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Linda Hilton

Reader, Writer, Merciless Reviewer and Incurable Romantic

Currently reading

Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right's Stealth Plan for America
Nancy MacLean
Progress: 134/574 pages
Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy
Christopher L. Hayes
Progress: 17/304 pages
The Secular Scripture: A Study of the Structure of Romance
Northrop Frye
Progress: 43/200 pages
Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right
Arlie Russell Hochschild
Progress: 96/454 pages
Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America
Ibram X. Kendi
Progress: 22/750 pages
All the President's Men
Carl Bernstein, Bob Woodward
Progress: 73/383 pages
Women's Gothic and Romantic Fiction: A Reference Guide (American Popular Culture)
Kay Mussell
Progress: 17/157 pages
The Looking-Glass Portrait
Linda Hilton
Really Neat Rocks: A casual introduction to the rocks & gems of Arizona and the lapidary arts
Linda Hilton
Progress: 61/61 pages
Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith
Jon Krakauer

Reading progress update: I've read 30 out of 236 pages.

Breaking the Rules - Kitty Wilson

Previous updates :










Chapter Three is five digital pages of a noodling info dump.


Rosy has fled to the beach, where she thinks about things.


1.  She finds her new neighbor exceedingly attractive, but he has a girlfriend.

2.  Because of some unknown thing that happened when she was 19 with some guy named Josh, she has A Rule that she will not date anyone in the community where she lives.

3.  She has a date that night with some guy she met through Internet dating.


After all this thinking, she walks back to the village and buys a bunch of chocolate.


I have had this book open on my laptop virtually all day.  I have done just about anything to avoid reading it.

Reading progress update: I've read 25 out of 236 pages.

Breaking the Rules - Kitty Wilson

Previous updates:








Now that I've reached the 10% mark, I can honestly say this is a huge disappointment.  But I'm going to force myself to finish it.  For a reason.


Chapter Two did have some dialogue.  Whoo hoo, and hallelujah!


Rosy has now met her neighbour, Matt, who was in fact the "removal man" she had previously met.  The overdressed woman is revealed to the reader - but not to Rosy - to be Matt's "pain-in-the-arse" younger sister.


The dialogue between Matt and Rosy is again long monologues without much in the way of stage direction.  It reads more like a radio play script.  Author Wilson gives a lot of Rosy's emotional reaction - she already has the mega hots for this guy even though she doesn't know if the fashion plate is his wife, girlfriend, or what.  What's lacking is the action and description.  What can Rosy see of the inside of the house? What is Matt wearing?  What does he actually look like other than gorgeous?


And how did Rosy keep from dropping the cake or keep the dog from getting it?


And, how big is the dog?


Later, there's a conversation between Matt and his now-revealed-to-be-sister, Angelina.  It's more of those long paragraphs of monologue, without narrative to describe what the characters are doing.


For example, Angelina flicks a pistachio shell across a counter.  I pictured her standing at the counter in a kind of petulant lean, though there's nothing to suggest that.  After I had formed this mental image, Angelina stands up and gives Matt a big hug.


Well, duh, what was she sitting on?  A stool?  A chair?  A step ladder?


The hug never ends. Matt blinks and Angelina nods, but neither of them exits the sibling embrace.


Then the dog jumps onto Matt's lap.


Except, of course, Matt never sat down.  He's still hugging Angelina.


If Kitty Wilson had ever been in a critique group with me, she'd have left with half a Bic's worth of red ink on her manuscript.


But maybe I'm the only one who ever notices shit like this?  Am I just a mean, rotten, nitpicky bitch?

Reading progress update: I've read 19 out of 236 pages.

Breaking the Rules - Kitty Wilson

I should have FINISHED page 19 before I posted the previous update.








This is a paragraph that has supposedly gone through professional editing. 


Reading progress update: I've read 19 out of 236 pages.

Breaking the Rules - Kitty Wilson

Previous commentary here:



I'm starting Chapter Two, and it's more telling.


Rosy wakes up Saturday morning, hears a bunch of noise, and pokes her head out the window -- it's January -- to see what's going on.


New neighbors are moving in, and the woman entering the house is an absolute cartoon caricature.


I'm not liking this book or this writer at all.

So far, disappointing

Breaking the Rules - Kitty Wilson

I'm writing this on the Kindle, so if there are typos, they will have to wait until morning.


(Morning edits and slight additions.)


