Thursday, January 26, 2012

In Which Praise of The Fault in Our Stars is Inadequate

Approximately three minutes ago, I finished reading The Fault in Our Stars.
Twitter is waiting, full of messages from the outside world that came in while I was busy at school, along with Email and Facebook and all the other Things. But those Things will wait until I’m done writing this review, because I do not want to shatter the moment. I do not want to break this pleasant daze that’s fallen over me. After a few brief moments of staring at the unread books on my bookcase, I realized that I didn’t want to start reading any of them, because I know that none shall live up to the story that John Green has crafted.
The Fault in Our Stars is one of the best books I have ever read. And it is not a book that I can read in public.
Or at the very least, it is not a book that I should read in public. Because from the very start – those first few pages, so grand, and good, and so very John Green – I could not keep a goonish grin from spreading across my face. In the middle of school, I turned red as I half-attempted to stifle the grins, the giggling, the uncontrollable joy.
I’m sure it was very distracting for my fellow classmates.
And then, today, as I reached the heart-breaking, tragically beautiful ending, I encountered a similar problem. I knew from the start that the book would be sad. It involves cancer. I was tweeted a picture of tearstains on some of the pages. I seldom cry while reading books. But if there is any book that could bring tears to my eyes, The Fault in Our Stars is it.
And I’m sure uncontrollable sobbing would be just as distracting as uncontrollable grinning, if not more so.
Those first so-very-John-Green pages were amazing. But even better were the later chapters, when I looked up from the infinities within the book and realized that I’d stopped hearing John Green’s voice in my head. All I heard was Hazel.
After a time, Hazel and Augustus ceased being creations of John Green. They were Hazel and Augustus. And Hazel was telling her story, and Augustus was being Augustus, and as they bantered between their tragedies, they became real. Their humorous, heart-warming, heart-breaking story became real.
It is nearly impossible to adequately describe this book; I learned that shortly after I tried to explain to my classmates how a book about cancer could have me stifling laughter. All I can say is that this book is truly unique, and truly phenomenal. John Green did his work well. And Hazel and Augustus have settled into my mind, to remain for the rest of my days, even after this pleasant daze shatters.
I leave you with a quote from Augustus Waters.
“…it’s easy enough to win over people you meet. But getting strangers to love you… now, that’s the trick.”
Mission accomplished, Augustus.
Thanks, John.

*The first two chapters of The Fault in Our Stars are available to read on, and there are also videos of John Green reading the first two chapters aloud on Youtube. Also, in case you somehow failed to hear this, EVERY COPY OF THE FIRST PRINTING IS SIGNED. If you buy a copy, it will be autographed by John Green.*

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Look at This Thing I'm Doing #1: YA/MG Fantasy Reading Challenge

                I’m a bit late signing up for this, but that’s alright because anyone can sign up at any point in the year. In fact, you should go sign up. Right now. Here.
                Brought to us courtesy of thebookcellarx, this challenge is to ‘read and review ten YA/MG fantasy books that come out at any point in 2012.’
                Why participate?
  •                 If you love fantasy like I do, but sometimes miss the memo about grand books until they’ve been out for a couple years, this is your (our) chance to get on the ball. There’s even a handy spreadsheet available with lists of fantasy books coming out this year.
  •                 If you link to your reviews each month, you’ll be entered in giveaways. In which you could be given free stuff. Who doesn’t like free stuff?
  •                 If you’re interested in reading reviews of upcoming books, and/or comparing your opinions with other readers, then you could consider this one big book club.
  •                 If you were going to read at least ten fantasy books this year anyhow, why wouldn’t you join?
                Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some reading to do. :)
                But first—
                Amanda the Aspiring
                Kayla Anne
                I’ll probably contact you tomorrow when it’s not approximately past my bedtime, otherwise e-mail me what you’d like to be reviewed (a short story or the first chapter of a novel) at probloguewriter(AT)mail2world(DOT)com.
                Are you participating in the Fantasy Reading Challenge? Any other challenges? What books coming out in 2012 are you excited for?

Monday, January 16, 2012

How to Write Neutral Reviews (Contest!)

Details on how to win a review of either a short story or the first chapter of your novel will be found at the end of this post. :)
“You suck,” says your reviewer. “I hate the main character you came up with. This is the worst science fiction novel I’ve ever read. Why were you wasting your time on this?”
            With every word, knives plunge into the story you’ve worked so hard on, and sink through to the offering hands beneath. Your heart doesn’t escape the massacre; you put it into your manuscript, after all.
            You resolve to never let anyone see your writing, ever again. Maybe you resolve to never write again, period.
            The above is an example of what not to do when reviewing a work, especially when it’s the work of an amateur, or someone who’s never received much feedback.
            I’m sure most writers flinched while reading the above example. Maybe you’ve received a similar review in the past, or maybe you’ve received one that’s even worse (Ouch). But if you’d like some specifics on why a review like this is not helpful…
            The Knives:
·         Accusing Words: “You suck.” “You came up with.” “You wasting Your time.” This reviewer failed to put distance between the work and the author, equating you with this one story (Friends or family might do this on the other end of the scale, gushing about the story and giving praise just because their grandchild/child/best friend/etc. wrote it.).

When receiving a review like this, just remember. Your heart may be in this book, but it will grow back, in time for you to put it into your next story, and the one after that. Just because your book sucks (at the moment) does not mean that you suck. Also, the point of feedback is not to fluff your ego. It’s to make your story better.

When reviewing, try to emphasize the fact that this is one opinion. “I didn’t like this because…” “I felt that the character was…” Etc.

·         No Specifics: “I hate your main character.” Why? Was the character flatter than the paper he was printed on? Did they hate his personality, or the choices he made? Or did they just hate the character because he just happened to share a first name with the reviewer’s ex?

When receiving, ask follow-up questions if you have the opportunity. Get the reviewer to elaborate on their answers. If that’s not possible, think about what the problem might’ve been, and perhaps ask future reviewers to make notes on what they liked or didn’t like about that area (characters, dialogue, etc.).

When reviewing, be specific. Say exactly what you disliked about something. How else would you expect the writer to fix things? Also, don’t forget to sat exactly what you like about a project, so the writer knows what they’re doing right.

·         Sweeping Generalizations: “This is the worse science fiction novel I’ve ever read.” There are a lot of science fiction novels out there, folks. There are a lot of novels in any genre. None of us have read all of them. And not all of us can be on par with the greats, especially during the drafting stages. 

When receiving, tell yourself that the reviewer must have simply been very selective/lucky in their book choices up until now. Remind yourself that it’s an opinion. If you reeeeeally have to, think of the worst book you’ve ever read in your genre, and ask yourself, “Am I writing at this level or higher?” If your honest answer is no, then maybe you still have some work to do. But remember. Published books have usually gone through countless revisions, with professional editors, etc. You have some time to reach that level.

When reviewing, try not to exaggerate. Remember that there’s a person on the other side of the screen, and when you say ‘worst ever’, some people will hear and believe that you mean ‘WORST. EVER.’ And considering some of the books out there, ‘worst ever’ is a big statement to throw around.

·         No Encouragement: “Why were you wasting your time on this?” Wasting our time? Imagine someone who’s trained since birth to be the master of their field, growing in leaps and bounds, jumping up and down in excitement with every advancement. They are approaching what they believe is the pinnacle of their successes thus far… And then someone walks by and says, “Why you wasting your time on this junk? Go do something worthwhile with the years you’ve got left, ya’ hobo.” There can be no graver insult. This is the added twist to the knife. Wasting our time?

