Wednesday, April 15, 2015

It's Time For You To Grow Up (part 3)

It has been my general policy since I started doing reviews and stuff to only review books that I've finished. Mostly, I made that decision based on the reading of one book many years ago. It was a horrible book (an author requested review), but the very end was just good enough to take it from a 1-star to a 2-star rating. Because of that, I figured I ought to see a book all the way through before reviewing it. So I've slogged through many terrible books, the L'Engle time quintet, for example.

However, for the most part, a book that is a struggle to read is not going to redeem itself at the end. I mean, a step up from a 1-star to a 2-star doesn't mean that I liked the book. It was still bad, and I would never recommend it to anyone. And, honestly, as a whole work, the book was probably still just a 1-star, but I was surprised enough that the author pulled his threads together at the end that I bumped the rating up to 2.

Anyway... All of that to say that I have read some bad books over the past several years. Really bad. When I start a book, almost always, I will finish it.

But there have been two books during this same time period that I have not finished. Yes, two books that weren't even as good as Many Waters, which stands out to me as the worst book I've read (all the way through) in years. Or maybe that was An Acceptable Time; they're both so bad it's hard to tell which is worse. At any rate, having made my way through both of those, I think it's significant when I say that there are books that I actually couldn't make myself read.

One of those, I will share with you.

Initially, I decided to pick up Where You Belong by Pat Dilloway because he said it was the very best of his books. He said he was inspired and that he would never write anything better than that novel. I think that's what he still says about it. I figured that sounded like a good place to start. I mean, if an author says about one of his books that it's the best thing he's capable of writing, you may as well start with that, right? Yeah, that's what I thought, too.

It didn't take me very long to realize that if this was the best that Dilloway had to offer, then I wouldn't be reading any of his books.

First, it's written in first person. I'm sure you all know by now how I feel about first person. But it's worse, because it's written in first person omniscient and, well, that's just not a thing. I mean, unless your protagonist is God (or, maybe, Charles Xavier), omniscient and first person do not go together. That's the whole reason for writing in first person, to have a limited view of what's going on. A view limited to only what the protagonist knows and observes. That's why first person works so well in detective fiction, because the whole point of that is the protagonist trying to work out what he doesn't know from his rather limited perspective. This issue of allowing the first person protagonist to know too much is very pervasive in first person stories, but I'd never seen full-on first person omniscient before. Yes, it set me against the book right from the start, because, again, first person omniscient is not a thing.

[Note: Dilloway has spoken on his blog and various other places that the book was originally written in third person and that he later went back and converted it. I think he must have done this through a simple replacement of pronouns, because he didn't do anything to adjust the viewpoint. I'm saying this based on my experience with my middle schoolers. There have been many times when I have given writing assignments to write from a particular perspective. It is not infrequent that I will get stories that were originally written from a different perspective so the student just went in and changed the pronouns. That's not enough when making a perspective shift and, anytime I have asked, for instance, "Did you originally write this in first person," the answer has always been "yes."

So that would explain the omniscience problem. He originally wrote it in third person omniscient but didn't narrow the viewpoint to first person when he converted it to a first person story. I'm just going to call it what it is: a middle school mistake.]

The next issue with the book is that it shifts back and forth from past to present tense, but not in a way that makes sense. For instance, it would make sense if part of the story was being told "now" and part of the story was being told "then." However, what we have are clearly places that are "then" that are being told in past tense, followed by a section that is still "then" but now in present tense, followed by a section that is still "then" but back in past tense. These are chronological events, so the shift in tense didn't work for me.

[Note: This is a thing I am extremely sensitive to, because it's an issue my middle schoolers struggle with a lot. The most common reason I hand a story back to a student is because of an issue with tense shifts. My comment is generally, "Pick one, past or present, and stick to it."]