This book popped up when I went to the library's digital collection.  Even though I intended to get a book I had started several months ago, I opted for this because it looked light and frothy.


I've now finished the first chapter and it's been all tell and no show.


Rosy Winters is a teacher at a village school in Cornwall.  She has had to hurry home to fetch a forgotten book that she needs for a meeting with the mother of a student.  The mother is described as quite the dragon.  But when Rosy emerges from her house with the book -- a matter of a minute or two at the most -- she discovers she is blocked in her driveway by a moving van.


What kind of jerk would block a driveway?


There followed an inane conversation between Rosy and the removal man -- I got very tired of that phrase -- in which he rhapsodized about  the scenery while she sort of fumed that he was keeping her from an important meeting, which she told him about more than once and he acknowledged.


What kind of jerk treats a woman like that?


He knows he's keeping her from an important meeting and yet he keeps blathering on and on and on, as if to say "Oh yes, you said it's important, but you're just a woman, so how important can it be when I want to tell you all about the scenery right where you live and see it every day?"


Oh , but he's drop dead gorgeous.


And she has to stand on her tippy tip toes to be able to reach to tap him on the shoulder.


Friends I am barely five feet tall when I stretch, and I don't have to stand on my tippy tip toes to tap BF on the shoulder, and he's a foot taller than I am.


Removal Man finally moves his lorry and Rosy finally gets out of her driveway and races back to the school for her meeting.  I was expecting an exciting confrontation between Rosy and a difficult parent, with occasional flashbacks to the handsome jerk who made her late.  Maybe an awkward slip of the tongue.  What I got was a whole chapter telling me ABOUT the confrontation, which was mitigated by other people stalling the dragon lady and so the whole thing fell about as flat as leftover champagne. 


I had got the impression from this dull beginning that the book might be author-published.  There are a couple of reviews on Amazon that disclose the reviewers got ARCs from Canelo via Netgalley.  So I did a tiny bit of quick research.  Canelo Publishing is a digital publisher in the UK.  Though they boast of high standards, blah, blah, blah, this truly read like something I would have seen in a first round RWA contest.


There was some description of the village, with comments about the painted cottages and the spruced up "village shop" that now sold delicacies for a gentrified clientele.  But not so much as a mention of the weather, the time of year, nothing that might have helped to set Rosy into a complete environment.


And no dialogue!


Oh, there's the exchange with the unnamed gorgeous removal man, but it's mostly his monologue.  And the confrontation with the irate mother -- she never expressed irritation but just droned on about how wonderful her son was and Rosy never seemed to react -- lacked any spark at all.


Another thing that bothered me was names.  Rosy Winters is joined, at least by mention, by Harmony Rivers.  I just felt as though this was laziness. 



Happy Birthday!



As the neck stiffens. . . . . .

Yesterday was not a good day.  I managed to push through the pain of a stiff neck to get a few things done, but it wasn't easy.


One medium-sized project is crossed off the list, completed.  Because it required an extended stint at the computer, I suspect that didn't do my stiff neck any good.


I continued to make progress on the family photo project as well.  It, too, requires substantial time at the computer, not only to crop individual photos from the pages they've been securely glued to, but to zoom in on faint penciled captions and then to decipher unfamiliar handwriting.


A large crafting project also contributes to the physical strain, but it's something I really need to finish and get out of the way.  It's taking up considerable space in the studio, for one thing.  For another, it's an item I sell fairly regularly both online and in bulk to a local retailer, so I need to keep a supply on hand.  After having let my stock dwindle to barely a dozen, I'm now working on replenishment, slowly but surely.  Again, it's something that requires some physical strain and I know that's part of what triggered the stiff neck.


I was tired last night and went to bed around 10:00, but woke up at 2:00 a.m. in excruciating pain.  Both sides of the back of my neck were screaming to the point that I had severe difficulty getting out of bed.  I thought about taking some ibuprofen, but I couldn't even push past the pain enough to get the bottle out of the cabinet or find a drink of water.  I collapsed back into bed.


When the dogs woke me at 4:30 to go outside, I was even worse.  I don't even know how I got out of bed, but I did.  The dogs would have stayed out longer, but I got them inside with a promise of cookies.  Before I fell back into bed, I did take some ibuprofen.  By the time I next woke up at 6:30, I could at least move without screaming aloud.  Yes, that's how bad it was.


I was able to take care of the major early-morning chore, which was to change out all the tumbler barrels and move the stones along on their weeks-long journeys to being polished.  Even though it's not a taxing job -- the barrels are small so they only weigh a couple pounds each -- I could feel the strain to my neck and shoulders.  I finished about 7:30, then headed once again for bed.


Though I hadn't really expected to sleep, I dozed off into dreamland and had a completely terrifying nightmare that my bottles of Levenger fountain pen ink had all been smashed to smithereens and my Ultra-Tec faceting machine stolen from the studio.  Fortunately, it was only a dream, and a beep from my phone alerting me to an incoming text message woke me up.  It was 10:15.  I could move without significant pain.




I got up and took more ibuprofen.


It's now early afternoon.  I have accomplished certain objectives for today, crossing a couple more small items off The List.  I logged into the public library's ebook system, intending to finish reading a non-fiction book I started several weeks ago, but something else popped up and I'm going to try a frothy little bit of fun.  I need a few hours without controversy and angst.

Amazon is apparently removing reviews . . . again

And some authors are bitching . . . again.


Halfway civil discussion here:




Including the observation that it may not be a direct connection between that author and that reviewer that got the review(s) removed.


Slightly less civil discussion on Twitter (no link) because, you know, authors NEED those reviews and so it's OKAY to interact with readers and ENCOURAGE them to leave reviews, just like it's OKAY to swap reviews with other writers who are FRIENDS.



I woke up with the worst stiff neck in maybe forever

I almost couldn't get out of bed.  Unfortunately, I have too much work to do to baby it, so I'll just power through, I guess.


The list of things I wanted to do while BF is out of town keeps growing, but I'm actually getting a few small items crossed off the list.


I did find some photos of Topsy, the first of my grandparents' Chihuahuas, but they aren't good photos.  So here's one of me (sort of) with an unnamed dog.  That's me on the right with my mom, my grandmother in the middle with the puppy.  I have no idea who the other children are.  Taken in front of my grandparents' home on Owen Avenue, Edison Park, IL, 1950/51.


EDITED TO ADD:  I believe the address of the house is 6921 N. Owen Avenue.  From what I can determine via Google Maps Street View, the brick house next door is still there, and my grandparents' house is, too, though somewhat altered, which isn't surprising given it's been close to 70 years since they sold it.


Update on the Birthday Book

The genealogical and encyclopedic history of the Wheeler family in America  - American College of Genealogy, Albert Gallatin Wheeler

This photo completely confused me.  The names were in the birthday book, but they weren't quite right.  So I did some looking around online.



Sarah Drury McMurtrie (on the left) was my great-grandmother's sister, but she was only listed in the birthday book under her married name, unlike almost all the rest of the women.  And the fact that there were so many Drurys got me confused, until I did some online research and discovered that there were TEN children born to Richard and Ann Colbert Drury.  I don't know yet how many of those ten have surviving photos in my collection, but I have a feeling it's a bunch of them.  These, of course, are collateral branches, and when you start out with ten of them, they spread very quickly!


Ann Colbert Drury (Grandma Drury, on the right) was born in 1829.  I think I have her marriage certificate in my files.


This photo can be dated to 1889, since that's when Percy McComb was born.


I flatly refuse to fall down the rabbit hole of genealogical research, at least not beyond what's readily on hand or available with quick online searches.  I've been able to fill in a lot of gaps from the birthday book and correct a few errors, too.  This is helping me more completely identify the photos, which is my real objective.


I'm not sure how far back the Gerrie line on my grandmother's side goes.  Her grandfather, Forbes Gerrie, was born in 1830 in Scotland, but I think I have some records that go back a little further than that.


The Drury branch goes back to Richard Drury, who married Ann Colbert, and he was born in 1820.


One of the difficulties, of course, is that these are all very common names, so without specific dates or documentation, it would be nearly impossible to go back much further.


The Wheeler side is documented a bit more, going back to one Joseph Wheeler born in 1767, probably around Litchfield, Connecticut.  I was able to find a scanned copy of The Wheeler Family in America online and filled in few names, and then it occurred to me to see if it was available in a digital edition.


Ha!  And only $1.99! 


It's an OCR scanned version with gazillions of errors no one bothered to fix, which is the same as the various versions online.  I had already grabbed screen shots of the most relevant pages, but there are some of those side branches that I still need to fill in, so I figured it was worth two bucks.


And that way I don't feel so bad about posting old family photos on BookLikes!

