Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Rewards of Failure (an Indie Life post)

As I've mentioned before, I had a non-standard educational experience. At least, it was non-standard for when I was in school. Much of the experimental stuff they did with us when I was in school is standard now. We were part of what they called a "pilot program" to see if what they did with us would work on a broader scale. Yes, I was a guinea pig, me and my friends.

The specific thing I want to talk about right now is algebra. When I was a kid, the belief was that algebra was a high school specific class. Kids younger than about 15 just could not understand it or retain it, so it wasn't taught below the high school level. My friend "Parker" and I presented them with some amount of difficulty, though. Here's a rundown:

  1. Sometime after Christmas during the fourth grade, our teacher took the two of us aside and told us that she had nothing she could teach us; it wouldn't be fair to the rest of the class. Therefore, she gave us our math books and told us to just do whatever. We finished that math book almost immediately. She gave us the fifth grade math book. We worked through that one, turning in the assignments (all of them) as we went. We finished that one. She gave us the sixth grade math book, and we did the same to it. She dug up some alternate sixth grade text book, and we started to work on  that one, but, alas, school ended. We did all of that within a few months.
  2. We were moved to a different school for fifth grade, one with a brand new special program for kids like us from all over the Parish (this was in Louisiana, not a Catholic thing). However, they still didn't know what to do with the two of us in regards to math because we were so much more advanced than any of the other kids. So they, um, just stuck us in the sixth grade math class, which didn't win us any friends, because we had to be singled out of the class, a couple of fifth graders, and given special work that none of the other kids could do. Mostly, though, we were just left to ourselves, because, again, the teacher didn't have time to spend on just two kids with special needs (it sounds bad when I say it like that, doesn't it?).
  3. For sixth grade, they brought in a special teacher for us and grouped us with the other sixth graders in the special program we were in. They, also, were too advanced for the regular sixth grade math class. We worked through a couple of seventh grade math books but, still, no algebra.
  4. Things changed, again, for seventh grade. There was a restructuring of the entire education system in Caddo Parish (maybe all of Louisiana, but I don't know about that). Sixth grade was moved from elementary school to middle school (in fact, it was that year that they switched from calling them "junior highs" to "middle schools") and a new middle school was opened, a Magnet school (following a couple of years behind the opening of the Magnet high school (the first one in the state and one of the first in the country)). The program we were in was going to be located at the Magnet school, and they were going to try us (all of us in the Gateway program) in pre-algebra.
  5. Eighth grade. They were going to try for the very first time (at least, in Louisiana; I don't know about anywhere else) teaching algebra to middle schoolers. One special class of eighth grade algebra students in the whole of Louisiana. And this is where it gets interesting and is the point of all of this.
See, there was a catch to this special, trial algebra class. Not only did we have to pass the class for it to count for high school credit, we had to pass an algebra proficiency test at the end of the year to show that we had retained enough of the information for it to count as high school credit. Otherwise? Well, otherwise, for anyone not passing the test, algebra would have to be retaken. No one thought much of that test during the school year. Standardized tests were easy, right? I mean, we were a group of about 30 high achieving students and standardized tests were... snacks.

The test took place on a Saturday after school had ended for the year. Yes, we had to go take a test during summer break. [But, then, my creative writing class was horrified recently to learn that I had assigned summer reading, too, so taking a test during the summer wasn't that big a deal, I guess.] A couple or few weeks later, I got the results in the mail. I had passed. But, not only had I passed, I had aced the test. Not a single incorrect answer. "Parker" was the same.

Then we got the call. I know about the call, because I was the one that answered the phone, and my parents weren't home, so they just talked to me about it. In retrospect, I'm not sure how wise it was for them to talk to a 14-year-old about all of this, but it is what they did. As it turned out, not only were "Parker" and I the only two students to get 100% on the test, we were the only two students that passed the test. Which is not what they called to tell me, not exactly, anyway. No, what they called to tell me, so that I would not be upset about it, is that they had decided that they were going to throw out the test and just go off of the class grades to determine who would get algebra credit and go on to geometry. They were worried that I would find out that other people had not passed the test and, yet, were in geometry with me, and they didn't want me (or "Parker") making an issue of it. They didn't want us to talk about it.

Fortunately for them, at the time, I didn't much care and just shrugged it off with a "sure, I won't talk about it or tell anyone my test scores" (except for "Parker," because he and I had already communicated about it, so, when they told me I was one of only two kids to pass the test, I knew the other one was "Parker" without them having to tell me anything else). Since then, though, I've developed quite a bit of ambivalence over the whole situation.

On the one hand, I understand the "everyone failed; our standards must have been too high" mentality. We just dealt with a similar kind of thing with my oldest son in his history class. There was an essay assignment with a fairly specific instruction set. If any particular student did not follow the instructions, s/he received a 0 on the assignment. That's pretty hardcore, but I understand that. So my son's classmates started getting their papers back, and everyone was getting a 0. Everyone. That went on until everyone had gotten their papers back... everyone except my son. All 0s. My son was kind of freaking out, especially since it took nearly two months for him to get his paper back. I can only assume it was because the teacher actually had to read and grade my son's essay, because he was the only one in the classroom to follow the instructions. He got a 95. Not just the only "A" in the class, but the only grade that wasn't a 0. So, on the one hand, I have to think the teacher wasn't quite doing his job if more than 95% of the class failed at the task. On the other hand, if my son can follow the instructions, a boy who can't remember from week to week where to put the trash cans when he moves them down to the curb for pick up, any of those students should have been able to follow the instructions. So, you know, I get the board (or whoever it was making the decision about the algebra class) deciding to do away with the test and just going with the class grades.

But, on the other hand, I have an issue with lowering the bar to meet the standards of failure. It was made clear to us going in that we had to both pass the class and pass the test to get credit, so it seems wrong on some fundamental level to shrug and say, "oh, well" and allow in everyone that only passed the class. Which is not to say that I know what they should have done instead. Maybe, the test was too hard; I don't know.

All of this does remind me of the current state of independent publishing, though. Which is not to say that I think we should go back to the artificial gatekeepers of traditional publishing; I certainly don't. I do think that we've adopted an attitude of accepting failure as normal, though. As a community of independently published authors, I think that is totally what we've done. Part of it is because we've, basically, decided that no one should fail because, if people were to fail, nearly everyone would fail. We've lowered the bar to meet the standards of failure. We've lowered it so far that in many cases it not even okay to say, "Hey, this doesn't measure up. You need to learn to spell and punctuate or you need to hire a (good) editor."

Here's the thing: While it's true that some of those kids that were passed up into geometry did just fine and went on successfully through their math classes, many of those kids also failed the geometry course and, because of that, failed out of the school completely (about half of the freshman class each year failed to maintain the requisite GPA to stay in the school). If those kids had been required to re-take the algebra class, not only may they have been successful in geometry when they got to it, but they may have also been able to keep a GPA that would have allowed them to continue on at the Magnet school.

In the same way, if we would have the strength or courage or whatever it is we are generally lacking in the self publishing world to say to some of these authors who are throwing their... efforts... out into the world via the Kindle (and I say Kindle, because that's where most of them go, but, you know, whatever platform), "Hey, this piece of work fails the grammar test; you need to go back to work on it," or "Your story structure in this piece is really rather flat; maybe, you should spend some time study the way a plot works," or, just in general, pointing out where work needs to be done, well, maybe, more of these people would start putting out stories that "pass the test."

Really, this world of independent publishing is not like the algebra class thing in that, if you failed the class, it only affected you. However, pumping the indie world with works that don't pass reflect badly on all indie authors. In that, we should stand up and say, "Hey, we want people to respect indie publishing, so take this back until it's ready."

And, sure, I hear a lot of you getting ready to tell me how subjective it all is, but, when it comes to grammar and punctuation, it's not subjective, and, as a writer, if you can't learn to actually do the math, so to speak, you need to go back and take that algebra class again. Or get someone that can do it to help you out. That's all there is to it, really, because it doesn't matter how good your story is if people can't find it due to the piss poor writing.

So... I know it seems somehow kinder when we just cheer everyone on and tell each other what an amazing job we're all doing, but that kind of thing just brings us all down in the end. It lowers the bar until failure is success, at least to us. All those other people looking in from the outside just see a pile of steaming crap. Raising that bar up above the fumes helps us all. It lets other people know that there is something valuable in indie publishing. There is good to be found there. And helps those beneath the bar to become stronger writers as they strive to "pass the test."

This post has been brought to you by Indie Life.


  1. I'm sure most people who have poorly written books don't realize they're poorly written and Word's grammar check feature is pretty useless. I'm sure anything Amazon could come up with would be equally useless. They supposedly check spelling when you load but all that seems to do is flag a few names or locations.

  2. I have one word that was spelled wrong in my book. No one caught it. Not my editor, beta readers, the proof reader, and worst of all myself.

    One of my fans sent me an email about it. But I was glad that they loved the story and forgave my misspelling of the one word.

    Also, I have an issue with lowering the bar myself with regards to education. Its really sad. The future may not be able to think for themselves if this is the case.

    Great post!

    Hugs and chocolate,

  3. I admit that when I think of the Indie publishing world I think of poorly written books that read like the Unabomber manifesto. There probably should be some kind of gatekeeper like a peer review.

  4. Well, this certainly makes it easier for me to send my feedback. :P

    But, yeah, I do agree with what you've said here.

  5. PT: That's why people who write books should have other people that know things about grammar and stuff look at their books, at least, before hitting that upload button. And, no, you can't rely on computer grammar checks. Yet.

    Michael: Thanks.

    shelly: I have a homophone in House that I was completely embarrassed about when a reader found it. SO far, though, no one else has found that error, which says something; I'm just not sure what. That should be fixed soon, though.

    As for education, we keep pushing for more and more math and let reading and language continue to slide.

    Maurice: I have hope that with this new fan fiction thing that Amazon is doing that it will help them get into place some sort of proofing system, at the least.

    L.G.: Oh, well, that doesn't sound ominous at all.

  6. I have so much to say, about education, and about my perceptions about (what I know so far) about indie publishing.
    First of all, what happened to you and your math education is a CRIME. I'm a math nerd by degree so I can say this with at least a B.S behind it ;-) I was also advanced in math, put in the corner with packets of stuff to do that the teachers had painstakingly put together to last me a month or so, and after two days I was done. They didn't know what to do with me. Then I was part of the Johns Hopkins Study for Mathematically Precocious Youth in probably 7th grade. We took both the math and English parts of the SAT and they compared us to average graduating seniors. We were better. I hate to brag (OK, not really) but I scored VERY well and won all the prizes in the study. I took algebra in 7th grade, geometry in 8th, and then was bussed (why doesn't spell check like that word?) for my 9th grade year of junior high to the closest high school for algebra 2 and trig. Most of the rest of the students in the class were juniors and seniors. I was in calculus as a sophomore...all that to say, I made it there because I was getting A's, not because someone said, oh she tried, let her keep going. I got it. I was smart. They didn't hold me back. So many math students are either struggling, and don't get the help they need, end up hating math and barely surviving it, or they're smart and bored because no one will let them go forward at their own speed. (There were 5 other kids with me in this pilot bussing-and-skipping-ahead program). It irks me to no end that they just passed all those kids along "for trying". Math isn't something you can be successful at unless you build some sort of foundation. You can't have a house with no foundation...or build it on sinking sand. You're only doing the kids a disservice if you let them continue without knowing what they're doing for the sake of looking like you're accomplishing something.
    As to indie publishing, I'm a newcomer to this stage, have met a lot of authors, read a lot of new books, and frankly don't always know who's indie and who's not. (I'll figure it out...)
    One specific example comes to mind. I bought the book of a traditionally published acquaintance from high school and I couldn't get past chapter 3 because it was such flippin' drivel. Conversely, I bought a book from a blogging friend, indie published, and TOTALLY out of my genre AND comfort zone but I couldn't put the thing down because of the WRITING. So I guess it's a crap (pun intended) shoot. Crap all over the place.
    I like the idea of a gatekeeper. Peer review. SOMETHING. But in the end, I guess the only thing that can speak for you is your own work. Is it good, or is it bad? Sales and reputation will determine that, I'm thinking.
    Tina @ Life is Good

  7. Forgot to subscribe. I hate it when I do that...

  8. So I read both this and the next post -- I've got a bit of time tonight. I applaud you, first of all, for writing a longer post. I just read an article on Slate that said about 50% of the people who read something on the Internet will not scroll down past the first page. Interesting, because I doubt that 50% of the people take an entire screen worth of reading to make up their mind about whether or not to continue with the story -- so the scrolling, or the equivalent of turning the page, is being met with "Meh: too long, fit it all on one screen!"

    Which is probably why I hear so many people complaining about my stuff. I put up a 22-page story the other day, and you and Beer/Shower at least read it.

