Saturday, December 1, 2012

Wesley Crusher Die Die Die

I sell a $0.99 story, The Aristotelian, and a $2.99 anthology of stories, Finding Time, so this post tacks close to the wind. You should not buy every $0.99 and $2.99 ebook you find on Amazon. Maybe it's because I'm an evil, running-dog capitalist, that I make enough money to make these prices seem quite small. But some $0.99/$2.99 ebooks are no bargain. This is a post arguing against the indiscriminate buying of low-priced ebooks.

Every story is an investment by the reader. The writer has a fiduciary responsibility to protect that interest. The writer who forgets that is a thief and a cheat.

The reader takes her hard-earned, after-tax dollars and buys your book. Then the reader sits down and reads it. We all have a limited amount of time on this Earth. The reader's investment is thus the sales-price plus the time spent reading. This is time that might otherwise be spent catching up on sleep, exercising, or enjoying another hobby. For all but the poorest among us, the time-cost is the harder one to justify. A novel will consume a long Friday night, or an entire weekend, depending upon how long it is and how quickly one reads.

How do you know before you sit down to read whether you'll get to "The End" close the book and think, "More please." OR you'll think, "That's time I'll never get back."

There was a time when wise men of compassion and vision saw publishing as a high vocation. Such men sought to protect the public from inferior prose. They served as watchful dragons making sure only the right words got published. And often publishing dreck that pandered to their bigotry along the way.

Independent publishing means there are no watchful dragons today. Anyone can upload anything to Amazon and get their mother to write a 5-star review of it before suppertime.

This creates a broad spectrum of writing that you can buy for not much money. Some of it is easily identifiable as horrid. Some of it absolutely rocks. (You should decide about "The Aristotelian" and "Finding Time" for yourself.)

The absolute worst thing you can encounter on the Kindle is neither horrid nor awesome. This is what happened with me last night. I had purchased. The Last Praetorian by Mike Smith and I started to read it.

The first thing I noticed was the grammar. I think I can get its/it's and there/their straight, and I feel rather comfortable with who/whom. But lay and lie are a minefield I tend to walk about if I can. These are all mechanical things you can fix if you take the time to learn the rules of grammar and ruthlessly review your text, OR hire someone who already knows the rules of grammar to apply them to your manuscript.

Then I noticed the misspellings. Any fool can find the little red squiggles underlining the wordz spelt worng. But a writer gets no such warning when he says discrete when he means discreet. This is where you need to hire someone who knows the differences and has an eye that can spot them in your manuscript.

I have only myself to blame. I read the opening chapter and the hero, Jon Radek, is the YOUNGEST officer to ever COMMAND the MOST ELITE unit of the BIGGEST empire in human history. He wields the SHARPEST sword ever. And he is assigned to guard the EMPEROR and his spoiled PRINCESS who just so happens to be the MOST BEAUTIFUL woman in the galaxy. The hero not only is an expert with all things martial arts, he is also the BEST PILOT in known space.

Have you noticed any of superlatives in the last paragraph? A perfectly serviceable story can be written around little people. Beginning writers don't realize this. A beginning writer doesn't realize s/he shouldn't make the protagonist and/or love-interest some version of himself. That's the problem with Wesley Crusher in particular and Mary Sue characters in general.

You can be a very good writer and fall into this trap, as I believe Dorothy Sayers did with Lord Peter and Harriet Vane. I think Ms. Sayers fantasized about a perfect man, then wrote him up as Lord Peter Wimsey. And then to indulge her own fantasy of having such a man, she wrote up Harriet Vane. I'll have to take this up with Ms. Sayers when I see her.

Meanwhile, back at the Last Praetorian, the hero is all those superlatives. But did you notice that he never has to practice? He never has to work out in the gym to have those rock-hard abs? He never spends any time in the flight simulator honing his mad skillz?

Likewise this hero is reluctant to kill, because he's seen too much killing in his life. Really? How do we know? We never saw any of it in the opening chapters. And when he chokes the life out of an assailant he doesn't seem remorseful.

The problem is that even in space centuries from now, human nature will still be recognizable. The characters in this story are just chess pieces moved about at the writers' whim according to the demands of the plot. And that's a hallmark of really bad writing: an obliviousness to human nature. Any character, good, bad or ugly, has to have motivation to do the next thing. That motivation can never be "to advance the plot." He may be like Conan or Inigo Montoya looking for revenge. Or Ferris Beuller just taking a day off.

And if you make your hero the owner of an interstellar shipping company, the emperor of a galactic thang, or the captain of a ship o' the line, s/he's a leader with followers. Same goes for your evil villain. S/He'll have minions (which are better than followers b/c you don't have to pay them as much). This means your leader will have to show some hallmarks of leadership or your book will suck.

The spear-carriers have got to have some motivation to keep on following. I quit reading Last Praetorian before I got to see much of the villain's organization. From what I did read, the minions would have ample opportunity to see the villain as inept, venal and certain to regard minions as cannon fodder.

This has been a pet peeve of mine ever since I saw Ernst Stavro Blofeld pet a Turkish Angora Cat while feeding a minion to a shark.