The birthday book

Today's task is to enter all the names and dates and relationships from Mom Grace's birthday book into a spreadsheet so I can put everyone in alphabetical order.


Oh, and I'm watering the plants, too.  We haven't had significant rain since September or October.




Faint notes in pencil are mine.


Dogs, part 2, plus Norman

Norman Peterson was my great grandmother's younger brother, born in 1886.



When I first saw the following photograph, I didn't know who for sure it was.  It looked like other pictures I had seen of Norman, but fortunately, my dad had written on the back of this postcard and confirmed that identification.  I should check the address and see if there's still a house there.  It's a shame, though, that the stamp is so badly torn.



What I didn't know until I scanned the photo and opened it in the (basic) editing software was that someone else was in the scene!



So I enhanced it just a bit before posting here.  "Congratulations from all Chicagoans."

R.I.P. Harlan Ellison 1934-2018

From Twitter.


I have posted old family pictures with dogs before.  My favorite is Uncle Thomas Gerrie with his three dogs from 1915.



Years later, sometime in the 1940s, Tom and his wife Edith would give my grandparents their first Chihuahuas, Topsy and Tebo, who produced many, many generations.  Topsy lived well into the 1950s, and the last of the Wheeler dogs stayed on into the early 1970s at least.


When I found the tiny 1920 photo of the house my dad was born in, I didn't know until I zoomed in that sure enough, there's a dog!



I have no idea who the people are; the photo is dated 1920 and my dad wasn't born until 1926.


Today I discovered an even earlier one.  This is dated September 1908 and shows my grandmother Grace Gerrie (b. 1900) and her older sister Helen (b. 1899) with an unnamed Sheltie.



Beginning the photo project

BF left around 9:00 a.m. on his trip to California.  He'll be gone a week to ten days, and I already have a HUMONGOUS list of things I'm going to try to get done.


Many of the things on the list are small, but one of the biggest is this photo project I mentioned several days ago.  My dad's side of the family was much more into photography than my mom's, and the whole collection of pictures, some glued onto album pages and many just loose, ended up in a big cardboard box, about the size of a copier paper box.  In the 1950s and 60s, my Great Aunt Mabel was, as they said back then, a semi-invalid.  She lived with my grandparents and had a favorite chair in their living room, where she sat and patiently identified as many of the photos as she could.


How she ended up with them, I don't know.  She was one of the older children; my grandfather was her youngest brother, born 1901.  Sometime or other in the early 1980s, my dad gave me the collection.  I'm the only one left now who remembers any of the people in the photos, so I've assigned myself the task of digitizing them and providing as much information about each photo and the people as I can.


I started today.  The photos are all mixed up, so I'm going to have one heck of a time just getting them labeled and organized on the computer.


A few random selections:


My Great-grandmother Anna (nee Peterson) Gerrie and her sisters Inga (Peterson) Smeding and Augusta "Gussie" (Peterson) Harris.  I don't know the year of this photo or the location, but it's almost certainly somewhere in the Milwaukee-Racine, Wisconsin area.



September 18, 1922.  Wedding of my grandmother's sister, Helen Gerrie, to Elmer Baumgart.  My grandparents, Grace Gerrie and Nathan Wheeler, on the left.  Cousin Doris Harris, adopted daughter of Augusta "Gussie" and George Harris.



I don't think I ever knew Doris Harris, but my grandfather lived to 1976 and my grandmother to 1987, so well into my adulthood.  Her sister Helen died young, leaving three small children who were my dad's cousins: Robert, Richard, and Beverly Baumgart. I knew all of them, their spouses and children, too.  Elmer remarried a woman named Marge.  I remember both of them.


There is an extensive genealogy of this particular branch of the Wheeler family in America, but there are several branches and far too many descendants for me to track down just how we fit in.



An afternoon of reflection, an evening of determination

In case you missed the earlier rant that I spent five hours writing Tuesday morning, it's here.



It's outrageously long, but I needed to write it for myself.  I paid for it Tuesday night with an aching back from being hunched over the laptop so long.


This follow-up may be equally . . . wordy.  And it won't be written in a single evening.


The comment Debbie's Spurts left on the earlier post reminded me of an important point that she brings up frequently: bullying.


