Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Why, oh why, did you even review? or Introduction of the B.V.O.T. Scale

Let's be honest, people: everybody comes to a book with preferences.

You're totally allowed. It's a big world out there with lots and lots of books. There's shelf-space for everyone to find something to love.

What I really dislike is when someone imposes their own preferences on a whole genre - or even all their moral preconceptions on all of YA. It's not just that they don't like the book; they don't enjoy the type of book that the work is trying to become. But they act like it's the book's fault.

No, I say to this strange, critical interloper, the book is not the problem. YOU are the problem. If you didn't like that kind of book, why did you even read it? Why didn't you just realize that you weren't going to like it, put it down, and go find the kind of book that makes your heart sing? And why did you feel the need to talk about how much you hated it? (Isn't there enough hate in the world? *sob*)

Confession: I have been guilty of this myself. In fact, I once had such write-up on this very blog. It is gone now (and has been for a few months), but I wanted to admit fault. That way, you know that I know how hard it is not impose your own preferences on a book.

BUT there is an exception to every rule.

I was taking a look at some of the books that I have enjoyed the very most recently, and I noticed something strange. All of them were really surprisingly different from each other - different genres, difference age groups, different moods.

Here are the ones I hearted the most from March 15 to April 15*:

*(Why this time period? Because I've been meaning to write this post for that long. Don't judge, people. I've had deadlines.)

This is a shockingly bad photo.
That's how you can tell I took it myself - with my camera phone.
But I wanted to prove that I actually have read these.

But these books all have one thing in common: they all accomplish exactly what they set out to do.

What? you say. Books do not have goals! They are entertainment!

Yes, they do, dear reader. Books are trying to say something. They are trying to tell a story.

(In my universe, dear reader, everything is a story. Even those crazy, philosophical books written by Foucault.)

All of these books tell the story they set out to tell. They are the BEST VERSIONS OF THEMSELVES. That made them delicious from beginning to end.

So, let me tell you about how they measure up on the B.V.O.T. scale:

Anna and the French Kiss, by Stephanie Perkins
YA Contemporary

I almost didn't read this one. It was a teen romance, and I felt like I've already read too many of those in my lifetime. But I kept hearing such good things. Like this:

“Imagine a mug of rich, thick hot chocolate. Now add a swirl of sweet whipped cream. Yummy? Oui. Well, Anna and the French Kiss is richer, sweeter, and—yes—even hotter. You’re in for a very special treat.”—LAUREN MYRACLE, NYT bestselling author of Peace, Love, & Baby Ducks and Let It Snow

Perkins wants it to be fluffy and full of romantic swoony goodness. But this is the best kind of swoony: it's got real characters! Full-realized and hormonal and alternately giddy and angst-y! The love-interest has FLAWS! And the setting is to die for. (I've actually been to Paris; I wasn't as impressed with it as with Provence, but NOW I want to go back. And eat lots and lots of macaroons.)

This is a teen romance, but that's like saying that Hunger Games is just an YA adventure. Only technically true. It's really so much more.

The point is that the love-story is as complex and layered as many of the more "serious" books out there, and that makes it about a million times more satisfying....

....and a 5/5 on the B.V.O.T. scale. A perfect score. :-D

What is the B.V.O.T. scale?
You ask.

I (kind of) told you already: the scale that measures how well books become the Best Version of Themselves.

The Strange Case of Origami Yoda, by Tom Angleberger
MG Contemporary

This one is a toughie to describe, because it's hard to boil this sucker down into a one-sentence hook. It's a situational deal.

Everybody knows the weird loner kid in their class. Dwight, the central figure in this one, is so weird that he folds up an origami yoda and starts acting like it has a mind of its own. It even gives its own weird Yoda-like advice to everyone. Advice that has an uncanny way of being helpful. Nobody, not even the narrator Tommy, can figure out whether or not there's really a Yoda spirit in the puppet, or whether Dwight is really just being weird again. The whole book is about trying to figure it out.

BUT no word is wasted. Even the illustrations enhance and compliment the novel. It's funny and sweet and realistic at once. And even though the book is short (less than 200 pages), it encompasses a wide range of viewpoints, by including short vignettes from Tommy and Dwight's other classmates. INCLUDING one from a complete and total skeptic, who makes plausible arguments throughout the whole novel.

So even if you want to believe in Origami Yoda yourself, you're left guessing alongside Tommy the whole way through. (Do you have any idea how hard that is to do??)

