book promotion, book reviews

This Way Madness Lies, But So What?

There is probably no more ill-advised pastime for a writer than to engage with his or her negative critics. Reviews are what they are, and any response on your part will only make you seem thin-skinned and defensive. Not everyone is going to love your books, so get over it and let it go.0

Nevertheless, I’m presented here with a rare opportunity. Friend, fellow writer, and notorious gadfly Mimi Speike found fault with my new book, Whisper Blue. Now this, I promise you, is not an attack on Mimi, who I love and admire. In fact, I appreciate and cherish her honesty. Nor will it, I hope, degenerate into a series of mere ripostes and touchy rejoinders. Mimi and I have already exchanged opinions via email and remain the best of pals. Her criticisms are insightful and thought provoking. Do I agree with them? Well, no, because I have my natural arrogance to fall back on, not to mention a fair number of favorable reviews to take comfort in. So why am I focusing on a bad review? Just naturally a contrarian, I guess.  But dissent will nearly always spark a more interesting discussion than agreement. So, what the heck. Let’s rumble!

Mimi: “Your prose style, as usual, is flawless. (I had to include that bit. -AG) I do have some problems with the plot. The uncomplicated style says to me YA, and I do believe Miles’ rather mumbo-jumbo rationale for the odd business would fit nicely into the mouth of a fascinated-with-psychic/not-overly-critical teen.”

A fair point. I wrote back: “If Miles’ explanation for Whisper’s manifestation seems a little addled, well, he’s a little addled, and it seems like exactly the kind of explanation he would come up with. (He needs an explanation, because he’s a rationalist.) It may not make a lick of sense, but it’s at least a self-consistent construction (really, almost more a science fiction explanation than a ghost story one, which fits Miles’ personality.) In the end, it doesn’t matter whether you or I find it believable, just so long as Miles (nearly) does. It’s a bandaid on the gaping wound that has sundered his reality. The fact that it barely works is, well, just as it should be.”

I didn’t add, but will here, that I think Miles’ explanation is actually pretty good, certainly well in line with some of the norms of paranormal fiction. But therein lies one of the bones of incompatibility betwixt Mimi and myself. She really doesn’t care for paranormals, and I obviously do.

Mimi: “I do not find gut-wrenching emotion, that jumps off the page. You tell us that your characters are stunned, upset, all that, but where is the out-and-out frenzy? (On Marieka’s part. We’ve already written Miles off.) Especially with a first-person telling, it would be so easy to show.”

Yes, and I’m afraid there isn’t a lot to say on this point. My natural tendency is to soft-pedal emotion and to minimize introspection, even in first-person. It’s just a personal preference, which Mimi astutely recognized later in her critique, saying: “But that means interior stuff, and I understand that is not your impulse.” And she’s right. It really isn’t. Too often, the examination and explanation of why-my-characters-are-feeling-what-they-feel only clutters up the landscape, making it more difficult for readers to feel what they feel, which is more what I hope will happen. Some people can do the introspection thing very well and to great effect. Me, not so much. I won’t walk away from a poignant moment, but I prefer them to be few and far between.

As far as me telling rather than showing, well, I don’t actually have a problem with telling. It is part of writing. But as far as me telling rather than showing the emotions of my characters, particularly Marieke, I disagree. For the most part, I think I did as little of either as I could reasonably get away with.

Mimi: “Taylor James says, ‘The story is fast paced.’ I would think that fast paced here is not a desirable thing. I say you need to immerse your kooks in a slow-simmer soup, and let them stew in it but good, with plenty of reflection. Instead we get mysteriously matter-of-fact reportage. Everything moves too fast, for my money.”

Again, we are simply at odds here. I love a slow-simmer, and I expect nothing less from Mimi’s own epic cat-o-many-tales, Sly. But…that isn’t Whisper. I wanted something agile enough to slither and scurry up the lattice of plot and emerge with a “what just happened here?” feeling. So fast-paced pleases me. As does “mysteriously matter-of-fact reportage.” Couldn’t have said it better myself.

