Call me Goat

Cover of the book. A red silhouette of a despondent man with hands in pockets against a stark black and white abstract background. The font chosen for the title and author name is an art deco style, for no reason at all, certainly nothing to do with the contents.

Just kidding. There’s nothing about animals in this book. It’s all about torture, as the reader realises they have spent ten bucks on something that is at least over mercifully quick. A bit like a boyfriend I used to have, now that I think about it.

Many years ago, I sat in the spectacular Bass Hall in Fort Worth for a literary event. I forget the name of the author now, but she had quite a reputation. It may have been Lisa Wingate, who at that stage did not yet have any of her books on the New York Times Bestseller list, but had a solid series of Christian romance and philosophical stories set in Texas and the South. I bought a few books then, and I’m still buying them, umpty-wop years later. And loving them. She writes with passion and devotion, and she knows how to tell a story. Her books get read to the end.

After her presentation, she took questions. There was a guy waiting in the aisle, and when the microphone came to him, he didn’t ask the author about her books or her writing style, or how she came up with the titles. No, he announced that he was an author too, and he had here a copy of his self-published book, and he would like to present it to his fellow author.

Which he did, and I think he even attempted to embrace the lady author right there on the stage. Possibly he had reservations at Billy Miner’s and a suite at the Holiday Inn if she was interested.

Reader, I cringed. At that point I too was an author, having self-published something on Lulu – remember Lulu? – under a pseudonym. It was a kind of funny, kind of preachy, kind of self-centred travel book, and after a bouncy start it ran out of puff long before I’d finished writing it. But people said some nice things about it and it sold a few copies to family and friends.

So I was an author, but not a real one. Not somebody that people invited onto the stage of a massive auditorium to address a crowd of thousands. But at least I wasn’t trying to equate myself with somebody famous simply by having written enough words in a row to call a book.

I was reminded of this when I read a first book by a new author. Call Me Ghost by “MJ” Hague. He has a website promoting his status as an author, a blog, an Amazon author page, a Goodreads author page, book promotions, podcasts, all the trimmings.

I read his book, labelled as a military thriller, and I’m afraid this is one of those instances where I’m going to decline to leave a review on Amazon and Goodreads. Like Uber, I always leave five star reviews, and I would feel bad about doing it for this book.

So I’ll offer some advice instead. Maybe this makes me a patronising bitch, and I am hardly dealing from a position of strength, given my abysmal sales figures, but it’s always easier to criticise the work of others.

First, if you are going to write in English, know your language. A bigger vocabulary helps a lot, and the English language has more words than she knows what to do with. Help her out. There are many words to convey nuances of meaning, and if the same noun or verb is repeated too often, the reader tends to switch off.

Running the text through a spellchecker helps, but some words may be correctly spelt and still make no grammatical sense. Spelling and grammar and syntax go hand in hand. The idea is to make the words flow smoothly, rather than having them jar and grate with typos and oddities of grammar.

“Where are located, Daniel? All you have to do is tell me and I will head there right away.”

Daniel chuckles, “that is one thing that I love about you, Lester … your ability to just put it out on the table in such a way, that it seems logical to at least consider the notion.”

There is a weapon in his hands, but it facing the ground.

Punctuation should be used correctly. Used correctly, it is invisible. If not, it jars and interrupts the narrative flow. If the sentences above don’t jar – for reasons other than the missing words – then maybe you should find an English teacher to explain why.

It is fine to have characters speak in a distinctive style. Even so, the rules of punctuation should be obeyed; they show what is going on in speech. Nobody ever says, “something like comma oh comma I don’t know ellipsis” in real life.

And it is fine to have a distinct authorial voice.

But in both cases there should be reasons for doing so, rather than just “I’m special and different.”

If the narrator of the story is a child or a foreigner, fine, show it. Everyone can understand why Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird speaks in a certain way. Or why the various characters – of whom the author is one – in Huckleberry Finn have peculiar varieties of English.

But don’t go torturing the language for nothing more than effect. It will turn off your readers and detract from the story.

The story. A story can be just a series of exciting and dramatic incidents one after the other. But as body number umpteen hits the ground, what is exciting becomes boring.

The story here is essentially: “We have a rogue in our midst, identifiable from the first lines in the book, all you guys with red shirts go out and look for him. Your first priority is finding him after he vanished through that massive plot hole, and your last priority is returning alive. Go!”

Big spoiler here. They guys in the red shirts don’t make it back safe.

But the recovery squad does. Their job is to clean up the carnage. All the bodies, all the burnt-out vehicles, all the spent ammunition, all the evidence disappears into a gigantic semi that just rolls up like a Roomba the size of a block of flats and never gets noticed.

The cops turn up, and there’s nothing left behind, just the taillights of an unmarked pantechnicon disappearing round the corner. Newsflash, author. In this day and age all the action has been livestreamed by onlookers holding phones that are capturing every moment in hi-res vision with audio. The detectives just have to contact Facebook to find out what happened.

