-now kind of ending. But if they have some other problem with it, I'd love to hear what it is. In detail. :) But I don't even know who they are and I can't ask and.... [headdesk]

I've never really given much thought before to these kinds of reader rating systems, where there's basically a thumbs up or down, or a number of stars, or whatever. Because the only question being asked is, Did you like it? There are a lot of possible reasons behind the answer, and without knowing those reasons, the answer by itself isn't all that useful. It's like, when I read reviews of computer games, sometimes I trot right out and buy a game a reviewer rated poorly, because reading the actual review tells me that what they didn't like about it -- the fact that combat was too simple and easy -- is something I would like about it. (I'm not into twitch games, the kind where you need the reflexes of a twelve-year-old hyped on Mountain Dew, and a five-page fold-out chart to figure out how to punch or kick a monster. :P ) To most reviewers, harder is better, but I don't want to work that hard when I'm playing, so what they dislike about a game might be what makes me want to play it; that's why I read detailed game reviews rather than just looking at the final rating.

And it might be the same with the Fictionwise ratings. Or it might not. But I don't know, and that's really frustrating. [sigh] I really wish I could know exactly why those two people disliked "Spirit of Vengeance." Or heck, why the other two liked it for that matter. I think this is the start of a love-hate relationship with story ratings. :P