When receiving, remember the movies where someone has a dream, and when passersby say “You’re wasting your time”, all they do is work harder. They prove the passersby wrong. That is you. And you are not wasting your time. Even if your work-in-progress right now never reaches the heights you’d imagined, it’s practice. It’s a step on the stairs leading you to success. With each thing you write, you get more and more experience. And that is not wasting your time. 

When reviewing, always try to include something positive. Never give the writer the impression that ‘there is no hope.’ Point out an area where they’re strong, or where you can see that they’re almost understanding what it is they can do to get better. Encourage them to keep writing, if not with the current story, then with the next.
            At its core, the what-not-to-do example is an example of feedback, perhaps by an inexperienced reviewer. A reviewer who got eepy “NO, DON’T DO THIS” vibes about a certain something, but didn’t know how to put the problem into words. Were they polite? No. Were they harsh? Kinda, yeah. But at its core, the above example was saying:
            “I do not like your main character. This book might not be ready to compare with already-published books in the genre. I would consider working on a different project.”
            Not perfect, but better. A step in the right direction. And one opinion.
            Keep writing, everybody.
            How would you rewrite the what-not-to-do review? What other things have bothered you in reviews? What’s the harshest review you’ve ever received, and has it helped you improve at all since receiving it?
            Also, a reminder: Comment on this post and you can be entered into a drawing to win a review of either a short story or the first chapter of your novel. If you also comment on the previous post, you’ll receive a second entry in your name. I'll draw for the winner(s?) in one week. Good luck!

Monday, January 9, 2012

The Importance of Hearing Reviews

First, I am not trying to stir up controversy. I’m not on Goodreads. I’m usually the person who hears about drama after the fact. Everything I know about recent events (probably about 2% of what actually happened) came second-hand. I will not name names. I am not trying to add to the drama.
                But I am going to talk about reviews, and their importance, especially for unpublished writers. I allude to the Goodreads drama only because I have a somewhat unique perspective on one part of it.
                I had the opportunity to read and critique a draft of one of the books involved, before anyone knew it was being picked up for publication.
                The writer approached me. At the time, she was unpublished as well, and looking for feedback, from a lot of different people. She was rather polite, and I said okay. I read her novel, and wrote my review as usual. I forget how long it took, but I doubt I finished in one sitting. I sent the review.
                I got a response from the writer, who was not happy. She stated, perhaps a bit testily, that she didn’t agree with certain aspects of my review. I stayed polite, but wrote back to try and further explain my thoughts. I forget the specifics of what was said, but I’m 84% sure that I also said something like, “This was just the impression I got, but if I’m seeing this, chances are good that someone else is going to think the same way.” We sent a few messages back and forth. The writer was calmer, I think, by the end of it. And we eventually reached a point of “Agree to Disagree”. That was the end of it.
                Except it wasn’t, really.
                I give thorough reviews. I usually write down whatever thoughts come to me as I read, in all their witty/sarcastic/‘oh, isn’t this funny!’ glory. I try to find something good in everything I read. So, usually, I’d say my reviews are balanced between good and bad, serious and funny… I try to explain everything I feel about the story. Like I said, I doubt I finished writing my review of her novel in one sitting.
                And the writer’s responses made me feel like she wasn’t going to pay attention to any of it. She didn’t agree with certain parts of my review, so she was going to ignore the whole thing. And even though I sort of shrugged it off, I couldn’t help but remember that writer’s reaction, especially when it would’ve been so easy for her to say, “I don’t agree with everything you said, but thanks for your time, and I’ll keep your concerns in mind.”
                When I heard her book was going to be published, I’ll admit that three things were in my head. A moment of surprise. Some calculations of how much time she’d had to revise since I left my review. And finally a desire to read the book – mostly so I could see if she’d changed it much from the version I read. Mostly so I could see, “Did she listen at all to what I said?”
                I don’t like saying it, but I probably wasn’t as happy for her as I would’ve been, had our initial exchange gone differently.
                And now, when I hear of the drama, and hear a few words about the review in question that make me think it probably pointed out some of the same things my review did, before the book was published…
                It is impossibly hard to hold in an “I told you so.”
                But that’s not what this blog post is. This blog post is for us, the unpublished writers who are sending our works out into the world, squirreling away feedback and trying to polish our manuscripts into something beautiful.
                For me, this has been a reminder to take every review seriously, even if you don’t agree with everything. Whether it’s a three-page monster of a review, chewing up your manuscript and spitting it out in disgust. Whether it’s one line – “I don’t like your characters.” Or whether it’s one little suggestion in the midst of a larger review, where a polite, professional reviewer suggests you change something that’s been the foundation of your story for as long as you can remember.
                We need to hear our reviews.
                That doesn’t mean listening to so many voices that we forget our own. But it does mean keeping in mind, “If one person feels this way, other readers might too.” Especially if more than one review points out the same issues.
                We don’t need to act on every suggestion. We can pick and choose what exactly we change, and how much influence a review has on us. But when we’re still unpublished, this is our time to fix things. It’s our time to see what bothers people, and make our books the best they can be. Our reviewers now represent our future readers, and as such we cannot afford to ignore them.
                We need to remember that everyone has their opinion. We need to be willing to hear those opinions. We can’t block out everything that hurts our feelings. But we can decide how to respond, both now and in the future.
                Next week I’ll have a post about the reviewing side of things – how to keep things neutral, how to be truly helpful, etc.
                And, because the time seems right. I’m holding a contest.
                Leave a comment, on either this post or the one next week, and you’ll be entered to win a review from me, of either a short story or the first chapter of your book. Comment on both posts to get your name entered twice. :)
                In two weeks, I’ll draw for the winner(s?)!
                Keep writing, everybody. ;)
                Do you like the idea of this contest? Are you on Goodreads, and if you are, would you recommend joining? What’s the most helpful review you’ve ever received, and why?

Monday, January 2, 2012

Goals for a New Year

I am a bad, bad blogger. My first post of 2012, which was supposed to be so big and profound, and wonderful, and original…
                Is just late.
                So, I suppose my first resolution should be:
1.       Keep up with the blog. And blog well.
                My second resolution is the resolution I’ve made for a couple years now, and haven’t yet achieved, despite the best of intentions.
2.       Lose weight. Finish polishing a novel (to the point where it is ready to submit somewhere, or at least be seen by someone other than myself).
                I have so many rough drafts, guys. Some worse than others, some that deserve to be burned in a fiery pit of fire… But I’ve made rough drafts. I’ve planned series, and written the first books…
                But I still have not bolted myself down to the revision table and finished anything. Which is a problem. Especially when this year will also see the start of college, where I will have about as much free time as a person with no free time.
                By the end of the year, I want to at least be ready to maybe think about starting to look into querying. Maybe.
                Another thing I’m going to do this year is…
3.       Keep track of the books I read.
                I have been reading for a long time. I have loved more books than a person who loves books (don’t I make the best comparisons in the late, late evening?) and yet whenever someone asks for recommendations, all they get is a blank stare, and if they’re lucky: “Oh, there was this great book, about a thing. But I forget the title and author… But the cover was green. I think.”
                I plan to remedy this in 2012.
                Using a handy, color-coded spreadsheet.
                Here I planned to include a screenshot of the aforementioned spreadsheet, but unfortunately such a thing would not fit in this post, so instead I’ll just say that it includes columns for:
·         Date I Finished
·         Title
·         Author
·         Genre
·         Where I got it (own it, library, school, etc.)
·         Additional Thoughts (things I liked, things I didn’t like, etc.)
                And, to make it pretty, varying shades of green, yellow, and red will show whether I loved the book, hated it, or didn’t care either way.
                The thought of this excites me immensely. 8]
                What are you doing this year? Any goals, for writing, reading, or otherwise? And what were your favorite books of the year?