    On that note: I agree with you about the grammar and usage issues. Breath/breathe always trips me up. I don't know why. Minor punctuation problems I can live with. The occasional typo I can live with (My old English teacher, in the era of typewriters, said the standard wass one typo per page. That seems high. Nowadays, I would say it's about 1 typo per 20 pages, max. I'm gauging that on some of the "professional" books I've read that have had typos in them.

    (Using "typo" as shorthand for "misused word/homonym/misspelled word")

    I disagree with you about story quality, though. While poor grammar and punctuation is objective, story quality is subjective, and wildly varying even in the same author. John Grisham writes brilliantly at times, and is a complete hack at other times. I remember reading his "Playing For Pizza" and coming to the point where the protagonist gets erroneously arrested for the SECOND time in Italy, and thinking to myself "Seriously, Grisham? You could not think of anything else to fill up a quick 10 pages than repeating the same bit from two chapters ago?"

    I read "Girl With The Dragon Tattoo," and gave up on it, twice, whereas I've never given up on your or PTs or Rusty's books, so I can't say that indie writers need to knock someone for quality and say they can't publish.

    (On the other hand, you're totally free to say "This story sucked," although, as a rule, I don't do that for Indie authors, as I've said before.)

    Your overall point is well-taken, though: is it better to punish people who cannot excel or to allow everyone to think they excelled? In your case, with the math -- great story, by the way, are you secretly a math prodigy? -- I think that a little of everything was at play. The school obviously thought they could teach people up to the test, but it seems like they couldn't, because only you and Parker passed it. Was it because you studied harder? Paid more attention in class? Worked for it more? No offense intended, but I doubt that: it sounds like these kids were all pretty motivated, if they were advancing. Maybe not as motivated as you, so probably it was a combination of you like math more and you worked harder at it than they did, and also a bit of the fact that they and the teacher couldn't find a way to teach them.

    That's not always the fault of the teacher. I've always been pretty smart, but I never paid much attention or tried much in school. I learned early on that I could get good grades without working for it too hard, so I never learned much in school. I'm trying to make up for that now.

    I love posts like this. You really make me think.

  9. Fail by what standards though? While I agree that grammar is black and white, right and wrong, grammar is only one part of a story. Story structure and plot is another part. Characterisation is another. And a person can be very good at one of them without being good at another.

    And a book can be really popular despite appearing to do badly at one or more. (Think 50 Shades of Grey!)

    Does anyone have the right to say "You can't publish this book because you don't know how to use a comma?" Someone out there might love that book.

    Writing and publishing isn't about getting it right or wrong. The only fail is if no one loves your books. And readers just aren't that picky. A book can fail on one or more of those criteria, and still move me. My life would be poorer without some books that would have 'failed'.

    I say let the reader decide. Books that people love (regardless of their correctness) will rise to the top, those that don't have redeeming qualities will sink. That's the only pass or fail in the self-publishing world.

    That's not to say that I don't believe in editing, or double checking your work, or doing the best you can. Just that I don't think pass or fail is that simple. (I'm not a big believer in standardised testing either, despite always getting near the top myself.)

    Rinelle Grey

  10. Tina: All I can say about the situation with the math and stuff is that I was in LA, which was something like #47 in education at the time. The teachers I had were doing the best they could (most of them) without having any programs set up.

    As for traditional publishing, and maybe I should have stated this, there is nothing that makes traditional publishing better, but people think it is, so independent publishing has to be that much better to make up for the perceived deficits.

    Briane: The next post? You jumped into the future and read my next post?

    When I say story quality, I'm not talking about how much anyone likes or not likes a story. Clearly, many people -like- 50 Shades, but that does not make it quality writing.

    As for the math stuff, no, I never studied. It was just something I easily picked up and understood. Until I just got tired of it and everyone telling me that that is what I was supposed to so with my life.

    Rinelle: Oh, hey, I just mentioned 50 Shades.

    What I'm talking about is the actual technical ability to write. Is the sentence written correctly? If you're a writer, and you don't know how to write properly, you need to learn to do that. Just like you wouldn't be able to work in a math field if you couldn't do algebra. There's so much of writing that we view as "subjective" just because most people can't tell that it's done incorrectly. That doesn't make it right by default.

  11. Readers will decide what is good and what is not. We need not stress. Gatekeepers don't do it -- it's just an artificial hurdle. The people who buy books will have the power over what gets big. Worrying about what every self-published author puts out isn't going to get you anywhere. Keep writing. :)

  12. Ah, I see what you were talking about now. I think it's interesting the teacher did that. You already know how I feel about people following directions.

