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Warning: This is a rant

This is not really about business, or about the business, so if that's what you're reading for, this is your great big warning signpost: Stop Here. It is indirectly about writing, and, I think, professional attitude.

Those of you who've read this far know I still work in a bookstore. And that I like working in a bookstore. I like putting people together with books that they'll enjoy. When I first started, I had certain tastes and a certain pre-conditioning which, over time, I've let go. People read for all sorts of reasons. I know this because I do.

But while I'm happy to say something is a guilty pleasure -- pause for digression, because I'm genuinely curious: Are there many men out there who use this phrase? And regardless, do you consider the phrase "guilty pleasure" to be a perjorative? My F&SF review column used to be called Guilty Pleasures, and the title was the one thing about the column that Gordon Van Gelder didn't like. Kris Rusch knew exactly what the title meant, and for her, there was no negative connotation in the title; Gordon Van Gelder felt that it implied that reading could be considered something to be done furtively, and he considered all reading, in an age of (much) TV and other more easily accessible media to be worthwhile.

Right. End of digression. While I'm happy to say that something is a guilty pleasure or something is entertaining fluff, I actually expect the entertaining fluff to be entertaining. I consider the words to be important; I consider the structure to be important; I consider the tone to be important -- in fact, I expect the book to be a well-written book of its type. Anything I say I like has value to me.

Not everything I read comes under this heading. There are books I read that I consider to be more weighty, and I oddly enough expect the same damn thing from them: that they be well written.

What defines well-written is entirely dependent on the book itself, of course. If I pick up a book that claims to be a love story, then damn it, I want a love story. I will feel cheated and thoroughly annoyed if it turns out to be a grim, realistic and downbeat novel about the intricacies of a spectacular failure of a relationship. And if something is touted as a genuine historical novel, then damn it, I want the sense of social and cultural reality that will inform the characters, their views, their motivations, and their interactions; I don't just want the trappings and the odd historical item thrown in as set dressing.

If the novel is a mystery novel, I don't want a great big signboard that has blinking neon lights which point instantly to the killer. (Rosemary Edghill's Bast novels are an exception to this rule, but I didn't read those for the mystery).

I could go on and on. People have heard me go on and on, so I'll spare you; you can imagine the rest.

Here comes the rant. An author I don't know came into the store to pick up copies of a magazine that their first professional sale was published in. This is a high point in a person's professional life, and one should be justifiably proud and pleased about this. But. The author then looked at me and asked me to point them to one of the Harlequin Luna "things". I reasonably asked, "Which one?"

Full disclosure: I've sold three novels to Luna. This will become immediately relevant.

The author in question then said, "Just point me to any one of them." I then pointed out, in that growing state of something that can be called "inflexible" that there were, in fact, a number of published titles of varying different sub-genres, some contemporary, some set in another world, and as in any line, of varying quality. The author thought about this for a moment, and then said, "Well, give me something in the middle, then, so I can get a feel for what they're looking for."

"In the middle?"

Well, the author reasoned, it's not like they're actually any good, so one could pick up what they needed to make their own submission based on reading any one of them. After all, it's Harlequin. The author had no plans to submit their best material, because, after all, Harlequin wouldn't buy their best work, so that would be waste of time.

At this point, I'm turning red. Or purple. I point out that the line started with a hardcover Lackey publication, and that the subsequent volumes (by title and author) were all done in trade paperback. The author is not going to waste their money on one of those books in trade. I tell the author that the line is not a category line, and the books are not written to formula, which seemed to come as a surprise; that the question would be similar to someone walking into the SF/F bookstore and saying, "Just give me one of these middling books so I can see what publishers of genre fiction are buying; it's not like they're buying anything good after all."

I started in on my lecture. Actually, it's not a canned lecture, since I very seldom have people come in with this type of question. Very, very seldom. It's more a spontaneous outraged diatribe, which was interrupted by the very reasonable person also standing behind the counter at the same time who (I think it might even have been Graydon) pointed out that I did, in fact, have another customer waiting behind the author. The second customer wanted to purchase the book in his hand today (and possibly unscorched, but the latter was implied). So… I cut short the sputtering, took the poor bystander's money, and watched the author walk out of the store.

