Book reviews by authors

I love reading and I love writing book reviews. I’ve shared book reviews on Amazon since 2001! What?! That is an eternity in internet years. I also have a reader profile on Goodreads and have shared book reviews there since 2008.

Most of my reviews are positive, but occasionally, I do enjoy a good rant about a book that was truly awful. I go back and check my reviews all the time. Sometimes a book I only kind of liked sits well in my brain space and I end up thinking much more fondly of it than I remembered at first. I’ll update my rating to reflect that. I also look up my reviews when I’m recommending a book to someone who might not like adult themes or a lot of swearing, because I’ll make a note as to whether the book had that kind of content when I rate it.

To me, my reviews are living, breathing things. They are a way to record what I read each year (usually between 40 – 80 books), and check what genres I’m digging over time (lots of YA, lots of MG, lots of fantasy, with a sprinkling of classics, and non-fiction books on writing craft).

If I give a negative review, I try to be very fair, and very positive. I try to be helpful and not hateful.

But now that I’m exploring the idea of becoming a published author myself, suddenly my backlog of reviews becomes sticky.

The problems with authors reviewing books

Sadly, there are published authors who will negatively review a book and openly recommend theirs instead! Tacky, and I hope any reader reading that review would be turned off by such shameless promotion.

Some authors might retaliate to a bad review and leave an author who left them a critical review, one in return. Seems childish, doesn’t it?

There are also authors who trade reviews with other author friends, something that doesn’t seem unfair to me, but it’s something Amazon is cracking down on.

There are other problems too, paying for reviews, or even paying for people to leave bad reviews on books that seem to ‘compete’ with your own.

I don’t have any books published yet, and I would never turn to unethical practices, but now I’m wondering how I should handle over a decade of reviews. Should I delete all my bad reviews? When authors connect my reviewer profile to my author profile, will they retaliate on reviews left years ago? How should I proceed going forward?

Some tactics to consider

One of my favorite authors, Cinda Williams Chima will only (generally) rate books 4 stars or higher on Goodreads. Books she doesn’t like, she leaves blank. It seems polite, but a) is it fair to consumers? and b) is a blank rating just as damning as a low star review? Would authors prefer to have no rating over a low rating? Probably.

Another of my favorite authors, Sherwood Smith doesn’t rate books at all on Goodreads. She leaves all the star ratings blank because she feels book ratings are so subjective. She does, however, write out her thoughts in a review, and it’s not always glowing. This is helpful to consumers, but does it still anger authors? Or are authors just happy to avoid lowering their overall rating with a low star count?

The idea of deleting my 3 star and below reviews is a little painful. I really am concerned that it isn’t fair to consumers, but perhaps once you become a published author yourself, you cannot give a rating that feels unbiased. I’ll have to save the reviews I delete and keep them privately in case I want to remember specifically, how I felt about a book. You do forget, you know!

Moving forward, I’ll have to decide whether to take the Chima approach of the Smith approach.

Should authors respond to critical reviews?

No! I don’t think authors should EVER respond to negative reviews. I’ve had that happen to me once or twice, and it’s such a yucky feeling. Consumers should be able to communicate their feelings about your work without fear of retribution. An author who defends themselves will always come off sounding defensive and desperate, and it does not help their case at all. Where as I am usually willing to give authors multiple chances (I might feel lukewarm on a book, but love another!), if they reply to a critical review (mine, or anyone’s), I’m not going to touch another book. By speaking out, they make the review process feel unsafe, and that hurts their reputation and their ability to sell more books.

Another Nanowrimo in the books.

Hooray! I revised almost 80K words, and I’m pretty thrilled about it. This was the second major revision on one of my WIPs, and I’ve (daringly, for me) read pieces to my teen boys (it’s a middle grade fantasy novel), and so far the response has been good. I know I need to find a critique group made up of members who did not issue forth from my loins, but one step at a time y’all.

I’m grateful for the focused writing time I got in November, because December is pretty crazy at work. I was listening to a podcast this morning while I worked, and it was one of those “no excuses, you can always wake up at 4:00am to write before the kids get up if it means that much to you,” and I was like, hey, wait a minute. My book(s) mean an awful lot to me, but let’s be reasonable.

Remember when Tyra Banks asked an ANTM contestant if keeping her baby was more important than her modeling career?

