Slow Words: A Not-So-Sweet Non-Romance


C.S. (Susanne) Lakin has written a number of novels from her heart; none of them have been particularly successful or renumerative.  She got tired of, especially, that latter part.  So she researched what genres and subgenres sold especially well among self-published books, and found that "Sweet Historical Western Romance" had a reliable buying audience even without labor-intensive or expensive marketing and promotion.  ("Sweet" is a euphemism for "No Sex" in this context.)  She'd never read or written in that genre before.  She found books by one of the most popular authors in that subgenre, "deconstructed" one of those novels, and used what she learned to write her own, COLORADO PROMISE (published as by "Charlene Whitman").  That book has been making fairly steady earnings since its publication.

Lakin went on to write an article about that experience, and the article was published recently on Joel Friedlander's The Book Designer blog.   Another version of that article appeared on writer Barbara Rogan's blog.  Both got a lot of appreciative comments.

A-a-a-nd... some not so appreciative comments.  Including several from Debra Holland, the author of WILD MONTANA SKY, the novel Lakin deconstructed.   Apparently, there was some degree of contact between Lakin and Holland before Lakin began writing her own SHR novel.  Exactly how much seems a little uncertain, and it also seems a little uncertain how clear Lakin was about the process she was using to try and emulate Holland's success.

Holland's first comment, on the Book Designer blog, was very -- very -- politely phrased, but with a clear undercurrent of some annoyance.  A later comment, on Rogan's blog, was rather more forceful about Holland feeling, umm, under-informed about exactly what Lakin had planned to do.  Lakin chimed in with her own replies, also growing increasingly testy.  Various commenters, both defending and criticizing Lakin, have added to the discussion.

As Internet arguments go, so far it's actually been pretty mild.  If I was trying to make a video version, it would be filled with eyerolls, significant glances and glares, haughty chins, impertinent sniffs and long sighs, ending with simultaneous flounces by everyone involved.  More like something out of a Georgette Heyer novel, rather than, say, John Ringo.

(The John Ringo version would have bullets, blood, and things that go *BOOM*.)

A few points in response to the whole situation:

I wish Lakin wouldn't use the term "deconstruction" for the process she used to study the SHR genre and Holland's particular novel.  "Deconstruction" has an established meaning in academic Literary Theory.  For a bumper-sticker version, Deconstruction tries to find the meaning behind the meaning in literature (or, more exactly, the contradictions in meaning) (or, ultimately, the impossibility of a clearly defined meaning).  A fairly plain-English explanation of the theory can be found on this webpage from Bedford St. Martin's.  A more jargon-ridden definition can be found here on Wikipedia.  (Deconstruction Theorists tend to use dense, complex, jargon-heavy writing when writing about deconstruction itself.  Critics sometimes speculate this is to disguise the fact that Deconstruction Theory has no clothes.)

What Lakin seems to have done with WILD MONTANA SKY is what I'd call a "breakdown" of Holland's novel into its essential structure.   This is not the same as copying or plagiarizing, but it seems to be more than "influenced by" or "in the style of".  As an example, both books open with the first chapter from the female protagonist's view, and the second chapter from the male protagonist's.  In both books, the female protagonist is an Easterner for whom unexpected circumstances compel a move out West, where she's a fish-out-of-water.  And, as the genre requires, both books are set in a historical period in the Western United States and involve a romance.   So the books are similar in overall plot and character progression, but not identical.

(I'm basing these comparisons on the "Look Inside!" excerpts available on Amazon.)

Larkin's actual process in breaking down Holland's book is a little vague at this point.  I'll have a bit more to say about that further below.

But "deconstruct" is definitely not the term she should use for that process.  It conflicts, badly, with a long-established meaning.  (Also, the word "deconstruction" raises, in a lot of people's minds, the image of Artsy-Fartsy Hoity-Toity Ivy-Tower Academic Snobs; it's not a "positive" word by any means.)  It makes my fingers go *twitch* and try to reach for a red pencil when Lakin misuses the word like that.

