Thinking With My Skin
Natterings and Fulminations by Bill Cameron
Yesterday afternoon, I was at the Clackamas Town Center when a shooter opened fire with an assault rifle. It’s all over the news, of course. Most people probably know more about it than I do because, to be honest, I’ve mostly avoided the news.
That said, I want to talk about the event as I experienced it. A lot of people have asked questions on Twitter, but that’s not the easiest place to go into detail. So what follows is to the best of my memory, which is, of course, not the most reliable.
First, there are two critical points: I was not hurt, and I did not actually see what happened. Other people saw more and experienced worse than I did.
At about 3:30pm, I was walking out of the mall, eating a pretzel and reading Twitter when I heard a sequence of very loud bangs and felt a strange pitter of pressure against the back of my neck. People near me screamed and ran toward the exit ahead. For a moment, I didn’t understand what was going on. I walked, phone in hand, until I got outside. People continued to run past me, and I heard snippets of talk: “…gunfire…” “…shooter…” “…at least a dozen shots…”
It was only then that I realized what happened. The next thing I did was write a tweet:
Well, I’m alive, but the shots were close enough that I felt the air pressure change on my neck. Clackamas Town Center.
— Bill Cameron (@bcmystery) December 11, 2012
The gravity of the situation hadn’t caught up up with me. A woman walked near me, sobbing. I started to reach out for her, but then a man ran up from the other direction and hugged her. They were both crying, and near as I can tell they’d gotten separated inside. Another woman saw the phone in my hand and said should call 9-1-1. “I’m sure lots of people have,” I said, but she said she thought I should anyway. “I would,” she said, “but I don’t have my phone.”
9-1-1 was busy.
Then I tweeted again.
I’m just gonna sit in my car for a while.
— Bill Cameron (@bcmystery) December 11, 2012
I didn’t run. I never ran. Not out of some kind of inner calm or bravery, I assure you. I was numb. Then I was shaking. I couldn’t find my car at first. People were driving off, sirens were getting closer and all I could think was my car was gone. I didn’t think it was stolen. I thought I hadn’t driven. Did I take the bus? How had I gotten there? I wanted to cry, but I thought if I start crying I won’t be able to find my car. Then I turned around and it was behind me, a few steps away.
I got behind the wheel, and that’s when I started crying. Looking back, I can see that I responded to a couple of tweets from concerned friends, but I have no memory of that. I remember calling my wife and getting her voice mail, and then I remember my agent, Janet calling. She’d seen my tweets and was worried about me. Talking to her helped a lot. Describing what I experienced calmed me down. It’s possible I’m remembering the order of events wrong. My brain tells me I called my wife first, but I also remember talking to Janet about how I needed to call my wife. In any case, not long after my wife called me back and that helped me even more.
In retrospect, I think about those tweets and I wonder what the hell was I thinking? Honestly, nothing. Tweeting? I was scared, though I didn’t recognize it at the time. I wasn’t thinking clearly, if at all. But that wasn’t the way I would have wanted my family and friends to find out I’d been so close to an event like this. Still, Janet later said she was glad I tweeted because that’s how she knew to call me.
It leaves me with a lot to think about. Why I reacted the way I did, how others reacted. I know there is a lot of cellphone video out there now. I never occurred to my to do that, but tweeting? First thing.
Something else I’m thinking about is a tweet I made 15 minutes before the shooting:
Walking through a mall is an invitation to one assault after another. Why do I do this to myself?
— Bill Cameron (@bcmystery) December 11, 2012
If I’d had any idea what was coming I certainly never would have tweeted such a thing. In the moment, it was the crush of people, the wash of Axe body spray and perfume, and the kiosk workers shoving things at me that I blithely described as “assault.”
Right now, I’d give anything for the chance to walk through the mall and experience it all again if only the real assault could never have happened.
I still have a lot to process. I worry about people I saw there, including a mom and her kids at the pretzel stand when I was getting my pretzel. I think about the woman sobbing near the Barnes and Noble until her husband or boyfriend found her. I think about how if I’d walked a little slower or a little faster, I’d have been closer or further from the attack. How close was I? Likely farther than it felt in the moment, but still too close. Everyone there was too close.
An event like this makes no sense. In my view, it’s a species of arrogance to expect an event like this to make sense. It’s not a punishment from God, or an act of the Illuminati. Obama didn’t order it. The GOP didn’t cause it. I don’t yet know anything about the shooter, but whatever they find out about him, it’s on him.
So now I get on with my day. Take a shower, get dressed, meet with a client. Work on a web site. Write a poem. Give belly scritches to the poodle and head scritches to the kitty. And think about that mom and her kids from the pretzel stand, sure. But most importantly, love my wife, and love my kids, and dream about my grandkid on the way, and just continue living.
Edit: I’ve got comment moderation active. I’ve gotten a few weird ones, and I don’t want to pollute the comments with rants and irrelevant freak-outs. That said, I have a big meeting to go to shortly, and that means even good comments may sit in moderation for a while. Please be patient. I appreciate your thoughtful additions and will approve them as soon as I can.
The last few weeks, I’ve been getting an increasing number of emails from people asking, “What the hell is up, you knucklehead?” I’ve been quieter than usual on Twitter, and my blogging, never frequent to begin with, has been even less frequent. The fact that friends are noticing and asking is really nice. It gives me a warm and fuzzy.
The simple answer is I’ve been busy. But as some of the questions I’ve received have been specific, I thought I would answer them in turn, and then just for the heck of it drag out a tale for its annual holiday visit.
The questions then, in no particular order:
Are you okay, dude?
Yes, just busy. I said yes to a lot of things this year, lots of volunteering with this and that. All things I am enjoying, but in retrospect, I probably should have spaced this all out a bit. My To Do List is a mountain. While I’m closer to the peak than I was a month ago, I’ve got a lot of climbing ahead.
What are you working on?
At the moment, mostly nothing. At least, mostly nothing when it comes to writing. One of the things on the To Do List has been a particularly huge project which, while related to writing, involves no actual writing by me at all.
Still, I have a few works-in-progress back-burnered. For a while I was tinkering with Skin’s origin story this fall. It kept getting longer and messier, and my life was getting busier and messier, so I put it on hiatus. I have no idea when I’ll begin to even make sense of it, let alone finish it. But sooner or later, … probably.
I’ve also started another Skin tale set post-County Line which is slated for an anthology. The due date is in February, so the story will be done in … er, February. (Ah, deadlines.) I am not working on any new novels at present, but I do have some notions in the back of my mind.
To the extent I have been writing as I climb the To Do List, I’ve been focused on poetry. Right at the moment I am struggling to write my first ever sestina. I have no idea what I’m doing, but it’s fun. Odds are very high no one but me will ever see it though.
When is your next book coming out?
Lately, I’ve been asked this a lot, which is great. I’m thrilled readers are anxious for what’s next. But, I’m afraid I don’t know. The novel is done. It is out on submission. When I know more, you’ll know. Promise.
Are you going to do another favorite reads of the year post?
I don’t know. I might, if I can grab a free moment. Probably not until after the first of the year, at the earliest. And maybe not then. It will mostly depend on whether I have the energy after I plant my flag and pose for pictures atop the To Do List.
Would you consider blurbing my novel?
Honestly, this is one of the most flattering things anyone can ask me. As a rule, I always try to read novels from those who ask, and it’s almost always been a pleasure. But right now, alas, I simply can’t add anything more to the To Do List. I am hopeful that in the spring I will have time, should anyone ask.
What tale are you dragging out for its annual holiday visit?
Okay, this last one isn’t a question anyone has asked. I just decided to stick with the formula.
The story in question is The Practical Christmas, which I’ve posted in past years here on the site. This year, I’m offering “The Practical Christmas” as a free ebook download. The ZIP file linked below has the story in .epub, .mobi, and .pdf formats, so virtually all reading platforms should be covered. The story also has fancy new cover art because, well, … fancy! For those who want to, you can still read the story online here.
This post is a blast from the past ⇓
If it wasn’t for standardized testing, I might have missed The Mystery of the Witches Bridge by Barbee Oliver Carleton. It was November 1972 and us fourth graders at Nathanael Greene Elementary, Pawtucket, found ourselves subjected to a week of endless Scantron sheets and NO TALKING. There was one small bit of good news, however. We were told that once we completed each test segment, we would be allowed to read quietly at our desks until time for the next test. We should plan on six to eight segments a day for most of the week.
Up to that point, my reading had been almost exclusively what was required for school. I wasn’t opposed to reading — it just hadn’t made it onto my radar screen yet. So I dutifully went to the library and poked around to look for something not too boring. I chose The Mystery of the Witches Bridge pretty much at random. Mystery of Something sounded maybe cool. I guess. A witch might be neat, and the cover was creepy.
The first test had a thirty-minute time limit, and I finished in about half the time. After turning in my Scantron, I pulled out the book and started reading. Not long after, when the second test started, I found myself rushing to get done so I could get back to the story. Later that first day I realized the best way to maximize my reading time was to simply ignore the questions and fill in the Scantron ovals at random. I could complete a forty-five minute test in under five and get back to reading.
My teachers were amazed. Them: “You’re so fast! How do you do it?”
Me: (ignoring them, reading)
I can’t say as I was a shining example of the dutiful student, but I discovered something truly wonderful: not just the first chapter book I read for pleasure, but a book that would stick with me throughout my life and which remains one of my all time favorites. It’s a book that ultimately contributed to my desire to be a writer myself, and certainly influenced that kind of fiction that I seek to this day.
The Mystery of the Witches Bridge is the dark, yet stirring story of a young man caught up in a mystery stretching across three hundred years of his family’s history. Set in coastal New England, the plot centers around the boy Dan Pride who has come to live with his reclusive uncle at the ancient family home, Pride’s Point, after the death of his parents. The old house sits on an island in the midst of a fertile salt marsh and can be reached only by a long causeway, or over an old road that leads across the eponymous Witches Bridge.
Dan struggles with his grief and feelings of isolation, but he hopes he will find a new home with his uncle, Julian Pride. His hopes are quickly dashed. The old house is grim and forbidding, and his Uncle Julian aloof, haunted by bitter memories. He warns Dan to keep his place, to do as he’s told, and specifically to avoid the Bishops, a rival family Uncle Julian blames for the mysterious death of his own father—Dan’s grandfather—years before. Furthermore, the Prides are ostracized by the locals, who believe the ghost of Samuel Pride, founder of Pride’s Point, haunts the salt marsh and lures the unwary to their deaths whenever a fog rises. Old Samuel was falsely accused of witchcraft back in the early years of the Massachusetts colony, but his example retains power even in the present, as he kept Pride’s Point for his descendants only by standing mute in the face of prosecution and ultimately execution.
As Dan attempts to settle in to his new life, he discovers a few bright moments in the drear, including a friendship with a pair of siblings who live across the marsh. But he’s unable to get out from beneath the shadow of his family’s haunted past. The feud with the Bishops hovers like a spectre over him and his new friends. The Bishops were source of the original accusation against old Samuel Pride, and were subsequently connected, at least circumstantially, to the events surrounding the death of Dan’s grandfather. Ultimately, Dan must solve not only the mystery of his grandfather’s death but come to understand the choices of his long dead ancestor, the old witch himself, in order to save himself from the false accusations he faces, like his forebear, and make a place for himself at Pride’s Point.
It’s been over 35 years since I first read this marvelous book. I consider it to be brilliant, young adult noir—great characters, taut plot, sleep-interrupting suspense, and unexpected redemption yet with an enticing note of ambivalence and ambiguity. Today, I re-read my tattered, disintegrating copy every year or so. Several times I’ve had to order fresh copies, always used. The book is out-of-print, I’m sad to say, but fortunately enough copies are extant that I’ve always managed to land a copy that’s more or less intact. Recently, the best source has been Amazon Marketplace, where the average price is 89¢, or nine dollars with shipping and handling. More than worth it.
A lot of people have asked how the Dark Poodle of the Apocalypse is doing. Since I do a great deal of chatting on Twitter, it’s often hard to get into details at 140 characters at a time. A lot of my updates have been necessarily brief as a result. So I thought I would add a more detailed update for those of you who are interested. And also, I can’t say enough about how thoughtful and supportive everyone has been. Thank you.
The good news, of course, is she is now doing well. But it’s been a rough couple of months.
Jasmine, as she is more colloquially known, has been struggling for quite a while. As she’s gotten older, the cute little doodle developed a bit of a cough, though not severe or frequent. But starting last winter, it began to increase in both frequency and severity. It finally reached a point where she was coughing and gagging several times a day, and she just sounded awful when it happened.
So early in the summer we had a vet visit. We learned she had an enlarged heart and was overweight. For her age and breed, the heart condition is not unusual, but the weight had to come off. We did not think we were over-feeding her, but we learned something important. If you want a (reasonably) accurate calorie count, you gotta weigh the food, not rely on the volume measure serving size numbers. We’d been feeding her as recommended by volume, but when I weighed her food instead, I learned she getting about a third more calories than she should. “Serving size: half-cup for 54 grams” the package said, but a half cup turned out to be about 70 grams.
She was also put on medication. We learned it’s a lot easier to give a dog a pill than to give a cat a pill.
Poor thing was hungry though. She was used to feasting, and now she was merely getting proper portions. The weight started to come off, but she was constantly lurking around for any chance to gobble something yummy. Furthermore, her cough was not improving. Until one day when she seemed under the weather…
One Monday evening, she vomited up her supper, and over the next day or so seemed to lose all energy. She wouldn’t eat, didn’t want to go for walks. Troubling, to say the least. The only positive was no coughing, but that was cold comfort. By Wednesday, we knew it wasn’t a passing illness, so we went to the vet. An x-ray was inconclusive, but suggested possible pancreatitis, so Thursday we were back for an ultrasound. Her pancreas was fine, but a blockage was found in her small intestine. Unless it moved by the next morning, they were going to have to do surgery.
Given no change Friday morning, we returned for surgery. It was a long, worrying day. With her heart condition, the surgery was higher risk than normal, but doing nothing would probably be fatal.
The problem turned out to be bird seed. Our hungry wuppy had decided the fallen nyjer thistle under the feeders was DEEE-licious, and had eaten enough to clog her pipes. The surgeon was surprised enough that he took a picture of just one mass of seed he cleaned out during surgery. I’ve posted the picture here, but I should say it’s of surgery in progress. If you’re squeamish, you might want to skip the photo.
The surgery was a success, and over the course of two weeks, she recovered slowly but surely. We had some sad Cone of Shame moments, and some “Why can’t I jump up onto the couch by myself?” moments, but all in all she did well.
Until her coughing came back.
And this time, when it came back, it was much worse. It’s fair to say we were moving from relieved about the surgery to freaking out about the coughing at lightning speed. It was time to escalate. A week ago Friday, we made an appointment with a doggie cardiologist for the next day.
Even that little wait was too much.
At about 2am Saturday morning, Jasmine had her worst coughing fit yet, so severe and so long that we took her to the 24-hour emergency vet clinic. As it happened, the cardiologist worked out of the same clinic, so while she wouldn’t be in until morning, at least we were being seen at the same place. The coughing settled down a bit, and while we were there Jasmine was treated with albuterol and given a cough suppressant. That helped, we went back home for a short sleep, then returned for our appointment at 11am.
The cardiologist was great. She was thorough and engaged, spent lots of time with us. Jasmine had a full work over, including an echocardiogram. And we got some good news.
Yes, Jasmine does have a heart condition—degenerative mitral valve disease—but it’s not advanced and does not seem to be the cause of her coughing problems. We have to keep an eye on it, but it’s manageable. The immediate problem seems to be bronchitis, possibly due to allergy. The inhaler treatment helped a lot, which was a clue. We went home with prednisone and antibiotics, and are pleased to report the coughing is all but gone. Jasmine isn’t as quick as she once was, and she gets tired more quickly. But she’s going on walks, sniffing stuff, wiggling and wagging her tail.
When the current prescriptions are done, we will return to the cardiologist for a follow-up. Jasmine will use an inhaler in the future, and will have regular follow-up visits to keep an eye on her heart. But the worse of the recent weeks appears to be over. The little sweetie is back to being the most Dangerously Cute Poodle in the Universe.
Last night, I attended the 2012-2013 Bloody Thursdays season opener, put on by Friends of Mystery. It was a special event for me, as it featured the presentation of the 2012 Spotted Owl Award for County Line. Also on hand was Johnny Shaw, the inimitable author of Dove Season. Johnny was awarded the inaugural Stan Johnson Memorial Spotted Owl Award for Best Debut by a northwest author.
We both had a chance to chat about our writing lives. Johnny talked about growing up in the Imperial Valley and I talked about how I intentionally tanked a standardized test in the fourth grade so I could get back to the important work of reading my mystery novel ever.
I know folks took pictures, and hopefully they will share with me soon. That leaves me with the only pictures I have: of the marvelous cake above, and of the award plaque on my brag shelf.
It was such an honor to receive the Spotted Owl, and it remains an honor and a privilege to be part of Friends of Mystery.
I’m working on a Skin short story at the moment, one which has been on my mind for years. I’ve mentioned the story once or twice in my travels, describing it as Skin’s origin story. The events take place Labor Day weekend 1971, when Skin is 18 years old. Obviously he’s not a homicide detective at this point. He’s not even a cop.
Over the course of four novels, I’ve mentioned a bit of Skin’s early history with his friend Tommy. They share a first name, but Tommy had other ideas about that and saddled Skin with his nickname. The new story, “Heat Death,” will elaborate on their friendship in the context of an event which will influence to Skin’s decision to become a cop. More importantly, it gives me something to focus on while I wait to find out if a publisher wants my recently finished novel.
But after cranking out a few thousand words, I realized I needed to double-check some details. It’s been a long time since I last looked at the Skin books, and it’s easy to forget the little stuff.
No problem. In Lost Dog, the relevant passage is in chapter 16 when old friend of Skin’s relates to Peter the story of how Skin got his name. In Chasing Smoke, Susan Mulvaney gazes at a picture of Skin and Tommy from 1967. “I’m the one with the thing on his neck,” Skin tells her. So far, so good—
Oh, wait. In Lost Dog, Tommy moved into Skin’s neighborhood in 1960. In Chasing Smoke, Skin ruminates on how Tommy arrived on the scene four years before the ’67 snapshot.
As mistakes go, it could be worse. Easy enough to chalk it up to Skin misremembering, after all. Still, there’s part of me that wants to travel back in time and fix the mismatch. I’m not sure how others who write series handle their character’s life history. Do they keep a stack of note cards? A document on their computer? A database? I admit to being kinda seat of the pants myself. It wasn’t until I was writing Day One that I sat down and worked out Skin’s major life milestones, and even that was incomplete.
Fortunately, I don’t seem to have introduced any damaging contradictions. Tommy either moved into the neighborhood in 1960 or 1963. Everything really important happened after that. And hell, if Arthur Conan Doyle can forget Watson’s first name, an inconsequential date mix-up is nothing to fret. Right? (Please say yes.)
Back to “Heat Death.” There’s a lot to figure out, so I won’t describe the story itself. But I there are a few details worth a mention. It takes place in central Oregon. Tommy’s car is a ’67 GTO. They’re drinking cans of Rainier. And there’s a moose, which is absurd in central Oregon. So maybe people just think they’ve seen a moose. It’s something of a running gag. (For the record, moose have been sighted in Oregon only rarely in the last few decades, and those exclusively in northeast Oregon.)
Except I keep checking my books, and it turns out I described the set-up for “Heat Death” in great detail in Day One. On page 348 of the print edition, Tommy and Skin are at a cabin in the forest not far from Whistler, British Columbia. Tommy’s car is a ’61 Impala. They’re knocking back bottles of Molson’s when the moose appears and—
A moose in a British Columbia forest isn’t a running gag, it’s a potentially dangerous pest. Besides the moose, it would have been pretty embarrassing to write a story about Skin and Tommy’s adventures in central Oregon in that GTO when I’d already established said events took place hundreds of miles north.
At the moment, I have about 5,000 words worth of “Heat Death” written. Since it’s a first draft, probably 4,500 of those words are crap, and now I suspect the other 500, which deal mostly with that GTO and central Oregon, have to go too.
There’s a lesson here, kids. And I’m starting to think that lesson is write standalones only.
UPDATE: In a new review of Chasing Smoke, The Thirty Year Itch notes the 1967 Oops as well.
By now most everyone and their mother has heard about the foofaraw which someone has probably dubbed Reviewgate. I even fretted about it myself a bit yesterday, though mostly as an excuse to link to the hilarious and sometimes all too close to home Hey Author tumblr.
The whole problem is this brave new world we live in, wherein an author’s ability to get notices has become linked to the number of online reviews at sites like Amazon. Though of course there are a whole range of feelings and opinions about our goals as writers, for a lot of us it goes something like this:
We have a story to tell -> we write said story -> we share it with the world -> we hope people read it -> repeat
Sure, there are other possible elements to the cycle, such as the desire for wealth beyond the dreams of avarice, for groupies who peel our grapes, and wanting drive super fast in our super cars whilst escaping ravening paparazzi. But for most of us, the bottom line is we have stories to tell and a desire for others to want to read them.
And, like it or not, online reviews play a role in getting noticed. At its best, this fact is unseemly, and at its worst it produces behaviors designed to game the system. Ideally the best stories find the largest audience, but even discounting the fact that “best” is subjective, the system is such that random chance and underhanded scheming play a bigger role in books finding an audience than many of us would like.
