Four Ways Not to Compliment a Writer

Writers as a group appreciate having their egos stroked, and if you genuinely like a writer’s work it’s a kindness to tell them so.  But there are some compliments which can backfire on the giver, no matter how well-meant the delivery.  Most writers, most of the time, will accept a dubious or awkward compliment with a smile and confine themselves to an inward wince or possibly a private gripe session later among friends, but even the nicest writers can have the sort of bad day when the lid comes off of everything, and some writers . . . well, much as it pains me to admit it, writers – even good writers – are as likely to be jerks as anyone else in the general population.

Accordingly, here are a quartet of comments from the top of the Best If  Avoided list:

“I loved your book!  I’ve loaned it to all my friends!”

The savvy writer accepts such a compliment graciously, because word-of-mouth is still the best advertising, and because making an enemy of a reader is a bad move for a lot of reasons . . . but there’s no escaping the inward wince on behalf of all of the copies that could have been purchased if the bestower-of-compliments had confined themself to making enthusiastic recommendations at the bookstore instead.

“I love all your books!  I can’t wait until the library/the used bookstore/my buddy who lends me her copies gets the next one!”

Once again, most writers will take this compliment with a smile, because most writers can remember being young and/or impecunious themselves, and it would be hypocritical for them to complain about somebody else taking advantage of the same shifts and expedients that sustained them once upon a time.  But there’s still that inner wince, and the wistful contemplation of sales that might have been.

“I’ve loved your books ever since I was in fifth grade/high school/college!”

Again, the kind-hearted writer has no choice but to smile – and in fact, it’s nice to know that one was a formative or encouraging influence upon somebody in their youth.  But there’s no denying the fact that praise of this sort has a corresponding tendency to make the recipient of the compliment feel older than they did in the moment before it was uttered.  “I’ve always loved your books!” or “I’ve loved your books for ages!” are words less likely to send the writer in question off into a spell of broody melancholia.

“I don’t usually go for this genre/this trope/this style, but you made me like it!”

This compliment is especially tricky because sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.  Some writers like the idea of doing such a good job of a thing that they succeed in overcoming a reader’s ingrained prejudices.  (I confess to being a member of that camp myself.)  Others, though, will take offense at the implication that their chosen genre or trope or style has something wrong with it that needs to be dressed up and made palatable to the general public.  Unless you know how the recipient is likely to react, this compliment is best deployed with caution.

What do you say to a writer, then, if you want to compliment them?

Well, an unadorned but sincerely-meant “I love your books!” is always good.

Writing for Joe’s Beer Money

The idea that creators of popular fiction are writing for “Joe’s beer money”* is an often derided concept, but in my opinion it shouldn’t be.

For one thing, the fact that Joe is reading for pleasure at all should be celebrated, not sneered at.  Elitists might be surprised at what Joe sometimes picks – it isn’t just thrillers and soft-core porn.  I remember stopping for coffee for once at a truck stop that had, in addition to the usual snack foods and sundries, a wire spinner rack filled with audio book rentals for pick-up-and-drop-off .  One of the more well-worn items on the rack was an audio book of Homer’s Iliad.

For another thing, writing for Joe’s beer money is demanding work.  Joe doesn’t make so much money that he wants to finish a book feeling like he threw away some of it on a thing he didn’t enjoy.  (And let me say right here that Joe is just as capable as anyone else of acknowledging different values of enjoyment.  See Homer’s Iliad, above)  Furthermore, Joe is honest:  He’s not going to pretend he liked your book just to impress his friends and co-workers.  But if he does like it, he will read your next one, and probably the one after that.

Also – oddly enough, the cost of a mass-market paperback novel and the cost of a six-pack of ordinary beer have stayed roughly equivalent at least since the 1970’s, which is about the time when I started keeping track.  (Of paperback prices, at any rate.  I had to go to the internet for the beer data.)  Trade paperbacks are more in line with the cost of imported and craft beers; and it’s entirely possible that part of the controversy over how much an e-book should cost is also a disagreement over whether an e-book is more like a six-pack of Budweiser or a six-pack of some five-star brewpub’s signature XXX Strong Ale.

*The original quote is often attributed to science fiction writer Jerry Pournelle.

