This Thing Called Communication

Whenever I start patting myself on the back for my ability to write, something happens to make me realize how very difficult is this thing called communication.

Today I texted someone to give my opinion about a course of action he was planning to take that would affect me. I immediately received a call from him chastising me for my anger. I was taken aback because I wasn’t angry. I was being direct, or at least thought I was.

phoneI got upset with the situation, and remarked this was always happening to me — I say something that seems unadorned and direct, and the recipient reads it as anger. My communicant today responded, “If it always happens, maybe the problem is with you.”

Perhaps it is. If so, how would I know? I only know what it is I think I am saying, not what it is people hear when they read my words. But come to think of it, even if I were angry, what difference does it make? I’m allowed my own reaction, especially when it comes to things that affect me.

Today, because of his call, we were able to smooth things over. Both of us apologized for the misunderstanding, but that ease of voice-to-voice communication is not always possible. And when that happens, things drag on, with the situation getting ever more complicated. I try to explain myself in subsequent emails but end up only deepening the misunderstanding, because each explanation seems as if I’m refueling the anger.

When we write fiction, we write to evoke emotions — anger, nostalgia, humor — but people don’t always respond the way we want them to. Sometimes the humor falls flat, the romance seems uninspired, the pathos insipid, but we as writers don’t end up in imbroglios because of the miscommunication. In fact, we seldom even know where it is we lost those particular readers, or if they even care. Maybe they felt something completely different and just as meaningful as what we intended.

But real life isn’t as easy. We leave people with impressions we don’t want to make, and no matter how precise we think we’re being, we end up causing confusion. Case in point: I sent this text to the executor of my father’s estate: “I’ve got a note on the cable box that it has to be returned to the company.” And I do have a note taped to the box. I put it there as a reminder to return the box when the house is sold. I just wanted to make sure it didn’t get forgotten or thrown out in the flurry of post-sale activity. But the executor thought I meant that I received a note from the cable company about the box. Eek.

Considering all the misinterpretations that are possible as words slip from one mind to another, it’s amazing that we can communicate at all.


Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Perplexed by the Anything-Goes Publishing World (Part I)

In a recent discussion on Facebook, someone mentioned the case of a self-published story that was being offered for sale on Amazon. A woman posted a review, stating her opinion that the work was far from ready for publishing, and she gave the writer several examples of how to improve, but the writer took these comments as insults. What ensued was a protracted argument between the writer and the reviewer.

The Facebooker who brought this exchange to our attention asked who was right and who was wrong. I thought the reviewer brought up some excellent points, gave wonderful suggestions for redoing the story without getting disrespectful about it. (And the reviewer could have gotten nasty. The story really was atrocious.)

I can’t imagine arguing with a reviewer as the author did, though. A couple of times I have privately asked a reviewer to remove a spoiler that gave away the ending (and the reviewers graciously complied) but the writer in this case had a terribly unprofessional and arrogant attitude. She more or less said she could publish whatever she wanted, it didn’t have to be perfect, and too bad if people didn’t like it. Unfortunately, there are millions like her, which leaves me continually perplexed by the entire book business today.

The major publishers have had control of publishing standards for way too long. I certainly have no love for conglomerates or corporate thinking, so I don’t object to a lessening of their control. On the other hand, many writers now think they don’t need any standards at all. They say they can write whatever they wish, however they wish. The prevailing attitude is that as long as the writer is satisfied with the book, that’s all that matters. They don’t care if their story is derivative, if the editing is slipshod, if typos litter the pages.

Some of these writers even manage to sell a significant number of copies of their books.

Self-published writers seem to be a militant lot, demanding the same respect as authors whose books are published by a traditional or an independent press, yet self-published authors adhere to no one’s standards but their own, while a book that was accepted by and released by a publishing company has had to live up to at least the publisher’s standards. But some self-published writers do adhere to a high standard of literacy while some bestsellers released by the major publishers have an appallingly low standard of literacy.

Does any of this matter? With texting and twittering, leaving out letters of words to shorten them or using number for letters is standard. (AFAIK, u cn rd this. Me 2. LOL) Eek. Whole novels have been written in such shorthand.

Do kids today learn grammar in school? Do they need to know grammar? With spell check and grammar check on their computers, probably not. So, if books today have grammar mistakes, punctuation mistakes, typos, do most people even notice? Those of us who have spent a lifetime reading do notice, but do we count? We value language, but is language important? Language is an evolving organism, so perhaps those of us who quail at poorly written and poorly copy written books are running a race that has already been lost. A new generation grows into adulthood every year along with a new generation of electronic toys and tools and together they spawn a new generation of idioms. A new language.

I don’t know why this new anything-goes publishing world perplexes me. Most writers seem thrilled with the new order of doing book business. They don’t have to take the time to research the business, finding out which agents will accept their genre and which publishers they can submit to without an agent. They don’t have to learn how to write query letters or learn how to write a description and a hook. They don’t need to learn to deal with rejection. And especially, they don’t need to learn how to improve their work to make it as near perfect as possible. They simply decide to publish. That’s all it takes.

And most readers seem thrilled to find myriad books to download to their new ereaders.

So perhaps it’s just me who worries about a lessening of standards. Perhaps this new frontier, this stampede to publish and be damned (or not) is what everyone else wants. It’s certainly not the first time in my life the world didn’t act in accord with what I thought was the right direction for it to take, and it certainly won’t be the last.

See also: Perplexed by the Anything-Goes Publishing World (Part II)