July Recap: Not quite there

July was not what I expected. I was so ready to tackle Camp NaNoWriMo. I was ready to finish a project. I was ready to write. Buuuut things didn’t really work out the way that I planned.

Writing: In total, I wrote 24,330 words in July. That’s better than all of my other non-challenge months, but it’s way lower than the last Camp in April. More importantly, it’s less than half of my goal of 50,000. Going forward in August, I need to make some decisions. I need to decide which project(s) I’m going to work on, so I stay focused. I didn’t write yesterday, and I may not tonight. I feel a little lost with my writing at this point. I know that I need to go back and finish a couple projects and edit The Travelers, but I also have an urge to start another new story. I know, I know. It’s a problem.

Reading: I read 10 books in July, and they were all lovely. My favorite was Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. If you’re a child of the 80s and you love nerdy things, you must read this book. It was incredible. I found out that Steven Spielberg is making this into a movie, and it made me so excited. I also read a couple of more books by a horror author I really enjoy, Ania Ahlborn. If you like scary stories, I highly recommend her works.

Watching: I finally finished Daredevil! Liked it, didn’t love it. I also finished the most recent season of Orange is the New Black, and I am almost caught up with Hannibal (RIP, lovely show). I’m still watching True Detective, even though I’m not a huge fan of this season. I’m currently in the middle of another X-Files rewatch, in honor of the upcoming revival. I am very excited. I think this is the fifth time I’ve done a complete rewatch, but I’m not entirely sure. Up next: finish X-Files, rewatch Twin Peaks, watch Heroes (or, at least, season 1).

How did July go for you, readers? Here’s hoping you were able to meet your goals!

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Atticus Finch, the Importance of the Narrator, and the Writer-Reader Relationship

Recently, I finished Harper Lee’s new novel, Go Set a Watchman. While there are a plethora of issues surrounding the quality of the book and the mystery surrounding its publication, I wanted to focus on a narrow issue: the characterization of Atticus Finch. What can we learn, as writers and readers, from the controversy surrounding this so-called change in his characterization?

Some spoilers within, but probably nothing worse than you’ve read elsewhere.

As a preliminary matter, I like To Kill a Mockingbird. I don’t love it. I’m not a lawyer because Atticus Finch inspired me and made me believe in equal justice. I think part of this is because I was too young when I read the novel to really appreciate it. I was curious to see how I would enjoy the sequel (though it was reportedly written before Mockingbird by Ms. Lee) before I heard about the uproar regarding Atticus’s character. If you’re not aware, in short, people are upset because in Watchman, Atticus is quite adamantly a racist. There’s little indication of the great hero for justice with whom people fell in love while reading Mockingbird. Readers were appalled and couldn’t believe that Ms. Lee would assassinate Atticus’s character like that.

On the one hand, maybe it’s not character assassination: some articles have argued that Atticus was always racist (See The New Republic and Jezebel). Further, Mockingbird is told from Scout’s six year old, first-person perspective. She worships her father, and through her narration, we learn to worship him as well. But Scout isn’t an unbiased narrator. She’s a child who loves her father. In contrast, Watchman is told from a third person perspective, though it still focuses on Scout, now going by her given name of Jean Louise. Jean Louise is now an adult and has the ability to view her father how he truly is.

This teaches us a very important lesson about writing. Your narrator matters. Had Mockingbird been told from a third-person perspective, or from the first-person perspective of another character, would the reader have fallen in love with Atticus as much? Or would the readers have had a clearer view of his personality from the beginning?

Let’s assume, for argument’s sake, that this is a change in Atticus’s character – that Ms. Lee drastically changed this beloved character’s heart. In some ways, this is realistic. People change. Twenty years have passed between Mockingbird and Watchman, and perhaps it’s unrealistic to think even someone as idealistic as we want Atticus to be would stay that way forever.