Sometimes, just sometimes, givers of writing advice can be like that.

I’m not someone who can get up at 4am on the regular and live to tell about it. I wish I were, honestly, but I’m not.

What I can do is work towards life balance. For me, that means I get to write like mad during slower periods (my day job work is seasonal), and less during months like December when all the shizz hits all the fans. It’s a hard transition from all the writing in November, to much less in December, but the holiday season will end, and January should afford a lot more writing time once again. (I hope I didn’t just jinx it by saying so.)

It’s comfortable in here: Staying in the closet

Friend: “So, you have Wednesday off, don’t you?”
Me: “Um… yes. I do.”
Friend: “Great! We should do lunch and maybe see a movie.”
Me: “…”
Friend: “Oh, I mean, unless you have plans already?”
Me: “Well, I was planning on catching up on some… uh… work… that I have to do. At home. On Wednesday.”
Friend: “You have work to do on your day off? On a holiday weekend?”
Me: “Yeah, I mean, we have to get ready for Black Friday.”
Friend: “You design brochures. For colleges.”
Me: “Right. Yes, I do. It’s… the company, it’s doing this big social media push to try to get more colleges to purchase… in bulk.”
Friend: “In bulk.”
Me: “Yeah. It’s, you know, ridiculous. But hey, overtime, right? So, I get a rain check, on the, uh… lunch date?”
Friend: (sighs) “Sure, I’ll add it to your tab of rain checks.”

Okay, so I’m not quite this bad. But I worry (a little) that this is how I sound. I don’t ever tell bald-face lies like that, but I do dodge social activities and blame it on a general need to work (writing is totally work).

I’ve been a closet writer for YEARS, and up until recently, I hadn’t even let my husband or kids read anything I’d written. That has changed recently, but I still haven’t ‘come out’ to my friends or family.

And?

I don’t think I will.

I’m not a fragile writer; I can take criticism… but I’m not good with pressure. And I know my closest acquaintances would be eager to make small talk and show their support by constantly asking me things like:

When are you going to be published?

How is that book coming along?

Why don’t you write a book like ___________?

What will you buy when you are a billionaire like JK Rowling?

I just… no. I can’t deal with that. Questions like that would kill my writing dead. I would flat-line, you guys.

And it would only get worse were I to publish:

How is your book doing?

Have you made a million dollars yet?

Is it on the best seller lists?

How much was your advance? I read *insert author name* gets 250K in advance money, did you get that much?

I know most published authors have to deal with this sort of thing, and it’s minor, really. And if I can work hard enough / get brave enough / get lucky enough to publish, I should be grateful and accept whatever small irritations come my way, right?

But what’s so wrong with retaining some privacy? It can be tricky, I know, especially in this digital age. But since I’m missing that ‘thirst for fame’ gene, I really would like to keep this whole writing thing on the down low for as long as possible — if not forever. John Twelve Hanks is managing it, why can’t I?

One of my favorite tidbits about Jane Austen is how she wrote in secret to preserve her privacy. Sense and Sensibility was published not under her name, but “By A Lady.” The inimitable Jane didn’t want to become a public character, and neither do I. Not even a little bit.

I suppose it’s kind of a silly worry to have at this point anyway, but I can’t help but plan ahead (it’s in my nature — I started worrying about my retirement when I was ten). Ideally, I’d like to publish under a pseudonym, have my books enjoy a moderate level of ‘sleeper hit’ type success, and never be asked to speak at a school or sit at a desk and sign books.

It doesn’t feel like it is too much to ask, but in the world of publishing (traditional and indie) most everyone is all about the author bio, the author photo, putting yourself out there, booking speaking engagements, and going on tour.

It all gives this agoraphobic hermit a terrible stomach ache, honestly.

Joined Twitter, now need a nap

Every book I read on the craft of writing — well, at least books written recently, I do peruse some old ones — says that there’s no way around it. Writers who want to be authors, must be online and not only online, but engaged. Some say you must be MORE than engaged, but actually, full on, hustling.

So… I’m online. Check. I even like writing here even though nobody reads it. But how do you go from hanging out your virtual shingle to engaged? At first I was like, “Okay, so I’ll write back when someone writes to me. I’ll respond if anyone comments.”