Most of the response to Reviewgate has been negative. “The dastardly curs have tricked readers!” I fall into this camp, though mildly. I’m something of a cynic, so the knowledge that people will behave unethically to gain any edge is unsurprising to me. And in any case, based on his appearances in my own Twitterstream I’d already concluded John Locke was something of a dodgy narcissist.
Still, reviews help. At least, we think they do. Evidence suggests they do, though as with the secret Google Algorithm so-called “SEO gurus” are always trying divine, I’ve no doubt Amazon and other online sites are constantly tinkering with The Rules behind the scenes. Today’s successful scam is no doubt tomorrow’s wasted breath. Still, for now, those reviews help.
So how do we get them?
To date, my own method has mostly been to wish on a star. Evidence suggests this is not the way to success.
Another option is to ask for reviews. I’ve actually done this myself too, though not often. My brain gets the weirdies when I ask for favors like this, but that’s me.
So just now I saw the follow two tweets from the thoughtful and talented and all around great guy Sean Chercover:
I don’t see anything unethical about saying, “Hey folks, if you’ve read my book, please consider posting a review.” Am I missing something?
— SeanChercover (@SeanChercover) August 29, 2012
Obviously, if you’re suggesting a dishonest review, that’s unethical. You gotta be prepared for both bad and good.
— SeanChercover (@SeanChercover) August 29, 2012
I was going to reply on Twitter, but then I realized I had a long, meandering response, so we end up here. Oh bother. My apologies, Sean. You deserve better than this.
My thoughts, important as they are? I think it’s fine to ask. Sean’s second point is particularly important. Requesting a review with no expectations is fine. We need them, our readers have the chance to provide them. Why not? It’s cool if they say no (or, simply ignore the request). It’s cool if they post a review but don’t like the book. It’s cool if they post a review and do like the book.
Where it gets weird for me is when I see author’s begging. And boy, do some beg. I mean, with the “Please LIKE my Facebook page” and “Here’s my Amazon link; would love a review” and so forth. Some folks flood their Twitterstreams and Facebook Whatever They’re Calling It Now—Timeline, I Guess? with the pleading. They send DMs and private messages and who knows what?
That’s not cool. I don’t know who’s writing these Be Freaking Annoying As Hell On Social Media To Sell Books guides, but they really need to stop.
Doesn’t mean I think people shouldn’t share information and news about their work. I follow writers myself because I like their work and I want to know about it. I want to cheer for their success and pass it along to others. And I hope people who follow me feel the same. Post a link to a good review, share a new deal or a new release. We DO want to know.
But if the only thing you ever do is link to your Amazon page and beg for LIKES, well, no thanks. It’s a matter of scale and saturation. I get that we need those reviews to win the Amazon game. But I also believe we don’t need to be dicks about it.
Before I shut up, I want to say one last thing. Read Sean. He’s great. Five stars, and then some.
I’ve jumped on the home brewing bandwagon, and so far I have successfully avoided poisoning myself. Last night I tasted my first attempt, an American Pale Ale. In order to do it right, I designed labels for the bottles (based on this) and using the name Boo Bear Brewing for my “brewery,” as suggested by my wife. We also acquired excellent burgers from The Burger Guild, a food cart not too far away (highly recommended, Portlanders).
So how was the beer? My honest, completely unbiased assessment of Boo Bear Pale Ale was: pretty good, but with room for improvement. It had good body and flavor. Quite quaffable. However, it never developed any carbonation to speak of, so it leaned toward the flat side of things. I think I overdid the bittering hops by just a touch but underdid the flavoring hops. Still, I’m pleased with my first attempt.
Tomorrow I bottle my second batch, an ESB. Then in about a week, another taste test!
Well, yeah, but only kinda gasp. I mean, seriously? But then there’s the whole Amazon Top 100 thing, and I guess reviews help with that. (Or not.) (Somewhere on the internet, people are fighting about this point RIGHT NOW.) (I leave the Google-fu to you.)
Anyway, it’s all sooooo depressing. I mean, hell, I can barely finish writing a book and yet I have to worry about keeping up with the Latest Scheme To Game Amazon? Bloody hell!
Fortunately, I have discovered the perfect anti-depressant: Hey Author. Get thee thence, forthwith!