Then there's the issue of the voice, and this, also, is probably related to the shift the author made from third to first person. When you write in third person, the voice can be whatever you want it to be, because it's the narrator's voice, not the character's. When you write in first person, though, the voice needs to be the character's voice and, thus, reflective of the character. The protagonist starts out at age three or four, but the voice is definitely that of an adult. That would be okay if it was clear that it was an adult reflecting back on his childhood, but the feel of the story is that it's being told by the kid, especially since some of it is in present tense, but not in a kid's voice.  Now, I get that writing from a child's perspective can be difficult but, if you can't do it, don't choose to do it.

I put the book down. At the time, I decided it wasn't worth the effort to wade through it when there was no indication that it would get any better. Sure, the kid grows up to fit the voice, so to speak, but it was already messed up for me by that point, and none of the other problems were going to work themselves out. And I haven't even talked about the editing issues (and being years ago that I read this, I don't specifically remember what they were; I just remember being bothered by things). [Note: It should tell you something that these other things stood out to me so much that I still remember them now. I did not go back and re-read this so that I could do this review.]

Basically, if I want to read stuff with these kinds of... issues, I get plenty from my students, and they don't cry and go on a rampage when I tell them they have things that need to be fixed. They take the manuscripts back and, mostly, do the best they can to fix the problems. And, honestly, some of the stuff I get from my middle school students is of a much higher quality than I see from a lot of adults. Not much of it, granted, but I have had a handful of very gifted writers over the last few years. The point, though, is that if you can't handle criticism of your manuscript with at least the grace of a middle schooler, you have no business putting your manuscripts out for public consumption. And I have never had any student, to be blunt, lose his/her shit over me handing back a story and saying, "It needs work." Sure, the middle schoolers I teach aren't trying to make a living at writing, but some of them are very invested in their stories, and middle schoolers are emotional volcanoes, and, yet, all of them have taken criticism better than Dilloway does.

Now, Dilloway will probably take this as a "revenge review" for what transpired in this post but, really, it's not (which is not to say that I won't take some amount of satisfaction in posting it; I am only human). This is an example of "my medicine," a review reflecting my experience of a product with the actual reasons for the response that I had. The reasons have nothing to do with how I feel about Dilloway nor did my dislike of the book. For instance, from what I know of Orson Scott Card, I would not like him as a person, but Ender's Game is, at the very least, a very good book. On the other side of that, I like the person of John Scalzi quite a bit. I like the things he has to say and I follow his blog; however, I did not enjoy either of the books I read by him despite the fact that I really wanted to like them. The product is not the person and should be evaluated separately from any feelings having to do with that person. At the time I tried to read Where You Belong, I had no particular feelings of antipathy toward Dilloway. I did know that he was petty and disliked my notion of honest reviews, but I didn't, yet, know he was one to go around down-rating books out of some erroneous stance of righting the wrongs done to him, real or perceived. [Because, as in the case of Alex Cavanaugh, there was no wrong done to him other than that Alex is more successful and more liked than Dilloway.] I just knew that I did not want to fight my way through Dilloway's book, so I made the decision to not finish it.

Now, it's not that I think it's only authors who have maturity issues, because, actually, I think people in general tend to have maturity issues. Or maybe it's just Americans. I can't really speak for the rest of the world. However, the writing profession does seem to have more than its share of people who can't maintain a professional detachment from their work. Rather than go into it again, though, I'll just refer you back to part one of this series. If you feel offended at any part of it, you probably need to grow up.

29 comments:

  1. Then you know a book is bad if you can't finish it.
    If you can't handle criticism with the grace of a middle schooler - I'm going to remember that line.
    Judge the work not the person. That's fair. And that's why I can still go to movies with Tom Cruise and enjoy them. He might be a whack job, but he still makes good movies.

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    1. Alex C: Yeah, I've always said Cruise was a good actor. Okay, I haven't always said that. I only started saying it after Days of Thunder; however, even at the height of his crazy, he could still act. Now, I want to go watch Tropic Thunder again.

