by Janis Patterson
Last week The Husband and I went to the Novelists Inc. conference in Florida. It was a simply splendid conference – it always is – with so much truly useful information concentrated into just a few days that it felt as if my overstuffed head exploded regularly. An organization for professional, working novelists, NINC is fantastic. The location – the luxurious Tradewinds Resort in St Pete Beach, Florida – isn’t bad, either, and the chance to network face to face with one’s peers while sitting beneath a palapa looking at the beautiful ocean and indulging in an umbrella-garnished tropical drink is downright luxurious. Okay, so the last is more wishful thinking than actuality – the conference is so intense and so wonderful you don’t want to miss a minute of it. There are moments of relaxation and conversation, though…
The Husband and I drove to the conference, hoping to make a mini-vacation out of the trip. Mostly we succeeded, enjoying the scenery and the intimacy of being just the two of us in the car. It was wonderful. We stopped at graveyards and courthouses in Mississippi indulging our passion for the Tombstone Twitch (sometimes known as genealogical research) and searching for his ancestors who fought in the Late Unpleasantness With the North. We had so much fun doing this that we cut our time extremely short, meaning the last day we had to drive way into the night in time to make it home so he could get back to work on schedule.
I like to drive. I like long driving trips. I would just as soon drive as sit, so I ended up doing most of the driving while we chatted or The Husband slept. The only thing is – the roads are just too d****d crowded, even in the wee hours. The lanes going the other way were almost brim full, as were the lanes going our way. Remember, this was mid-week, not a weekend. Since it had just gone midnight and we were in deep country far away from any town I couldn’t help but wonder where in the world all these people were going!
For a while the driving was easy – everyone was tooling along at a respectable 80 or so and traffic moved smoothly. But as nothing nice lasts for long, the crazies started taking over. There were two rust-bucket sporty-style cars that were obviously racing each other, darting between cars like maddened mosquitoes. They didn't stay around long and were soon out of sight. (There’s never a policeman around when you need one!)
And there was this cattle truck – a big 18 wheeler double deck cattle truck – that zipped in and out of lanes as if he too were driving a sporty-style car. Then he would slow down to a decorous 65 or 70 for a few miles, then be off speeding and zig-zagging again. His trailer must have been empty – not only did it wobble somewhat alarmingly during his more precipitous maneuvers, but any animals in there would have been panicking and probably have overturned it. To say nothing of being very seasick.
Up until now, racers and a mad cow trucker aside, the traffic had been going fairly smoothly. Everyone was going just about the same speed and it was easy driving. Then – still far away from any town – the traffic flow began to slow and jam up. My first thought was, “Great! I’m stuck in a traffic jam going 70 miles an hour!”
Inexorably the traffic clot thickened and slowed until we were down below 50, then 40… and everyone in the right lane was making things worse by shoving their way into the left, slowing the clot even more.
Finally the cause became obvious – in the right lane was a gigantic fifth-wheel RV being towed by an equally impressively sized pick-up, trundling along at a decorous 50 miles per hour. Both lanes of the traffic clot, as visible in my rear-view mirror, were a solid chunk of headlights that went back further than I could see, which in this flat country meant it extended for miles. The pick-up/RV kept puttering on at the same speed, ignoring the chaos it was causing behind it. They couldn’t help but know they were causing a problem, for as soon as a vehicle pulled past them it would shoot away into the dark. That, plus - I surmise - the air surrounding the RV was probably bright blue from the curse words hurled at it by probably hundreds of frustrated drivers. And yes, before you ask, that definitely included several of mine.
Before you get upset, I will admit that it is legal (most places) to drive the minimum speed limit of 50 on a crowded superhighway. That feather-footed idiot did have the right to do so… legally. Morally… I’m not sure. A great number of people were inconvenienced and probably endangered to say nothing of enraged by his doing so. (For your information, the speed limit on that stretch of highway is 75.)
Just because one can do something does not mean that one should. For an analogy, think of MicroSoft and the way they quit supporting perfectly good programs just to make us buy expensive new ones chock-a-block full of stuff we neither use nor want… just because they can. And, of course, they want the money.
For that matter, think of self-publishing. Now I love self-publishing. I self-publish almost exclusively these days. It gives writers a new freedom and access to the public that is unparalleled. Unfortunately, it also empowers people who think that if they string X number of words together they will have a book which will guarantee them fame and untold riches. All they have to do is get it in front of the public. Even more unfortunately, their numbers are legion.
Seriously, do you have any idea of just how much total dreck is out there? I mean, have these people never heard of editors? Or even spell-check? It’s revolting how bad so many of these books are. What’s worse is that this dreck is giving all self-published books a bad name. Many multi-published traditional writers are now self-publishing, only to run into roadblocks built to “maintain literary standards” (a phrase a book store manager used to me not too long ago) – meaning to keep out the dreckers. (Is that a word? If not, it should be.) Reviews. Bookstores. Signing events. Just mention that your book is self-published and immediately shoulders start turning cold.
I’m not advocating a return to the era of the rigid gatekeepers and the write-by-committee mentality that seems to grow there… but there has to be some way of distinguishing real books from badly-written wish-fulfillment rubbish. Reviews on electronic sales sites like Amazon? Hardly. Some of the worst books have many many glowing reviews, doubtless begged from everyone from the author’s next door neighbor to their milkman. Word of mouth? It happens, but it’s hard for anyone to instigate efficiently, from drecker to NYT author. A committee of recommendation would be too much like the elitist old agent/editor gatekeeper system.
I don’t have any answers… just questions. Somehow you’d think the world would be better ordered.
A NOTE - For years I have blogged two times a month on Make Mine Mystery, on first and third Wednesdays. It’s been great, but an onslaught of new contracts and other obligations has severely cut into my time, so this is the last time I will be blogging on first Wednesdays. I’ll still be here on third Wednesdays, so please don’t forget to come by.