I've been grinding my teeth since then.

And. Well. This is a Journal, right?

The point is not that the author dismissed the Luna line. I could live with that. People dismiss things they haven't read all the time, and I've generally learned to go with that. It's the fact the author professed a desire to write for the Luna line, submitting work that was, in their estimation, less than their best effort because the publisher wasn't interested in anything good that made -- and is making -- me do the slow burn.

Two reasons for this. First, the entirely egotistical reason. I sold to that line, and I don't submit work that is not my best in the form that I'm attempting. Period. If it's worth doing, it's worth doing well. Whether or not I succeeded is beside the point, and will be judged by the readers of the book long after it's left my hands; the point, for me, is that I made every effort to do my best work. This book made me nervous because it was tonally different than anything else I've written, and is the first book I've done in a long while with which I pestered poor alpha-readers. To imply that Luna will only buy the dregs of an author's work is to impugn my work ethic. I don't care if you don't like the damn book. But assuming that because you don't like it, I must have turned in only the inferior trunk novel or equivalent is damn insulting. This, however, was unintentional on the visiting author's part, and can be forgiven; it's not like I wear a big sign.

I've written 2 short stories in the Valdemar universe. The second one almost killed me; it took six weeks during which I did no work at all on anything else (which caused extreme novel deadline pressure), but I'm just not proud of the story. Not because it's not a good story, but because -- for me -- it failed to achieve the right tone. The first story I wrote for the first Valdemar anthology did achieve the right tone, and I struggled through about 12 attempts to make the second story work. In the end, with two extensions, I finished the story I had and sent it in; it was accepted, but it still causes me pangs and a sense of failure.

I've written a Buffy tie-in short story ("Dust"). Just one, because while it worked for me, I don't think it was met with any great approval by its reading audience, and because of this, I ceased my attempts to write a novel (I loved that show for the first three seasons).

At no point did I think I could write a piece of garbage for either of these two universes. At no point did I decide that somehow this work was not going to be my best work. The universes in question were not my universe, and that caused me some technical difficulties, because I couldn't shift the rules to match my emotional tones -- but I had agreed to do the work, and I wanted the work to succeed for the readers that already existed.

And that brings us neatly to the second part of this rant, and the second thing that really, really annoyed me, (which I find far harder to excuse): If you can take this attitude, it means that you're showing contempt for your readers. I may not always write with the reader in mind; I often write with complete emotional focus, and in that state, all that exists is the book (not food, not sleep, not real life -- just the book). But I never write with contempt for my audience. If I don't understand who that audience is, that's almost beside the point. How can you connect with an audience that you have nothing but contempt for? How do you grace your work with intelligence and heart in that circumstance?


( 80 comments — Leave a comment )
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Aug. 16th, 2004 05:14 pm (UTC)

Okay, I need your real name to go get one of the Luna novels 'cause I'm thinking of submitting there because I've been impressed with the author line-up. And because I like the idea of a fantasy influenced romance.

I'm working on a novel proposal for Wizards of the Coast currently. It is a gaming novel. And I'm trying my hardest. My writing, in my opinion, is crap for this novel proposal and sounds much like your Valdemar expereince. I'm trying my hardest, but I just don't like what I'm writing. I *know* it is because I'm playing in someone else's universe and feeling like I don't know everything and fearing contradicting the creator in some way.

Aug. 16th, 2004 05:33 pm (UTC)
My real name is Michelle Sagara <wry g>. My married name (which I also consider real, since that's the one all the teachers use <wry g>) is Michelle West, and I write under both names. Or sometimes under Michelle Sagara West, although that one is usually an accident.

My first Luna novel won't be out until November 2005, though.

The Luna line is interesting. The Lackey novel is entirely a Lackey novel, and if you like her books, you'll like it. The Asaro novel is very different from her Skolian novels, so that's half and half. The Zettel novel (the Arthurian) is hugely different from her SF, and somewhat more like her Tor fantasy, although not really. Which is to say -- they're all different. The suricattus's novel, STAYING DEAD, is the first contemporary fantasy Luna has done; they really are across the board in story, tone, feel, level of romance, etc.

