The Trouble with Trumpets

We’d all like to attract more attention to our published works. Some writers are tireless self-promoters, but I’m not one of them. I do a few things; I have a blog, for instance. (And if you’re reading this, you REALLY SHOULD BUY MY BOOKS!!! See how effective that is? Oh, did I say “effective”? I meant embarrassing.)

Last week, on one of the Facebook writers’ groups where I hang out, a young author of a soon-to-be-published mystery novel announced that she would be hosting a co-op promotional event. In such an event, eight or ten writers of similar novels all participate and invite their fans to check out the event. The idea is, the fans of eight or ten other authors will encounter you and your book, some of them will buy and read it, your word of mouth will improve, and so forth.

I didn’t bother to mention to her that I have no detectable fan base. I just said sure, that sounds like fun.

The more I thought about it, the less fun it sounded like. Setting up a video shoot here at home, blathering for 20 or 30 minutes about my book, then editing the video, then dealing with the assorted technical challenges that might arise in trying to get the video uploaded into the event … not really.

Looking for a graceful way out, and rather confident that one was close at hand, I asked her for a list of the other participants. Then I jetted over to Amazon and used the Look Inside to see who I would be rubbing virtual shoulders with. Hoo, boy. What a mess of turkeys! I had no trouble explaining to her (not using the word “turkeys”) that I was not comfortable sharing a podium with these other authors. I assured her that her own work is stellar compared to theirs, and that’s more or less true, though perhaps not quite as unalloyed a compliment as I allowed her to think.

It’s not easy being a snob.

You can learn a great deal about the quality of a writer’s work from reading the first few paragraphs of their novel. I’m not going to name names, but perhaps a few details, quoted purely for illustrative purposes, wouldn’t be out of line.

One of the authors started straight off by dumping a bunch of information into his opening paragraphs. The very first sentence skids off, after a pointless question from the lead character, into a mention that the office wherein the scene takes place is “roughly two miles below ground in the super high security sub-sub basement section of Area 51, hidden beneath the desert facility at Groom Lake in Nevada.” The very first sentence, I kid you not. The setting is the cliché of the century (that is, last century, not this one). And yes, one of the main characters is an alien — an alien private eye who dresses and decorates his office “Humphrey Bogart style.” Some people may find this kind of mash-up charming. Plainly the author hopes they will. But serious fiction it ain’t, and a well structured narrative it also ain’t.

Here’s another lead. Just to emphasize, this is the very first thing the reader encounters when opening the novel. Top of page 1: “There is something you should know about me right from the start; I am a perfectionist. A lot of people would say that is sometimes a bad thing and they would be wrong. If you are not in search of perfection, then you are settling for the mediocre, and that my friend, is always a bad thing.”

Doesn’t that just draw you in? Doesn’t it just whisper seductively, “You’re about to be immersed in a wonderful story”? Well, no, I don’t think it quite achieves that. Note also the missing comma before “my friend.” That’s not an optional comma; it’s required. Also, the second sentence is a run-on. Here we have a perfectionist who fails to grasp the minutiae of English punctuation. What is one to say?

Here’s a third opener. I want to make it clear that I have not diddled with the punctuation. This is exactly what the author published: “It was a rainy Saturday afternoon; I was sitting at the window while my two young children. Bram who is 13 years old and Seth who is 10 years old. They were playing on the carpet with their toys. I turned to look at my children as the rain trickled on the windowpane.” And so on. Later in the paragraph the author starts drifting back and forth between past tense and present tense, a common problem among the terminally inept, but that dangling clause at the end of the first sentence and the sentence fragment that follows it are stunning. “I turned to look” is filtering, and the verb “trickled” is being used wrongly. “Trickled down” would be fine, but “trickled on” is a grammatical error.

The lesson here, for aspiring writers — well, maybe there are two or three lessons.

First, none of us is as good as we think we are. That’s true of me too, I’m sure. We ought, one and all, to be wise enough and humble enough to check in with others whose skills we respect and take their comments to heart. Plainly, none of these authors thought it necessary to do that. Or maybe, as difficult as it is to conceive, they did. Maybe those whose skills they respect … no, let’s not even try to imagine that.

Second, self-indulgence in fiction writing is almost always a bad thing. The reader wants to read something that’s actually good. The reader does not want to watch you show off, not unless you’re Terry Pratchett. And you aren’t.

Third, shit seeks its own level. If you aspire to some sort of seriousness or success as an author of fiction, you would be well advised to check who you’re associating with. Inviting yourself into a room full of clowns is not going to help you find the kind of readers you’re hoping to find, not unless you’re one of the clowns. If that’s you, then fine: Send in the clowns.

This kind of writing is why I detest NaNoWriMo, by the way. There are enough awful novels in the world. We do not need to encourage people to write any more of them. If you’re a real writer — if you have any hope of ever becoming a real writer — you will not wait until November to start working on your novel, nor will you expect that you’ll be able to finish it in a month. I don’t know if any of the authors I’ve quoted above is a NaNoWriMo alumnx, but I can hardly imagine that their work is either better or worse than what arises from the ooze of NaNoWriMo and staggers forth to wreak mayhem on the unsuspecting peasants. Please, people — have a little self-respect. Stop writing!

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