Saturday, February 04, 2006

Roast Feet, Anyone?

It's hard to believe, but a few years ago, I was a complete newbie to forums.

And before last July when I was corrupted by Stuart MacBride, I didn't know my way around blogs.

In the time since I first started participating on forums, I've learned plenty. Some of it, the hard way. By making big mistakes. Like using my real name. I've always been a pretty open person, but that's not always a good thing in cyberland.

Over time, I've had to come up with some rules for myself to try to reduce the likelihood of posting things I'll regret later. One of those rules came about because of a reading group I was participating in. The one book discussed, I had some real problems with it. I found it hard to walk the line, to express the problems I had with the book without having it twisted so it sounded like I was trashing the author. But I mean, when people keep pushing certain points, you either answer the question or say you can't talk about it anymore.

And ultimately, I've said some things that I wish I could take back.

Because sometimes, you can't get into a book for no reason other than your back hurts this weekend, or you've been so busy with work your brain is fried, or you've been struggling with insomnia and find reading hard. Sometimes, I'm in the mood for certain books, certain tv...and so when I try a book, it might not be the best time for it. Next week might be better.

Or maybe the book just isn't for me. That does happen.

But it doesn't necessarily mean the author failed. It may just mean that it isn't exactly to my preferred style. If I'd tried reading Wire in the Blood two years before I did, I don't know if I could have stomached it. It wouldn't have been the writing, it just would have been the shock. And I love Val McDermid.

I think we have to be open-minded. Our opinions change over time. Even in my 30's, I don't know it all. My tastes have changed dramatically over the years. I have to be prepared that an author that isn't tickling my fancy today might be one I'm gushing over two years from now.

This is why I'm uncomfortable with seeing people make harsh, judgmental statements on forums and blogs. "His books are shite." "She's a hack." "I know four-year-olds that write better than so-and-so." Oh boy.

I had a BIG REALITY CHECK this week. An author mentioned to me they'd read some comments about their books on a forum I've been active on for a few years.

It didn't matter that I really admire and respect this author and this author's work. I had one of those, "Oh my god" moments when I thought, "What the hell are you doing reading that forum?"

Well, it is a free country. Authors can read whatever forums they want to...

But I do wish that people would stop and think for a moment before they post. That they'd say, "How would I feel if I said this and turned to find so-and-so standing right behind me? Would I phrase it differently?" And then act accordingly.

The truth of the matter is, whether we're working in special education or as writers or teachers or marketing managers or being parents or lovers or a friend, there are days we fall short. There are days we wish we could take back words and do things differently.

As writers, we have those moments too.

Sometimes, the pressure to meet deadlines, external distractions, experimentation that doesn't pan out effectively...even an editor that's having a rough time - these can all be things that impact the quality of our work.

Every author I know works really hard. Puts pressure on themselves. Tries to improve.

I recently put this question to Mark Billingham over on his talk zone:
Hi Mark,

I'm curious to know what you find most challenging about writing. Is it coming up with the ideas or do you put a lot of pressure on yourself to improve your storytelling and writing with each book? Or do you find other forms of writing (eg short stories) more difficult?

Just being generally nosey.

and this was Mark's response:

It's certainly not the ideas, though heaven knows I wish I had a lot more of them. It's definitely just a question of trying to improve as a writer; to write a better book. There ARE pressures, some of them commercial of course, but at the end of the day you're always trying to raise your own personal bar. I can't believe any writer doesn't at least set out at the start of a new novel with that ambition. OK, there are a few who clearly don't give a toss as long as they continue to sell, but all the writers I admire are always ready to admit that they can get better and will strive to do so. Sadly of course, we often fail but there you are. What I ALWAYS find challenging is starting a book. It doesn't matter how many books you've already written, it only takes a few weeks without writing to forget that you can do it at all. You spend the first hundred pages feeling like a novice...


Now, that's someone who has book 6 coming out in a few months, book 7 is being written at the moment. So even for those who've got an established writing career, they're putting pressure on themselves to do better.

I totally respect the sincere effort. I can relate.

So next time you read something that impresses you, maybe tell the author.

And maybe when you read a book that doesn't quite live up to what you hoped, bite your tongue and give them a second chance.

We are, after all, only human. Doing our best, one word at a time.


Bernita said...

It goes both ways.
The author, if wise, has to be tolerant of our human failings too.

Erik Ivan James said...

Sandra and Bernita, very well said by you both.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Uh huh. And authors I've spoken to have certainly learned to deal with it.

But I've had several experiences now where something I've said out in cyberland has come right back to me. Never in a way that's presented a problem, but I've definitely got a list of things I won't touch in public now.

One such thing was my informal review of John Rickards books being mentioned on a Uk bookstores blog (not by posters, by the bookstore people) with a link to the write-up. And I'd made some cracks in there about porn that wouldn't make any sense to people not reading my blog...

But I've stumbled across writers criticizing their editors/publishers/agents on their blogs. Not a good idea.

There's several people I've rubbed shoulders with in cyberland for a few years, and I've seen a few people again and again and again harshly criticize authors. It isn't that they say, "I don't like the book." They say, "I'm disgusted his book was nominated for an award - it's trash." There's a big difference between the two.

The reality is, particularly in my sphere of writing, the writers all get to know each other. It baffles me that people who are trying to write a ms and break into this market are running around on forums, using their real names, and saying really rude things about the authors.

Reality check - the authors just might read it.

Reality check - when your book comes out, some people might say the same or worse about you.

Reality check - I've made comments that the author's agent has come on and responded to. I've got rules, but if you're one of the people out there slagging, don't think that the agents will never know. For all you know, your name might be on a list...

You really have to think about that, particularly if you want to be part of this community.

This week I've seen an author rudely insulted, and handle it with class. But I still know it hurt their feelings. I'm certainly not saying people don't have free speech.

I'm just encouraging people to temper it with a bit of tact.

Dana Y. T. Lin said...

Well, said, Sandra!

Sandra Ruttan said...

Thanks Dana!

I'm going to go jogging and see if I can throw my back out again...

Anonymous said...

What I find particularly hard to deal with is beginning writers who are way off the mark. Usually, the biggest problem is the old "telling not showing" issue. The writing sounds like an essay about a character rather than a story about a character. What do you say? I'm not comfortable saying that basically you have to work on everything. So what I usually do? Say nothing. But then I feel guilty. The person could shave off years of spinning wheels if someone were honest. But on the other hand, 90% of the time, the comments aren't welcome. It's a no-win situation, I guess.

BTW--I totally agree about nasty comments. They never have a place in a critique. And every negative statement should be balanced by a positive.

Sandra Ruttan said...

You know, I think authors do pay attention to the reviews and to the constructive criticism. At least, all the ones I talk to have referenced something about that to me.

And wait until you see my blog post tomorrow...

I've never had an author tell me my remarks were unwelcome - and I've been in the awkward position of editing one of Stuart MacBride's stories. Here I was thinking, "You're asking me?" But it was my job. And you know what? He was more gracious and open to it than many novices I've edited work for.

That impresses the hell out of me.

And really, I do think most authors will listen - certainly the ones I know do. I'd vouch for them on that. It's more about how you say it, and even the venue.

Perhaps one of the things I neglected to say in my post was that if 'said person doing slagging' then queries an agent who represents slagged writers, the agent may (and believe me, I've seen this) already know that person's names from their remarks. And then ask, "Why would I represent someone who doesn't like the work of the other authors I deal with?"

It is only my experience, but my experience is that agents like to represent people who like their tastes...Several authors have told me to find an agent who represents someone whose work I admire. Certainly not to approach agents who represent work I publicly trash.

Jason, just curious, do you ever express your comments to authors? Like, would you gently comment over coffee, given the chance? That's totally how I picture you - balanced, considerate, caring - you're so nice.

E. Ann Bardawill said...

The thing I've noticed on Miss Snark's site, is the notion that signing with someone isn't just a question of
- can this person write?

She calls them and talks to them to determine what sort of person she is dealing with. Do they have intregrity? Do they play well with others? Can she do BUSINESS with them?

If you put your thoughts on a blog, or have a conversation with strangers at a party, you bettter be prepared to stand behind them.

If you can't say somethig nice, don't say anything at all, is probably a good adage, unless you want to be the next Howard Stern.

M. G. Tarquini said...

Here, Here, Bardawill! (or is it hear, hear?).

Just be nice. Golden Rule, that kind of thing. Solid critique shouldn't ever be accompanied with a snide remark, weakens the critique, reflects on the critiquer. That's salmon that swims both ways, as do the remarks about whether or not somebody belongs on an awards list, whether their work is trash, etc.

And really, where does that get anybody, in the end? The shortlisted people are still shortlisted. They can still say 'X award nominee' or whatever. The nasty mouths are just as nasty.

Better the time were spent on one's writing.

Anonymous said...

Sandra, that's a great point about published authors being open to critiques. The more you learn, the more you understand how much you don't know.

Comments over coffee? Definitely count me in!

Sandra Ruttan said...

MG and Bardawill, yup, that's the way I see it.

Truth is, more than enough reviewers out there are itching to rip apart work, so it isn't like authors don't get raked over the coals already.

Jason, that's totally what I think - the more I learn, the more I realize how much I don't know. It can be so easy to look at someone else's stuff and see weak spots - much harder to see it in my own.

I'd love to come out east and chat writing over drinks. One of these days...(Unless we start cyberchats!)

JamesO said...

For reasons too technical to go into just now (what have you done to your blog format, Sandra?), my comment on this subject has made it's way into the next blog. Ah well, never mind.

It's a good point you've brought up though. But I would say that if something about a writer's work strikes you as bad or wrong, then you shouldn't be afraid to say so. Just as long as you're prepared to back up your argument with sound reasoning. There's never any need to descend to name-calling, but a little constructive criticism keeps us all honest.