Mimi: “I buy that a once alive girl might be called up from the dead, but a totally made-up one? I wish at least that Miles had found a mention of a child who had actually existed, and had created additions to the story that just happened to be very close to the truth. (Wouldn’t that be way stranger? And it would solve the problem of reporters digging into a lie.) A demand, by a side-branch descendant of the clan, to know how he came by a piece of information that had never been disclosed, a connection he is able to verify, may be what sends him over the edge.”

A fascinating angle, and in a conventional ghost story, a wholly valid point. But Whisper isn’t really a ghost story. And…well, I’ll quote from my own email reply: “The book isn’t about voodoo or mental illness or even about the madness of the internet crowd. It isn’t even about Marieke and Miles and Mama Jay. It is about the relationship between fiction and reality. The central metaphor of the book is that a fictional character can become as real as a flesh-and-blood person. This is an emotional truth, of course. Who hasn’t experienced that? In Whisper, the metaphor is made real (that’s what paranormal and fantasy fiction do, they treat the metaphorical as if it were an actual thing.) In Whisper’s case, even the meta-metaphor is made real. It’s a work of fiction about a work of fiction coming to life. That, really, is what I was interested in. Miles’ fiction—particularly Wisteria’s diary—the reports on the web, even Stokes’ stories about James Randi are all stirring this same pot. For that reason, it’s absolutely essential that Whisper be fiction, not a real girl. That would completely undermine the metaphor.”

Of course, that metaphor didn’t work for Mimi, and I have no one but myself to blame for that. Assuming we really need someone to blame, which is arguable.

Okay, one more point. Mimi: “We never get a satisfying resolution, just a hook-up with the professor. Okay, I guess the gris-gris around her neck is the resolution. Marieka has caved. She is a convert to tinfoil-hat beliefs, is now generating her own delusions. It’s either that or a mass-hypnosis situation. A buy-in is the easiest, neatest option.”

And that, I guess, was a swing and a miss on my part. Marieke’s gris-gris never smacked of tin-foil hat conversion to me, partly because I don’t regard voodoo as any more delusional than most of your standard religions, but also because Marieke’s appropriation of one of its trappings doesn’t necessarily make her a believer. In her own private way, she’s trying to deal with what she has seen and experienced. If I were to sort it out (and no, I never did, because it seemed perfectly natural to me) I’d say she wears it out of respect for Whisper, and maybe for Mama Jay as well. But if that didn’t come across to Mimi, then perhaps I could’ve done better. But people who go to my books looking for satisfying resolutions are probably going to be disappointed. Emotionally satisfying? Well, I hope so. But plot-resolution satisfaction? Not always one of my priorities.

And, perhaps, this just wasn’t going to be Mimi’s cup of tea, no matter how well I prepared and presented it. Near the end of her email she apologized for “being anal about making sense” and that, may be the crux of our failure to connect. There are things about Whisper Blue that don’t make perfect sense. That’s not an accident, it’s a choice. Paranormal fiction appeals to those of us who like floating in that shadow realm between the real and the other. We are drawn to those uncanny lands, where the various layers of reality rub up against other, twining about, until they become, maybe, interchangeable.

I can’t say whether I achieved that with Whisper Blue, but if you want to find out for yourself, it is available at Amazon,  Kobo,  Barnes and Noble, other places as well. I think it’s good, but I’m open to discussion.

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Uncategorized, writing technique

Me and Hemingway

The other day, this blog post appeared in my Facebook feed with the title:  “This Surprising Reading Level Analysis Will Change the Way You Write.”

Once you get past the clickbait title, it’s a pretty good post. The reading level analysis the post is talking about is called the Flesch-Kincaid readability test, a method developed in the 1970s for evaluating the difficulty of a text. Basically, it analyses a text for complexity and assigns it a reading level.

