Monday, December 9, 2019

Reasonable Expectations

     When I have occasion to look at one of my own novels, it is sometimes the case that I spot a flaw in what I’ve written. It might be a homophone error, or an extra-word or missing-word error, or perhaps a minor problem in formatting. Whatever it is, the discovery will irritate me greatly, in an “I should be better than that” sort of fashion. The reaction is an expression of my expectations for myself, and the responsibility I feel toward my readers.

     In these days of Independent Publishing Triumphant – and it is triumphant, Gentle Reader; sales of indie fiction now far exceed those of conventionally published fiction – this brings a serious question to mind:

Given that the typical indie writer is a person of modest means who mostly “goes it alone” from story conception to production, editing, packaging, distribution, and promotion, should our expectations of his “error quotient” be somewhat more relaxed than what we would impose on fiction from a conventional publishing house?

     Today’s fictioneer does have better tools at his disposal than a mere typewriter. Moreover, they’re not at all expensive. Some of them are essential to producing a publishable manuscript at all. We can reasonably expect that a writer will use the facilities built into those tools, spelling checkers being at the top of the list. But as anyone who’s ever bruised his fingers against a keyboard can tell you, spelling checkers can miss quite a few kinds of errors. The same goes for grammar checkers. And there are problems of other kinds, including some quite serious ones, whose detection and capture isn’t currently automated.

     Given our awareness that the job is large and demanding and the indie is all alone in doing it, what is it reasonable to expect from him?

     Since I became involved with indie fiction about ten years ago, I’ve read some brilliant, meticulously produced stuff, some unconscionable crap, and a great deal of fiction that stood between those poles. I recall one writer, whose stuff grabbed me by the collar novel after novel, who seemed to disdain proofreading. His stories were incomparably better than their physical instantiation. Errors of every kind in the book could be found on every page of any of his novels. But the originality of his story concepts and the brilliance of their expression got me past those technical flaws.

     Just now I’m working my way – mild emphasis on working — through a military SF series written by an indie whose name you might know. The stories aren’t entirely original; indeed, they fall into a category most readers of that subgenre would have encountered before. They aren’t all that well told, either. The author is low on technique and seems unaware of certain conventions that could have made the books easier to write and easier for the reader to follow. There are also many low-level errors: misspellings, wrong-word errors, missing-word errors, and so forth. (I can’t be any more specific than this without revealing the identity of the writer, whom I do not wish to embarrass.)

     But I’m reading them. I do have to suppress irritation at the errors and poor storytelling technique, but I’m reading them. I find them valuable for their themes, which aren’t the sort the barons of conventional publishing would find appealing. Indeed, the climate of political correctness and rampant leftism that reigns in Pub World would probably get these books rejected without any consideration whatsoever. The central character is something of a role model for the profession of arms: the sort of figure one who aspires to a military career would do well to study.

     Now, while it might be arrogant of me to feel thus, I’ve been itching to volunteer my services to the author as a technique tutor and editor. I have a feeling any such offer would be indignantly rejected; after all, no mother wants to be told her baby is deformed. But the impulse is an expression of the value I find in the works even as they are today. It’s also a gauge for the importance of indie fiction as a conduit for stories and themes the conventional houses are unwilling to consider. There’s a moral in there.

     Sturgeon’s Law, unlike Theodore Sturgeon himself, is alive and functioning in the realm of indie fiction. You have to wade through a lot of garbage to find a jewel...and at that, some of the jewels are semi-precious at best.

     Even so – and believe me, I’m fully aware of how far indie fiction still needs to develop – it’s a field of great promise. Indie is where the originality is. Yes, there’s a lot of hackneyed stuff in the indie orbit: vampires, zombies, space wars, Tolkien derivatives, and other clich├ęs. But the stodginess of the conventional houses is such that hackneyed crap in well-traveled subgenres, easy to categorize and market, is essentially all they’ll publish. Genuinely original fiction has essentially no chance of making it past their gatekeepers. How can we know it will sell? And indeed, that is the crux, for conventional publishers must sell lots of books to meet the bills, whereas the indie is usually under less pressure to do so out of his book revenue.