And then I patted myself on the back for being so amazing at this writer / author / business thing.

But no. There is more required of you.

Oh yes. Much more.

social-media-fear

Please be sure to say “Social Media” aloud like an announcer for an old horror movie: Sociaallll MEDIAHHHHHHH; it’s really important to this post that you audibly capture my fear and terror.

And because I’m a closet writer, I have to start from SCRATCH with this whole social-ness of the media-ness.

(Not that I have a huge network of personal friends to force bribe beg to follow me should I to go public with this little habit of mine, anyway. #hermit #agoraphobic #introverted ← look ma, I learned how to hashtag.)

What I’m saying is, it’s super intimidating.

I successfully set up my very own Twitter account. This felt momentous, so I paused and celebrated with a chocolate bar. Next, I ‘followed’ all the authors whose books I enjoy, then added people whose websites I’ve found helpful. A few follows came in, so I followed people back if it looked like they were fellow wanna-be writers or authors and not spammers.

Then I clicked around a bit more… and became instantly overwhelmed.

I don’t know how these people are doing it. They are, as one book on writing said I ought, HUSTLING. They have daily graphics and images, they are networking, and retweeting, they have fajillions of followers, and some seem to post every few minutes.

So I closed my browser and am contemplating ice cream. And then I’m going to fire up my Self Control app (it is the beeeessst) so I don’t wander back over there to see if anyone has replied.

(Oooh, someone just did! Guys, I just conversated on Twitter. I think this means I have arrived.)

NaNoWriMo

It’s that time again, ladies and gents, and I’m pleased to say that I’m off to a corking start. I’m utilizing this insane, very focused writing month to hone my latest draft. I’m only counting the words I re-write, but it’s still going a lot faster than just writing from the seat of my pants* as I’ve done in years past.

*This is called being a ‘pantster,’ and it’s an actual, recognized term, not just a silly word I just made up.

nanopantserorplanner

(I do a little bit of both, actually. I plan the heck out of my novels, only to rewrite everything many times over, often departing from the outline, draft, and carefully plotted points. I think that’s probably pretty typical.)

My word count goal this year is to do between 3,500 – 4,000 words per day. I’m on track so far, but there is plenty of time left in the month for the shizz to hit the fan, so to speak.

I need 2,000 more words today and I can’t count these, so I’m signing off.
xo

It’s just writing

It’s nearly November and therefore nearly time for Nanowrimo. Every year in October I start wondering how to best utilize the upcoming month and end up reading and re-reading my many (many) books on the craft of storytelling and writing.

This can be inspiring, but it can also be overwhelming. I think, for many years, I’d pore over books by successful authors in search of The Secret. I’d think to myself if I could discover their writing process or set up a similar schedule, I’d unlock the mystery of writing something others might want to read. (And that I might actually dare publish).

Over time, I’ve slowly grown to realize (I can be a bit thick) that at the very core of every how-to or ‘on writing’ type book out there, the advice is the same: Just Write. Authors will detail their writing process almost reluctantly with a caveat for readers like me: ‘This is my writing process. What works for me may not work for you. There is no secret, just write.’

Still, with Nanowrimo looming once more, I’m turning to my old (and maybe just fine) habits of reading awesome books on craft. A friend loaned me this book: Complete Writing For Children Course.

Guys, it’s so good. I devoured it in a matter of days. This is going to sound nuts, but all those books on writing I re-read every year? Not a single one is specific to writing for children. Not to say I haven’t learned things from the other books I regularly read, but this was a game changer.

One book I turn to every year is called The Fire in Fiction. It’s a respected book with loads of good advice, but it is geared very much to the Detective and Thriller adult fiction genres — genres I rarely read and am generally not much interested in. I haven’t read a single book Donald Maass quotes or sites as examples. I told myself it didn’t matter, that I could still learn and apply the principles and tips to my own work. And I have done, and I could continue doing so… but it is drastically different to read a book on writing that actually applied specifically to writing for children.

The Complete Writing For Children Course even has entire sections (and corresponding workshops) on picture book writing and poetry, but I mostly spent my time studying the YA and MG sections. If that’s not enough, it was published just last year, so many of the references and works quoted are current books I am not only familiar with, but have read cover to cover.

I found it very inspiring, and only let myself be intimidated briefly when I went to the author’s website (she looks so young, yet is utterly brilliant and incredibly accomplished!).