A number of other words might possibly be used to better effect.  How about "evaluate", or "study", or "modeling", or "analyze"?  (I think that last one may be particularly appropriate.)  Or, if you want to go a little more metaphorical, you might describe such an analysis as "How To X-Ray A Book -- Discovering The Anatomy Of A Novel".

Studying other people's books as education and/or guidance in writing your own is a long-standing tradition.  There was some well-known writer -- Roger Zelazny, perhaps? -- who, when starting his writing career, re-typed some of Theodore Sturgeon's stories to gain a better understanding of the choices Sturgeon made in plot and character and words.

"Formulas" and "Master Plots" have also been around a long time.  Lester Dent, who wrote many of the Doc Savage pulp-magazine stories under the Kenneth Robeson housename, used his own Secret Master Plot to turn out reliably-written adventure stories.  David Eddings had a checklist of elements to include in his fantasy novels.  When I was trying to sell movie scripts back in the 1990's, there were screenwriting how-to books that advocated, variously, a 3-part, 7-part, 12-part, and 21-part structure to screenplays.  So there's nothing intrinsically wrong with Lakin taking apart Holland's book and trying to write something similar or even with the same underlying anatomy.

But there are two aspects of this contretemps that leave me a little uneasy:

I think Lakin probably didn't give herself enough time to consider all the aspects of her project.  In particular, she didn't give enough thought to Debra Holland's end of the experiment.  Holland seems to have had only a vague idea of what Lakin intended to do with WILD MONTANA SKY.  One of the specific complaints that came up was that Lakin had asked Holland for the name and contact info of the cover artist for Holland's books; when the artist was contacted, Lakin reportedly claimed to be a friend of Holland's and told the artist Holland would be just fine with it if Lakin's bookcover resembled Holland's covers.  (Images below)  Other people have been uncomfortable that in Lakin's original articles, mention of Holland's name and book-title were left out.

It's a matter of courtesy, and openness, and professionalism.  If you're going to model the structure of your book on that of a specific book by a specific author, it behooves you to show that author more than a widow's-mite of respect.  I think Lakin was deficient on this point.  It's pretty clear that Holland certainly feels she was treated unprofessionally and with a lack of respect.

(The easy lesson here may be that, if you're going to model your work on another writer's example, pick a dead writer.)

Lakin is one of those writers who push heavily for writing quickly and publishing lots.  (She has a blog for writing advice, and critiques manuscripts in addition to her own fiction.)  Some writers do well with that sort of regimen.  (I'm not one of them, as my Slow Words Manifesto makes clear.)  I think in this case that attitude, that rush to publish, may have come back to bite her in the butt.  She'd have been better served to have sat back, taken a deep breath, and taken more time to think about her experiment and its possible ramifications and consequences.

The other thing I'm uneasy about is that Lakin's experiment comes across as, well, kinda cynical and mercenary.  And not just because, hey, she wanted to write something that would sell better than the fantasy books she'd put her heart into and actually, you know, bring in a respectable income.  Even if said something was in a niche genre of which she was, at first, almost completely ignorant.

But what makes me most uneasy, what comes across as even more cynical and mercenary, is that Lakin has said, based on the success of her experiment, she's going to be publishing a "how-to" book, explaining to others how they too can find a suitably well-selling subgenre, "deconstruct" (*twitch*) a novel from that niche, and use it as the basis for their own work.

And she's going to base this how-to book on... one sample?  On the sales success of one book?   That's... bad science.   One sample isn't even a statistic; it's just a datum.  A successful experiment is one that's repeatable.  Lakin should repeat her experiment with several books, or half a dozen, before she writes such a how-to book.  As currently conceived, the testing of Lakin's experiment will be done by the people who buy her how-to book.   That's worse science, and bad how-to writing.

I'll be a bit blunt here: Ms. Lakin, if you really publish such a one-sample how-to book, I will feel embarassed for you.

And if Lakin does publish such a how-to book, I certainly hope she'll take the time and thought to put in a chapter dealing with the issues of openness and professionalism that have come up since her articles were published.

No comments: