Monday, August 15, 2016

The Day the Books Got Wet

     Writing can be exhausting. I'm currently working on a somewhat-secret project (that actually has a deadline looming) and it's been one of the most emotionally taxing writing experiences I've had thus far, simply due to the plot and some scenes where I had to dredge up actual emotions out of myself. Not that I haven't done that before; this instance is just a little more grueling.The other day I had a to write a rousing military battle speech, and being that I'm not Shakespeare, Henry V, or Winston Churchill, that meant that I had absolutely no idea what I was doing.

Me, complaining: "How do you even write a battle speech?"
11-year-old brother, dramatically: "Today will no longer be known as an American holiday, but a day when the world..."*
14-year-old brother, in a Mulan-fake-man voice: "I see you have a sword. I do too. They're very manly and tough."

     I'm so thankful I have my brothers to help me in this matter. I mainly just slammed my head on my desk repeating, "We few, we happy few....Cry God for Harry, England, and St. George!"

     Unfortunately, this speech does not work very well when you're writing something set in Italy. Also, there's the small matter of plagiarism, which is an action frowned upon in most societies.

     Anyway, to give myself a little break, I thought, what can I write about that's a little more uplifting? WHAT ABOUT THE MOST EXCITING DAY OF MY LIFE? (No, not the time I saw the Broadway tour of Beauty and the Beast. You're thinking of the other most exciting day of my life.) I don't really talk much about my personal life here-and believe me, that's probably not going to change anytime soon-but every once in awhile, amusing and interesting things happen to me. And this is one instance that I don't think I've ever written about.

     It all began the summer of 2009- I think. It might have been 2010. My journals of this time are currently packed in a storage unit, so I'm telling this one from memory. Anyway, roughly about this time I was volunteering at my local library's summer program for the kids. (I can see you all raising an eyebrow now- the most exciting day of her life? And it's in a library? I'm not James Bond, people. This is as exciting as my life gets.)

     I've always been interested in becoming a librarian, so this was a dream come true for me. The days that I worked, my mornings were usually spent signing kids in for the special programs, and then getting to sit in the back and watch them, too. Even at the ripe old age of fifteen, I certainly was not averse to children's entertainment. Afterwards, all of the volunteers helped back in the children's area of the library, where we shelved books and other librarian-ish things. It was wonderful.

     Now, where this particular library is located is not known as being one of the *best* places in South Carolina. Colleton County is kind of a rural, troubled area. I mean, our main claim to fame is that it's where the guy who played young Anakin Skywalker in The Phantom Menace got arrested for reckless driving. South Carolina is a beautiful place, though, and the actual library is really very nice and historic. I was sad when we moved and I had to leave it.

     It was late in the summer. The children's program for the day had ended, and some of the volunteers had gone home. There were not many people in the library at all, and with the rain pouring down outside (which I found comforting) as I shelved books, it was a pretty lazy late afternoon.

     Now, as I mentioned, this library is rather old, and there were understandably a couple of small leaks. The ceiling was kind of your basic commercial/government type of ceiling, where it's divided into squares, a bit like this:

     The children's area is also divided: there is a section with full-height shelves for chapter books and middle grade fiction, and lower, waist-high shelves for all of the kids' picture books and early readers.

     I was minding my own business, filling in information on the computer, I believe, when suddenly, an entire square ceiling tile fell, right in the middle of the picture book section. Someone dragged a trash can over to collect the water, and I'm sure we were all thinking, wow, that was really bad. Good thing we had something to collect all that water.

ha. haha.

     I turned to continue my typing, when a large thud sounded behind me. I turned to see another ceiling tile on the floor as another one dropped from the ceiling and fell down in front of me. Someone screamed, "save the books!" Another tile fell, and everyone in the library -employees, volunteers, the few random patrons that had been in the building at the off-time of day- ran into the pouring water to grab handfuls of books from the shelves as water poured down around us. It was not a drizzle; it was a thunderstorm. And the water was coming into the building as rapidly as if there hadn't been any ceiling at all- the degree of wetness we experienced was along the lines of being underneath a shower spigot. On top of this, tiles were still falling, and had to be dodged as we sprinted under the danger zone to grab the books. A young boy who'd been in the library with his family was shrieking in delight the entire time. "This is the best library trip ever!" he yelled, a stack of picture books in his arms.