This also makes for an awesome and satisfying ending.

Another 5/5 on the B.V.O.T. scale.

Cleopatra: A Life, by Stacy Schiff
Adult Biography
(Non-Fiction! Are you shocked too?)

It was easy to figure out what kind of story the author was trying to tell - Schiff OUTLINES her purpose in the Prologue: she wanted to convey Cleopatra to put this fabled historical figure in her own context, and to depict her not as a seductress, but as a pharoah. Schiff showed where Cleopatra was coming from and what she was trying to achieve. The author also ended up showing us how much of what we know about Cleopatra comes from old Roman dudes, who were mad at her for being prettier and richer and more politically effective than they were. I found that enormously entertaining.

Lots of focus was given to character in this biography. We see Cleopatra, and Caesar, and Marc Antony, AND Cicero, AND even Biblical guys as real people. Not just characters from a Shakespeare play, or the name that goes under a famous quote.

And this WORKED: I am now totally Team Cleopatra. I spent at least three weeks telling people fun little tidbits about Cleopatra and how awesome she was. (Yes, I did get weird looks from people.)

Another 5/5 on the B.V.O.T. scale...with the caveat that I don't read a lot of nonfiction, and I may not know what I'm talking about.

A Discovery of Witches, by Deborah Harkness

Adult Paranormal

Okay, I know why I love this one: it has Oxford AND Witches AND Rowing in the first 40 pages of the book. These are some of my favorite things. I had nostalgia like whoa.

But it's also just cool - kind of TRUEBLOOD meets PRACTICAL MAGIC meets THE DA VINCI CODE. Reading all 600 pages, I knew that it could be a tighter book, but part of the pleasure of it was that it wasn't. We needed the sprawling mess to get the whole package.

Harkness used the characters' long conversations to develop the world and its underground societies of Vampires (self-explanatory), Witches (ditto, but these witches come in big family trees), and Daimons (the mad creative geniuses that have trouble with silly things like reality). Maybe we got into a lot of backstory with the love-interest vampire, but he's OLD - really, really, really old. You would have a lot of backstory if you had been living for centuries and centuries. Since two of the main characters are professors, which leads to a lot of explanation about their subjects. Not everyone's cup of tea, but for me, all the academic stuff counterbalanced the swoony love scenes.

Be warned, my dears: IT IS THE FIRST BOOK IN A TRILOGY. If you do not like cliffhangers, this book is not for you. (And annoyingly, lots of people have judged the book harshly for being long AND having a cliffhanger.)

Which means you're probably signing up for 1200+ more pages if you get hooked (like me).

But I won't lie: this one could have had a more satisfying ending. It felt like, let's toss in thirty new developments so that the reader's totally impatient for the next book. That was unnecessary. I was totally cool with just following Diana the witch and Matthew the vampire along to their next adventure.

Thus, I give it a 4.5/5 on the B.V.O.T. scale. Very enjoyable, very close to perfection, but not quite there.


This is what I want more in reviews.

Honesty isn't the problem, but tearing down a book because it wasn't what you expected doesn't help anyone. Not the person reading the review (they probably won't have the same tastes and expectations that the critic does!). Not the author (the reviewer isn't even speaking their language!).

But be honest with yourself too! What expectations are you bringing to the book? Are you judging the book on its own terms, or on your own? Ask yourself if the books you're reading and reviewing are your Cup of Tea, or really not. Ask if they're the Best Version of Themselves, not what you wanted them to be.

If you dislike the book for reasons that have nothing to do with the book, then maybe you shouldn't waste your time telling us about how much you dislike it. Your time would probably be better spent finding something else you would like.

Then tell us about that one. :-)

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

This Author Has Three Selves (Part II)

What happened with me and my three selves:

Another recent realization: it's really
hard to be three people at once.

So, I don't try to be all of them in one day. Instead, I just devote whole days to each role. Recently, I've been devoting whole weeks.

See those long (yellow) streaks of editing? The scarier name for that is "under deadline."

(And I have another one coming up! *wrestles with panic*)

And this past month, I have been immersed in a joyous terrain of dragons, fairies, and phoenixes, a.k.a. the first draft of Book 2.

But poor author-promoter self has clearly been left by the wayside.

Why Such a Tragedy Has Occurred:

To be perfectly honest, I know why: it's my least favorite of the three - and easily the one I find most stressful.