Now that I’m going back over the text that I skipped over before in the search for something readable, there are a couple of words you could usefully lose. “Team” and “coffee”. Yes, I know that this is a story about a team of red-shirts getting eaten by one of their own, and that the most exciting incident is one of these guys getting shot through his caffeinated beverage slurry, but you don’t have to use these words like a Swedish fish-slapping contest to get your point across. When they show up in every sentence, it’s a distraction.

Show, don’t tell. Gawd. The whole thing is the author explaining stuff to the reader in between random red-shirts falling to the floor in exciting ways. Let the story tell the story. I like to be teased, and solve the little puzzles that the story-teller sets up. I don’t need to have every frigging detail mansplained to me.

The setup is unbelievable. This coffee-swilling team is some super secret government outfit full of hunky misfits and cannon-fodder, with every possible resource a black ops budget can provide. Um, why? We don’t get mansplained that part. Oh, right. It’s secret.

When these guys get into trouble with the cops, they just identify themselves as “Oh, I’m Federal Agent Puce, and I’m here to help,” and the hard-boiled dicks just melt into a puddle of coöperation, holstering their revolvers and tipping their hats.

Next time I’m pulled over, I’ll try that line.

Speaking of hunky, every time these chaps glance into the mirror of self-description for the benefit of the reader to find out just how hunky the characters are, we find that “the ladies” just can’t keep their hands off them.

That’s all the romantic interest right there. These guys don’t have anyone waiting at home. They just have “the ladies” in Toronto groping them whenever they let their hair down, and it’s all done in moments of self-reflection in two or three words. Had a boyfriend like that once.

This particular lady suspects that all the action is happening in the squad room when the red shirts come off for some steamy teamwork, but that bit doesn’t get mansplained, neither.

There are three characters in this story. The first is a hunky rogue operator, superskilled and smart, who is as predictable and exciting as a Toyota Camry rolling down I-95. The second is a red-shirt who gets killed about a million times. And the third is an experienced homicide detective who acts like Bingo the cute lil’ puppy. There are dozens of each character with different names: Matthew, Daniel, Sean, Tom, Max, Scott, Ryan, Justin, Eddie, Samuel, Lester. The Prep Squad, no black guys or women allowed.

Oh hang on, there is a female character. Her name is Base, and she doesn’t do anything exciting like go out and get shot or groped by the coffee-guzzling hunky white guys. Nah. She mans the phones and presses the buttons on the amazing technofranistan that black ops provided to do secret stuff behind the scenes.

Okay. Confession time. I read this as part of some “let’s read each other’s books and build each other up” #WritingCommunity boondoggle, and I cannot believe that I interrupted a big chunky intricately-plotted novel from a world-famous author of painstakingly researched historical scientific philosophical works for this drivel.

The best part comes right at the end, where we discover that the author spent 26 years planning this novel available as a paperback of 134 pages for $9.99, is working on the next episode in the series, scheduled for publication in 2045, and plays the cello.

Critical acclaim for this work comes in Amazon reviews from “Favourite Auntie” (five stars), the author himself (four stars), four reviewers who either have reviewed nothing else ever, or things like everyday carry bags and cheap aftershave, three who leave short but glowing reviews (five stars) and a couple of honest people (two stars).

Michael the author, if you’ve read this far – and you have, you are probably steaming root beer vape from both ears about now, and it’s warming your soul as a PNW winter looms – please don’t write another episode of crap like this one. It is truly awful in every way. Not the worst book I’ve read, but getting there.

Buy a copy of a good writing text – Strunk’s The Elements of Style is my pick. Also a text on how to tell a story – hard to go past Robert McKee’s Story – and write about something you know. If that is steamy guy porn, then maybe use a pseudonym so the folk at your patriotic dogma church don’t shun you in public.

You have done something that 99% of the human race has not done. Published a book. You know you can do it. That it itself doesn’t make the book worth reading, but you’ve cleared a hurdle that most of humanity has regarded as insurmountable.

Join a writers group and get your stuff criticised. Criticise the work of others. Honest criticism given and received is gold. If you can get someone to pick apart a page of your stuff, really dive into the nooks and crannies of the thoughts that produced the words, then you should worship at their feet. But don’t approach someone with a chunk of text for criticism unless they specifically ask for it.

I’m guessing that you are somebody who believes their thoughts and cannot understand how anyone could have a different view to the one that God put in your head. Here’s a thought. Reject your thoughts. If there’s a chattering voice in your head, it is talking trash to get your attention. We’ve all got one of those, and paying attention to it keeps us from doing anything useful. Go sit on a headland or a mountain, still the voice, and think of nothing but the breath coming in and out of your nose. See what your subconscious comes up with after half an hour or so, and contemplate that.

And for the love of all that is holy, before you put up another word on Amazon, pay for an editor to run over it a few times.

If you can follow that advice and share what is truly in your heart, then I’d be interested in reading it.


art, life, publishing, reading, review, writing , , ,

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