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    2. I like Cruise a great deal, but his attempt at completely hiding in-character for Tropic Thunder was terrible to an epic degree.

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    3. Tony: I don't know. I remember it being really funny. One of the only times he hasn't been "Tom Cruise" on camera. Don't get me wrong, he's great at being "Tom Cruise," but that's really all he does.

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  2. I would have been too worried about the comment section to post this... haha. But you make salient points regarding the issues of grace and maturity.

    I would say, though, that I have heard it run around the "etiquette rules" that many authors don't react well to craft critique in their reviews. I guess it's sort of like going to a restaurant and telling the chef how something should be cooked, or something.

    Now, I personally don't really care one way or another (you had those kinds of comments in the review you did for my short, which I still appreciated, one way or another), but I can see how some people's feathers could ruffle. So, I guess what I'm getting at is the difference between telling an author "It didn't work for me" and "This needs a lot of work."

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    1. Alex H: Sure, authors don't react well to it, but that doesn't mean they shouldn't learn to at least accept it with some form of grace. If they want to go home and rant in private, that's something else entirely.

      As to the restaurant comparison, I want people to tell me how the food is at a restaurant before I go to it. That's I why I check reviews on Yelp before I try a new place. I want to know if the noodles are overcooked, so to speak.

      It's like this:
      Let's say I go into a restaurant and order steak tartare because I think it sounds cool and has the word "steak" in it, then I get pissed because it's raw. That's on me, because I didn't know what I was dealing with, and it's my stupidity for me to go tell the chef to "cook the damn meat."

      However, let's say there's a chef who happens to not like raw meat and, so, he browns the outside of his steak tartare (an entirely different dish) because that's how he likes it. Now, unknowledgeable people who order the "steak tartare" really like it, but I go in one day and see "steak tartare" on the menu and get something that's cooked. When I get pissed, it's on the chef, and I am totally justified in going and telling him he doesn't know what he's doing. (Just as I would be if a chef consistently overcooked the noodles, even though some people do like them better when they've been overcooked.)

      So I'm the guy who knows what steak tartare is.

      And, just to say it, most forms of short cuts in first person writing have to do with limited forms of giving the protagonist omniscience, as with relaying to the readers what some other character is thinking. Just because people go along with it, doesn't mean that it's not cooked steak tartare.

      And, sometimes, all you can say is, "This needs a lot of work." Like, "Wow, this book needs an editor." I.e. "This book needs work."

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  3. Well, we all know that I am required, as your lap dog/Moon Knight, to wholeheartedly support whatever you say here. I suppose I need not have even read it to blindly say "Andrew is right!" But I did read it, and while I haven't read the book, you were no more harsh on this one than on any other books you haven't liked. You hit me on "Temporary Anne" for temporal shifts, which I am sure was fair because it began as the narrator actually writing down her story, to be left behind for someone to read, and then shifted into what was actually going on. It's hard for me to track things like that.

    I stand by my own take: negative reviews of indie authors are fine, if they're honest. All reviews should be honest. I still don't think I'd post a negative review of an indie book written by a friend, but if people read a book and don't like it and want to review it, they should.

    Interestingly, Amazon actually provides a guide for the stars. 5 is "I love it," 4 is "I like it," 3 is "It's ok." 2 means "I didn't like it." 1 is "hated it." People react like a three star review is terrible, but I think that's grade inflation at work: when we're all trained to expect As, a B or C seems terrible.

    I recently had to write recommendation letters for a former associate who's going to business school. I rated him highly in all categories, truthfully, but in some he was "excellent" and in some he was merely "above average." By the time I finished the form, every "above average" felt like I was giving him a negative remark. There's a tremendous amount of pressure put on us all to take "It was okay" and think "Wow, that must be terrible because the person wasn't effusive about it." I mean, imagine if I said "Hey I just saw this movie," and you said "How'd you like it?" If I say "It was okay," I doubt you'd run off to bookmark it or line up to see it at the theater.