Being a writer-promoter is also the area I have the least experience in. Writing I've been doing since fifth grade (which is...geez, fifteen freaking years?? When did I get so old?). My editing/revising skills have been honed through my late teens and early twenties (nearly seven years). Through that experience, I find a healthy dose of confidence. It means I can tell my neuroses: "yes, you can can write 300 pages in a row, Shelby; you've done it before." Or "Yes, you can make draft 6 better than draft 5. Wasn't draft 5 better than draft 4?"

But this self-promoting stuff is new. It's uncomfortable: I want to do a good job, but I'm not sure I know how.

From what I can tell, I'm not the only one with this problem. Usually, an author tends to be good at two of the three. I've seen authors who can manage a brilliant revision in the same week s/he lands two great author interviews, holds a squeeworthy contest, and also, moderates a twitter chat - but these tend to be the authors who feel like writing a first draft is complete agony. Other authors can pump out tens of thousands of words, without much sweat, while tweeting great lines from their WIP and creating facebook pages for each of their main characters, but they also have a really hard time getting enough distance from their beautiful words to figure out how to fix their pacing problem.

For me, writing and editing are the easier two; promoting makes me uncomfortable.

(Because it feels like bragging!! And talking about myself all the time! I am not a fan of either of those activities.)

The only thing I really know being an author-promoter is that doing it well - whether writing a stirring post, or designing a fantastic website, or keeping up with tumblr which keeps people coming back for the pretty pictures and cool is music - takes a lot of time.

Time that my author-writer and author-reviser parts steal for themselves. Clearly. (See above for evidence.)

But something must be done. My blog needs my love also.

The Magnificent Plan:

Disclaimer: though magnificent, this plan is a work-in-progress and thus subject to change. That's what happens when there's no grand tradition and you're basically making it up as you go along. But writing down the plan adds a reassuring amount of structure to it. And also, the fact that I'm posting the plan in a public place dramatically increases the chances that I follow through.

  1. I'm going to start devoting whole days to my author-promoter-blogger self - the same way I devote whole days to writing and editing.No more of this "whenever-i-feel-like-it" nonsense. (If I've been working all day on something else, then I'm just not going to feel like it. This is just common sense.)
  2. Maybe two or three days a month. (So far in June, I've spent one day on the blog, plus a few hours on other days.
  3. I am going to start scheduling posts waaaaaaay ahead of time on those days. (Evidence: this post was scheduled on Sunday afternoon. Okay, so two days aren't totally a long time, but some of them will be longer. Like I'm thinking about writing a Father's Day post for next year.)
  4. I will keep a list running of all the brilliant blog post ideas so that I'm never short on inspiration. (Currently, there are twelve on it. I started it Friday. Clearly, I have more ideas than I know what to do with.)
  5. Spur of the moment posts are okay too, but they're going to be like the icing on the cake. An added and expected bonus.
The Practical Application:

Buuuuut since I have a deadline on Friday (aaaaaaaaaaah!!!), this may be the last time you hear from me until after that.

Till later, my friends!!

Monday, June 13, 2011

This Author Has Three Selves (Part I)

It was one of my favorite jokes when I was a kid: "Here we come - me, myself, and I." (I always walked the border between silly and slightly insane.)

But recently, I've realized that I do have three selves in this profession: 1) the author-writer, 2) the author-editor, & 3) the author-promoter.

The Definitions:

The Author-Writer

Not my hand.

She writes.

Her head is full of stories. The characters talk to her constantly. They won't let her sleep sometimes until she gets them on the page. She doesn't think about anything except the story. She sits at her computer, the playlist she made for this chapter thudding through her headphones, and she types and types and types. Or she grabs her notebook and her favorite pen, and she watches gleefully while the lines fills with her handwriting. The hand she writes with is always stained with ink.

Her goal is to string words together on the page until she reaches The End. (Yes, that's it. Even making it good isn't a priority.)

The Author-Editor

My ms, draft #2.

She revises.

She has this draft in front of her. She shapes it the way a potter shapes clay. She untangles the plot snarls one by one. She lops off unneeded scenes and unnecessary characters. She polishes the dialogue until it snaps, crackles, and/or pops. She throws in a few more descriptions and takes them away if she decides that they don't work. She watches over her characters like a micromanaging director, and she makes sure that everyone follows their cues exactly. She is obsessed with different colored pens, post-its, and outlines. She kills her darlings and buries them in word file called "Excess (use later).doc"

Her goal is to make each draft better than the last one, to make the book as good as it can be. On her very best days, she has no pride - only determination.

