Professionals Perform

It should be obvious to anyone who reads this blog that I am not a professional author.  I have never made such a claim, despite the fact that I’ve written a bit.  I’ve traditionally published nonfiction with McGraw-Hill, I’ve edited quite a bit of nonfiction, and lately I’ve independently authored/published two novels.  And I write this blog which, I hope, occasionally doesn’t suck.  All of which does not make me a professional author.  I am a surgeon, and I write.  But I am a professional surgeon, and I am not, in any manner of speaking, a professional writer.IMG_1114

I make this point as a matter of introduction. I read a bit about writing, since it is my hobby.  Nobody who dabbles in this business can possibly miss the current controversy surrounding the seismic changes occurring in the publishing industry.  The recent changes have allowed anyone with a computer to publish a book.  I am, as I mentioned, a case in point.  This has led to a great deal of distress on the part of the established publication industry, exactly paralleling the cataclysm which struck the traditional music industry a little over a decade ago.  No surprise there.  What is unique to this authorship revolution, however, is the angst that this revolution has created amongst professional authors.  A case in point–

I recently read the blog post of Chuck Wendig at Terrible entitled:

feb, 2014

 At the risk of oversimplifying Mr. Wendig’s lengthy blog post, the gist of the problem as he sees it is that now that the barriers to publication have been dismantled, so many people are publishing so much bad literature that it is making it hard for readers to discover quality books and, in addition, that this lack of quality may lead to a backlash against independently published work.  This is a point that Mr. Wendig has made many times and is a point made by many concerned professionals in the field.

I don’t agree.

Oh, I wholeheartedly agree that we are currently experiencing an unprecedented wave of terrible, awful, self-published books.  Just like we’ve recently seen a surge of mega-best selling traditionally published dreck.  Nothing new there.  But I disagree with Mr. Wendig that this is a problem.  It sounds an awful lot like, “Those damn kids with their rock and roll are ruining all the good music for the rest of us.”  I don’t think Mr. Wendig has to worry so much.

You see, Mr. Wendig, you are a professional writer.  You dedicate all your professional energies to your craft, which is your job, which earns you a living so that you can put food on your family’s table.  That is not what I or these other yahoos spouting “the self-publishing shit volcano” do.  We dabble.  We emulate.  And very often, we suck.

You should be encouraged by this fact.  You should revel in the great discrepancy between your work and mine.  Trust me, if you decided to take up general surgery as a hobby and start taking out a few gallbladders on your kitchen table just for kicks, I’m not worried.  You are never going to approach my skill or professionalism in this endeavor.  If you can convince some folks that your hobby-level gallbladder removing skills are good enough to get a few people to lay down for a cut-rate cholecystectomy, I’m not feeling threatened.

Your job, Mr. Wendig, is to be so much better than the rabble that your professionalism makes you stand out above the crowd.  Your job, is to make sure that your work is valued and valuable, marketed in a manner that the audience/consumer finds desirable.  The music industry analogy is perfectly apt.  Believe me, Bruce Springsteen isn’t too worried that I can put out an album on iTunes using Garage Band.  However, quite a few million music lovers got a little ticked off when Springsteen’s albums were costing $18 a pop for a CD that cost thirty cents to make.  A lot of folks couldn’t afford $100 for a ticket to a concert in Madison Square Garden.  That’s when we all started to look around and realize that the bands playing at the local theater for $10 really were pretty damn talented.  So we went to see them perform, instead.  And then we bought their albums, instead.

So Mr. Wendig, don’t worry that most self-published books are terrible.  Just be professional. Worry when we start getting good at this stuff. 

The Blurb

The Problem With God

Book Two of The Claddagh Trilogy

What if dying is the easy part? Father Zimmerman knows all about Life, and Death, and God, and Salvation. He’s seen it all, lived and fought through wars and worse. Now, as a Jesuit priest teaching “The Problem of God” course to Georgetown undergrads, he’s used to being the one asking the tough questions. And grading the answers. But Life is so much more complicated than he imagined. So is Death.