Here are my favorite quotes:

Personally, I don’t keep to a schedule — not in any rigorous definition of the word ‘schedule;’ certainly not as many authors do. This is partly because I have a full-time job, as you probably do, and it’s difficult to stick to an unbending daily schedule when the job gets in the way.

[…] There’s huge pressure among writers, professional or not, to stick to a daily schedule. Blog after blog, you’ll find similar requests: write 500 words a day. Write 1,000 words a day. Write in the morning, from five to seven, before the kids are awake. Write when you’re driving by talking into a Dictaphone; write on your commute, by typing on your Blackberry. Some people do that, it’s true. I know a few. But I think the pressure is mostly unhealthy, and guilt-trips would-be writers into thinking they should get less sleep.

[T]he […] common misconception that writing is some mystical process which occurs only following flashes of inspiration. Stephen King famously says that amateurs wait for the muse, while real writers just get up and go to work. There’s a lot of truth in that statement.

But there’s also a lot of truth in the fact that not all days are the same; that, generally speaking, we tend to have more time at weekends and on holidays; that some days are just already too full. Some days we’re also tired, ill, grumpy, not in the mood. Writing one thousand words every day […] is an excellent idea in theory. But there’s no point in producing a thousand bad words every Monday morning because you’re stressed by the weekly meeting with your boss, [or] stopping exactly at one thousand excellent words on Sunday afternoon when you’re alone in the house and the kids are away for three hours playing rugby.

There is something worryingly obsessive-compulsive about blogs emitting orders to would-be writers about time management.

As a result, writers often feel unreasonably guilty for not writing. This guilt crops up even in titles of blogs and podcasts about writing — see the very popular ‘I should Be Writing’ and ‘Writing Excuses’ podcasts. But seriously, be kind to yourself. It’s not that important. It’s not as if you’re not doing your job as a firefighter and dozens are dying while you twiddle your thumbs. It’s just writing.

I mean, RIGHT? She’s amazing. I love her. I had to turn that into a print for my cork board. It’s brilliant.

There’s more.

Write, maybe not every day, but perhaps two or three times a week. Or once a week, but seriously and keenly, for a relatively long time. Word targets can be good and bad; writing a thousand words can feel good, but if you have to delete them all tomorrow because they were sloppy, there’s not much point. […] [D]on’t force another tired five hundred words out at the ‘scheduled time.’ Don’t listen to the muse, but do listen to yourself.

Worth repeating:

Don’t listen to the muse, but do listen to yourself.

It was just what I needed to hear. I’m not really one to obsess about word counts, but I have been one to feel down if I’m not writing a good amount every day. After discussing the pitfalls of getting caught up in Twitter or Facebook and getting too obsessed with posting wordcounts and #amwriting hashtags, she adds:

[O]nline ‘procrastination’ can be hugely interesting, motivational, enriching, essential.

Validation! And really, if I’m being honest (and not unreasonably hard on myself) the professional procrastination I was writing about was exactly that. The map I spent two days making has continued to be an enormous help in plotting and writing. It’s not like I wasted six hours on Tumblr or something! (Confession: I don’t really know what Tumblr even IS).

So. Here’s to reading encouraging, inspiring, genre-specific things, writing in my own way and on my own schedule, and debunking the myth of The Secret. Onward!

Professional procrastination

Ways I have professionally procrastinated when I should have been writing:

  1. Map making
  2. Researching
  3. Reading, browsing, checking out, and buying books on the craft of novel writing.
  4. Reading author websites
  5. Reading writing forums on Reddit
  6. Re-reading bits from favorite books to see how other authors handled plot and character development.
  7. Searching for tutorials on world building and race/species creation.
  8. Blogging or using social media
  9. Making graphics for blog posts
  10. Obsessing over one chapter rather than working on the whole.
  11. Being weird about my writing environment.

Whilst engaged in #4, I stumbled across this post in which Chuck writes about all the different ways you can outline your novel. In discussing a ‘con’ for the Story Bible method, he says:

A very good way to waste time productively. Most things like this have a horizon line of functionality, and it’s very easy to traipse past that horizon line and continue writing your worldbuilding story bible for 16 years while never committing word one to the actual book you’re writing. It feels productive. But after a point, it damn sure isn’t.

