Thursday, July 21, 2011

Etiquette Lesson for a Hot Day

Hello Chickens!  I've missed you.  Are you sweltering?  Your Polymath is fairly melted, and has been quite busy this summer, as you may have gathered.

Some basic updates to report since last we spoke, I am almost finished with the new book!  It is due August 1, and I have been typing furiously to ensure that it is completed on time and is as good as I can make it for a first draft.  It is a piece I am ENORMOUSLY excited about, and I think you are all going to love July.  It has been somewhat hectic, what with getting the new book sold in November, getting engaged in December, married May 1, and honeymoon in June and July, but I have persevered and am frankly delighted with the results so far. 

Charming Suitor and I have returned from our glorious two-week honeymoon in France, which exceeded every expectation.  While we were gone our nest was getting re-feathered.  My place had not been painted since dinosaurs ruled the earth.  So we wanted to be sure to spruce it up a bit in honor of the nuptials and as part of the purging and merging.  You do not really know how badly someplace needs painting until you remove things that have been on the wall for nearly two decades.

Of course, painting a whole place requires that you remove all flotsam and jetsam and move all your furnishings, and little fairies do not show up to put it all back.  So while the painting is done, and looks wonderful, our house looks like it was hit by a tornado.  It was our every intention to put it back together quickly, but the heat has stymied us.  This is an old building with old electrical.  We have never been able to run more than one air conditioner in one room at one time without blowing the fuses.  The place is very large.  One little window unit at a time REALLY doesn't cut it.  Especially for poor CS, who gave up his own fabulous house (WITH CENTRAL AIR) to move in here.  The man is a saint, and I thank the universe every day for his tolerance and patience.

The areas we need to put back together?  Are eleventy million degrees.  We can't cook, the kitchen is too hot.  We decided we needed to make an investment in our future and our comfort and our sanity.  So as of yesterday, a fabulous electrician has doubled the size of our panel, and put designated AC lines in the kitchen, dining room, and a honking 220V line in the living room.  Home Depot helped us acquire a couple new units, 18,000 BTUs for the living room alone, and by tonight, this place should be cool and inviting.  Except for the tornado part, but we are assuming that once we don't get heat stroke walking around the house, putting it back together will be an easier process.  You will get some pics when it is completed, I promise.  You will not get pics now because my mother would be horrified.

In other news, I did want to address something that happened earlier today.  I got an e-mail from my agent forwarding an e-mail from a reader, which had also been CCd to my publicist.

Was this a business related e-mail that my agent and publicist should have received?  A request for review copies or a personal appearance or someone wanting to inquire about the stage adaptation rights to one of my books?


Someone wanted to let me know that some of the words in one of my books were not her favorites.

I was going to leave the response just for her, but thought I would share, since I hope it is illuminating.

Her e-mail read as follows:

Hi Stacey ~

The space you leave for sending you an email directly is very limited, maybe intentionally!? Really not room to write more than a sentence or two at the most.

I just finished "Room for Improvement" and found it lots of fun. Even though I'm a woman in her 50's -- I still love partying, men, and home improvement shows.

I do have a couple complaints that I've seen addressed by other readers too in their reviews. I am not a naive prude but I find the word c**t to be extremely crass and unnecessary and know this is an opinion pretty much shared universally. I also don't mind a f**k (literally and figuratively) on but I think you had a few more f bombs than necessary. But, even these aren't big issues, what I really found annoying and aggravating was your excessive alliteration
. :) I even consider myself a fan of alliteration but I felt in doing this every few pages it was actually over the top, distracting and bothersome; I found myself underlining and counting them. Just curious as to why you did this? It was way too often to not have been a conscious decision. Was it intended to be humorous? Or to emphasize? Or ? ? ? Do you use excessive alliteration in all of your books? It would actually be easier if you didn't because it's got to be very time consuming to look up all of the appropriate adjectives that start with that particular letter.

Please don't be offended by this complaint. Whenever I have an issue I email the author. I don't know if my noticing all errors in writing is a blessing or a curse, but I know I can't help myself. Yours weren't even errors just suggestions for improvement. I've found far worse things -- like on one page having someone from Wisconsin and then a few pages later from Iowa or having a character page a doctor on the golf course because she's in labor but it's in the middle of the winter in a cold, snowy state where even the biggest golf fanatics don't golf in the winter.