     And, for all my love of was fun. I had taken off my flipflops and was running, drenched and gleeful like a five-year-old, in and out of the water as I grabbed books from the shelves and piled them in a dry corner of the room. There was lots of laughing and screaming. The water had begun pooling on the carpet, and we had to move up the piles of all of the books so that the small flood wouldn't reach them.

     All in all, I would say about six or so of the tiles fell in, and we pretty much evacuated every book in the little kids' section. Amazingly enough, only a few books were damaged enough to be completely discarded. The story even made the local paper. (although they interviewed the volunteers the one day I wasn't there. I am still a little bitter about this.)

     But it was not fun the next day. The library was closed, and we had to come in and sort the hundreds of books we'd dumped haphazardly off of the shelves. We did this in a back room while someone came in to fix the water damage and the ceiling. It took a few days for everything to go back to normal, but it was a truly unexpected experience. And it also gives me a good story to tell anytime someone says that the library is boring.

     Now my break is over and it's once more unto the breach, dear friends. The game is afoot.

* I feel like my mother would want you to know that my 11-year-old brother has not seen Independence Day in its full and complete form, but an age-appropriate edit on our clearplay. End of disclaimer.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Reviewer Confessions

     I have about ten very long and involved posts in my Microsoft Word "blogpost" folder, most of which have been languishing in there for years. One of these is this post, which I've finally polished up enough for public consumption.

     I've been reviewing books online since I was sixteen years old, and honestly, sometimes I wonder if I've learned anything in the past six years. Sometimes I feel just as conflicted and confused about proper procedure and reviewer etiquette as I did when I first began. When I started out, I wanted to be the type of reviewer that I, as a reader, appreciated. At the time, I wasn't yet getting books straight from the publishers for review purposes, and buying books was a bit of a luxury, usually saved for Christmases and birthdays. That meant if there was a book I was interested in, I read four or five reviews (at least) before committing to buying it.

As a teenage reader, I mainly wanted to know:

1) If the reviewer enjoyed the book (duh)
2) If the plot was actually like the book blurb described
3) whether or not the book had content I might find objectionable or offensive
4) whether or not it was well written in general

     I didn't like reviews that went too deep into the book or summarized it, but I did like detailed reviews that labeled the reader's likes or dislikes with it. Often, even "bad" reviews could convince me to read a particular novel, because I knew that everything that the reviewer said they disliked either wasn't a big deal to me, or actually made me want to read it more because of differing tastes. As I said, I certainly didn't have anything against reviewers who didn't mention anything about the moral or Christian level of content, but I really did appreciate a heads up from reviewers who thought a certain book wasn't clean enough for a "Christian fiction" label. As a teenager (and honestly, still as a twenty-something) I especially didn't want to run unexpectedly into sex scenes or obscene swearing, which meant that I was always trying to find good Christian reviews of mainstream titles.

     However, as I became involved more in the reviewing world, I found out that there are some who believe that reviewers should only focus on the actual writing of books, not on whether or not you find the content offensive. I find this slightly ridiculous: how a writer portrays/handles these topics is an aspect of their writing as a whole. And yes, maybe it is personal preference in regards to the reviewer, but so is nearly everything about a book, including its writing style and plot. In such reviews, I freely begin with a disclaimer explaining why I didn’t like the book so that others can disregard my opinion if they wish. Honestly, this might actually make other people want to read it. As I said, I know that sometimes I read one-star reviews and discover that the very reason the reader didn’t like it would be the very reason I would like it. (Also, talk about morality and content is not something specific to Christian reviewers; secular ones do it all the time—we just tend to be offended/bothered by different things. There are literally secular websites dedicated to rating books on whether or not they are feministic enough.)

     I’ve also heard many writers telling other writers that when they write reviews, they should "be nice or don’t talk at all.” I believe this is because they want to develop an encouraging, supportive environment not based on competition or spite- which I completely understand. However, interestingly enough, I’ve also heard people say that reviews by anyone should do this. However, if anyone only ever wrote good things about books, what would be the use of reviews in the first place? As a writer, only good reviews seem great. As a reader, I think this is a terrible idea.