Emphasis mine.

Some of those rabbit holes I fall down are productive and interesting and some spark new ideas or solve problems (like my map making). I also find in stepping away from my novel to do something mindless or professionally procrastinate, a solution for a sticky plot point will present itself like magic, and I’ll have an ‘ah-ha’ moment. But there is definitely a balance, it can be way too easy to waste too much time doing other things.

Like making this print to hang over my computer.

I didn’t know who first coined the phrase when I made it, but it appears that the brilliant ‘butt in chair’ is attributed to the incredible Jane Yolen.

So now that I’ve made the print to yell at me, I’ll be more focused, right?

Fantasy Maps: helping me write better

You know how we’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover? How about judging it by its map? I love a book with a map, and happily for me, maps are plentiful in the genre I enjoy most: fantasy.

“I wisely started with a map and made the story fit… the other way about lands one in confusions and impossibilities.”
— J. R. R. Tolkien

In The Tough Guide to Fantasyland: The Essential Guide to Fantasy TravelThe Tough Guide to Fantasyland: The Essential Guide to Fantasy Travel, Diana Wynne Jone’s hilarious parody of fantasy literature, she says that if you’re on a quest you must expect to visit every single place marked on the map.

But of course!

Maps are not only wonderful for readers, they’re helpful for authors too. I’m working on a rewrite of my MG fantasy adventure novel and I was having a bit of trouble figuring out how long it would take my protagonists to walk from point A to point B. I had a hand-sketched map, but wanted to make a prettier one in Photoshop. My first efforts were a bit disastrous, but after falling down a veritable rabbit hole of map-making research, I made a much better one. I can’t stop gazing at it!

vona-stewart-map

Even though talented map makers like this guy or this guy could do so much better (and I dream of one day having them make a map for my books), my little map is helping me with my story writing.

For example, though I had a rough idea of where my kingdom borders were, plotting them out on the map helped me see exactly where my border town would lie, and where I needed to add The Fork (an Inn):

vona-stewart-borders

And what a huge help for calculating distances! A year or two ago, I read a new middle-grade novel that was really well done, except for the fact that it jumped all over the author’s world. It seemed like the characters could leap between kingdoms in mere minutes while the evil pirates were taking eons to breach one of the walls. The lack of travel planning hurt the story a bit (even though its target audience probably wouldn’t notice), so I wanted to make sure the journey my characters were taking felt realistic to the reader. Plotting out their journey was extremely helpful; it helped me see several flaws in my writing right away.

vona-stewart-distances

My world isn’t exactly to scale, but this visual helped me sort out a handful of flaws in my writing right away. I discovered I had my protagonists making a 20+ mile journey on foot in just a couple of hours. Whoops!

Seeing everything laid out on the map also helped me figure out where to put a few places. The academy, for instance, is located up by Merlin’s Fjord in the upper left hand corner (hard to see at this size). Whenever I’d write about the academy prior to making the map I would leave blanks when describing where it was or how to get there because I just couldn’t picture where it should be. Once I created the map, I knew right where it needed to be located. Like magic!

Want to make your own fantasy map? It’s not as hard as it looks, especially if you’re already familiar with Photoshop. Here are the tutorials and resources I used (I hand drew some of my elements).

Fantasy Map Making Resources

There are lots more resources, try searching map making brushes on Deviant Art. I also found some brushes on the cartographer’s guild forum. And I spent hours drooling over all the pretty fantasy maps I could find on Deviant Art and especially Max’s Maps. Such a beautiful art!

FYI: It took me two and a half days to make my map. The first day, I made my first try, which was totally fun but had some geographical problems. My current map took me another day to complete (when I should have been writing, but this is research and world building, so it totally counts!) and then I spent another half day gazing at it, adding kingdom borders, renaming some things, and adding in those ‘floating’ areas I didn’t have a solid place for in my head. Even if you just draw your map out on paper, it’s a terrific exercise. I highly recommend it!

p.s. Fun fact: J.R.R. Tolkein’s famous map of Middle Earth up top was drawn by his son Christopher! Tolkien drew his own maps for The Hobbit as Christopher was too young to help at that point.

p.p.s. Here’s an index of fantasy maps from books, what a collection!