The Author-Promoter

Love this. :-P

She blogs. She tweets. She holds contests. She sends out postcards with her novel's cover on the front to booksellers and librarians. She updates her website regularly. She might even have a business card with her website, blog, twitter handle, email, and book covers on it. She is a social butterfly in the online literary world, knowing and greeting everyone. She is a master about talking about her book...and getting other people excited about it.

Her goals are to strengthen her platform, reach out to her readers, and market her book(s). (Notice that she is the only one who has more than one primary goal.)


As an author these days, you're responsible for the first two. The last one is strongly encouraged.

Authors once weren't expected to handle all three of these, but now that's the norm. I don't mention this to bemoan the past. (I wasn't writing back then. It's hard to feel nostalgic for something you never lived through.) But it's worth bringing up, because being such a new situation, there's no grand tradition for me to follow - there are no set rules. Everyone is still working out the details as they go along.

I find that incredibly comforting when on the days when I have no idea what I'm doing.

One big challenge: each of these roles could easily be a full-time job (by which, I mean, a 40 hour/week commitment). It's incredibly easy for one role to overpower the other two. Which means that you have to be really disciplined and really creative with your time to perfectly fulfill each role.

And y'all, I have come up with a magnificent plan - both disciplined and creative. (And clearly, I'm modest about this plan. :-P)

You'll find it here tomorrow.

(No, really - you will. I already scheduled it.)

Friday, June 10, 2011

Friday Five - Update Edition

1. I've developed a nasty blogging habit: I'll get a great idea in the dead of night. I'll type away in a fever of inspiration and save the text for early morning rereading by fresh, highly-caffeinated eyes.

And then it simply doesn't happen.

So, I have three long, complicated blog posts awaiting those aforementioned eyes.

This has to stop. I have a plan, which I will share in another blog post.

(No, I really will post it! I swear! No more excuses!!!)

2. But good things have been happening, my friends!!

I signed the S&S contract - Squee! This was a BIG event. I felt very grown-up. I had to go out and buy legal-sized paper, and I signed my name at least twelve times before I found four signatures that looked particularly "author-ish." ;-)

(I did not, however, take any pictures of this event. I realized that maybe I should have, but only after I left Fed-Ex, when it was too late. Whoopsies!)

3. Jo surprised me with a package full of BEA galleys!!!

You can't see it, but there are like, half a dozen of them in there. I was totally blown away by her galley-giving generosity! (When I went to BEA back in 2009, I was an ARC hoarder. I did end up giving some away, but not for weeks, even months after the event. (I can't help myself when it comes to books.))

And look!! One of them is even signed!

(I should probably mention that I know this author. I worked with her back in my NYC days. So, if you also have a signed A Beautiful Dark galley, and yours wasn't signed so enthusiastically, please don't get your feelings hurt.)

I finished this one last night, and I am so so proud of Jocelyn. She and Maria (her editor) worked so hard on A Beautiful Dark, and it really paid off. Cassie - the MC's BFF - is one of my favorite friend characters in all of YA. Very excited to see what happens in Book 2.

All of the galleys look equally as tempting, but sadly, since then, I've only had time to dig into that one. Because...

4. My second round of edits came from Courtney on last Friday! This has been my view for most of the past week:

I was really excited to discover that most of the changes she asked for were spot fixes to make it easier to read. They answer small questions like: Who are they talking about? What does Rory look like? etc. Not that hard!

(And actually, this afternoon, I finished making the changes she asked for. So, now, I just need to input them into a digital copy, do my own line edit, and then read it aloud for typos - all of which I can just barely squeeze in before my self-imposed deadline of June 17. (Yes, that is next Friday. (Yes, I know - this makes me a bit crazy.)))

Courtney also said some wonderfully nice things about this ms in her editorial letter. I am so very tempted to cut and paste them here so that you can read it too, but I don't think that's allowed. So, let's just say, she made my week. :-)

5. I came down with a funky stomach bug yesterday, which meant that I spent more time reading A Beautiful Dark than actually working. This is the second time I've gotten some sort of stomach virus the week after receiving an edits package. I'm not blaming the germs of NYC's UPS facilities, though; my brother and mother caught the same bug before I did - on Sunday and Tuesday, respectively.

But if it happens one more time, I'll have to admit that the initial panic of starting a revision literally makes me sick. Or maybe just that I get lots of stomach bugs. :-P