     Not to say that I always write reviews: I will refrain from writing one on occasion. Usually this is when book has a bunch of cliché problems that I’ve already complained about a hundred times before in other reviews of other books- or if I’ve already seen enough reviews on that particular novel complaining about the same things that I noticed. However, as a reviewer who is obligated to write about the books she receives from publishers, this isn’t always possible. And what’s more, if I have a problem about a book, I have to mention it. In fact, I’ve written reviews before, leaving out certain problems that bugged me because it made me feel unkind, and then went back and changed it because I felt like I was lying. When it comes to book reviews, I have compulsive honesty. This is why I avoid reviewing books from authors I actually know. If I’ve read the book and like it, I'll certainly praise it to the skies and help a fellow author out, but if I don’t, I do usually keep my mouth shut and don’t say anything at all. Good grief, even in books I honestly like I almost always mention at least one thing that could have been done better. But I never do reviews if I personally know the author and I disliked their book. I value these relationships more than writing a review, but I also refuse to lie. Therefore, I usually avoid accepting books specifically for review when I am acquainted with the author. (There are exceptions, as when I’m very familiar with the author’s work and know beforehand I’m going to enjoy it. But generally I bow out of book review tours in such cases) Thankfully, I've only been in this conundrum maybe once or twice (and not recently, either).

     The other times I don't write reviews are on books that I didn't read very much of. I will review Did-Not-Finish (DNF) books, but I usually try to make it at least 50% through for shorter books and 30% for longer ones. (This varies a little, depending on the book, but I do try to give books a legitimate chance). I feel like you can't totally judge a book by its first or second chapter, and so usually I'll only quit books that early if they're just too obscene or badly written for me to get through, and those don't usually warrant a review from me. Also, I do make a habit of reading the last chapter or two of DNF books, just to get a better picture of their overall message and cohesiveness before I write a review.

     Of course, since becoming more involved in the writing side of the internet, I have gotten less overtly critical in my reviews in general. My loyalties are somewhat conflicting: I have a duty to the reader, who I think should be informed, and yet also to the author, who I think should be encouraged and treated respectfully. However, over the past couple of years I do think I've learned a few guidelines that I try to follow when writing a book review.

1) I always try to find at least one praise-worthy thing in every book, even in those that I downright hated (luckily there haven’t been many that I’ve legitimately hated. And for those that I have, the authors are usually already dead and thus cannot be hurt or offended by my scathing review). I’m a lot better than I used to be; partly because I’ve gotten to know a lot of other writers, and as my own work has gotten published I realize how hard it is to release your book out into the world for the wolves to devour. I have gotten one-star reviews before, and they're not fun. I just remind myself that I've written one-star reviews as well, and I shouldn't dish it out if I can't take it.

2) You can dislike a book and still be kind in your review. There's no reason to be nasty. I've read some reviews where it seems the reviewer has a personal grudge or vendetta against the author. Usually other readers can spot that a mile away, and it's one of the quickest ways for me to disregard a review, because the reviewer just seems bitter or jealous, and more focused on tearing up the author than the actual book.

3) Never personally attack or make assumptions about the author. Focus on the novel and the writing, not the real person behind the book that you don't even know. See lesson #2. I know some authors who won’t even read reviews for their own books, which is probably smart. I wish I could be like that, but honestly I have too much curiosity. However, even if the author doesn't read their reviews, attacking the author personally is unkind. It's like an ad hominem argument in a debate. Don't do it.

     I mentioned that a lot of the time 3 or 4 star reviews are usually more informative than 5 star ones. But this is not to say that you can’t write 5-star reviews. I'll insert a writer plea here: please, please, please do.

     They are far from useless. As a writer, they are extremely encouraging and they encourage other readers to buy the book. If you honestly loved a book, PLEASE write a quick five-star review with all the things you loved. And I’m not just saying this from an author’s perspective: 5-stars are good from a reader’s viewpoint as well. I’m sure a lot more likely to read a book that consistently gets five stars than one that’s full of three, two, and even four-star reviews. An abundance of praise-filled reviews is a huge sign that this book is probably worth buying.