I've been called a bully when I've usually done nothing more than point out someone's errors.  Maybe they were violating Amazon's or Goodreads' or BookLikes' Terms of Service.  Maybe they were using trademarked or copyrighted material without permission.  Maybe they called a character in their book James Helston, Duke of Tamar, and then referred to him as "Lord James."  Maybe they sited the car accident at the corner of Dearborn and LaSalle in Chicago.  Maybe they set their 1898 western historical in the state of Arizona. 


Pointing out an error is not bullying.  Even giving a book a terrible, horrible review isn't bullying.  Even carpet bombing an author's entire list with one-star ratings isn't bullying.  It may be mean and nasty and petty and juvenile, but it's not bullying.


Bullying is done to benefit the bully.  Panning someone else's book doesn't help me.  It often hurts me, in that people are less likely to buy or read my books.  Or they may be inclined to rate or review my book unfavorably.  I'd do much better for myself if I just kept my fingers away from the keyboard and said nothing but nice things about other people's books.


But, you say, if I turn people away from buying other books, doesn't that boost the chance that they'll buy mine?  Am I not trying to thin out the competition?


Well, to be perfectly honest, maybe.  But if in writing a bad review and pissing off people I lower my chances of selling, what advantage is there in weeding out competition?


So why then do I write and post negative reviews, or even negative comments?  (The minor explosion on Monday night was not due to a bad review.  I had simply made some comments in a blog post that did not directly identify the book or the author; I posted no rating either.)


Part of the answer is easy.


When I read a book and write a review of it, I am 99.44% of the time reviewing only the book: the story, the characters, the format, the research, the style.  Sometimes, occasionally, the author's behavior will impact my reading, but usually that's in the positive direction.  Most of the time, however, I don't know anything about the author outside her or his writing.  That means my opinion is formed only by the book itself, good or bad.


Some authors don't like this.  They don't like my honesty.  Worse, however, they don't like my standards.  My standards are very, very, very high.


Sometimes the authors' fans don't like my critiques either.  They take the reviews personally, as though I were criticizing them, as readers, too.  I don't care what they want to read. What I do care about is that readers who want good books to read have the tools they need to find those good books.


This goes back to the changes in publishing over the past couple of decades.


The publishing of genre fiction has changed dramatically.  The most important but the most invisible change is the absence of gatekeepers.  Traditional publishing enterprises that have come through to digital from paper publishing still have editors and proofreaders, but those have always been invisible.  The marketplace only gets the end product, so it's difficult if not impossible for the average reader to know when the gatekeepers are operating and when they aren't.  Those of us who are activist readers -- following reviews, participating in discussions, etc. -- know how to determine if there are gatekeepers on a given book or not.


The vast majority of readers don't know how to tell the difference.


The vast majority of readers don't leave reviews, good or bad.


We don't know how many of the reviews that show up on any given book are genuine honest opinions of disinterested (unbiased) readers and how many are sock puppets of the author, friends of the author, purchased reviews paid for by the author, or recipients of free copies of the book who want to keep receiving free books.


Many readers aren't reading to analyze the books they read.  They just want to be entertained.


A friend of mine who does a lot of reading in a wide variety of genres and who is on a tight budget, too, recommended a Kindle freebie to me some months ago.  It was a spy thriller that she said she had really enjoyed and it happened to be set in a location I had told her I was interested in. She happens to have a background in the technology that was spotlighted in the story, so I figured she was recommending a good book.  Unfortunately, I found some glaring errors of fact in the first few pages, errors so huge that I couldn't imagine someone with expertise in that field wouldn't have caught it.  I who knew almost nothing still caught the mistakes!


But when I brought it up to my friend and told her I couldn't read a book in which the plot hinged on something so patently wrong, she just shrugged.  She had noticed the detail, of course, and knew it was inaccurate, but read on anyway and still enjoyed the book enough to recommend it to me.


On the other hand, she draws an absolute line on formatting.  She refuses to read anything with block paragraphs rather than indented, and I can't say as I blame her.  I don't like them either.  And she has very little toleration for poor spelling and bad punctuation.


There are probably a lot of reasons why readers don't pay much attention to these details, but that's not the point I'm trying to make.  What we don't know is how much their reading experience is less enjoyable because of, for lack of a better term, badly written books.  And how much better their reading experience could be if books were better written.


Reviews and blogs and online discussions are the only avenues we have for learning about the "average" reader's experience, but reviews and blogs and online discussions do not take the place of traditional gatekeepers.  They can perform that function, and it's possible that some of them do.  But most don't.  And they have no obligation to do so.