The misperception at the moment is that Luna is a fantasy influenced romance line; it's really not that. My first Luna novel actually has no romance in it at all, although it does have several relationships with differing degrees of tangled history. For the best idea of what Luna is looking for, this is a fabulous interview with the executive editor of the line, and I based my submission almost entirely on it.


As for the WOTC novel, you really do have my sympathies, as you might have guessed <rueful g>. The general type-A-ness of my personality makes it hard for me to not know everything about the world -- and even when I've built one, it still slides out from under me. When it's my work...
(no subject) - zhaneel69 - Aug. 16th, 2004 07:19 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - linwen - Aug. 16th, 2004 10:42 pm (UTC) - Expand
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Aug. 16th, 2004 05:50 pm (UTC)
When I was 15, a friend and I imagined we could stay up in one night, write a romance with minimal effort, sell it, get rich, and write books we cared about off the resulting proceeds.

At 15, one can be forgiven for such attitudes. As an adult, having made an attempt to actually write, one realizes it's not that easy.

When I wrote the Phantom Rider books, which were work for hire, it quickly became apparent to me that whether I wanted them to be or not (and I did want them to be), these books were going to be the very best thing I could write at that time.

Even when you write your best, it's never going to be good enough. I can't afford--even issues of conscience aside--to write anything less.
Aug. 16th, 2004 06:07 pm (UTC)
What puzzles me is how one can write *anything* that isn't one's best effort.

I mean, I may blow it. I'm sure I do blow it.

But how do you... dial down craftsmanship? Either you show up and write, or you don't. It's not like you can leave half your brain or half your typing fingers at home.
(no subject) - janni - Aug. 16th, 2004 06:15 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - matociquala - Aug. 16th, 2004 06:29 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - dendrophilous - Aug. 16th, 2004 09:48 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - matociquala - Aug. 16th, 2004 09:55 pm (UTC) - Expand
Dialing Down Craftsmanship - madwriter - Aug. 17th, 2004 09:06 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: Dialing Down Craftsmanship - matociquala - Aug. 17th, 2004 09:56 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: Dialing Down Craftsmanship - madwriter - Aug. 17th, 2004 10:00 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: Dialing Down Craftsmanship - matociquala - Aug. 17th, 2004 10:08 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: Dialing Down Craftsmanship - madwriter - Aug. 17th, 2004 10:13 am (UTC) - Expand
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(no subject) - pixelfish - Aug. 17th, 2004 11:17 am (UTC) - Expand
Aug. 16th, 2004 06:05 pm (UTC)
The chances are pretty good that someone who approaches a project with that attitude is going to turn in a piece that really reads like they put no effort into it.
Aug. 16th, 2004 06:48 pm (UTC)
Let's see if I can post without putting my foot into my mouth.

This new author obviously doesn't respect the romance genre. For the sake of argument we'll just lump together all the Regencies and historicals and Gothics, etc. There are many things *I* don't respect about romance novels--the perfect teeth and grooming of Highlanders roaming around the 16th century, for instance, or the ocean of beautiful heroines and handsome heroes. Yet when romance is done well--and I'm thinking Nora Roberts here--it's fun, it's escapist, it's enjoyable, and I like it. I also respect the audience for romance novels, not just because it's *huge,* but because the readers obviously know what they like and demand that you meet and/or exceed certain expectations. Anyone who thinks they can dash off a romance in a half-assed fashion will soon have a rude awakening. As you said, you can't have contempt for your readers.

That author is lumping the Harlequin Luna line in with his/her preconceived notions or experience with other romance novels. However misguided, at least he or she is trying to do some homework. I've got four Luna books on my shelf and have mixed feelings about them. I was especially disappointed one of them, because I feel the author did indeed "dumb down" her narrative, for whatever reason. I don't think it was her best work. I think it was targeted to be cross-genre and as such didn't succeed in either one. But that's imho.
Aug. 16th, 2004 07:15 pm (UTC)
I adore Eva Ibbotson, whom many romance readers adore. I was given her as an example of a romance author I'd like, although another romance writer says she's classed as Georgette Heyer -- i.e. not a romance writer, but one that romance readers like. She reminds me much of Robin McKinley, absent the fantasy elements.

