Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Importance of Self-editing

If you've been following this blog, you know that I'm a writer of mystery novels and short stories, and I also occasionally review both fiction and non-fiction books. What you may not know is that I once worked as an editor for a small press publishing company. Now I do free-lance editing jobs for small press and self-published authors, and I truly enjoy the work.

I was not accomplished at self-editing when I started writing my "Rhodes to Murder" series. It took six rewrites under the guidance of a very patient editor before my first book saw the light of day in 1998. That same book underwent further editing when it was reprinted in 2007. Today, after years of striving to improve my writing skills, I'm quicker to catch errors in my manuscripts before my work is published. I'm also quicker to catch errors in other people's manuscripts and published books. I now find myself mentally editing every book I read, and the result isn't always pretty.

I read four novels last week, two published by Penguin and two self-published by authors using Amazon's CreateSpace. All four were amateur sleuth mysteries, all four held my interest, and all four contained errors of one type or another that could have been prevented either by the author in a self-editing session, or by the person hired by the publisher for his/her supposed editing skills.

The Penguin titles were books one and two in a series by a respected writer. The errors consisted mainly of missing words that resulted in confusing sentences. Example: "She sat there, wiping away." Wiping away what? Yes, we were told earlier that the woman in question was crying, but was she now wiping away tears? Wiping away smeared mascara? Wiping away at a drippy nose? It could have been any one of those things. Why didn't the author just finish the sentence and tell us? And why didn't the Penguin editor advise the author to clarify such sentences? 

Given the length of time between series releases, readers often fail to notice small discrepancies in descriptions of characters or settings. When you read the first and second book back to back, though, you tend to catch those kinds of mistakes. In the Penguin series, I immediately noticed the heroine's house underwent a color change between the first and the second book. In book one, the home's exterior was beige. In book two, it was white. Sure, it's a small mistake. But again, it's a mistake that the author or the Penguin editor should have caught.

As for the two self-published books, the mistakes were mainly grammatical. Example: Referring to an FBI Special Agent, the author wrote "a agent that...". It should have read "an agent who".
"An" always replaces "a" before a word starting with a vowel. An agent, an apple, an olive, etc. And things are "that". People are "who". An agent is a person, therefore "who" is the proper word to use.

Example #2: The author referred to "the Caribbean Ocean". This is a fact check error. There are five oceans, the Atlantic, the Pacific, the Indian, the Arctic, and the Southern (or as we learned it back in my school days, the Antarctic). The Caribbean is a sea, and a simple fact check on Google would have told the author that.

Example #3: Words like "honey", "babe", "sweetie", "darling", "kiddo" are called terms of endearment and are not capitalized unless they start a sentence. In an otherwise smartly written story, I found it distressing to read terms of endearment capitalized in the middle of sentences.

Joseph Pulitzer wrote: "Put it before them briefly so they will read it, clearly so they will appreciate it, picturesquely so they will remember it, and above all, accurately so they will be guided by its light."

Writers cannot rely on others to catch all their mistakes. It's imperative that we all learn to self-edit our work. Grammar checking is important. Fact checking is important. Clarity of thought and action is important. If we want to be taken seriously by readers and reviewers, and if we want to succeed in the highly competitive world of publishing, we must produce the best work we can. 


Friday, January 18, 2013

Fiction, Non-fiction, and YA Reviews

Lots of good books out there, my friends. Not all of them are mysteries -- even though that's mainly what I review here at Cicero's Children -- and not all of them are even novels. Non-fiction books are often as suspenseful and fascinating as any fictional thriller on the market. (You'll see why I think that's true when you read my non-fiction review below.) These books are not all for adults, either. The Young Adult (YA) market is growing, as is the Juvenile market. Despite what some surveys say, there are still plenty of kids in this world who enjoy books. Authors around the globe are rediscovering the fun of writing for these younger readers. 

Deborah Dee Harper's middle grade series (ages 8 to 12) features a 6th grade boy named Laramie who just happens to live in the state of Wyoming. Laramie is introduced in LARAMIE AND THE LAW, the first of six stories published individually in E-book format by Echelon Press. What makes this series unique is that the six stories have been combined in a print edition called LARAMIE ON THE LAM.

Having three grandsons in the middle grades, I downloaded this story just to get an idea of what was currently available for kids who enjoy mysteries. It started out with a bang with Laramie pictured on the front page of the town's newspaper holding the door for three robbers exiting the local bank. Of course, Laramie didn't know they were thieves -- he was merely being polite -- but now the police are looking for him, and he's scared. He's pretty sure they'll consider him an accomplice to the bad guys, and why not? There's $30,000 in his backpack -- the one he was wearing when he stopped at the bank -- and for sure he didn't put it in there. The initial action slows a bit when Laramie decides his parents aren't going to kill him for getting into such trouble, but how he manages to convince the police of his innocence while helping catch the thieves makes for an entertaining story even for someone my age. I'd definitely recommend LARAMIE AND THE LAW for the younger middle grade group.

It's flu season again in the U.S., and all I can say is, thank goodness we now have vaccines to prevent or lessen the effects of this disease. In THE GREAT INFLUENZA, John Barry does a masterful job of describing the flu pandemic of 1918 when influenza spread across the globe killing millions of people and often leaving survivors with life-long neurological problems. What started in middle America soon spread to Army encampments filled with soldiers training for overseas deployment during WWI. From there it attacked people in cities both large and small across the country, while also taking root in Europe via incoming troops. As scientists raced to discover the cause of the disease and a means to treat it, officials in all levels of government did their best to downplay the severity of the disease, thus ensuring its spread rather than helping to contain it. Rather than act on the advice of the scientists, these officials feared the truth would destroy the morale of the citizenry and hurt the war effort. An example of what happened because of this occurred in Philadelphia on September 28, 1918. Over the objections of the scientific community, city officials allowed a Liberty Loan parade to take place. Thousands of people jammed the two mile long parade route. Those who were already infected with the flu virus easily passed it on to other parade goers. Two days later flu victims began flooding the Philadelphia hospitals. The third day after the parade, flu killed 117 people in the city. The death rate then grew by leaps and bounds. On October 10, 759 people died of the flu. During the worst week of the flu outbreak, the week of Oct. 16, 4,597 Philadelphians died of the disease.

THE GREAT INFLUENZA is part horror story, part political expose, and part historical narrative. Most of all, it is a chronicle of a great scientific breakthrough and the story of the men and women who gave their all to achieve that breakthrough. Barry has written a riveting tale that I highly recommend for anyone interested in the history of America. 

And now to my final review of the day, this one by Carl Brookins.

Sticks & Stones                      
By K.J. Larson
ISBN: 978-1-59058-921-2
A 2012 Poisoned Pen HC Release. 229 pages

This is one triple threat novel. It is fast. It is raunchy. It is punchy. Bonus is it’s written by three sisters. Yes, the title refers to that old nursery rhyme. Second in the Cat De Luca series, the novel continues the adventures of a smart, sassy, saucy, Chicago P.I. Her agency is called “Pants on Fire.” She’s a member of a large and useful if somewhat un-functional family of Italian Chicago cops. Their attitudes and sometimes mis-guided attempts to aid or thwart De Luca’s usually spur-of-the-moment actions in pursuit of her current cheating husband-target add a good deal to the general hilarity.

The novel surges back and forth and up and down, in and out of second story windows and costumes. It never loses sight of the main goal and for the most part, is well-written with excellent pace. Disregard a few sags in the middle in which peripheral characters heat up the pages with drink and dalliance.

With tongue firmly planted, Cat De Luca, in the capable hands of her grinning authors, sashays through the urban landscape to an inescapable conclusion. A fine American cozy novel and I look forward to a long run with leggy De Luca.

 Carl Brookins
Case of the Great Train Robbery, Reunion, Red Sky


Monday, January 7, 2013

Do You Trust Reviews?

There's been a lot of discussion in the book world lately over the value of reviews and Amazon's decision to remove reviews from its site that it considers to be nothing more than "one hand washing the other". By that I mean, complimentary reviews written by friends of an author, or one author penning a review of another author's work in exchange for the second author writing a review of the first author's work.

Confusing, right? It gets even worse when authors write reviews of their own books under false reviewer names. It's a practice called "sock puppets". The author creates a "sock puppet" and becomes the puppeteer.

I've written plenty of book reviews, some for Mystery Scene Magazine, some for Library Journal, and some for Futures Magazine. I've also occasionally posted a review on Amazon. If you've read my blog in the past, you know I also post reviews here, most of them written by people I respect, like Carl Brookins. I trust Carl to be honest in his reviews, to say what he liked about the book, and when there was something he thought the author could do to improve the story, to always frame his opinion in a respectful manner.

Not all reviewers are like that. In fact, some reviewers are downright hurtful when commenting about a book they didn't like. I've known authors who say they were devastated by a review of their work posted on Amazon. Generally the reviewer did not explain what it was that turned him or her off to the story. Instead, he/she used words like "horrible" or "stupid" to describe the book, thus implying the worst about the author.

I've never received that kind of review for one of my books, but I've seen some rather malicious reviews on Amazon while looking at books to buy. Frankly, because of their blatant nastiness, I dismiss both the review and the reviewer as untrustworthy. 

I also dismiss reviews that gush over a book without pointing out what makes the story so good. Sometimes, due to a lack of solid information about the story, I wonder if the reviewer even read the book, or if he/she wrote the review simply as a favor to a friend. 

And sometimes the reviews are so grammatically incorrect that I question if the reviewer can even recognize the difference between a well-written book and a just so-so book.

An example of that is an Amazon review I read last night. The reviewer claimed to be quoting directly from the book, but failed to place quotation marks before and after any sentences in her review. So where was the direct quote? It was hard to tell which sentences reflected the reviewer's thoughts and which sentences could be directly attributed to the book's author. 

In another Amazon review, the reviewer described one character as "a agent that works" for the FBI. Whoa, baby! "An agent who works" would be grammatically correct, but "a agent that works"?? Time for the reviewer to take a refresher course in English grammar.

Am I nitpicking here? Some might think so, but I'd disagree. If a reviewer doesn't know how to write a sentence correctly, why should we trust his/her opinion of the writing skills of the author?

Reviews are handy tools for readers interested in finding new and exciting books. I believe the trick to utilizing reviews to one's full advantage is this: find a reviewer whose taste in books mirrors your own and follow that person's recommendations.

So who do you trust when it comes to book reviews? Do you read the reviews on Amazon? In your local newspaper? On other online review sites? Do you value word of mouth recommendations over reviews? I'd be interested to hear what you think about this subject.