Thanks for your time. I look forward to your reply.


Let's look at this for just a moment, may we?  From an etiquette standpoint, and for the edification of us all when it comes to reaching out to a stranger?  And before we begin, let me just say that I genuinely love when readers get in touch, it makes my day.  And even people who write in to say that a subject matter made them uncomfortable, or a theme didn't speak to them, or a character seemed to do things out of sync with the story....I really do like hearing about such things, since any writer is a work in progress and thoughtful critique can be helpful to hear.  But this particular missive hit a bunch of my hot buttons, so I needed to vent to my Chickens.

Number one, she sent this to my agent and publicist, whose contact information is on my website for business purposes, because she believed that the small box provided on the contact page would not be able to accomodate the enormity of her message.  But here is the thing about those boxes.  You aren't necessarily limited in terms of volume, and had she just typed her message there, she would have found that the contact box on my website has no limits, her whole note would have fit without a problem. 

For readers out there who notice that there are contact people listed on websites, you should read the fine print and see if your desire to reach out can find the right person.  On MY website it says to contact my agent for film, television or translation rights, and to contact my publicist for interview or personal appearance requests, or press kits.  In neither place does it say "or any random idea you would like them to take time out of their busy schedules to forward along to the author".  Again, you have been provided with a perfectly acceptable method of direct contact for me, using it would be lovely. 

Number two, in criticizing my use of the "f bomb" she felt it necessary to inform me of her literal and figurative love of "a f**k".  TMI, people, TMI.  If it isn't a piece of information you would share with your kid's kindergarten teacher, don't tell me.  I have received MUCH personal information from readers and NONE of it is any of my business.  (Also?  If you must write to me and tell me about the steamy affair you have been having for years with your boss, please do not send it from your WORK e-mail with your full signature at the bottom, because now I know where you work, and can easily find out who your boss is, and in this economy, blackmail is beginning to look like a good place for career expansion.)

Number three, she presumes that in order to use alliteration, I would be spending a lot of time "looking up" adjectives that begin with a certain letter.  Let me be clear.  I do this for a living.  Words are quite literally my business.  I know enough of them to not have to peruse the dictionary for the ones I need.  I'm not saying, I'm just saying.  (We'll get back to word choice in a moment.)

Number four, she asks me not to be offended by her complaint.  (Which, for the record, I'm not, it takes much more to offend me.)  But as a general rule, if you have to ask someone to not be offended by something, it usually means you are about to say something offensive.  I actually found it sort of hilarious that despite the need to upbraid me for my use of profanity, it was the ALLITERATION that really pissed her off.  Which to me was sort of like saying that while you would have really preferred there be fewer people in the gang bang scene in the porno, what you would really like to address is the choice of background music.

Finally, she refers to the personal curse of "noticing all errors" in books.  And yet, she wasn't writing to tell me about misspelled words (of which there are a few) or grammatical errors (of which I make many because I spent much of elementary school making fake fingernails with scotch tape and white-out, or smearing glue on my palms to try and peel off in one piece like fake skin, and not so much paying attention to diagramming sentences).  She was referring to the use of profanity and alliteration.  Which I guess she thinks of as errors, but I think of as artistic choices.  Potato, potahto.

At any rate, here was my eventual response to her.  I thought I would share.


 I wanted to be sure to respond to the e-mail you sent to my agent and publicist.  I also wanted to mention for future reference that authors include contact information for those people on their websites so that someone wanting to inquire about purchasing film or television rights to books, or to request interviews or public appearances are able to speak to the appropriate people.  As it actually does say specifically on my website where you acquired their e-mail addresses.  They are not there to serve as a conduit for readers, and any author would prefer that regular folks wanting to express opinions use the provided form.  My form is only small in size on the screen, but is not limited in terms of how much you can type there.  If you had just put your note in that box you would have discovered that for yourself.

 If you do want to contact other authors in the future, on behalf of all of us, please do not attempt to do it through their agents or publicists, as it is not their job to filter general contact.  