Book report: The Writer’s Guide to Fantasy Literature

The Writer’s Guide to Fantasy Literature: From Dragon’s Lair to Hero’s Quest, How to Write Fantasy Stories of Lasting Value – Edited by Philip Martin

I picked up this book at a library book sale a few years ago. It was published in 2002, and on first flip-through, I thought perhaps it was a bit too out-dated and shelved it.

I also allowed myself to become detracted by a few critical reviews of the book that complained the delivery was dry, or that there was nothing new or helpful. But I was searching for a different book last week and came across it sitting on my bookshelf. I pulled it out and ended up reading it cover to cover, highlighting bits all along the way.

The essay format could probably read a little dry for some, but to me it felt like I’d won the lottery and somehow managed to get personal advice from a host of amazing writers. The title does make it sound like it’s going to be a step-by-step guide, and it isn’t really, but there are lots of instructive bits, and I enjoyed it immensely.

In fantasy, magic is the analogy; it is the spark that lights our imaginations, that fires up our dreams. Fantasy allows us to return for a few precious moments to that luminous realm of childhood, to a time when our unlimited powers of imagination and our hopes to discover our place in the real world were all one.

We long to go through the looking glass, to reach fairy land… [But] Does anyone suppose that [a child] really and prosaically longs for all the dangers and discomforts of a fairy tale — really wants dragons…? It is not so.

It would be much truer to say that fairy land arouses a longing for he knows not what. It stirs and troubles him (to his lifelong enrichment) with the dim sense of something beyond his reach and, far from dulling or emptying the actual world, give it a new dimension of depth.

— C.S. Lewis, from “On Three Ways of Writing for Children” Emphasis my own.

…[E]ven for stories that do not swirl with such gale-force power, in the first scene we should meet the main character. We should sense soon that this character has some desire, urge, or drive. And we should get at least a whiff of an impending action, problem, or event.

[C.S.] Lewis made the bold statement that “myths are lies, even though lies breathed through silver.”

Tolkien disagreed. Through fantasy’s liquid patterns, Tolkien knew, we can share old truths, wondrous beyond the point of fact.

Emphasis added.

“The problem is you are now doing a reading and you cannot for the life of you remember which bits were the gifts of the Gods and dripped from your fingers like magical words and which bits were the nightmare things you just barely created and got down on paper somehow!! Which I consider most unfair. As a writer, you feel like one or the other should be better.

[…] When it’s a few years later, and you’re reading the scene out loud and you don’t know, and you cannot tell. It’s obviously written by the same person and it all gets the same kind of reaction from an audience. No one leaps up to say, “Oh look, that paragraph was clearly written on an ‘off’ day.”

– Neil Gaiman, interview with Claire E. White, in the Internet Writing Journal, March 1999.

Book report: The Forest for the Trees

The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers by Betsy Lerner

When I’m not reading middle grade or young adult novels, I’m reading books on writing. Studying the craft of writing is almost as much fun as a nap… no, I’m not being facetious, I love naps, and I love studying the nuts and bolts of novel writing.

Betsy Lerner’s book, The Forest for the Trees isn’t a technical how-to-write book, it’s simply a book full of advice for writers from a seasoned editor, and I really enjoyed it. The first six chapters have to do with the personality and emotions of the writer, and it was fun to find myself in the pages (I’m an ambivalent writer). The second half of the book delves into more of the nuts and bolts of the publishing process: how to find an agent, your relationship with your editor, and what to expect when your book is published.

It’s those first six chapters where I feel this book really shines, though the whole book reads like a very good friend with a lot of publishing experience is giving you intimate advice. It’s a keeper.

But I also believe there is enormous value in the piece of writing that goes no further than the one person for whom it was intended, that no combination of written words is more eloquent than those exchanged in letters between lovers or friends, or along the pale blue lines of private diaries, where people take communion with themselves.

Chances are you have a deep connection to books because at some point you discovered that they were the one truly safe place to discover and explore feelings that are banished from the dinner table, the cocktail party, the golf foursome, the bridge game. Because the writers who mattered to you have dared to say I am a sick man. And because within the world of books there is no censure.

There is a necessary gestation period during which a writer should protect his work, because the minute he sends it out, or joins a writing group, or enrolls in an MFA program, he engages the part of himself that is focused on the result more than the work.

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