When the woman with no name falls from a bridge, Zimmerman has the fleeting impression that he’s witnessing an angel falling to Earth.

He’s wrong about that, too.Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000039_00025]

Critic/Critique v. Reader/Review

~first posted 20 Jan 13

We are readers, and we all have opinions. There are books that we love so much that we must tell everyone about them. I remember loving a book so much I actually watched my wife reading it–I wanted to see her expression as she read. She made me stop after the first thirty seconds. (N.B.: I am not referring to that rather bleak time in our marriage when I had my wife read my first novel.) There are other books that disappoint us or genuinely irritate us as readers. There are those books that earn my ultimate and most cutting criticism: I couldn’t finish it. It is impossible to be a serious reader without having serious opinions about what we read.Minolta DSC

In the world of books, we are taught that not everyone’s opinion is equal. There are professional critics, individuals whose opinions are better than ours. For instance, I enjoy reading the NY Times book section every week. I enjoy it, despite the fact that frequently I don’t really understand what the critic is talking about, often to the point where I can’t even tell if he liked the book he’s reviewing. Always, however, the reviewer has some special knowledge or insight that he brings to bear in evaluating the book, some personal relationship with the material or deeply meaningful literary reference. It’s always something way beyond us ordinary mortals, and I always feel that I’m learning something important. What I don’t learn from these reviews, however, is what I want to read next.

When I buy a book based upon its prominence on the first page of the NYT book section or a particularly glowing review, I’d say I end up being happy with the book about one time in twenty. And that’s when I understood the review and thought the reviewer was a making a good (understandable) case for reading the book. They loved it, I hated it. We just don’t think alike.

Something different happens when a reader reviews a book. When my wife, or one of my children, or a coworker, tells me about a book, they are telling me their opinion of the book as something worth reading for the same reason that I read books: Is it entertaining? This is almost never the criterion that critics use to evaluate the worth of the book, but is the one judgement that is all important. Sometimes another reader will tell me about a book that he thinks is important, or meaningful in some way–but it is always well written and entertaining, or else he wouldn’t have read it and he wouldn’t be recommending that I read it. It is that level of opinion that leads me to my next great book.

Not all reader reviews are equal, of course. Great books get reviews such as the one in my last satirical blog post, which makes good authors crazy. Readers are more inclined to read the one star review than any of the five star reviews, no matter how many more of the five star reviews there may be. Maybe the guy has a really big family or something. (Plural marriages are a known method for writers to get lots of positive reviews. Amazon is currently cracking down severely on this practice.) These reviews are no less meaningful, however. A well written reader review tells us as much about the reviewer as it does the book; if the reviewer sounds like a whack-job, or admits to never having read the book, or admits to being a fan of Fifty Shades, I know that the reviewer and I differ in what we consider good. On the other hand, if I read a review on Goodreads by a fellow reader that has a bookshelf full of books that I like as well, I value that opinion, and I just might buy that book.

It is that level of opinion, the reader review, that will hopefully one day become the new gatekeeper to a book’s success. We are not there yet. Currently, the best and most important new fiction can simply disappear without a sound, because the gatekeeper authorities–the publishing houses, the major professional critics, the big book awards, all the major media outlets that tell us about the next great read–still are told what is worthy by a literary industrial complex which has existed for half a century. Perhaps not for too much longer, however. Keep reading, and tell people what you think.  Write reviews.  It’s the next great thing in publishing.


~first posted 9 Jan 13

This blog post sucks.inconceivable I cannot believe that I almost was willing to spend my hard earned money buying this crap right up until I realized that it was free. BUT I’M STILL PISSSED OFF because I spent a lot of my very valuable time reading this because I’m a very slow reader, but don’t think that makes me dumb because it doesn’t! I just take my time so that I can think about stuff but this blog post is just so stupid I should never have even started reading it but it looked interesting and the title was really cool but it really isn’t so don’t you start reading it too, especially if you’re like me and you just have to read everything until the end even though you know you’re just wasting your time but you can’t stop, not because I’m compulsive or anything but because I just keep hoping that the joker will have something really good to say but he NEVER DOES! So don’t read this. Read Fifty Shades instead because I think that was the best thing ever written since the Twilight series. Really. IMHO.  “Angry Face Emoticon”

You, Too Can Be a Writer!