    I think the bigger thing to do is explain why "It was okay." Then people who might like things better than you do might want to see it. "It was okay but I couldn't buy into the basic concept" was a big part of your review of Sandra. That's fair. Other people who aren't as bugged might think "Well, that's his deal." I had trouble buying into the concept of "Looper" and won't see it -- but lots of people loved that movie.

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    1. Briane: I did a post on the Amazon ranking thing a while back. Interestingly, Goodreads rankings are different. A 2 is "okay" and 1 is "didn't like." I think it's important to pay attention to those things.
      The truth is, more things should, according to Amazon, be 2s and 4s. We use the words "love" and "hate" too freely, I think. Or, maybe, we didn't "love" it, but we more than "like"d it, so we go with the 5. And I don't know why people don't want to acknowledge when something is just "okay."

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  4. I know I had asked about it before, but I see what you mean about first person omniscient. I looked at the Amazon sample out of curiosity, and yikes, it's like one big psychic evaluation of every character's motivation and inner being. I wish I knew everyone around me that well. :(

    For me, negatives in a review are okay, but it's all in the presentation. We don't mind if people tell us about things they didn't like or things that didn't work for them, so long as they say it respectfully. Those are things we actively take to heart and work to change. For example, I know in our first novel that one reviewer said she felt there were a lot of similes. Going back and reading it again, there were probably more than was necessary, so we've been careful with those going forward.

    With that said, I'm less likely to listen to someone if they're being a dick about it. Particularly because they may just be speaking out of anger rather than giving an actual critique. Like, when someone says they were deeply offended by our story, then goes on to say about how it was the most poorly written thing they've ever read, I don't buy it. Not to toot my own horn, but I KNOW it's not poorly written. They're just lashing out at a book they didn't like and trying to say anything they can to drag it down.

    I think your review was fair, and it didn't sound mean spirited, and it has many valid points. It's just sad that Pat's too far up his own ass to probably ever take it to heart.

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    1. ABftS: It's like my response to Slim. I had a personal reaction to the story and wanted to smack Slim in the head at least every other chapter, but I knew my reaction was just that: my reaction. It had nothing to do with the writing, and I made sure I stated it as such.

      Of course, most people can't separate that kind of stuff in their heads and immediately go to "I didn't like this; therefore, it sucks." I did a post on that, too, way back when.

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  5. I'm sure that I'm far more tolerant than you are when it comes to reading as I tend to overlook a lot of technical and artistic flaws. When I read I try to kind of put myself in the author's shoes and see the work from the viewpoint of the effort they put into the book. That's no excuse for shoddy output, but if I feel that an honest effort has been put into a work I'll be more forgiving and judge according the the merits while attempting to be blind to the flaws.

    Now this might sound like poor reviewing and in some ways it certainly is, but still I think I offer honest and fair reviews. I'm not saying that you don't because I think you do--I just think some of our standards are different.

    What I'll say is that if I were an author I'd rather have a 5 star review from you than me, but if my book was written poorly then I'd rather have me review it than you.

    Arlee Bird
    A to Z Challenge Co-host
    Tossing It Out

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    1. Lee: On the other side of that, I don't care how much effort an author has put into writing a book; the effort doesn't make it good. That would be like deciding to live in a house built by a carpenter who tried really hard and did his absolute best work but, still, he didn't really know what he was doing. Do you really want to live in that house just to honor his effort when it's going to leak and, possibly, fall down?

      Effort is great. It really is. But, ultimately, the effort is meaningless if the product is sub par. (I have a story about that. Maybe I'll tell it some time.)

      And that's totally understandable about whether you'd want me to review your work. I have been contacted by, oh, maybe half a dozen authors at this point who have asked me, specifically, to not review their work. One of them even told me, "Don't read my book. You won't like it." I take these kinds of things as admissions of knowing that they have not put out quality work and that they don't really want someone calling them on their shit, so to speak. Also, I take those requests as a good excuse to not read a lousy book.

