Thursday, March 15, 2012

Adventures in (Reviewing) Self-Publishing; or, You Need an Editor

With four reviews behind me, I'm still only beginning to review books professionally--though at these rates, I think it's more like semi-pro. (I hope I'm still eligible for the Book Review Olympics.) Through reviewing these four books, I've already suffered a crisis of conscience about stepping on people's dreams and developed a distate for sock puppet-written reviews.

Today, I'm here with a post directed at those self-published authors or those considering self-publishing, with a very simple message: self-published author, you need an editor. I don't mean you need a copyeditor who can help you with commas (though you need one of those, too). You need an editor to tell you what's wrong with your story.

But until you get one of those, here's three basic lessons.

1. You need a plot and character motivations that make sense.

If Victor Frankenstein's brother Ernest wants to build an army of monsters to destroy Napoleon, why is he terrorizing London--why not help the British against Napoleon? If a video-game company developed a shape-changing robot with human-level AI, is the best use of that robot as the centerpiece of their theme park? And if that evil robot controls an army of robots in a rare-metals mine, wouldn't it make more sense to use those robots to work the mine rather than kidnap and enslave unruly children?

Self-published author, you need a professional editor to be able to notice and point out that your book has holes. I don't need to read your book and I can already tell you: your plot has holes; and your characters are making decisions that serve your story rather than their characters. You may have a great idea for a cool set-piece--London burning! a robot fight in a mine!--but I can't see how cool that set-piece is when I'm rolling my eyes at your plot holes and your character' actions. Your set-piece is cool, but we need to get there in a way that makes sense for your characters.

2. Your ideology is showing

Propaganda gets a bad rap. Sure, Ayn Rand's fiction is generally bad, but not because she uses it to express her philosophy. (Occasionally, it's bad because the philosophy overwhelms the fiction, as with John Galt's speech in Atlas Shrugged.) But there are some propagandistic books that are genuinely great books: for example, Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin no longer carries the same punch today, but when it was written it was exciting, funny, moving, and carried a big old lesson. And all those worked together.

But you, self-published author, you need to rein that shit in. It's fine to have a lesson or a message. You want your two teenage brothers to learn about self-reliance? Great. But you need to be honest about your message and think through what you're saying. How do these brothers learn self-reliance when they have each other? How will your reader learn a lesson about self-reliance when the heroes are constantly being shepherded by friendly companions?

Also, you lay it on a little thick when your narrator casually mentions that the Fed treats the economy like a video game.

3. "I do not think it means what you think it means."

You need help with words. We all do, so there's no shame in that, in general. But you use the word "facade" to mean "deep interior self," and that's a goddamn shame.

This shades into the copyediting that you need--because you need it, trust me, we all do--but you need someone who can pay attention to your word choice. Even if you know what words mean, there's a chance that you're using the wrong one for what you're trying to accomplish: you're using a simple word where you need a complex one or, more likely, you're using a complex word where you need a simple one.

Take the word "said." It's a nice simple word and you seem to hate it. Instead of marking your dialogue with "said," you clutter your dialogue with the help of a thesaurus. Characters never "say" dialogue, they "ordain, growl, beseech, stammer, emit," et al. This is fun only if you're learning a new language or studying for your SATs. (Nice use of "concupiscence," by the way.) Otherwise, you might as well stand next to your reader and jab them in the ribs every time a character speaks.

A plea

I'm only saying all this because you're not a terrible writer with nothing to say. I may not like your libertarian-infused evil-robot YA thriller, but I want it to be the best libertarian-infused evil-robot YA thriller it can be. And it can be better, self-published author. The first step to getting a better book is to recognize that you need an editor.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Why Fish doesn't matter on Santorum.

Stanley Fish is a lion of the literary critical establishment, which means that most people know to ignore him. Except for the New York Times, which has a nasty habit of keeping people around who sound reasonable but are generally full of shit in a variety of ways--David Brooks, Ross Douthat, William "Never right about anything" Kristol.

Case in point: Here's Stanley Fish arguing that we should recognize that Santorum comes from a long tradition of American godbotherers. Which means that we're wrong when we say that Santorum doesn't understand the Establishment clause separating Church and State because other people--intelligent people like Supreme Court justices--make the same claims.

(If you have a little voice on your shoulder who says, "well, couldn't they all be wrong together?," congratulations: you're smarter than a New York Times columnist.)

Now, Fish is not alone in taking to task people with whom he nominally agrees with. (I'd bet a fair bit that Fish votes for Obama over any GOP candidate.) Walter Benn Michaels, another lion of the lit crit world--hear him roar!--makes some similar arguments. (See Our America, where he reveals that multi-culturalist liberals are the real racists.)

What particularly bothers me about this Fish article is that Fish seems to concede some legitimacy to Santorum's ideas on the procedural grounds of tradition--precedent. "Other people have said X, therefore we have to take X seriously." I grant this: there's a tradition, so we can't say that X is totally new--but X can still be radical and out of touch with the mainstream--or simply wrong.

Maybe it's my atheist Jewishness, but I take seriously Washington's 1790 letter to the Touro Synagogue in Newport, drawing a picture of a tolerant utopia where "every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid" about his religious differences. This is an equally valid American tradition--and it's one that Santorum is totally out of touch with.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Could Citizens United end up helping Obama?

Up till now, Republican Super PACs blow out of the water the Democratic Super PACs in terms of money raised. The reason is pretty clear: Republican super donors, like Huntsman's dad and Gingrinch's Sheldon Adelson. This is pretty much the scenario that Democratic opponents of Citizens United expected.

But I wonder if Citizens United might end up helping Obama. Here's what I don't mean: Obama recently said that he would accept Super PAC money, so it's possible that Democrats will soon enjoy more Super PAC money.

Here's what I do mean: the Republican candidates--Gingrinch especially--have had a lot more money to drag out this nomination fight--and the more we see of these candidates, the less we like them. So here's a short theory: right now, Citizens United is helping Obama by keeping the Republican fight going.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

On Andrew Breitbart's Death

I might as well just change the title of this blog to "Andrew Sullivan is often wrong." (Which puts him ahead of Megan McArdle, who is always wrong.)

See, Andrew Breitbart died at only 43 years old, but what a full life he had, trying to sabotage ACORN and Shirley Sherrod and anyone or thing that seemed liberal. Sullivan's posts on this matter have been to say that Breitbart was a fallible political actor (which is a tragedy that we should all feel bad about) and that we shouldn't forget to advance some sympathy towards him as a human being.

Which is all well and good, but this isn't Sullivan being generous--it's Sullivan covering up one particular truth about Breitbart (in public life, he was a jerk) with another truth that Sullivan says is more important. (Oh, Breitbart is human; oh, Breitbart loved pop music.)

I agree with Sullivan, that it is surprising and sad to think about Breitbart's sudden death when we consider him as a private person. But as a public figure, I can't consider his death as a tragedy. (Not all surprises are tragic.) Breitbart did enormous damage to the political discourse, and we're better off without him.

(Or rather, Breitbart took part in that damaging. He surely wasn't alone.)

Also, do you ever notice Andrew Sullivan always wants us to extend sympathy towards the single powerful person; but when it comes to airing questions of racial superiority, Sullivan never wonders if there's anything unsympathetic about it?