Not Just Another Grouchy Grammarian

Musings about language, books, grammar, and writing in general

Mixed Reviews, e-Publishing, and Other Amusements

I was recently assigned a short story to review and post about. I did what was required, but did so with a really heavy heart. You see, the book was an e-book, and had many of the faults that keep people from whole-heartedly adopting the technology.

The story idea was mildly interesting. However, the characters were flat and wooden — nothing there for a kid to really relate to. The editing was horrendous – spelling errors and bad grammar to the point where I wanted to write the author and tell him to get a good copy editor and pull this from Amazon until it was fixed. Worst of all, the story was entirely too heavy-handed and preachy; the nicest thing I could say about the way it was handled was that the author’s points could not be missed.

Why do I discuss this here, especially since I did the required review elsewhere, then? I note it to point out what I, and many others, see as some of the problems with e-publishing, especially of the vanity variety. As anyone who reads this blog is probably aware, self-publishing e-books is incredibly easy compared to getting published the “old-fashioned” way. Unfortunately, this means that pretty much anyone can publish stuff — good or bad. Amazon abounds with poorly edited e-books; my favorite mistyped title is The Three Tenants of Prosperity. Gratuitous spelling errors, plots with holes you could have Andre the Giant walk through were he still alive, grammar errors that would be looked at askance in a second-grader’s work…and don’t forget to toss in characters that could be cut from recycled printer paper; sometimes it feels like people are just into parading their ignorance.

Please note that I am not talking here about using various street or regional dialects; those can add real flavor to a story. However, characters whose speech does not reflect who they are just make me want to throw the book at the nearest wall. Part of making fiction good is having the characters put an accurate picture of who they are in the readers’ minds.

However, I digress a bit. It’s not that all e-publishers are bad. Lawrence Block has been e-publishing his books for a while now, and the e-books are just as meticulously edited as his hard copy books are.There are reputable e-publishing houses. What I object to about e-publishing is largely that anyone can put anything out these days. I’m not saying they don’t have a right to – just that all the garbage out there makes it much harder to find the good books by new authors who are exclusively e-publishing for whatever reason. Yes, I know that even paper publishing has small vanity houses where these issues are regular visitors. This is why my reading remains a mix of both e-books and paper books.

I have been working a bit more, as I get healthier. It’s interesting to see all the different styles clients want. There are at least two guides for each of the writing teams I’m on. One is from the client, the second is from the project manager. Often, there are additional guides, cheat sheets, etc.  the most amusing part of this kind of work is making sure your work is not plagiarized – not even accidentally. This is usually done by using a program such as Copyscape, which searches the Web for words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs that match your work. Unfortunately, there are things Copyscape flags that cannot be changed, such as your product’s name. Get enough “hits” and you can be let go by your project. Add in to this that most clients provide you with keywords and/or links they want you to use, and turning out 100% original copy becomes, shall we say, interesting. It’s not too terrible for me. Often I find the biggest challenge is writing to an approximate tenth-grade level.

Part of the problem is that the world has changed since I was taught to write. When I was growing up and in school, complex sentences were the sign of an educated person. Not that you used extra words, mind; such sentences had several clauses, but were – optimally – not strings of adjectives and adverbs. Passive voice was often part of formal writing; it served to distance you from your writing – to make the writing sound neutral. The current style is short sentences (I have been told that 25 words is optimal), with few clauses and fairly limited vocabulary. It’s not a style I learned easily, and I use a few programs to check for things like that (my favorite is Hemingway Editor). Anyway, I am finding writing in the new style something of a challenge, but it’s an interesting challenge. Language evolves, and we should evolve with it, even if it moves us out of our comfort zones.

That said, I still am happier when books I read are written with proper grammar and spelling – except when changed for reasons of dialect.

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