Since beginning this blog last January (my, how time flies!) I’ve written several pieces that have included encouragement for would-be writers. The urge to express oneself can be strong, and I’m a great supporter of those who wish to do so through the printed word. Hey, it’s often highly preferable to uncontrolled oration. Nevertheless, I’ve reluctantly come to the conclusion that some folks just shouldn’t seek to publish what they’ve written.
I don’t mean that folks are writing stuff that shouldn’t be aired. After all, dirty laundry, bigotry, stupidity and wacked out nonsense may all benefit from the sanitizing influence of the sun. No, what I’m referring to here is simply very bad writing. Even worse than your standard it was a dark and stormy night sort of drivel. Oh, I have no objection to writing this sort of stuff. Nor would I actually legislate against its publication. I just think people who cannot recognize how bad their writing is should be cautioned by those who know better not to put it out for public consumption.
Most years, I try to attend the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, a huge and wonderful event initially held on the campus of UCLA but, in more recent times, held at cross town rival USC. The event includes displays by established mainstream publishing houses as well as a plethora of smaller publishers of independent (read: self-published) works, the “indies”.
I’ve taken advantage of indie publishing for my two books out of necessity. I learned many years ago of the “Catch-22” ensnaring new writers without industry connections: you can’t get an agent if you haven’t been published, and you can’t be published (by a mainstream publisher) if you don’t have an agent. This reality forced me into the indie universe, where I’ve paid handsomely to have my literary offspring delivered.
My first book, Spacebraid and Other Tales of a Dystopian Universe, was published by Xlibris, an indie outfit that would publish anything for a price. My second book, Zendoscopy, was published by Inkwater Press, a company that is more selective about what it will take on, but still charges substantially for publication.
When Inkwater agreed to publish Zendoscopy, I knew from feedback that they’d read the book and liked it. How did I know? Because I got specific feedback from them about it. In the case of Xlibris and Spacebraid, however, I simply paid and it got published. No feedback. No advice. No real support of any kind. It’s companies like Xlibris that allow incompetent writers to get themselves into print.
So, back to the L.A. Times Festival of Books. At this year’s event, I stopped at one indie booth where an author was doing a promotional giveaway of a limited number of his latest (second) book, a science fiction thriller. Being a sci-fi fan and, for obvious reasons, identifying with an indie author, I gratefully accepted his offer of a hardback copy. It had a striking jacket with a blurb that made it sound pretty cool. Moreover, the author’s bio on the jacket’s back flap suggested that the author was an experienced writer in the entertainment industry. The book was nicely bound and the paper quality seemed good. All in all, I thought it might be a satisfying read: good story, nice package. I’d never heard of the publisher, but there are so many of them that this really didn’t matter to me. Besides, as I said, the book was free. When I got home, I put the book on a shelf and forgot about it until last week, when I noticed it sitting there and decided to give it a go.
A book has to be really terrible for me not to finish it. In the case of this particular work, I couldn’t make it past the second chapter. To say that the writing was bad would severely understate the matter. Both in terms of style and grammar, the book was (is) a disaster.
Beginning with the first paragraph, I immediately came upon an apostrophe error. Worse, the entire paragraph read like a bad Hemingway parody. Reading on, I found sentence after sentence stuffed with an overabundance of similes and adjectives. There were overboard descriptions of people revealing far too much too early. At first I wondered, how could this dreck ever have made it into print? Then, quickly, I knew: the author’s ego, no honest feedback before submitting it to the publisher, and a publisher that would accept anything for a fee. The almost inevitable result was a total embarrassment that never should have made it off the hard drive.
So, what’s the lesson, here? I think it’s that everyone who wants to write should write, but not everything that gets written is worthy of publication. Before spending a thousand or more (and it will almost certainly be more) dollars with an indie publisher, plus marketing costs, one really needs to have his/her work proofread, edited and critiqued. Serious readers are not going to want to pay good money only to find bad writing and grammatical errors, no matter how enticing the plot.
Finally, you’ll note that I haven’t identified the author, title, or publisher of the book I used in my example. Nor have I quoted any of the awful stuff I encountered in the first chapter and a half. Why? Because I have nothing against the writer and no desire to embarrass him. Besides, there’s not much chance of anyone other than family and few friends buying the book. I suspect that his giveaway copies are just about the only ones that have made it into circulation, and that few more ever will. It’s a shame really. I know he worked hard to write it, and I’m sure he had great hopes of massive sales. It’s just that someone should have been honest with him before the book ever saw the light of day. That someone should have told him that needed both a good editor and, even more, the services of a good English teacher.