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  6. I'm awful glad I'm not an author. It is very difficult to give or accept constructive criticism. I know someone who wrote a book which bored the pants of both my husband and me. However, it seems to be selling quite well and I wouldn't tell the author what we felt. Too cowardly perhaps.

    Finished Side Jobs, liked the one with Murphy and the Wolves. Aftermath. Now I am reading Changes. I really can't make up my mind if I read it before. I would think I would remember but I just don't. Having read the next book, I know some of what happened anyway, but I don't remember what happened to Mister, the cat.

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    1. Jo: I did like "Aftermath." It was a good story. And it did have a slight "Murphy-tone" to it, but it was still too close to Harry to make me happy.

      What happened to Mister is revealed in Ghost Story.

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    2. I think I have got to go back to the beginning and read them right through again. I just looked up all the books and I am not sure which of the three which came after Changes I have read. I tend to lose track when I overtake the author and don't keep up very well. I think I read Ghost Story but I'm not sure. Did that start on the island?

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    3. Jo: No, it ends on the island. I suspect Cold Days starts on the island, but I haven't read that one, yet.

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    4. Looks like I missed that one too and skipped on to the next one.

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  7. I'm sure there will be a slew of bad reviews of your work popping up sometime soon, because some people just don't have the maturity of a middle schooler. And all those fake five star reviews are why I have some really cruddy books on my Kindle. God forbid we ever rate something as okay, let alone bad.

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    1. Jeanne: Yeah, I'm kind of waiting for that to happen. Though he has declared that he has completely wiped his hands clean of me and my sidekick, Moon Knight.

      I'm getting to the point where I won't buy anything if it only has positive reviews unless it's by an author I already like.

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  8. First off, to anyone reading this review, the author is upset that I gave one of his books a bad review. This is his idea of revenge.

    Second, I've had people mention that before and it's very easy to explain. As Doc Brown would say, You have to think 4 dimensionally. To put it simply Frost isn't telling the story NOW. Think of it as Frost is an old man writing his memoirs. This allows him to add more information he would not have known at the time but learned about later. When I changed it from third to first I didn't just change the pronouns; I rewrote the novel entirely, so it was not because I just plumb forgot how to write in first-person. I suppose it would have been smart of me to put a prologue in to explain when exactly Frost is writing this for people who simply can't get that concept otherwise and make all sorts of silly accusations.

    I'm sure you're wrong about it shifting from past to present tense. I haven't read it in a while, but I flipped through my paperback copy. If you want to actually point out some of these shifts I'll look it up.

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    1. Oh, Pat, you make me laugh so much.

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    2. Pat: It's your book; you figure it out.

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    3. Pat: I can honestly tell you: I have deleted nothing.
      Period.
      You're not worth deleting.
      In fact, if you had any brain at all, you would notice that there are no "delete" notifications. So there you go.

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  9. As an addendum:
    Another reviewer pointed out on Amazon exactly where these tense shifts are (there is actually one in the sample passage on Amazon), and Pat, after first claiming they didn't exist then, once they were pointed out, trying to rationalize why they were okay, had Amazon remove the comments.

    He had them REMOVE the comments.
    Guess Pat can't handle the truth.

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  10. To Pat Dilloway: I just received masses of posts saying "Hypocrite" My comment to this is stop being a baby.

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    1. Jo: He can't help but be what he is.

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  11. I'm starting to get scared.

    Arlee Bird
    A to Z Challenge Co-host
    A Faraway View

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    1. Lee: Eh, don't be. He's so completely harmless. I mean, spamming my post is the best use he has for his time? Nothing to be scared of at all.

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    2. Lee: There's nothing playful going on. Pat has been behaving like this for years, though, previously, he has aimed it at other authors. I had no idea of the extent of his obsessiveness. The great thing is that I don't have to say anything to him at all to elicit this kind of behavior.

      And, well, he can't really respond to comments on his own blog because there aren't any to speak of.

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