    I was a guinea pig, too, though not in math. I got to be the test subject for various GT/TAG programs in three different states. We just got the letter for my son this month, saying he's in the GT program this year. I've got to go find out what this entails. My husband has heard all about my experiences and was freaked out, but I look back on it all as positive experiences, despite the blunders. We will see.

    What do I need to email you about?

    Shannon at The Warrior Muse

  13. All I have to say is A) Amen and B) the cream will rise to the top, sure, but what if the pool just keeps getting bigger and bigger?

    I'm amazed at the number of people who think they can be an author just because Brandon and I published our books and have found moderate success. An old college classmate recently e-mailed me his "story" called A Day in the Life of My Son and asked if I'd help him publish it. It was seriously the worst thing I've ever read. It was pure garbage. Not just the story, but he didn't even use spell check or any semblance of grammar. It was about a kid fighting "manikins" (mannequins) in a department store.

    Example sentence, copied and pasted from the doc:

    I see a manikin starting up at us, like he is up to no good. Oh no he has a gun. Running as fast as I could I tackled the manikin and took the gun from him.

    We don't need a gatekeeper, but it would be nice if we had someone to tell people like this, "No, you are NOT a writer. Please stop. Please. You're making the rest of us look awful."

  14. In Minnesota we had Algebra I in 8th Grade and Algebra II/Trig in 9th.

    When it comes to grading, I used to love when teachers graded on the curve, because I was usually on the high end of it, and would end up with more than 100%. But ... I see your point about publishing, and I think it's a valid one.

  15. J.R.: This is going to sound kind of elitist, but I don't mean it that way:
    Readers can not, in fact, decide what is "good;" they can only decide what they like. And that's fine. You can like things that aren't "good." I like the Dresden Files, which my wife reminds me, any time I bring them up, is pulp fiction, her way of saying "not good."
    But, again, I'm not talking about stories and whether people will like them; I'm talking about the actual ability to write them in a way so that they would receive passing marks in an English class. The ability to actually write.

    Shannon: I had great experiences in the G/T program and am very grateful that it was brought into being in Shreveport in time for me to go through it. I can't imagine what it would have been like if I had just gone through "normal" high school.

    Um... I can't remember? "Christmas," maybe?

    ABftS: See, that's a perfect example of what I'm talking about. Maybe the guy actually has an interesting story in there somewhere, but, if you can't find the story because of the bad writing, then what good is it? He needs someone to tell him, "hey, go take some English classes and learn how to write, then try again."

    Matthew: That was, like, a decade later, though, Matthew, so, maybe, it was because of the program I went through (and others like it) that you had those options.

    General response:
    I don't think we need a "Gatekeeper," especially not in the sense that traditional publishing has been one over the last century. That's not what I'm talking about at all, and I think y'all are reading beyond what I'm talking about here. What I am saying, though, is that it wouldn't be a bad thing if, say, we had a board of freshman English teachers that proofed stuff for Amazon before the publication would go through. If it couldn't get a passing grade, it would be returned. That's a pretty low bar for a writer, but I've seen more stuff out there than I can remember that would not have received a passing grade in my -middle school- creative writing class, and I'm pretty easy on them.

  16. I had algebra in eighth grade. And that was back in the seventies. Oh, and it was Jr. High back then.
    As several have pointed out, the cream will rise to the top.

  17. I totally get what you're saying here, that it's NOT actually helpful to the indie writer community as a whole to just be "nice" about everyone's writing. But it's DIFFICULT to be honest about terrible writing/books when you sort of know the people! How do you do that, when you KNOW they're going to take it personally and be hurt or offended?! Even if I genuinely want to help someone "pass the test" (and I do), how can I help them without hurting them?

  18. Alex: I don't believe that stuff about the cream. Too many good books don't rise to the top because of things like Twilight and 50 Shades. If that's the cream, I feel bad for humans.

    Rachel: It is difficult, and, honestly, there's not always a way to do it without hurting the person. Even when you're as gentle as you can be. You can say, "Hey, I really see potential in the story, but this stuff here needs work," and people will go on a rampage about how mean you are and how you're just jealous or whatever. Part of that's because so many people only heap praise, so it becomes harder to see when someone is telling you the truth.