(Alternative title: “Sometimes, he has many, many complaints about a novel and some concerns about reviewing it.”)
Remember when, several weeks ago, I shared a short poem by Robert Frost, along with an explanation of the difference between populous and populace? Maybe you thought this isn’t the sort of thing any writer really has to worry about: surely, aside from the occasional Creative Anachronist making a flyer to announce some festivity, no one uses a word such as populace anyway.
Well, let me tell you…
I’ve been trying to read (when taking breaks from unpacking boxes after a move to a new house) a science fiction novel that had, just in the first twelve percent of it, not one but four instances where populous was used as a noun to refer to the people living in a given place. That means it wasn’t an accident the first time; the author (and/or the person who did the copyediting/proofreading) actually believes populous is the correct word.
It’s not the correct word.
It’s not even a noun.
Supposedly the novel was edited, or rather proofread, according to the acknowledgements (but a lot of people think only developmental editing is editing, and anything dealing with grammar and punctuation, or syntax and diction, is mere proofreading, and therefore not important). Perhaps the author believed that, by telling the reader who did this so-called proofreading, he could make sure no one would ever have anything negative to say about the quality of the writing: You don’t want to disrespect this woman, do you? *sigh* It’s not disrespectful to say someone has done a bad job when they really have done a bad job. And what about this indie author showing some respect for the readers? I find it disrespectful to shove something this badly written at a reader and expect ’em to like it just because the “proofreader” is somehow related to the author. (A traditionally published author may or may not have any control over how their novel is edited — possibly Lois McMaster Bujold didn’t want numerals used in dialogue in The Warrior’s Apprentice, but someone at Baen said, ‘This is how we’re gonna do it anyway, ’cause it’s sci-fi, and sci-fi readers like lots of numbers‘ — but for indie authors, it’s ultimately their own responsibility if their editor/proofreader makes a mess of things. You want it to be done right? Make sure the person who does it knows what they’re doing, whether that person is you or someone else.)
The mix-up with populace and populous is far from the only problem with this novel, mind you. The writing in general has the sort of pretentious feel that usually comes from the diction and syntax (choice of words and phrases, and the arrangement of those words and phrases to make sentences) not being natural to the writer. The punctuation… is so bad that I don’t even have a suitable metaphor to tell you how bad it is: sometimes even blows goats just doesn’t cut it. Random capitalization happens at a Rate I haven’t seen since the last time I edited a Military Sci-Fi Novel written by an ex-Military Author who didn’t know that Civilian writing, including Fiction, is done differently. No, scratch that — it’s even worse. And the story itself… Well, I have a feeling this isn’t the last bloggish tirade you’ll ever see about this particular novel.
I’m not mentioning the title here because my actual review of this thing won’t be as angrily tirade-y. I just need to get all this out of my system, and maybe even to let other readers know that it’s okay to dislike a book when, in purely objective terms, it sucks.
(‘But a book is like the author’s baby, and you should never say someone’s baby is ugly.’ Well, maybe the book’s parent should put some pants on Junior, tie its shoes, and teach it not to pick its nose in public before letting it out into the world, yeah?)
What’s a bit sad is that, if the author had gotten someone — anyone — with adequate knowledge of the mechanics of writing help polish his manuscript before publication, the novel wouldn’t be nearly as bad. It would be at least at the level of ‘Not to my own tastes, but I’m not completely flabbergasted that there are people who kinda like it.’ (The “big picture” stuff like plot pacing and amount of description are partly just personal taste. That is why developmental editing isn’t as easy as copy editing. Yes, I said easy. Correct punctuation and grammar aren’t the only things that matter when writing a book, but they are the minimum that any published work should have.) Fix the pervasively bad punctuation and grammar (and homophone glitches!), and then the repetition, the over-explaining of simple concepts, the mildly wonky tech, and the faux-Latin names wouldn’t be quite as much of a problem.
(I admit to some worry that, if I say anything “out loud” about the problems I keep seeing in this novel, the author will “retaliate in kind” by giving one of my brother’s novels a bad review, although I don’t have any reason to think it might happen, aside from knowing that some people do engage in such behavior. The thing is, I can — and will, if asked — give specific examples of what’s wrong with this novel, and also give evidence that those things are truly, objectively wrong. On the other hand, anyone claiming that Project Brimstone has “grammar errors on every page and also lots of bad punctuation” would be factually incorrect, and they would not be able to give specific examples to back up their claim. Of course, when have typical denizens of the internet ever cared about facts and evidence?)
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about contacting the author privately and attempting to explain the problem. I don’t normally do this, though. Once a book is published, I assume the author isn’t going to make major changes to it (and believe me, the necessary corrections to punctuation alone would constitute a major change), and… Well, a high percentage of indie authors (y’know, the ones who can make necessary changes to their novels if they choose, because they don’t rely on someone else to publish ’em in the first place) don’t seem all that concerned with “trivia” such as grammar, punctuation, and consistent use of capitalization. Also, remember I mentioned that the novel’s “proofreader” is related to the author? If I say anything at all about the errors, I’ll be saying mean things about someone in the author’s family… *sigh* I don’t want to trigger a retaliatory on my clone-sibling’s novels. (‘I love the story, but the writing is horrible. Next time, Mr. Spence should hire a professional instead of letting his idiot twin brother do the editing, because it’s obvious that Thomas doesn’t know a damn thing about punctuation or spelling.’ Not that any such retaliatory review would be written with correct punctuation, but whatever… )
And on the other hand, I strongly believe that reviews should be honest. If the grammar and punctuation in a novel especially bad, and that interfered with my enjoyment (or even comprehension) of the story, it would be dishonest, in my opinion, not to mention that. I don’t have to/shouldn’t go into full detail in the review of everything that’s wrong, but a brief mention does seem in order, because there are still readers in the world who kinda like a story to be written competently, and it’s unfair not to warn them about books that aren’t.
So here are some questions for you, O Readers of my blog: What would you do in this situation? Do you think I should contact the author privately and say, ‘Sorry, dude, but this book has way too many errors in it. Would you prefer that I just not review it, or are you okay with me giving it an honest review, which would have to mention those errors?’ or should I not even give the author the choice? If you think I shouldn’t contact the author, do you think I should still review the book?