~first posted 21 Dec 12

I’m sorry, but I am of the opinion that writing is not all that difficult. I know, that sounds wrong. We are all avid readers, we live in awe of the great books we have read over the years. As individuals and as a society, we pay great respect to our authors. They are constantly on Fresh Air, The Colbert Report, The Daily Show, Sixty Minutes–hell, they’re everywhere. It’s like they’re superstars, even though most are not all that photogenic and many mumble a lot. But we love them, one and all.IMG_0641

We love them, even though what they do isn’t all that difficult. I presume that they are caught up in the whole cult of the mysterious, creative artist thing we have in this country (though not to the degree they have it in France, say, or Sedona). I can assure you, however, that what you do for a living every day is much more difficult, and I say that without being completely certain what it is that you do. It’s easier, believe me. I bet that at your job, you don’t get to show up whenever you like, take a nap whenever you like (writers call this story development), grab a snack whenever you like. You probably can’t perform your job half-drunk or recovering from a bender (admittedly, I’m making some assumptions here; like you’re not a NY State Supreme Court justice). But the writing part, I hear you protesting, the writing is hard. Actually, it isn’t. If the writer can’t think of the right word, they have all kinds of reference books he can consult to help find it. If you write something really awful, they let you go back and rewrite it as many times as you need to–kind of like going to Yale. Hell, you don’t even have to be a really good speller–chances are they’re going to hire somebody to fix all that stuff anyway. I have to tell you, writing really isn’t all that hard. Certainly a lot easier than trying to get a half-trained surgical resident through the removal of a tumor from some patient’s liver without cutting open something that’ll make a big mess. I know, I’ve done both and believe me, the surgery thing is way harder. And you have to stand through the whole thing.

No, the writing thing is pretty easy. Even the hardest part–the part where you come up with the idea–is pretty straightforward. You’ve done it, I’m sure. You’ve had great ideas for a novel. You’re living with a schnook that’s more of a character than you find in most novels. You may have even lived through one or two things that would make a great story. You’ve told people about it, but mostly while you were pretty drunk at a bar that was so loud that she wasn’t really listening but just nodding and smiling to be nice. You could write a book.

But you haven’t. You should you know. It’s not that hard.

Eventual Rejection

I’ll be the first to admit that I take rejection badly.  This trait is fine for a surgeon (general anesthesia is a great way to avoid rejection), but is a problem for any new, aspiring, delusional writer, such as myself.  So, today I received the following terse, fairly standard email of rejection:

Thank you for your interest; unfortunately this falls outside of my area of expertise. I wish you all the best finding the right agent and publisher for your work

.-Chris P*__________

I should note that this reply arrived exactly one year after my query submission.Minolta DSC

So, I replied thusly:

Dear Chris:

Thank you for the courtesy of your reply to my query from one year ago.  Congratulations on your recovery from the deep coma that prevented you from replying in a more timely, professional manner. During your  absence, and due to a lack of any evidence during the past year that you or your company actually functions as a literary agency, I and my friends at the DEA have been forced to conclude that the financial transactions masquerading as the activities of a valid agent actually represent a probable money laundering enterprise for a Colombian drug cartel.  You may anticipate further inquiries in this matter.

Again, thank you for taking such a lengthy and appreciative interest in my work.  I’m sorry that I have been forced, in your absence, to pursue another path.  I wish you luck in your future endeavors as a “literary agent.”


Evan Geller

Which, of course, is yet another reason that I’m not “traditionally published.”

