Thursday, April 21, 2016

'Tis the Season

Wrecked will be published
October 4, 2016
So, here we go again. ARC time.

That’s in Advance Reader Copy, which means paperback-bound, not-for-sale copies of my latest book have gone out to selected reviewers, and on-line copies of the book are available via Netgalley.

Some of these critics are Major Gatekeepers. They review for Kirkus and Publishers Weekly and School Library Journal, places which, if the reviews are good, are cherry-picked for their best lines, which are then pasted into the book’s entry, or, better yet, “blurbed” on the novel’s subsequent printings.

Some are notable bloggers, folks who have attracted a sizeable following because their writing and insights and instincts about books are interesting, informed and reliable. Some are not so notable bloggers who are equally interesting.

And some are, to use one of my daughter’s favorite words: randos. As in Random Reviewers.

These are people who like to read and who might have no particular credentials. They throw up a profile on social media and pontificate, and it’s hard to know what their agenda might be (or not so hard, depending … ) but suffice to say, in these days of Goodreads, Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest … wow, I could keep going but I won’t … their opinions do get stirred into the mix and have capacity to affect the taste of the stew.

Here’s the thing about all the critique: as an author, you can never, ever, absolutely EVER, respond to a bad review. Okay, maybe in a flagrant case where somebody completely misread your book (like, keeps referring to the main character by the wrong name?) you might consider getting a third party (your next door neighbor who places the call from a different state just to ensure anonymity) to offer the tiniest of corrections (“His name is John, not Carl.”) But generally, it is a huge, massive, life-altering gigantic faux-pas (in other words, a no-no) to confront someone who has negatively criticized your work.

Here’s the one simple reason why: they will come after you with a vengeance.

Confession time here: I made this mistake. Once. My second novel, Jersey Tomatoes are the Best, was released in ARC form without a cover. Subsequently, I read a pretty not-great review, which surprised me by its level of not-greatness. As I was harrumphing to myself about it, a brilliant thought crossed my mind: The reviewer didn’t realize this practically blank front wasn’t the actual cover! Aha! I’ll send her a jpg of the cover, explaining the error, and I’ll bet she’ll change her mind about the book!

I know what you’re thinking: Is Maria really that stupid? Answer: Yup.

I merrily sent off the jpg, with a suggestive little note that implied she’d certainly change her mind about my book if she saw this, etc. etc.

Well. The storms that unleashed. The fury. The righteous indignation, how DARE I deign to approach her, what was I THINKING??? And on and on. She also warned me to never approach her again … or else.

It gave me some insights into reviewers, and how important their opinions are to them. It also revealed to me, somewhat belatedly, that this “review” business is not a discussion. It’s not a negotiation.  It’s a judgment, pure and simple. It’s the coliseum, the mob waiting, rapt, to see whether your book lives or dies: thumb up or thumb down?

It’s not pretty.

So now, this fourth go round in the Season of Reviews, I’m finally philosophical about the whole thing. First: I can’t control reviews. I can only control what I write, and I can only strive to write my best book possible. Second: I will get good reviews, so-so reviews, awful reviews, and great reviews. Third: I will take them all with a grain of salt, rereading the good and great over and over and over, while reading the so-so and awful only once, and hoping that someday those poor misguided souls will see the light.

Finally: I will trust my editor. Because before my book goes into the world, a brilliant, insightful, experienced person read it, helped me revise it, and would never launch it if it wasn’t ready. With this latest book in particular I’ve had some great editing advice, and for that I am so very grateful.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Still Thinking About It

Wrecked is due for release on October 4, 2016.
Last night I was on the phone with my hilarious friend, Mary. This is my college friend who challenges me in more ways than I can count, whether she’s handing me a book I’ve yet to read, questioning my political assumptions, shoving my canoe down a class three rapid or asking me to taste some hairy concoction out of Ottolenghi. Mary keeps you moving forward. There’s no standing on a hill of sand when she’s around.

So when I told her the galleys for my latest novel have just gone out and reactions/reviews trickling in, her comment was, “So it’s done, right? That book is finished? Yay, you can think about something else now!” I paused.  I mean, yeah, it is time to start a new project (and I have, the tiniest of baby steps have been taken) but her comment startled me. And I realize that while I’m done writing this book, I may never be finished thinking about, and learning about, and talking about, the issues it explores.

Wrecked is the story of an accusation of sexual assault on a college campus. It is narrated by Haley (the roommate of the accuser) and Richard (the housemate of the accused.) In between their alternating chapters is an ongoing, omniscient retelling of the night and the events in question, so unlike the characters in the book, who must rely on what they are told by a variety of sources, the reader sees.  Point-of-view in the novel is not merely a narrative device: it’s a theme.

You can understand Mary’s desire for me to move on. This is not a happy topic. Actually, this is a wrenching, painful, horrible topic, and I’ve been existing in this imaginative world for years. Some of the “research” I’ve needed to do has been emotionally excruciating.

But if anything, I’m still all in on this one. And while I’m done writing the story I needed to write, I’m far from done learning and processing. I’m actually hungry for the next step, which is not only hearing from readers, but also talking, listening, learning. Some of that will no doubt emerge organically, from school visits to readings to simply chatting with friends. But I’m hoping this blog might also be a place where I can keep the conversation going.

So for starters: let me toss out three things (a book, an article, an op-ed) which have been percolating in my head this week, which also happens to be the week the galleys for Wrecked are flying out into the world. Take a look, tell me what you think:
  •        Peggy Orenstein’s Girls & Sex launched last Friday and landed on my doorstep that afternoon, (well done, Harper!) I’m halfway through and 1. It has already sparked some really important conversations between me and my daughter, and 2. Every woman needs to read this. Then talk about it. I’m still reading, so more on this book later …. 
  •        Among the many ways I “researched” Wrecked was reading current students’ writing about sex, sexual assault, and the hookup culture on campus. This piece in the April 2, 2016 issue of The Bowdoin Orient was remarkable to me not only in light of what I’m reading in Orenstein’s book, but also for the rage expressed by the writer. Take a look at "Male Entitlement Promotes a Hierarchy in Bowdoin's Hookup Culture.
  •       Writing instructors tell us to ask the question: What does my character want? I have found that to be an excellent guide as I develop a character, and throughout my writing process I’ll keep checking in on that question and expanding/honing the answer. It’s something that came to mind when I was reading a thought provoking article by Middlebury College graduate Leah Fessler ’15, who wrote her thesis about relationships on campus. I think Leah is on to something important here, particularly her observations about hookup culture, what young women want, and feminism. Check out Modern Love. 

This is what I’m reading/thinking about this week. And that doesn’t begin to approach the stack on my night table. Maybe I can convince Mary to read some of it for me and summarize …

Stay tuned.