But finally, and maybe most importantly, I don’t necessarily believe that Ms. Lee owed it to her readers to keep Atticus the same. It’s sad for some readers, but without Jean Louise realizing her father’s true personality, there is no conflict to the story. The entire novel is essentially a coming of age tale where Jean Louise begins to see her father, and the world, for what they really are. Further, as much as readers love Atticus and feel an ownership over him, he’s ultimately Ms. Lee’s character. We never like it when our favorite characters do something out of the ordinary or act in a way in which we believe is contrary to their personality. But we aren’t the writers in these cases. The writer has reasons and motivations beyond what we, as readers, can understand.

Now – if you are still an active writer, especially one with a small following, I wouldn’t recommend tearing down the moral compass of your stories. As evidenced by the drama surrounding Watchman, it’s easy to make your readers mad by the way you treat your characters. But Harper Lee is Harper Lee – she’s the author of one of the most critically acclaimed and beloved books in American history. She can pretty much do what she wants (presuming she wanted to do this, but that is a conversation for another time). It certainly wasn’t a popular decision, but maybe she felt it was the best decision for her narrative.

I would love to hear your thoughts, especially if you’ve read Watchman. Was Atticus always a racist? Did Harper Lee screw over her readers by presenting Atticus this way? What exactly do writers owe their readers? 

Project Update: Let the review process begin

I’m excited to announce that my latest project, now titled The Travelers, has a finished first draft. It’s rough. The ending is still all messed up. But it’s a complete story. It’s about 95,000 words, which is less than I anticipated, but still more than I have ever written before.

Now, I’m beginning the daunting phase of editing. Everyone is different, but my general editing schedule is this: first, I read the draft, as if I’m just reading a novel. I don’t make line edits or other changes, though I jot down things that I feel need improvement as I go along. This is really just a pass for me to get a feel for the story. What works, what doesn’t. Where are there holes? What can I cut out? I’m currently in the middle of that phase. It’s hard for me to read the whole thing in one pass, and I was in the middle of reading a great book (Red Rising!), so I put it aside for a moment.

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(The view on my Kindle. It looks so pretty.)

I discovered with my last novel that you can send Word documents to your Kindle, and it is essentially just like reading a “real” book, even though it’s a work in progress. This is really beneficial for me, because I’m able to approach the story as a reader and not just as the creator. If you haven’t done this with your works in progress, I highly recommend it. I actually went back and re-read my three major works in progress (all under 60,000 words, so much easier to do it in a short period of time), and it got me really energized to go back to those projects.

After I complete this draft, I’ll go back and rework “big picture” ideas. I’ll work on characterization, plot holes, fleshing out awkward scenes, etc. While I do this, I’ll line edit as needed, but I won’t be looking for that. Then, I’ll read it again and do a very cursory pass for line editing.

Then, it’s off to beta readers. I need to find some this time around, but I’ll get to that eventually. After the beta readers, it’ll be ready for some legit, professional editing.

So, that’s what’s new with me. I might be posting a little less frequently, since I would like to seriously work on editing The Travelers while trying to finish at least one of my other three works in progress. And in just a couple weeks, it’s July, and you know what that means – NaNoWriMo. So much writing. So little time.

Writers, what’s your revising schedule? Do you ship it straight to beta readers? Am I crazy for reading a first draft like a real book? Leave your comments below.

6 Tips for Dealing with Bad Book Reviews

It’s every writer’s worst nightmare: after getting feedback from beta readers and your editor, revising your book, and generally stressing out, you finally work up the courage to publish your precious, finished product. You release it into the world, hoping that you gain a few readers. People start to purchase your book – hooray! But then the reviews roll in. And there’s a 3 star. Or a 2 star. Or (*gulp*) a 1 star review.

How do you bounce back from that? Here are five ways that I cope with handling less-than-glowing feedback.

1. Every book has negative reviews.

Think of your favorite book – the book that you love more than anything, that you have read and re-read so many times. Even that book has negative reviews, I promise you.