     So I’m in favor of cutting writers who tell decently original stories with important themes a lot of slack. It’s bit like a taste for moonshine: You can’t get it in the store, so if you want it, you have to be willing to accept a jug without a label or a Surgeon General’s warning on the side. Hell, you might be socially obliged to commune with the vendor over a jelly-jar full of the stuff while he complains about his no-account brother in law, his lazy kids, and how his bunions are just killing him.



DeMar Southard said...

You're an obviously intelligent person -- you agree with me 100%. I've purchased a number of indie novels and force myself to look past the technical and grammatical errors to discern if there's a good story in there. I'm an indie novelist and travel writer myself. I can't afford an editor and proofreader, and even after several re-writes, I still find errors in my manuscripts. At some point, you just have to let it go. Following publication, my readers find more. A good thing about e-books and print-on-demand is that you can always fix the next download or print.
I enjoy your blog and have bookmarked it. Thanks for taking the time to write.

Margaret Ball said...

Like you, I've been tempted to offer my services as a proofreader to some indie authors whose work I like but whose publications are larded with enough flaws to distract me from the story. I haven't done so for fear of appearing arrogant, even though my message would be, "It's hard to catch trivial things in your own writing, because you tend to see what you intended to write; can I lend a hand here?"

Similarly, I'd love to have some other writers go over my own manuscripts before publication -- but that sounds too much like asking near-strangers to work for free.

I wonder if it would be possible to form indie writers' groups with a focus on editing. Traditional writers' groups exist to help their members learn how to tell an interesting story; the writers I'm thinking of need no help at that level. But I think we could all benefit from more eyes on the text before publication.

Francis W. Porretto said...

Such a group would be immensely helpful to many an indie, Margaret. I'd gladly participate. It would be especially valuable if members would agree to perform editing services for other members who write in the genres they read.

As for yourself, I'd be happy to review your MSes for glitches before you release them. Let me know if that would please you.

Linda Fox said...

Margaret, I'm completely on board with the idea of a editorial swap for a SMALL group. Not for works in progress - only 'ready to go' work should be the focus. It's another thing to send a novel that is off-track or not working to someone - that requires a higher level of editorial assistance than I can provide.

But, I'm pretty good on basic grammar, spelling, punctation. I've received help from friends and colleagues, and it was gratefully accepted.

Tracy Coyle said...

I average more than 2 indie books a week. Only once have I refused to read anything more from an author - I pushed my way through two books or the 5 or so at the time. The stories were rehashes, the typos disrupting and even I, who ain't got no good English, kept stumbling over his grammar.

I love indie writers. I get typos in publishing house books so I am not going to hold it against a writer the vast majority of the time. Especially when the word as presented reflected the word as it should have been.

Two sets of eyes are better than one....and the glass versions don't count.

Margaret Ball said...

Francis, I'll definitely take you up on that the next time I have something ready to go! And I'd be very happy to reciprocate, though I don't know if that's worth much; I don't think I've ever been jarred by a typo in one of your books.

Francis W. Porretto said...

(chuckle) I am at your service, Margaret. And as for typos, I commit plenty of 'em. I'll send you my next book in its raw state, and I guarantee you'll find them in profusion.

Paul Bonneau said...

I am willing to cut SOME slack; it would be crazy to expect a perfectly polished result. But as error piles on top of error, I really end up getting annoyed. After all, how hard is it to hand a manuscript to a friend with a red pen? Or do these authors have no friends? Not even friends on a blog, to look over their stuff?

If it gets bad enough, I just end up with the conclusion the author is stupid, careless or lazy. Then I put the book down.

I proof-read the below book for the author. He was happy to have my comments.

Francis W. Porretto said...

(chuckle) Well, you have a point, Paul. We all have limits to our tolerance. But as one who writes, allow me to inform you of an unfortunate fact:

The fastest way for a writer to lose a friend is to ask that friend to read what he’s written.

This is so well documented that when Judith Martin, a.k.a. “Miss Manners,” was asked how one might politely deflect inquiries about one’s occupation, advised the asker thus: “Tell them you’re working on a novel. Don’t worry that they’ll ask to read it. In fact, they’ll back away swiftly before you can ask them.

Sad, but true. Which is why Margaret and I, despite being barely acquainted and 1500 miles apart, will be reading one another’s stuff.