When a book arrives on the Amazon scene, the reader has no idea what, if any, editing has been done to it.  But because the self-publishing industry is still younger than a lot of readers, most readers believe there must certainly be some process through which a book passes before it's ready for publication.  Even if they don't know what that process is -- because it all went on behind the scenes in the past -- readers still believe that it's there.


Often it isn't.


The first three novels I wrote provide good -- and safe -- examples.


A Party of Ghosts, written when I was fifteen years old, lacks a lot of the structure suitable to define an actual novel.  The writing itself is decent, in terms of description and mixing narrative with dialogue, and so on.  The grammar and punctuation are fine, even though I was at the time a thoroughly lousy typist.  But I had no one to tell me how to structure a novel, how to build in conflict and character arcs.  It only ever had one reader other than myself, and he knew even less than I about plotting a novel.  I sent it to several publishers, virtually all of them inappropriate for that kind of book.  I received polite rejection letters.  I was a junior in high school.


The Ivory Rose, written about ten years later, has a much more coherent plot,  At least one of the characters has a well-defined arc from beginning to end.  I let several friends and family members read it, though none of them knew anything about the technicalities of story building.  Their comments were encouraging, but I did not take them as informed critics.  This particular novel sat with a New York agent for almost two years and collected a whole lot of justified rejections.  It never went anywhere else.


The Song of Sheba, written a couple years after The Ivory Rose, is an adventure fantasy along the lines of H. Rider Haggard.  By the time I wrote this book, I had a much better grasp of story structure, conflict, resolution, character internal consistency, and so on.  Two friends read it and liked it, but I did not bank on their recommendations because they weren't knowledgeable readers.  I did not send this book to any potential publishers.


Legacy of Honor, my fourth novel and the first to be published, was started in 1979, a year or two after The Song of Sheba, and finished in late 1981/early 1982.  I had now read several books on structuring a novel, and I had read literally hundreds more novels in the historical romance genre.  I shared the manuscript with several local friends, all of whom enjoyed it.  They were not knowledgeable critics either, so I appreciated their support but I knew I needed more critical response.  I became a member of a snail mail critique group in 1982, and over the next three to four years exchanged manuscripts with these other writers.  I learned an enormous amount from this experience.


In 1982, I began sending proposals of Legacy out to various publishers.  The feedback I received from editors was often limited to "thanks, but no thanks."  However, I did get some rejections that included helpful comments, to the point that I made a major revision to the book before I sent it to the editor who eventually bought it.


I learned more through the various experiences connected to the publication of six more novels . . . and the writing of at least three that were not published.  I belonged to critique groups, I judged RWA contest entries, I even worked for a self-styled literary agent for a while. 


And of course I continued through all this to read and read and read and read. 


Up until about 2000, this was more or less the course most writers followed.  When a book appeared on a store shelf, the automatic assumption was that both the writer and the book had gone through all the appropriate steps to put a finished, readable book in the reader's hands.


Unfortunately, many of the digital books that started showing up in online marketplaces had not in fact been through any editing process at all.  As these essentially rough drafts proliferated and digital self-publishing took off a few years later, readers got the impression "I can do better than that!" and they proceeded to do so.  Except their books weren't appreciably better than "that," and the cycle persisted.


Mechanisms then arose to monetize the publication of unedited, unprofessional books. Cover art improved, even if the writing didn't.  Digital formatting services could even make the text look good regardless how bad the writing was.  The fake reviews and book stuffing and rank manipulation and page-flipping bots are all symptoms of the far greater illness that is just plain bad writing.


This didn't really start with digital publishing; it started earlier with mechanisms that paved the way. 


Did it begin with the dumbing down of the American reading public?  Well, that certainly contributed.  Was it when a high school literature course was described as "comic books and science fiction" because the students wouldn't or couldn't read anything else, so they had to be provided with something in order to pass and graduate?  It wasn't that there was or is anything intrinsically wrong with comic books and science fiction; it was that these students were reading a narrow spectrum of literature and not reading it critically.  If they even went on to do any reading after high school -- and many of them didn't -- they hadn't been given the tools to appreciate it.


But even while I watched as some public high school reading curricula diminished the importance of critical reading skills, I also watched as the largest writers' organization dumbed down the writers.