I think one of the hallmarks of a good writer is the ability to create believable motivations for the villain. Why does he live in an extinct volcano instead of the Hamptons? Why does he have a huge world map with blinkie lights behind his desk? Yeah those things were cool when I was 15. Same for Persian cats and monocles. But no sane minion follows a fella with the maturity of a 15-year old. Why follow a putz like that? Does he have a great dental plan?

I quit reading the Last Praetorian, but not before wasting too many hours reading it.

Whenever you read any story, it will raise questions in the mind. What has become of the Emperor? Is he really dead? How did Jon & Sophie get to the Imperial Senate? Why did they separate? Will the Senator's son whose life Jon spared grow up to become a valued ally?

The reader is made physically uncomfortable by story-questions that remain unanswered. This motivates the reader to stick with a story even as s/he is rolling eyes about cardboard characters and furious about the bad writing. That's why I would rather happen upon a story I despise and can quickly dismiss. Nope, no need to read about robot lesbians, next. Nothing I can relate to, I felt no discomfort abandoning Hegemony.

But I liked the Sten novels. And I like Mark Van Name's Jon & Lobo stories. Last Praetorian reminded my of them. So, I bought the novel and disregarded the early warning signs.

At some point I decided the discomfort of leaving the story-questions above unanswered was going to be less than the discomfort of finding them to be answered in an unsatisfactory fashion. My worries of a third-act fail made me think Last Praetorian was a negative sum game.

And the only way to "win" a negative-sum game is to not play.

Two stars. I wish it had been one star so that I would have quit reading sooner.

Because a friend recently got a bad review, and lamented the fact that the reviewer had not "thrown her a bone." I'll throw Mr. Smith, who wrote The Last Praetorian, a bone:
  • your world building does not suck, though it reminded me too much of Andromeda, you can build on it.
  • hire a copy editor and/or fire whoever you had copy-edit Praetorian.
  • hire an editor-editor to point out structural problems and Mary Sue characters.


  1. Hi Steve,

    I’ll start off by being magnanimous and thank you for your obviously very candid thoughts about my book. I will take your points on-board and like everything I do in my life, strive to achieve better the next time.

    I do not plan on refuting your comments, point-by-point, you obviously have your opinion and I have mine. However, I would like to leave a few thoughts of my own as a counter point to your article…

    I fully take on board your points about my grammar. Hindsight is a wonderful thing and I wished I had taken more time to get this checked. Unfortunately as a young father with two children, I just could not afford the few hundred dollars that it would cost to do this. At the time I took the view that few people would be interested in my story, and ever fewer would bother to download it… How wrong that I was! My family have given me tremendous support on this project and now agreed to pay the upfront cost of a professional editor / proofreader to check the book. I will be posting this updated revision – again at no cost.

    My second point of contention is that you take issue with the book for minor things, to quote,

    “I read the opening chapter and the hero, Jon Radek, is the YOUNGEST officer to ever COMMAND the MOST ELITE unit of the BIGGEST empire in human history. He wields the SHARPEST sword ever. And he is assigned to guard the EMPEROR and his spoiled PRINCESS who just so happens to be the MOST BEAUTIFUL woman in the galaxy. The hero not only is an expert with all things martial arts, he is also the BEST PILOT in known space.”

    While I will not take issue with your point, it does lead me to wonder, did you spend so much time nit picking that you failed to actually look at the bigger picture i.e. the story? At the heart of the book it is a love story, she might be the most beautiful, most spoiled princess – but she is also a young woman, scared, having just lost her family. He might be the youngest, best, most elite officer, but he is also just a young man, who failed in his duty. I think many of the more positive reviews that I have received (and their have been many!) managed to overlook these small points, and instead fell in love with the characters, and the story.

    Perhaps I could ask you to waste a few more hours? Over look the little things, put aside my grammar mistakes and look at the book for what it is? An imperfect love story. Perhaps you could comment on this instead?

    Just a thought.


    Mike Smith
    The Last Praetorian

  2. Mike, thanks for responding. I would feel bad to deny you equal time.

    I've responded via e-mail and hope we can have a profitable exchange. Like this one between two writers after one slammed the other here.

  3. I read the last praetorian and while it did not have a great sense of the Galactic whole, it was very certainly well written and, spelling errors aside, I can cheerfully say that yes, I will buy the sequel, as I found the story line to be simply entertaining. This is what most people who buy books get from them. We do not need to spend 5 months analysing the point to point interrelationships of grammar and the psychology of language

    1. Kevin, I appreciate your opinion. I have corresponded with Mr. Smith and offered to try again with a cleaned-up edition of Last Praetorian. There are other excellent stories with similar story lines who deserve to be read before this one.

      However, I believe you've missed the point, or are being obtuse, the protagonist of this story is a superlative character who every man admires and every woman wants to bed. There is no area of human endeavor wherein he is not the best.

      This is a rookie mistake that I've elaborated upon elsewhere--it is not a grammatical error, but one of characterization.

    2. Hi Kevin,

      Thanks for the feedback I am glad that you enjoyed the story line. I fully take on-board your point about a lack of sense of the "Galactic whole", however, this is the first book in a trilogy and I wanted to focus on the key characters in this book. The "Galactic whole" is coming and come the last book...well I do not want to spoil the conclusion...


      Mike Smith
      The Last Praetorian


Those more worthy than I: