Comma, give me a break!

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I think we all realize that whether or not a person likes a book is highly subjective. I’ve read (or tried to read) books with numerous five-star reviews that I didn’t like and couldn’t get through. Some were well-written, just boring or populated with unappealing characters, while others were poorly written and/or edited. I’m a bit of a grammar/typo Nazi myself so I hide my head in shame that someone put one of my books in that category.

I’ve heard that no literary agent or publisher takes an indie book seriously until it has a few three-star reviews. Thus, when I got my first one as an untimely present for my Christmas birthday, I had mixed feelings. I now had the obligatory mediocre review and, to be perfectly honest, the reason had been noted by a previous reviewer, i.e. the lack of commas. I acknowledge this as a valid complaint and have it on my to-do list to rectify. Sadly, at one point I’d actually taken several of them out because they seemed to slow the story down! How ironic is that?

Okay, you may have already guessed that I have a couple confessions to make. First of all, I edited my own books, which I realize is a major no-no, but let me explain. First of all, there were various times when this particular book, which was admittedly my first novel, was set aside for years. When I would get back to it, I could read it like it wasn’t my own and, for the most part, edit effectively. Like I said, I’ve been accused of being a grammar Nazi with other people’s work, and I definitely fixed a lot over time.

Another factor was finding an editor I could trust to do the job. I mean, really do the job. I’ve seen too many acknowledgements in various novels where authors extol and thank their editor while I, nonetheless, find a plethora of things they missed when I read the work in question. Call it pride, if you must, but it was hard not to feel I could do as good or better of a job than some of the supposed pros out there.

And the coup de grace was that I was on a budget. While I don’t mind paying for services that are done correctly, cost combined with not being sure I could find a competent editor resulted in doing it myself. Oh, well, my bad.

The second one is that, even though I have a minor in English, I am not that well-versed in grammar. Seriously. Most of what I know has been learned through my mother correcting me as a child, reading, and, heaven forbid, intuition. I’ve been an avid reader all my life and been writing since I could hold a pencil, yet never liked English classes or understood some of the rules. Diagramming sentences to me was worse than algebra, which made more sense. I really don’t like to point fingers, but in this case I’m going to point one at a prof I had in college who taught the obligatory grammar class for those majoring or minoring in English. That class was, like we say here in Texas, as useless as teats on a boar hog.

The prof, who is probably now dead and gone, couldn’t find a textbook that he liked so we had none. He would lecture, but with no logical order or continuity that I could recognize. All we did the entire term was–you guessed it–diagram sentences. Punctuation was rarely mentioned. One thing I remember him (or perhaps someone else) saying was that English, unlike Latin, was a living language that evolved, that such things as punctuation styles changed over time, and things like comma usage was becoming somewhat optional. You can bet I jumped on that like a duck on a June bug!

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But for purists who were more astute at learning the rules than I was, it was a major faux pas. And apparently the person who left this three-star lambasting was one of them.  I must say that the reviewer was generous in giving it three-stars since s/he didn’t even finish reading it.

Back to the subjectivity of what we like, science fiction is certainly one of those genres that everyone doesn’t care for. (Oops, ended that sentence with a preposition! OMG! Let’s correct that to “one of those genres for which everyone does not care.” Right? Right.) Even with proper punctuation it’s likely s/he wouldn’t have liked it. That I understand. And I do admit s/he has a point and I will fix the problem because, believe it or not, I really am a bit of a perfectionist, but that doesn’t mean that I know everything by a long shot. I’m teachable but, as noted earlier, I never had a decent English teacher or at least one I could follow. Math is much simpler to me with its concrete, easy to follow rules and black and white answers. Equations make a lot more sense.

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So what have I learned that I can pass on to other writers? If I had this to do over, it would be to do a beta reader exchange with someone who has equal editing skills to my own. Fortunately, for subsequent books I was able to find such individuals. And that is what saddens me the most, the other books in the series are in much better shape. I’ve actually received compliments on the editing of at least one of the others. This was my first book and I’ve heard it said that everyone’s first novel should go in the trash bin labeled “tuition.” My problem was that it was the start of a series with so much more to tell! The characters evolved and so did the plot to the point that it took four full-length novels to complete the story. I’m a much better writer now, as all of us become, the more we write.