Just for kicks, I fed a brief, randomly-selected chapter from my newest book, Whisper Blue into the analyzer over at ReadabilityScore.com and clicked analyze. My score?  A whopping 4.1. Fourth grade reading level. Ha! Shows what an erudite elitist I am! The analysis of Text Quality said I had:

—5 sentences with 30 or more syllables
—20 with 20 or more syllables
—3 words with 4 or more syllables, and
—no words exceeding 12 letters.

And this, really, is ALL that Flesch-Kincaid analyzes. Long sentences and long words get you a higher grade level score; short words and short sentences get you grammar school scores. A reductive metric if ever I saw one, but Flesch-Kincaid was never meant to be more than a very rough guide. There’s really no judgment involved. It’s simply a crude measure of complexity. And you know who else wrote at a fourth grade level? Ernest Hemingway. How about Cormac McCarthy? Fifth grade. Likewise Jane Austen. Tolstoy? Fitzgerald? Stephen King? Yup. They all, apparently, wrote for middle schoolers.

Obviously, these sorts of grades tell us a lot more about the test then they do about the texts. And the whole thing points out some of the difficulties involved in using any kind of standardized approach to evaluating creative work. For example, the analyzer at Readabilityscore.com also includes a tally of three of the best known No-Nos all writers should avoid: use of the passive voice, adverbs, and clichés. My score was 7 passives, 1 cliché, and a whopping 68 adverbs!

Yoiks! I suck! Only, I don’t really. In the first place, a large amount of the text I selected is dialogue. And normal human speech is riddled with adverbs and passive constructions, not to mention clichés. And in the second place, most of these adverbs weren’t bad adverbs, and most of the passive constructions weren’t even passive.

Example—the site flagged the following phrases as passive:

“maybe I shouldn’t be encouraging him.”

“Everything was going to be all right.”

“One minute I was dismissing the whole thing as mumbo jumbo, the next I was withdrawing a hundred dollars from the ATM, just in case.”

These aren’t passive. Apparently, when the search algorithm sees a construction like “was going” or “was dismissing” or “be encouraging,” it mistakes auxiliary verb constructions (such as continuing action) for a passive constructions.

As far as my copious use of adverbs, here are a few examples (the underlined words were flagged as adverbs):

There you go.”

“That’s probably exactly what happened.”

“That old fake had us jumping around like a couple of citified rubes, but it was all just a show!”

“You are not going anywhere three nights from now!”

Adverbs are not evil. Yes, it’s awful when writers overuse those dreaded -ly constructions, especially in dialogue tags. But adverbs expressing place (there) or time (now) really don’t get my critical dander up. I suppose probably is modifying exactly, (adverbs can modify other adverbs) but then why didn’t they flag exactly, which is an adverb of manner? And I’m not at all sure which verb, adjective or adverb just is supposed to be modifying in the third example.

Needless to say, this isn’t very useful as a writing tool, but there are a lot of sites like readability-score.com out there. Usually they let you try it out for free—paste some text and have them identify the alleged problems. Then, after you’ve used your share of free samples, you can sign up and pay for membership. I’m not sure what readability-score.com charges for membership, but even as a free service, it seems slightly overpriced. And it isn’t simply that it misidentifies the passive voice—I’ve seen human editors do the same.

0The problem is more one of attitude. Grammar and syntax have rules, but there are endless subtleties. Even if the website correctly spotted adverbs and passive constructions, the suggestion that adverbs are always wrong, or that the passive voice is always a weak choice, is simplistic at best. You should be aware of what your are doing, at all times,, and make good choices but following boilerplate suggestions for improving your prose is only going to produce boilerplate prose.  Good writing is clear, evocative, and surprising—and no algorithm is going to make that happen for you.

(By the way, If you’d like to check it out for yourself, my paranormal thriller about voodoo and cyber-ghosts and the mass hysteria of the crowds is available at Amazon, Kobo, and other places. I think you’ll like it. No matter what your reading level is.)

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