If you’ve been watching Breaking Bad, you’ve gotten to see a brilliant contemporary exposition of a how a bad choice made with the best of intentions can spin horribly out of control. Walt’s story is sordid and extreme, with the first lie leading to inextricably to the next, one bad decision tumbling into the next, as inevitable as death.
One of the many, many things Breaking Bad gets right is the double-down. In the double-down, when a lie found out, rather than own up and come clean, the liar tosses out a new lie, adds another layer to the deceit. In Breaking Bad, Walt’s arc is one double-down after another, a new lie followed by the next bad choice patched up by a yet another lie. It’s painful to watch, not the least because for all the damage his lies do to those around him, the family and friends he cares for, the destructive fury of the double-down is perhaps the most pointed in Walt himself.
So what does all this have to do with Authors (Trying Not to) Behave Badly? Well, yesterday I saw word of yet another author responding really badly to a less than stellar review who then made matters worse by doubling-down when called out. This time it was New York Times bestseller Emily Giffin, but it’s not like she’s the first. Nor is it likely she will be the last.
Which isn’t simply too damn bad. It’s batshit crazy.
Authors, sheesh, don’t do this. And don’t have your minions do it. And when your minions do it, don’t play coy and passive-aggressively mumble on Facebook about how golly, I wish my minions hadn’t done this but who am I to tell them what to do and oh by the way here is another reviewer who didn’t like my book. All this “Nice book blog you got here. Be a shame if something happened to it” shit has got to stop. Bloody hell, it never should have started to begin with.
Every writer gets bad reviews. Beloved and wildly popular authors like J.K. Rowling and Neil Gaiman get bad reviews. Occasionally beliked and mildly known authors such as myself also get bad reviews. Over the years there have been any number of articles and blog posts documenting the one-star travails of even classic books, so no one is exempt. And why should they be? Any book written to appeal to everyone will probably appeal to no one.
But, Bill, what about grossly unfair and mean-spirited reviews which make personal attacks against the author and call babies mean names and spit on the graves of Abe Lincoln and/or Mother Theresa? Surely they deserve full-throated minion opprobrium. Unleash the hounds? Right?
Let. It. Go.
Clearly I have been tempted, and not just early in my writing career before I had a chance to learn better.
Not long ago, the Great and Powerful Google Alerts alerted me to a review of County Line which was bad. The reviewer did not like the book At All. Now, I usually don’t even read reviews any more. The warm glow of ten great reviews can be washed away by a single tepid dismissal, and who needs that? Besides, reviews aren’t for me. They’re for readers. The Google Alert is set-up mostly so I can link to reviews for my potential readers, not so I can read them and then feel bad about myself for weeks on end.
But in this case I read the damn thing, and not only did the reviewer not like the book but they also made a number of factual errors.
Ah-hah! you may say. An exception! Unleash the hounds.
Once again, no. Let it go.
Mind you, I was tempted to write a note pointing out the errors. They were substantive and would certainly have suggested something to a potential reader which would significantly mislead them about the novel. But you know what?
Not worth it.
Writers have lots of opportunity to control the reading experience of readers, but that ends once a book is published. From that point on, it’s out of our hands. Either we did our work well or didn’t, but we can’t go in later and re-read the book for readers. Maybe they misunderstood something, or maybe our writing failed in some critical way. Doesn’t matter. Readers and reviewers have their experience, and the best thing which can come of trying to influence them after the fact is the writer comes off looking fussy and needy and maybe desperate. The best thing… It’s likely to be a lot worse. Case in point, the above mentioned Emily Giffin.
Yes, I am fussy and needy and desperate, but I don’t need to go putting that crap on display. (Any more than I do naturally, I mean.) And I certainly don’t need to encourage my minions* to go on a full-throated assault on my behalf.
John Scalzi does a masterful job of explicating how writers should respond to bad reviews. The inestimable Chuck Wendig speaks eloquently about more general bad author behaviors. Stacia Kane brings her own brilliant wit to bear on this and related problems in an incisive satire.
In the end, it all comes down to one simple rule. Let it go. And if you do slip and make the bad choice to go all medieval on some reviewer, don’t pull a Walt and double-down when you are inevitably called on your bullshit. Move on and write your next book. If you put your energy into that, you have a much better chance of getting good reviews than if you go to the mattresses with some reviewer or book blogger.
Note: two small edits to correct a typo and subject/verb agreement were made after this was first published.
Update: I’ve just read another post by the thoughtful and talented Jeremy Duns about yet another author behaving badly. All I can do is shake my head.