So, bottom line, I’ll go back eventually and correct the comma situation. I don’t know all the rules, but at this point I’m reasonably confident that I’ll be able to do so in a competent manner. The worst part, as most indie authors know, is that there are so many different formats to deal with, i.e., both print and electronic versions, which complicates the process considerably. Nonetheless, I’ll have the satisfaction of debunking that uncomplimentary review when it’s corrected, unless, of course, those who would appreciate a properly copy edited work are turned off by that seething diatribe, which is actually so excessive that it’s downright amusing. Fortunately, most geeks and nerds, who are my primary audience, anyway, aren’t quite so concerned, though there are exceptions, of course, many of whom I met at NASA.

<Sigh.>

Rant over.

Thanks for listening.

P.S. If you’d like an ecopy of the book in question, “Beyond the Hidden Sky,” for free, join my mailing list, which qualifies you for a free download. You can do so here.

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Confessions of a Self-Admitted Reviewer from Hell

Part One

One does not achieve such an honor easily or overnight. As I think about it, I realize that it started when I was a baby. Even before I started to talk I must have been aware of proper speech because my mother told me that I would form the words silently and obviously be thinking about their meaning, yet didn’t say anything out loud until I was three. Since I was an only child it was easy for her to find time to read to me and I was reading myself by the time I went to kindergarten. I remember sitting in first grade wondering why the other kids didn’t know what the words were, probably the first rumbling of that internal editor coming to life.

I learned how to write thank you notes as soon as I could hold a pencil and started writing letters to my favorite aunt about that same time. My mother was a perfectionist (yes, a Virgo, for those of you who know anything about astrology) and thus always corrected my grammar. By the time I reached 6th grade I was writing stories for the enjoyment of my fellow students (science fiction stories, I might add, mostly related to the planet of origin of our teachers).

Around that same time my mother taught me how to use a typewriter. An old manual one that took some serious effort to command the keys. Years later after I graduated from high school I took a typing test at a job agency where I achieved 98 words per minute with two errors. Putting words on paper were obviously never a problem. While everyone else hated essay exams I loved them. Even if I didn’t really know the answer I could B.S. my way through because I’d write so much the teacher probably got tired reading it and would just give me an A. Many years later when I worked as a NASA contractor and did quite a bit of technical writing, one of my bosses nicknamed me “The Mistress of Bullsh*t.” I was flattered, of course.

But there was one catch to all this. I had no confidence, in my writing or anything else. My mother’s criticism permeated every aspect of my life, including the one thing I was good at. It inhibited my creativity for fear whatever I did was not perfect. If you’re a parent, give that some thought. This is not to say that a parent should tell their child that something is prize winning material when it’s clearly not but honesty cuts both ways. If it’s good, say so, and it doesn’t have to be perfect. There’s a difference between coaching and criticism. If you don’t know the difference, then figure it out. I mean it.

Nonetheless, I loved to write, mostly nonfiction and journalistic articles. I worked as a stringer for a small hometown newspaper for a while. I can’t even remember how many newsletters I’ve edited, many of which I created in the first place, back when they were written on a manual typewriter and duplicated on a mimeograph or ditto machine. Some of you probably don’t even know what they were, those early precursors to modern day copy machines. I’m talking about the days before Kinkos much less home laser printers.

If you’re a writer who doesn’t remember those days, give it some thought. Would you have had the patience and perseverance required to retype an entire manuscript? That was business as usual for us old-timers. Yet that is how it used to be. Could that possibly explain the quality of books available back then versus now, when you’re always at risk of purchasing a real dog of a story filled with typos, grammatical faux-pas’, cardboard characters and an inconsistent plot? Might someone consider your book a dog?

Think about it.

(To be continued)