 I make it a general policy not to address specific complaints people have about my work.   Some people love it, some people hate it, some people shift from book to book.  My personal feeling is that once the book is published, it doesn’t belong to me anymore, it belongs to my readers, and I can’t  tell them what to think or feel as they read.  It is never my intention to do anything other than tell a good, compelling, interesting story.  It is not my intention to offend or annoy, but I know that those are two very legitimate responses to my work.  But at the end of the day, the work must stand on its own, and I don't ever feel the need to defend it to anyone. 

 I can only say, since you seem to be asking if I used some of the words I used “on purpose”, that as an artist whose medium is words, I do choose mine very carefully.  And I choose them because I believe they are appropriate to the story, to the moment,  to the character, to the momentum of the action or the cadence of the language.  Sometimes I choose them because I think they are funny, or because they might wake up a reader in that moment, or because I like the sound of them.  English is a rich and spectacular language, and I, like George Carlin, don’t think that singling out a dozen or so to avoid because they might disturb the delicate sensibilities of a few people is terribly interesting. 

You may choose to use whatever words sit most comfortably with you, and I would never dream of criticizing you for NOT using ones that you don’t like.  I personally find the words moist, pustule, and engorged personally unpleasant, and therefore refrain from their usage.  But others should feel free.

As to whether alliteration is a part of my general bag of tricks, it was specific to that book and that character and is not a part of my other books.

 Thank you for reading, I wish you the best.


I hope we all can learn some valuable Emily Postesque lessons from poor Susan*, since even when it comes to criticism, there are still proper channels, and good form is always appreciated.

As I have mentioned, the new book is due August 1, and for the sake of the quality of your summer reading pleasure next year, you will of course, I know, bear with me for being somewhat out of pocket.  I have a lovely backlog of recipes and tales and will have some pics of the house to share once I meet my deadline.

In the meantime, stay hydrated, check on your elderly family, friends and neighbors, and continue enjoying your summer!

Yours in Good Taste,
The Polymath

*TOTALLY her real name


  1. Wow, people like Susan really piss me off. The point of that is what, to help you? I wonder what other lucky authors she has contacted with her "issues."

  2. "*Totally her real name." Oh Stacey I was waiting for that and you totally didn't disappoint!

    Some people have seriously too much time on their hands!

  3. I find it extremely arrogant to feel the need to inform an author of "mistakes." We all find plot holes and inconsistencies in many many books...but I challenge anyone to write a novel and remember all the details from one end of the book to the next. Good grief, I write 20-30 page papers for a living (as a professor) and I find crazy things myself, that my colleagues-as-proofreaders even miss. Stacey, kudos to you for handling this so professionally and calmly. "Room for Improvement," is, coincidentally, my favorite of your books.

  4. Dear Susan - you had time to go through the book and underline and count all the occurrences of alliteration? Then you felt the need to let the author know how much this bothered you? You either have a very interesting form of OCD or are seriously lacking a life. I would suggest you quickly find a hobby - other than reading.

  5. sorry, I got sidetracked by the fake fingernail making and glue as fake skin activity - totally explains why I still cannot for the life of me pick out a prepositional phrase

  6. Hahaha I had to laugh at your * footnote. SO awesome! I recall a slight gasp at the drop of the naughty C word but I understand that you used it for a reason and totally support you and (via George Carlin) your reasonings.
    What a great snarky response :) Love it!

  7. And I thought you'd call her out on her total lack of manners illustrated in addressing the letter to Stacey...she doesn't know you...Ms. Ballis would be far more proper!!
    If people actually write this kind of crap to authors I'm starting to feel compelled to tell authors when I LOVE (love, love, love) what they you:)

  8. I totally did the glue-fake skin thing. That was a good time in my life! Haha

  9. WOW! "Whenever I have an issue I email the author. I don't know if my noticing all errors in writing is a blessing or a curse, but I...."

