Back then, even the stinkers often provided a hidden gem or two or three. I learned about a place, a time. I found common ground with a character, even if that was in negative space. I learned about worth, relevance, and how to discriminate amongst many character flaws or actions. I learned about consequences.
I learned that I liked certain kinds of writing and why. I read broadly, consuming vast quantities of words. My tastes became catholic and eclectic. My reading list grew, and hopefully so did I… into a more compassionate, understanding, educated and discriminating reader.
My books were all library vintage since buying books was a luxury a working class family could ill afford. Books vetted by traditional publishers. Books meeting a standard of publishing and a level of quality I couldn’t possibly appreciate at the time, but I now recognize as having fulfilled a valuable role before the notions of bestsellers and genres and popular culture took hold.
I attended parochial school where the myths of rulers on palms and scratchy wool jumpers were not myths, but realities. Where we practiced cursive writing in wide-lined notebooks and parsed sentences on the blackboard and learned the vibrancy of language by peeling away its layers and putting them back in new, creative ways. Where we learned Latin and an appreciation for the roots of the words, imbuing them with a history and a meaning that created a framework for learning that carried me through adulthood. In short, I learned reading comprehension skills that have stood me in good stead throughout my long career in both academia and corporate America.
Fast forward to today and the digital revolution. I still read voraciously—indie and trad published. My tastes have narrowed a bit—I don’t do horror, no matter how well written. I’ve deserted most science fiction because few authors do hard SciFi anymore, relying more on fantasy elements and nanotech to inform their storylines (I gave up my subscription to Analog for that reason, too much same old-same old). I also don’t do fantasy because I prefer character-driven stories rather than the kind of nitpicky devotion to the ‘Verse and all its particulars—somewhat akin to describing the Big Apple by listing all the building dimensions and neglecting the people who inhabit those spaces.
Not my thing. But if it’s someone else’s thing, go for it. Horses for courses, I always say.
Lately though, I’ve been debating whether or not to redirect my still limited disposable income toward those works which have passed at least a few gatekeepers on the way toward bringing a story into the light of day. And this is not a decision resting on some elitist set of values, nor on a measure of literary snobbery, but rather on the trust built over the years that books coming through the publishing mill still maintain a set of standards for quality I can rely on.
But but but… Yes, it’s a limited sample, even if my yearly consumption runs close to 300 titles (of all lengths: short stories, novellas, novels and epics). But over five years? That’s 1500 books/stories. It’s at the point that when I review a book, it includes a score for the editing or lack thereof. Far too many have rated a grade of “F.” Remember: parochial school education. I know whereof I speak when it comes to punctuation, grammar, verb tenses, POV, and hanging bits that are neither racy nor conducive to conveying meaning in a sentence.
Ahem, I promised you a list. Of the last ten books I read and reviewed, all indie titles, here’s what I found in the Some Assembly Required category, not necessarily in order of deal breakers, aka the point where I throw the book against a wall or click delete:
1) Punctuation/spelling: it’s not rocket science. There are online dictionaries and thesauruses, find them, use them. As for punctuation, there are oodles of websites with fr’instances. There’s also the read it aloud until you need to take a breath strategy. Put a comma there. Is it a single sentence paragraph? Make it two, oh hell, go wild and try for three separate sentences. Vary the length, vary the structure which segues into…
2) Narrative structure: he did this and then he did that and then he did another thing. Linear story telling is perhaps the most boring bit of writing you can produce. Learn what a dialog tag is and, more importantly, what it isn’t [He laughed, “Good one.” – not a dialog tag] Are there only two people in the room? Is there any reason to suppose we need identifiers for every single utterance? Have you read a book that’s so dialog heavy it’s like reading a grocery list? Or how about dialog that attempts to capture every single utterance in a social situation: hi, hi there, good to see you, yeah, you too, can I take your hat, sure… *snooze*
3) Grammar (nazi): I’m not sure when schools stopped teaching how to conjugate a verb (and that has nothing to do with conjugal rights). He had went. He was being taking the time… *cringes, real examples and not the most egregious by any means, nor were these typos as the head-scratching attempts at verb tenses continued throughout the books* Now, I will fess up to splitting infinitives and I do dangle a few participles, but mostly as a reflection of normal speech patterns. You are, of course, familiar with the most common errors: there, their, they’re and that ilk. These have become so commonplace that readers now shrug them off, claiming it’s the story that matters.
4) POV: oh, my dear sweet Auntie Mae. How about three characters—and each sentence in the paragraph has a separate POV? What, wait! Or more commonly, a POV shift every paragraph. POV from 1st to 3rd omniscient within the same paragraph. 1st POV knowing everything (oy vey, a god-complex). Above and beyond the fact this is confusing as hell, it also speaks directly to how well the author understands the craft of writing and the craft of storytelling. I’ve often gotten to the end of a book and not known WTF happened because the characters switched identities so often it turned chaotic and incomprehensible. Some authors duck behind the mantle of 1st person to avoid the problem and then you get to read I I I I I I … ad nauseam. Trust me, that’s not an improvement.
5) MIA: missing word, missing phrase, whole damn paragraphs gone walkabout or appearing out of context. Then there are phrases obviously copy-pasted, repetitive phrasing, florid overuse of adjectives and adverbs. I don’ think that means what you think it means.
6) Continuity errors, not doing your research (um, no, the Egyptian Exhibit is not in the Museum of Natural History, that would be the Metropolitan Museum of Art), formulaic writing, lazy writing (cliffies, oh God, not another series cliffie), greedy writing (putting out what amounts to an extended scene or a chapter, calling it an episode, charging beaucoup bucks for it, then producing a “season one” compilation), writing quickies/shorties without a proper beginning/middle/end and calling it a “book”.
*squinty-eyed, hands-on-ample-hips—even the major pubs are taking that slick route to my wallet using this artifice*
Dammit, now my teeth hurt. And I haven’t even dabbled in character development, conflict resolution, the sagging middle, and all the other nuances/elements of craft editors routinely catch and correct.
I have time. What I don’t have is unlimited income to spend on a passion that’s being whittled away by a progressively worsening quality in the entertainment/enlightenment media I most prefer: reading.
I read for pleasure. I read to learn. I read to understand, to expand my horizons, to be taken away from my own narrow existence into a wider world. I *invest* in a book with both my time and my limited resources (money). I put my trust in an author to provide me with at least a minimal level of quality that justifies my investment.
Lately, all too often, those authors have broken faith with this reader. If you publish a book and charge money for it, don’t you owe your reader a finished product that meets (and hopefully exceeds) a minimum standard of quality?
Of course not!
Then why are we putting up with the Some Assembly Required when it comes to books? And don’t give me the malarkey that it’s about the story. I call bullshit on that argument. You can tell your poorly constructed story over a bottle of wine at a party, or on your blog, or knock yourself out with free fanfic. But if you put it out there as a commodity, available for purchase, then it better have all the buttons and a proper hem, because anything less is disrespectful at best and at worst a rip-off.
Yes, I still have the option of not finishing, and it’s a pathetic fact that I put aside more than I finish nowadays. And that’s sad, because there are certainly worthy books—good books constructed with care, with respect, books I should and would read if the pile of s**t wasn’t so deep, so fragrant and so deliberately self-aggrandizing.
Trust once betrayed is not an easy thing to recapture.