For example, Philip K. Dick is my favorite author. I checked out the reviews for Do Robots Dream of Electric Sheep? (a/k/a the book that Blade Runner is based on). Though the overwhelming majority of reviews for this book are great, there are a few outliers. Here’s some complaints from 1 star reviews:

  • “The story is an absolute mess.”
  • “No new ideas and overall poorly written.”
  • “It reads like it was written for the mentally ill searching for their inner self. Strange and awkward wording was one of the many lowlights of this audiobook.”

Of course, these make me cringe. What? I think. How in the world can you find Philip K. Dick’s work poorly written?! Okay, but maybe this is a bad example. Maybe MY favorite book isn’t universally acclaimed. So, let’s check out a widely acclaimed book:

  • “I am sorry but I would rather have my teeth pulled than to keep reading this whatever.”
  • “Did not finish reading it after about 1/3 into the book. In my opinion, there was too much dialogue and the story moved too slowly to keep my interest.”

Those are two 1 star reviews for To Kill a Mockingbird.

  • “I don’t get why this is such a classic, why people seem to love it so much, really I just don’t get it. It is just a bunch of rich people in the 20’s having parties and their nonsensical conversations.”

That’s from a 1 star review for The Great Gatsby.

In other words, every book will receive negative reviews. You will never find a book that has only positive reviews (at least, not one properly distributed to a lot of people), and so there is no reason to believe that you will receive only positive reviews. First and foremost, remember that you’re in good company.

2. The reviewer may not be your ideal reader.

Look, you could write the best vampire romance in the entire world, and I probably won’t like it. But that doesn’t mean that you’ve written a bad book. It means that I’m not the person who you envisioned reading your book.

Putting your story out into the world has drawbacks. When I first published my book, I had it available for free for a few days. I had over 5,000 people download it! That was wonderful, but I’m sure a lot of those people were downloading it only because it was free and not because they are fans of my genre. I would bet that a lot of those people never even read it.

I have pretty strong feelings about reviewing a book outside of your preferred genre. For example, I’m not a huge fan of romance novels, but sometimes, I want a light read, and I’ll download one on sale from Amazon. I’ll read it in a day or two. It’s fluffy entertainment, but I wouldn’t necessarily call these books “good.” So, I try not to rate and review those books on Amazon or Goodreads. I am not the target audience, and even if I would give that book 2 stars, most people in the target audience are giving it 4 or 5. I don’t think it’s fair to the author for me to write a pointless review that says, “Meh, not really my thing.” (Believe me, I don’t have an issue giving negative reviews to books that I think are legitimately bad or poorly written books where I am the target audience).

This is not to say that if you get a review from someone who clearly doesn’t like books in your genre, you should disregard everything they say. But take it with a grain of salt. If the person has legitimate complaints about characterization, dialogue, etc, then you should consider that. However, if you write a fantasy novel, and someone’s review says, “I’m just not into fantasy, so this book wasn’t for me,” you know that the review isn’t truly helpful.

3. Learn what you can from the review.

Some negative reviews are completely unhelpful. “Eh, I thought it was boring,” is one such review. A review that criticizes character development, plot structure, etc. is more more helpful to a writer’s long-term success. I had several people read my story before publishing it, and there have been a couple reviews that have pointed out things that none of my beta readers did. This shouldn’t surprise me, because everyone reads with a different perspective. Some people may love your protagonist, while others may find her frustrating. Does the review explain why the reader had a problem with characters/plot/etc? It’s tempting to just write off the negative comments, but especially if more than one person has mentioned something, sit down and really think about it. How can you take that criticism and use it to improve your next story?

4. Ignore jerks.

As stated above, use the reviews that are helpful. If someone is vague or downright mean about why they dislike your book, push the review out of your head. There is a difference between someone providing a critical review and someone just being a jerk. There’s no reason for a reader to write something cruel, especially on Amazon or Goodreads, where they know they’re affecting future sales. Unless there’s something constructive in the review, ignore it. Otherwise, you’ll spend your time dwelling on why this reader thought your book was the worst thing they’ve ever read.