Things You Figure Out about the Past

…if you live in a cold climate and are stingy with your heating (as we have always been, first because we were heating with a wood furnace, and willingness to put up with lower interior temperatures directly correlates with unwillingness to move large heavy logs from woodpile to furnace several times a day for an entire winter; and second because when we finally got tired of heaving logs around we dropped back to the electric baseboard heat, which is like burning dollar bills to keep warm):

  • Footstools weren’t just ornamental. They were to keep your feet off the cold floor, so that what warmth you could pull around yourself didn’t leak out through the soles of your shoes.
  • Shawls and caps and fingerless gloves weren’t just fashion statements. They kept the drafts off the back of your neck, and kept heat from leaking out through the palms of your hands and the top of your head.
  • Lapdogs weren’t just frivolous pets. They were self-propelled organic personal space heaters for people who could afford the cost of feeding an otherwise unproductive household critter. (Cats and small terriers could also fulfill the “space heater” function, but escaped the “silly rich woman’s toy” stigma by also catching household vermin.)

Presented for Your Amusement

A quartet of links to things that caught my eye or tickled my fancy over the past few days:

Descriptive Linguist Tom Scott Preaches the Good Word

The good word, in this case, is the singular neutral gender pronoun they, and Scott has a wonderful YouTube video and accompanying post on the subject.

He’s got a whole bunch of other posts about linguistics up on YouTube, and they’re all worth watching and reading.  It’s nice to see entertaining pedagogy taking place outside a formal context; knowledge is a good thing, and deserves a chance to go out in public and meet people, instead of staying cooped up in the classroom all the time.

The Muse at War

It’s possible to go through an entire writing career without having to send your characters off to war.  But even in the most unlikely of genres – “sex and shopping” summer beach novels, or literary novels set in darkest Academe – an unexpected plot turn can have your characters heading for the sound of the guns (or the clash of swords, depending upon the era and the tech level), and next thing you know, there you are, smack dab in the middle of a pitched battle.  You may even, if you’re working in some of the more speculative genres, have to make up a battle from scratch.

How, then, to make the ensuing military engagement, if not realistic, at least credible?  There are a couple of reliable ways.

One way, of course, is personal experience.  If you have it, you know already that you do, and you might as well get all the use out of it that you can.  About the only thing you need to remember is that fiction has to be believable, whereas reality is under no such constraint.

The other way, of course, is research.  There’s research done the slow way, when you read political history and military history and Sun Tzu and Clausewitz and the memoirs of a lot of people who got out of their various wars alive and wrote about them afterward, and play a lot of war games and maybe do some historical re-creation on the side, and then put all of that together to synthesize your battle.

Then there’s research done the fast way, where you steal a battle outright.  This is especially useful when the military aspect of the plot isn’t the main thing – maybe you’re more interested in the romance, or the politics, or the class/race/gender/whatever issues – but you’ve nevertheless found yourself in a corner of the story where the only way out is through this enormous set-piece battle that you somehow have to write.

What you do, at that point, is pick a historical battle from roughly the same era-and-tech-equivalent as your fictional one, and shamelessly use the terrain and maneuvers and eventual outcome of that battle as the template for your own.  It helps to pick a relatively obscure engagement – more people than you suspect are likely to recognize the double-envelopment of Cannae, or the defense of Little Round Top at Gettysburg – and to pick a single point of view character and stick as much as possible to just what he or she is experiencing.

And then you don’t tell anybody what battle you stole.  If some fan writes you a letter, or corners you at a convention or a book signing, and says, “Hey – wasn’t that space battle in Book Two of your trilogy a rip-off of the Battle of the River Plate, only in space?”, you can give them a big smile and say, “Why, yes, indeed!  How clever of you to notice!”

Seasonal Special from Dr. Doyle’s Editorial and Critique Services

In the spirit of making the Yuletide (or other seasonal holiday of your choice) a bit brighter all ‘round:

From now through Twelfth Night (5 January 2015), my price for a full-dress line-edit plus a 3-5 page letter of critique drops to a flat $1000 for a standard-weight novel.

This offer can also be combined with the Seasonal Gift Certificate I blogged about earlier.