    That email is AMAZING! Who does she think she is? And how does she have all this time to help all these poor, incompetent authors. Aren’t you so “lucky” to someone so “knowledgeable” take the time to “help” out? I shudder to think what you and all the other successful authors out there would do without someone as “special” as her…

    Scotch tape nails – what great memory. I used to then color mine with magic markers so they looked polished…

  10. You answered her email so perfectly! I have to say, I'm pretty much 100% sure I wouldn't have been that poised and polite if someone sent me an email like that about my work...kudos to you for rising above :D

  11. yay!! my summer has felt so empty without your blog! (yes I am a stay at home mom, and no I don't get out alot) :)
    But seriously, good job on the email, Emily Post would be pleased, you handled yourself with Grace Kelly charm, and Katherine Hepburn type wit!

  12. Wow, I didn't even notice any alliteration--I guess I'm just a simpleton that was merely enjoying a good story! Perhaps nitpicking non-existant flaws was what they were teaching in 1st grade when I was busy creating beee-u-tiful rings and bracelets for/all over myself with colored magic markers. And "*TOTALLY her real name" was the perfect cherry on a delicious cupcake of a post. (I hope Susan doesn't mind simple/saccharine metaphors). Excellent work!

  13. I kind of love you right now, Ms. Ballis.

  14. I loved everything about your response to her and your post on this subject, with one exception. It seemed a little contradictory when you said:

    "But this particular missive hit a bunch of my hot buttons, so I needed to vent to my Chickens."

    And then followed it up with:

    "Number four, she asks me not to be offended by her complaint. (Which, for the record, I'm not, it takes much more to offend me.)"

    You were, clearly, offended by her complaint. Or, maybe not offended. But at the very least, you seemed to be highly annoyed and bothered.

    She was totally ridiculous and out of line. I was just confused as to why you tried to act like it didn't bother you, when it obviously did bother you. (And it would bother anyone. E-mailing your agent? AND your publicist? That's crossing so many lines.)

  15. Beth- I can see how this might be confusing. But for me, there is a big difference between offended, which I take to imply that my feelings are personally hurt, and being annoyed, which is much less intense a sensation. Had she said something disparaging about my family or friends, my appearance or sexuality, my religion or my politics, I would have been offended. I found her annoying, in the same impersonal way that I find a mosquito in my ear, or a small paper cut annoying. It takes a lot to offend me. It takes surprisingly little to annoy me. XOS

  16. Ah! Thanks for clearing that up, Stacey. You're a better person than me. I probably would have been offended, annoyed, outraged, and every other form of $!%* imaginable had someone done that to me. In short, I would have been tempted to write her back with something along the lines of: OK, Lady, here's a nice little cuss-word alliteration of exactly how obnoxious your e-mail was. Enjoy underlining it!

    You handled the whole situation with a great deal of dignity and restraint, and I really admire you for that.

  17. Hi Stacey,
    Since there is another Beth, I made and adjustment and suspect you may even know who I am. I'm so glad to hear that you will have a new book out next summer. I read If You Were Here on my beach vacation last week. When I was done, my second thought was - when is Stacey going to give us something new? Yay! Hope you met your deadline and did something wonderful to celebrate.
    As for Susan*, we all have our moments, sometimes we get drunk and chatty with the host author's friends at a book signing. Forgive us!

    All the Best,

    PS My first thought was that I need to watch Sixteen Candles again NOW.

  18. Now I have to go back and re-read the book because I don't remember the c-word or the alliteration. I just remember that I really liked it.

    Waiting anxiously for the next one. Hopefully it also has a part for Nathan F in it.


  19. Wow! I have never felt the urge to write to an author unless it was because I really liked their work (for instance, my attempts in 1987 to get John Irving to come speak at my high school graduation. So weird. If I read a book I don't really like, I figure Oh well. Not my cup of tea. Excellent response to a moronic letter, Stacey!

    BTW, I would rather hear cunt, fuck and any other four letter word before I hear the word moist. *shiver*

  20. It sounds like this poor 50-something-year-old-lady is in serious need of a real friend. I would assume, though I could be totally wrong, that the reason that she felt the need to criticize your writing is because she is an extremely attached reader - meaning that she feels like she truly knows, or is, one of your characters. You were right to reply firmly, but not out-right rudely in your response to her. Kudos for that!

  21. I'm going to go get that book tonight, simply because it has the word 'cunt' in it. Great response!