Let me say this: I have no problem whatsoever with people hating every Luna title they touch. Or every fantasy novel. Or every SF novel. Or every military SF novel. At the store, this is common; some people read everything, and some people are so allergic to specific sub-genres they break out in hives when they walk past one on the shelves <wry g>.

My objection is not that the author has contempt for them -- because this does happen frequently, and in any genre -- but rather that, contempt in tact, the author intends to write one, which implies contempt for the reader, to me.

There was a very funny story about an author who tried to write a romance novel, and confessed that she did write one that a friend who writes in both fields read and ... hated. I'm paraphrasing, because I don't remember it all, but the reader said, "Your heroine is a dishrag, your hero is a jerk, and nothing anyone does makes any sense!" And the frustrated author replied, "Exactly! I have faithfully captured everything I've read."

To which the reader replied, "Stick to SF."

(It was the author who told this story, btw). I think there are readers with a tin ear for romance (it all sounds bad), and writers are also readers (I've mentioned there are agents with tin ears for different genres as well), and although it can be strenuously argued that my first four books fit the romance paradigm (they were my beauty and the beast books, although I didn't realize it until a perceptive reader point this out), I can't quite figure out how to write it on demand; I don't understand how it all works. I struggle with the idea, because I also understand that easily half of the adult human condition in the industrial world involves attraction, romance, love, and all the good -- or bad -- that comes out of it.

Someone gave me a Jennie Cruise book (I may be spelling that wrong, and apologize if I offend, but I'm being 'net lazy) and my first thought was "this is witty" and my second was "now where's the plot?"

Because, to me, it read so much like a Tanya Huff novel in terms of dialogue and description -- but without the fantastic elements, or sfnal elements that form the rest of the story into which the romance is an element.
(no subject) - matociquala - Aug. 16th, 2004 10:00 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - msagara - Aug. 17th, 2004 05:39 am (UTC) - Expand
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Aug. 16th, 2004 07:04 pm (UTC)
That's very insulting. The image makes me cringe. They're not only insulting Luna; they're insulting Harlequin as a whole, and since they sell a lot of books to a lot of satisfied customers, they're obviously doing something right. Going in with that kind of attitude is bound to leak over into the actual writing.

And anyway, why would you want to write something that you obviously have no respect for? The readers will smell it from a mile away, and that's not going to go over well for anyone involved.
Aug. 16th, 2004 07:18 pm (UTC)
That's very insulting. The image makes me cringe. They're not only insulting Luna; they're insulting Harlequin as a whole, and since they sell a lot of books to a lot of satisfied customers, they're obviously doing something right. Going in with that kind of attitude is bound to leak over into the actual writing.

And anyway, why would you want to write something that you obviously have no respect for? The readers will smell it from a mile away, and that's not going to go over well for anyone involved.

This is pretty much exactly how I feel -- except shorter <wry g>. One of these days, shorter will be something I'm better at. Probably <she says, eyeing HOUSE WAR> not soon, but one of these days.

Or: If I think you're an idiot, what on earth do I have to say to you that won't be either insulting or condescending? Pretty much nothing, unless I expect that the readership in general is masochistic enough to pay me to insult them.
(no subject) - moontyger - Aug. 16th, 2004 10:46 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - msagara - Aug. 17th, 2004 05:41 am (UTC) - Expand
Aug. 16th, 2004 07:09 pm (UTC)
Thanks for this rant! I've had it often (usually just to myself) when people put down things I like to read. I'd like to think that most readers are smart enough to know when what they are reading was written with contempt - I've read books that I've felt were written this way - and while I've read books I didn't like, these books make me angry. That author needs to rethink why they are writing anything. Why would you write something you didn't even like?

Not to mention, how can you possibly get a feel for a genre or line by reading one book?

(I added you to my friends list - hope that's OK.)
Aug. 16th, 2004 07:26 pm (UTC)
Why would you write something you didn't even like?

Not to mention, how can you possibly get a feel for a genre or line by reading one book?

(I added you to my friends list - hope that's OK.)

Actually, that's another good way of posing the question: Why would you write something you didn't like? I confess that there are times when, during the slog of a book, I hate everything about it, or am sure everyone else will, or a combination of the two -- but the thing that drives me is a certain passion & love of the story itself. I may blow it. None of us hit the high notes 100% of the time. But.

I consider the friends list to be a reading list, and I'm perfectly happy to be read, so yes, I'm fine with that <g>.
(no subject) - moeyknight - Aug. 16th, 2004 08:01 pm (UTC) - Expand
Aug. 16th, 2004 07:40 pm (UTC)
AWESOME rant, Michelle. I completely feel your pain ... and wrath. :>
I've read Laura Anne's Luna book, and Mercedes' Luna book, and thoroughly enjoyed them both; STAYING DEAD more than 95% of the books I've read this year, and FAIRY GODMOTHER more than many of Misty's other books. They are the high points of the Luna line for me thus far, for separate reasons. And putting them together, I wouldn't be able to judge the whole line, or even be able to say what the line was specifically about, because they're so different. Which is a good thing. Heck, I have some ideas I really want to develop enough to pitch to Luna, now that I've seen what they're willing to accept. :> Not because I think they take crap or anything, but because I think my ideas fit them.

Blathering aside, I love your attitude. :>
Aug. 16th, 2004 08:10 pm (UTC)
Also a Luna author here--I've got next month's release. I did not write the book for this line, I wrote it as a departure and a breakthrough and a thoroughly genre-fantasy project, and lo and behold, after the auction flurry had died down, Luna had it. And then I discovered I'd written a straight-down-the-middle Luna book. My brief from Killer Agent was "write a romantic fantasy with a strong heroine and a sexy hero and a magical system no one has seen before." That's not what I'd call an easy out.

I wouldn't waste much more stomach lining on Author Wannabe. They will find right good and quick that Luna is a tough line to get into, and you have to be good. As in, able to write a damned good genre fantasy while also satisfying the expectations of Harlequin's core audience. Not to mention everybody wants in because their print runs and sales expectations blow midlist fantasy right out of the water. And they pay well. They get a Lot of submissions.

I would probably have laughed at this person--not kind of me, but there you are. I do have a problem with know-nothing know-it-alls. My bad. Flaw in my character. Naughty karma. Naughty.
Aug. 16th, 2004 10:02 pm (UTC)
Hey, does Luna prefer a happy ending? And are they strictly geared toward heterosexual pairings in their romance?

(Just out of random curiousity)
(no subject) - msagara - Aug. 17th, 2004 05:46 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - matociquala - Aug. 17th, 2004 06:35 am (UTC) - Expand
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Aug. 16th, 2004 08:38 pm (UTC)
Why would anyone want to submit something that's not their best effort? Don't they realize that those sorts of things haunt you? So, if the publisher did buy it and it got published, it would be mediocre at best. It would be "one of those" books that people pick up, sneer, and put back down, saying, "What a piece of crap."

If you've knocked yourself out, written the story as best you can, loved it, hated it by the time you've finished working on it and then, feeling that you've done the best you can, submitted it, then, even if someone does sneer at it, you know that you're proud of it.

I do no get submitting something just good enough.
Aug. 17th, 2004 11:24 am (UTC)
Most of the time....
It's not that something isn't their best effort. When people say, "You know, this isn't my best work," they are buffering themselves against rejection. And they are trying to say to their prospective publisher, "Give me a second chance. The next thing you read may very well be my best work." They are taking all those unconcious clues you get when you can tell somebody just isn't digging the things you dig, and trying to justify that person's reaction.

At least that's how I read it.

(This happens a lot on art boards, by the way. I've been on a lot of art boards, and tried to give helpful criticism on piece--ie. perhaps the composition would be improved if you focused on this instead of that, or your colour choice seems to be a bit warm for the atmosphere you say you are trying to convey--and some people just don't take it as assistance, but negativity. They immediately shoot back with, "This isn't my best work." It's a pre-emptive strike against further criticism.)
Aug. 16th, 2004 10:00 pm (UTC)
I've been grinding my teeth since then.

Har, I am picturing that. :)

Back in the late '90s I was on a couple of writing lists. Actually, back in the mid '90s I spent time posting to misc.writing (this is when people still used Usenet). Some of the most insightful comments about writing came from the romance writers. Some of them read SF, some of them didn't. But we all felt that the commonality of writing was what was important; genre was merely a matter of taste and technique.

I have heard from many authors, including people in my writing circle, that sometimes taking a different slant on a story can move it out of SF into romance, mystery, "mainstream", or whatever. Genre was just an artistic choice to serve the interests of the story.

The things I don't like about Harlequin Romances aren't the romance elements. It's the formulaic aspect: stories must be 50,000-55,000 words, hero and heroine will have sex around page 170, etc. I suppose it's possible to create art within those constraints, but it looks kind of paint-by-numbers to me. My aunt has rooms full of this stuff.

On the other hand, I like media tie-in books. I used to review them for SF Site (partly because nobody else wanted to review them). But I think it's fun to play with the archetypes, shuffle around how they get along, pull out some unexplored character trait and see where it goes. I've talked to some of the authors, and they're on the same wavelength as what you're saying. If you're going to write in a literary form, you have to respect the form, and you have to write the best story in that form that you got.

It's too bad your customer didn't take your advice. I don't know why anybody would take the time to write something they didn't like.
Aug. 17th, 2004 06:15 am (UTC)
The things I don't like about Harlequin Romances aren't the romance elements. It's the formulaic aspect: stories must be 50,000-55,000 words, hero and heroine will have sex around page 170, etc. I suppose it's possible to create art within those constraints, but it looks kind of paint-by-numbers to me.

Although I haven't tried my hand at Romance, the formula is not a turn off for me. You ask whether "it's possible to create are within ... constraints". Do you consider a sonnet art? There are strong constraints of the form of the poem, and yet much freedom in what is said.

Aug. 16th, 2004 10:05 pm (UTC)
Wow. I'm stunned.

I can never understand the people who are obviously just in this for the money. I mean, 1) we all know there's no money in this gig, and 2) readers are psychic about that sort of thing. People can tell when you're jerking them around.

Just...wow. I look forward to seeing this individual get their ass rejected by Luna in a most stinging fashion.
Aug. 17th, 2004 01:11 am (UTC)
I have been known to use the phrase "guilty pleaasure", though when I'm describing my own genre activity it tends to refer more to TV-watching than to reading material.

With regard to printed SF/F, I tend more often to refer to "popcorn" books, which is to say "suitable and/or intended for light reading". In and of itself, a "popcorn" designation from me isn't a reflector of quality -- one can have Good Popcorn or Stale Popcorn. (FWIW, I would count at least some of the Mercedes Lackey oeuvre as Popcorn -- and of sometimes widely varying degrees of tastiness.)

As for the Luna rant, I feel thy pain. And will happily review Luna titles on their individual merits as the opportunity arises.
(Deleted comment)
Aug. 17th, 2004 05:43 am (UTC)
Was it you who stopped me while I was building up to a real rant? I'm embarrassed to say that I don't remember which reasonable person it was who tactfully pointed out that the customer waiting behind said author probably wanted out before he had to listen...
(no subject) - trektone - Aug. 17th, 2004 09:21 am (UTC) - Expand
Aug. 17th, 2004 07:00 am (UTC)
I don't get this guy at all. Why would anyone want to submit a story somewhere they think publishes garbage? (Shakes head.)

I may sound a bit snobby by saying that I only submit to places where I would be proud to say I'd been published, but those places can be big press, medium press, small press, completely online, or whatever. And like you, I would never, ever send out anything I thought wasn't my best work--or as close as I could get, since nothing looks to me as good on paper as it did in my head! (And while I've never sold anything to F&SF yet, I am proud to say that J.J.A. has written nice comments about my work in his rejections. :) )

Contempt for your audience: I can't remember who said this now, but as one famous modern author said (and which I hope I never forget), "Never tell your readers to go to hell".
Aug. 17th, 2004 07:27 am (UTC)
Hey -- great rant. One thing I've found about work-for-hire and writing in someone else's universe is that you've really got to love that universe for it to work. I did one Star Trek story just for fun, and then I was like "Okay, enough of that, I'm ready to move on." If I tried to do more, I probably would've failed.

I also wrote a romance novel on a dare from my wife, and had a ball doing it, but I'm not sure it's all that good. Romance is tough.

Congats on selling three novels to Luna. They are a quality outfit, I think.

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