I joined Romance Writers of America in the mid-1980s, after I had sold my first historical romance.  At my first few national conferences, I was surprised at how many of the workshops/seminars were targeted at the basics of writing. When I began judging manuscripts for RWA contests, I was appalled at the poor quality of some of the entries.  Believing -- perhaps foolishly -- that feedback on those entries would help the writers improve their product and take them closer to the goal of publication, I provided extensive, detailed critiques.  I got some pretty harsh feedback.


Common responses were that I wasn't supportive enough, encouraging enough, kind enough.  But, but, but, I countered, do you want to learn how to fix it, or do you just want a pat on the head?


I don't know what the membership of RWA is now, but by the time I left in 1998, the total was about 10,000, and the ratio was still about nine unpublished members for every published author.  Although RWA had instituted its Published Authors' Network ("PAN") in 1989 -- I was at the organizing meeting at the conference in Boston that summer -- and a few years later inaugurated the Published Authors' Special Interest Chapter ("PASIC") -- which I personally founded in 1993 -- the emphasis through 1998 remained on the unpublished and doing everything to help them sustain the dream that someday they might get published.


Take that how you will.  I'm not going to get myself in any more trouble.


There were scandals with unscrupulous agents.  One agent went around a particular conference bad-mouthing some of her clients.  I personally heard some of those comments because they were made to me by her about some of my friends.  When some of us reported her unethical behavior to RWA, we were told nothing could be done because unpublished writers still wanted agents.  "Even lousy ones?" I asked an RWA official on the phone.  Her response was that RWA couldn't take the legal risk of criticizing an agent.


Even when an agent stole money from a client?  Even then.  Yeah, I was one of those who was stolen from; I was lucky enough to fight back and at least not only get what the agent owed me but get her taken off the contract so none of my subsequent payments or royalties went through her.


So over the years, RWA took care of the unpubs at the expense of the published authors.  And when digital publishing came into its own in the 21st century, there was nothing stopping those who were desperate for publication and felt a certain grievance at all the gatekeepers who had denied them for so long.


That's one of the reasons why romance has seen the highest spike in badly written books.  There has been a stable of writers waiting for their opportunity.  Yes, it's also because romance has been the biggest market for genre fiction.  Yes, it's also because there are still readers who consume romance at levels not matched even by science fiction, the second on the list.


RWA, with its numerous conferences and booksignings, has taken the industry out of New York and into the heartland.  This is a good thing.  But in doing so, it has also encouraged that dream of wild success.  And it has fostered a connection between readers and writers that sometimes becomes unhealthy.  Social media has exacerbated this.  Readers become fans on Facebook pages and author websites and Twitter and Instagram, to the point that they see the online followership as the equivalent of personal friendship. 


And therefore woe betide the critic who dares diss a favorite author's new book.  Those reviewers and bloggers who might have provided some gatekeeping services now had to be very wary of just how critical they might be of a beloved author's book.


The whole Lauren Howard/Pippa catastrophe was an extreme example, because she herself did not have a following and the book wasn't even published.  She had sent out a few ARCs and listed the book on Goodreads prior to publication.  Someone gave it a 2-star rating without a review, and Howard/Pippa went ballistic.  People who didn't even know her came to her defense to the point of threatening bodily harm to anyone who dared tell the truth about Goodreads' policies!


Amazon had no incentive to provide any internal quality control beyond the basics of machine-checking for basic readability.  Even then, it sometimes failed.  But along with its subsidiary Goodreads, Amazon had less and less incentive to police reviews.  Authors were prohibited from posting negative reviews on Amazon if the item being reviewed was in their own genre, but authors could post positive reviews.  Many of those reviews, of course, were of books by their friends, even though that was supposed to be prohibited, too.  And it's still being done.


Many of us remember the difficulty of getting paid reviews and reviewers removed, even when hard evidence was presented.


Goodreads had all its tone policing in force, because of course they wanted the authors and their followers to stick around and buy ads and -- of course -- publish on Amazon.


Thus the removal of far too many potential gatekeepers for the self publishing authors, namely, the critical reviewers.


I know there's going to be a cry of "Gatekeepers kept too many of us out of publishing! They stifled niche markets! Down with the gatekeepers!"


But, no one on the other side of the gate gets to voice an opinion.  No, not the authors who got inside.  I'm talking about the readers who were reasonably guaranteed that the product they bought was of acceptable quality.  The authors screamed, whether it was because they were kept out or because no one was screened for quality writing, but no one heard the voices of the readers.