5. Criticism doesn’t mean that you’re a terrible writer.

Sometimes, when we hear criticism, we overreact. I’m definitely guilty of this. But a negative or quasi-negative review of your work does not mean that you’re a terrible writer or that your dream of being a writer is stupid. It means that this reader had issues or concerns with aspects of your story. If the person gives you a 2 or 3 star review, that means that something worked for them. Despite any issues they had with the story, this isn’t the worst book ever. Even if someone gives you a 1 star review, look at the reasons they use in their review. If someone hates your story for valid reasons, that doesn’t mean that you should give up on writing.

6. Read the positive reviews!

For every negative review your book gets, I’m sure there will be more positive ones. Go back and read those. Remember that even if someone didn’t like your book, there are readers who LOVED it! I think reading a positive review of my book is one of the best feelings I’ve ever had in my life. One reviewer commented that she hoped I wrote another one, and I was just floored. Someone wants me to write more?? I couldn’t believe it. Reading the positive reviews will help remind you why you published in the first place. You wanted to connect with people and to give readers a great story, and for a lot of people, you accomplished that goal.

(Side note: readers, take note of this. If you read a book and love it, please rate and review it on all the platforms you can. Writers thrive off positive feedback. When I see a four or five star rating on Goodreads with no accompanying review, I want to beg the reader to write something on Goodreads and Amazon, but I feel like that’s a little too stalkerish.)

Writers: How do you deal with negative reviews? 

April Recap: The Month of Productivity

April, why can’t every month be like you?

Thanks to Camp NaNoWriMo, I was incredibly productive the month of April. I wrote 52,540 words, which averages to 1,751 per day. I hit my goal during Camp, and I made tons of progress on my project.

On the reading side, I only read 7 books, which is less than I wanted. But in my defense, I’m very close to finishing three books right now, and I’m reading two very long books (Anna Karenina – still, and 11/22/63).

Other accomplishments this month – I finally caught up with Mad Men, which involved watching 2 and a half seasons over the course of the month (it’s a lot of TV). I think Daredevil is up next. Saw Furious 7 and The Avengers: Age of Ultron in theaters, which are both great movies, for different reasons.

Goals for May: Write 30,000 words (and maybe finish Project), read at least 8 books, finish Daredevil on Netflix, and watch Avengers at least 100 more times (okay, okay, maybe I won’t accomplish that one).

Good luck to you all this May!

2015 Reading List

This year, I’m challenging myself to read 100 books through the  Goodreads 2015 Reading Challenge.  I usually read 2 or 3 books at a time, because I get too impatient to wait until I’ve finished one to start the next one.  There are just too many good books waiting! I know that books will crop up that I haven’t thought of, but here is a list of books on my must read list for 2015:

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (*If I have to leave out one, it’ll be this one)
We by Yevgeny Zamyatin
Foundation by Isaac Asimov
Imperial Earth by Arthur C. Clarke
The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury
On the Road by Jack Kerouac
The Time Machine by H.G. Wells
Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin
The Revenge of Geography by Robert D. Kaplan
11/22/63 by Stephen King
The Drawing of the Three by Stephen King
Blood of Angels by Michael Marshall
Collapse by Jared Diamond
American Gods by Neil Gaimon
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
The Martian by Andy Weir
The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta
Weaveworld by Clive Barker
Books of Blood #3 and #4 by Clive Barker
The Intruders by Michael Marshall
The Peripheral by William Gibson
The Winds of Winter by George R.R. Martin (*Wishful thinking. I’m unrealistically optimistic for a 2015 release).

That’s 25 titles for the new year. That leaves me 75 to go. I tried to mix classics and contemporary novels, and I even put on a few non-fiction books on there.

Have I left anything out? Any recommendations for other must read books for the new year?