“Discoverability”: An Indie Author’s Publishing Parable

~first posted 23 Feb 13

[In the manner of those times when you showed up to the lecture that everyone else had cut, and the prof spent the whole class complaining to you about the poor attendance and then was so ticked off he refused to give the lecture…]

You’re not reading this, because you don’t know who I am. You’ve never heard of me, or this blog. Yet here I stand, knee-deep in snow in the Amazonian wildlands, the wind howling about me, as I toil at chopping down this huge tree, a mighty oak of a tree; a damn fine tree, if I do say so myself. And then, finally, suddenly, the tree falls…

…without a sound.IMG_1110

The tree lies there, silent and still, as I stand above it, victorious and proud, sweating, with heavy axe shouldered, my boot atop its fallen trunk. Breathing heavily–falling trees alone in the woods is hard, under appreciated work–I take stock of the magnificence of the work I’ve just accomplished, somewhat chagrined that there isn’t a crowd of appreciative well-wishers gathering about to clap and congratulate me on having accomplished the dropping of such a big and important tree. Why is that, I wonder.

So I wait for a bit; but no, it seems that no one is coming. Or noticed. In the distance, I can see quite a few people milling about other, lesser fallen trees. I really don’t get it, those are like saplings compared to this sucker here. Those folks don’t even seem to know what they’re missing, as if they really don’t know much about trees at all…

“Excuse me,” I hear a small, plaintive voice say. I reluctantly tear my gaze from the other, more appreciated trees, and look down to see a very cute little bunny caught by a branch of my fallen tree. “Excuse me,” he repeats politely, “but I seem to be caught here by your fallen tree. I’m sorry to be a bother, but I never even heard the thing falling, otherwise I certainly would have avoided your tree altogether. Might I trouble you for a little help?’

He is so cute and well spoken! “What is your name, little bunny?” I ask, kneeling next to him. I scratch his head between his pink bunny ears, but he doesn’t seem to appreciate this much.

“Is that important?” he asks, a bit annoyed after the head scratching episode. “I mean, just to move the tree a couple of inches and let me on my way? Are we to exchange insurance information as well? Can I expect a card on Easter?”

“Well, I was just trying to be nice, is all.” He is so fluffy, I’m sorry my tree has trapped his paw. I feel bad.

“Nice? Nice would be watching out not to drop a tree on any innocent soul that happens to be passing by. Or at least calling out something before doing so; saying, oh, I don’t know, something like ‘Tim-ber’ or ‘yet another self-important freelancer tediously dropping a tree randomly in your vicinity.’ Something like that would be nice.” I look wounded. “Reed. The name’s Reed.”

“Reed? Reed Rabbit? Is your middle initial ‘R’?”

“No. And my last name isn’t Rabbit, either, it will shock you to learn, I’m sure. As I myself would be, if your last name isn’t ‘Pathetic Dumbshit.’ ”

“Oh. Sorry. Listen, since you’re here anyway, would you like to discuss the critical importance of my tree? Or why this is the most significant tree felled in our lifetime?”

“No.” I see the fluffy bunny struggling to free himself.

“Well, if I free you, can I at least ask you to nibble a bit of the bark here? You know, just take a little bit to get the taste of how marvelous this tree is? Since you’re here already? Just a taste?”

“I think not.” Reed struggles mightily at the entrapped paw, somewhat panicked now. He looks up at me, obviously concerned that I’ve made no move to release him. “Listen,” he says with a slight twang of desperation, “how about you release me and I’ll mention to everyone I meet here in Amazonia just how decent a chap you are? How about that?”

“Oh, so you will try my tree then?”


“But then how–”

“Does that really matter? I’ll be on my way, you’ll be happy here with your twisted little bramble bush. I mean, look at this. It looks like a prop from ‘The Charlie Brown Christmas Special.’ Just lift the thing for a second. It’s the decent thing to do.”

I realize that the fluffy little fellow is right, though he seems a rather heartless little bunny. I stoop to lift the tree. “Maybe you could stop by my house here in the woods sometime, try my blog soup.”

“To be honest, I’d rather gnaw off my own paw.”