Bloggers proliferated, and some of them felt they could only stay in business by promoting books, authors, publishers.  "No negative reviews" became the mantra.  Reviewers like the late Harriet Klausner got visibility; authors like Anne Rice used their own visibility to tone police negative reviews.


In spite of all this, some voices persisted.  I was one of them.  Oh, I got banned from Goodreads for my sharp honesty in criticizing bad writing and badly behaving authors.  I have evidence that I was personally targeted by Goodreads -- and possibly through them by Amazon, but that's murkier -- in a way that no other reviewer was.  I came to BookLikes where I had hoped to continue at least to review honestly and avoid some of the drama.


Some of the drama, of course, followed me, but after a while that died down.  We had some little fires of controversy, but for the most part BookLikes was a haven.  I credit this community in particular with providing me the encouragement to take up writing again, and seeing me through the publication of The Looking-Glass Portrait. 


It was here that I posted about the "stuffed" books even before I knew what they were.  So I got involved with the unofficial group on Twitter to get some of those books removed from Amazon.  (There's a huge financial impact to the stuffing issue, but that's not germane to this discussion.)  Some people were impatient; they wanted the books removed immediately upon report.  I cautioned patience, because I knew how long it had taken to get fraudulent reviews removed.  To the surprise of a few, the books did begin to come down rather quickly; Amazon's notice of the official change to TOS regarding stuffing was dated 1 June, and before the end of the month (today is only the 27th) many of the worst "stuffers" have been removed.


The trolls who had defended the stuffers by saying stuffing wasn't explicitly prohibited in the TOS were never truly vicious.  They found some marks who fed them persistently, but the 280-character limit of the platform made it easy to avoid the heated, long-winded arguments that had led to the BBA crisis on Amazon and Goodreads, circa 2011-2014.  The Twitter version also lasted a much shorter length of time, a matter of weeks rather than months and years.  The cast of characters was smaller, too.  There were only three or four trolls (who may have all been the same person anyway.)


But I had forgotten the way defensive authors can act when confronted with their own shortcomings.  So the reaction to my criticism stunned me.  The trolls had been accusing all of us of being on a witch hunt (sound familiar?) and targeting the stuffing authors with the intent to destroy their careers out of jealousy.  The trolls defended the stuffers and insisted they had done nothing wrong and that we were the bad guys.  To have someone I believed was on "our" side turn around and attack me was a shock.


I admit I'm not knowledgeable about the new crop of authors of "new adult" romances.  I came back onto the book scene just about the time of the Beautiful Disaster battle, and nothing about the discussion of that particular book made me eager to read the genre.  I don't find abusive relationships romantic in any way.  Yes, even "broken" or "damaged" people deserve to find love, but in the kind of novel I personally want to read, those damaged characters are redeemed and healed through the process of finding and then earning love.


What I saw of the books being reported for "stuffing" wasn't appealing to me.  Nor were the stories related to the "cocky" trademark argument.  I'm not trying to tell other people what to read; I'm just saying this isn't my preference.  So when a new author entered the Twitter discussion, I often looked them up to see what they wrote.  I don't have the resources to support all of them; I have to be very selective.


I hesitated to write anything Monday night when I discovered . . . what I discovered.  I suspected there might be blowback, and I'm not at the income level of Anne Rice to be able to withstand a bunch of retaliation.  I had to decide whether to ignore it for the sake of my own potential sales (which are nothing to jump up and down about anyway) or make a discreet comment to express how I felt -- which is the way I've always felt -- about authors who go out of the way to defend bad writing, because they're usually guilty to some extent or other.


I chose honesty, regardless of the ultimate price.


When I explained a small part of this to BF last night -- a very small part! -- I realized I was defending myself perhaps just as unfairly as an author who can't proofread defends herself.  And I remembered how one of my favorite fictional characters of all time, Ash from The Far Pavilions, complained that so many things in life were unfair (p 232).  Ash also confronted George Garforth when Garforth was caught in a web of his own lies and told he should shoot himself.  That's exactly what Garforth did, too (p 234).


I've been a reader of historical romances for somewhere around 60 years.  I wrote and published seven of them.  Who knows how many more I might have written and published if I hadn't pissed off a certain editor?  And who knows if it was entirely my fault?  All I know is that I'm pretty sure I know good writing when I see it and bad writing when I see it, too.  And maybe that's all I've got to give the book community.


Maybe it's more than some others have to give.


As a long ago sportswriter for the Chicago Daily News said, 'Tis better to be honest and hated than corrupt and despised.