     But-and I'm speaking as both a reader and a writer now-If everyone only wrote five-star reviews, then they would be meaningless. Not all books are equal, and pretending they are out of misguided kindness doesn't help anybody. Hopefully by saying this I won't get completely attacked by fifty million 1-star reviews on my books (*hides*) but it is something that I truly believe. If you don't- that's totally fine. Some people just don't feel right writing reviews about books they didn't like. If it makes you uncomfortable and you aren't obligated to write a review for that book, then don't. It's okay. I'm not judging you or telling you that you have to. I'm just explaining, as a reviewer, why I occasionally write a 1 or 2 star review. I'm not trying to be mean; I'm trying to be honest. And that can be a tricky balance- one I know I have failed regularly at.
     I've gotten confused and frustrated about ratings and will probably never fully grasp their meanings for other people. (This book objectively seems like a four-star, yet I didn't enjoy it as much as this other book I only rated three stars! Or, this book has its problems, but I still really loved it. Is it worth five stars? Why did I rate this rather typical piece of Christian fiction the same as David Copperfield? THIS JUST SEEMS WRONG ON SOME LEVEL.) I've been both too critical and too lenient. Some of my reviews are just uninformative, and some simply too short or too long. I am far, far from a perfect book reviewer, just as I am far, far from a perfect novel writer. That being said...

      Reviewing books can be hard, but remember: writing a review is no where near as difficult as writing a novel. And authors at least deserve some respect for accomplishing that.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Interview with Kirsten Fichter

You'll remember a couple of posts ago I participated in a cover reveal for Kirsten Fichter's upcoming book, The Rose and the Balloon. Well, now I'm back with an author interview! I'm always a fan of fairy tale retellings, so I was pleased to get the chance to ask Kirsten about hers. (Also, I was totally supposed to post this yesterday, but my family is in the middle of moving and I completely forgot. Arrgh)

What was your inspiration for The Rose and the Balloon? 

The first spark of inspiration was Rooglewood's Beauty and the Beast contest. From there, it all barreled downhill as I plotted and began writing. I completed the tale in 18,000 words and with plenty of time left to enter it in the contest... and I forgot to send it in. And then I didn't remember about it until 5 or so days after the contest closed. Not exactly the happily ever after that most authors imagine, but that's what happened.

What do you think makes it different from other Beauty and the Beast retellings?
Most Beauty and the Beast retellings, I feel, are darker in tone, and focus a lot on the Beast's curse. I wanted something that still tasted like Beauty and the Beast, but was much lighter. Even though I was obstinate on writing it without magic (another thing that I think is not usual to most retellings), I didn't originally plan to put a slight steampunk twist into it. In the end, I completed an upside-down and backwards retelling that starts off with the Beast's mother destroying the roses of Beauty's father and then offering her son's hand in marriage to make up for it.

How long did it take you to write The Rose and the Balloon
Not very long. If I remember correctly, it only took about 2 or 3 months to finish the first draft, and then I spent another month or so later on editing and polishing and fleshing out scenes.

Which character do you relate to the most? 
Probably Janelle. She loves her father a lot, but she still is pretty stubborn. As a side story, my boyfriend read the tale and then asked me if I wrote it based on our relationship because I acted the same way to him that Janelle acts toward the Beast. That wasn't intentional, considering that I wrote The Rose and the Balloon a year and a half before I met my boyfriend, but I still think it's funny. Janelle is like me in too many ways. Particularly in the stubborn category.

What do you hope your readers take away most from reading the story?
The Rose and the Balloon isn't meant to be a deep story. I wrote it mainly for fun, and to also make a few jabs at the beloved Disney film. However, there are some deeper, hopefully thought-provoking themes woven throughout the story on the topics of selfishness and true love. While I don't believe this tale will change the world, I do hope that readers will find it a clean and upside-down Beauty and the Beast story that they can enjoy.

Thank you so much, Kirsten! I can't wait to get a chance to pick up The Rose and the Balloon. And for all you readers out there, the book is available on Amazon.

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