Friday, March 25, 2016

Book Reviewer Extraordinaire

I’ve had the pleasure of working with Rachel, I'm that cool. At the tender age of 21 she’s surpassed every other blog review site—both in longevity and quality.
She gives hope to many a parent, confessing that she wasn’t born a reader. In fact, it wasn’t until Harry Potter fell in her lap in 6th grade that she discovered her love of stories. An underdog who fights her own physical battles, she can spot a character worth rooting for. Her influence increases sales (I've fallen victim after this interview, there are three books en route to my library).

Rachel, tell me a little bit about yourself. How did you become a reviewer?

I’m 21 and I’ve been a book reviewer since 2010. Only a handful of online reviewers have been in the biz as long. Most blogs only last 18 months. It’s cool, and it has lent credibility to my reviews and review requests.  
I didn’t start reviewing until I got really sick at summer camp, after my freshman year. I had a lot of down time and my dad convinced me to start the site. From there, it exploded. It was addictive. I learned a lot of HTML, and it kept me grounded when my life got rough. I love being a reviewer, and I wouldn’t change it for the world. I literally owe my life, my passions, and my job to that single decision.

What are the top three reason you sour on a book?

Numero Uno: Shallowness…maybe better said with the word ‘simplicity’ or ‘singularity.’ It’s probably just a reader’s preference, but I can’t stand when there’s only one plot line. It feels sloppy, and uninteresting. Makes me think that the author doesn’t have a passion for the book. Or worse, she has passion, but is/was unwilling to put hard work into it.  

Number Two: Telling. Way too much telling. I strongly dislike telling. It’s like reading a court report. Might be exciting to watch, but read? No.

Number Three: This is kind of a two-part quirk about characters. One is about mostly female main characters and the other is about mostly male main characters. I just think they belong together.

One: Girl meets a boy = all reason goes to the wind.
Just finished one where a military base is on lock down. The General’s daughter meets a strange boy in the woods, and pretty much says “Aw, he’s hurt, I’ll take him home while my dad is away dealing with a foreign downed plane.”
What?! What, whaat ,whaaaat?!
There’s no way you can have a military father and think that taking an unidentified man to your house is a good idea.
Without telling anyone.
Especially when you know an enemy plane went down…and the pilot’s missing and on the lamb. Ugh. Yes, teens/characters can make stupid choices. But lazy crap like that takes my suspended beliefs and sets them on fire. Then, throws them out the window.then they explode.
KABOOM! I just dropped your book. And I don’t care to pick it up again. Ever. 

Two: The bad boy isn’t really a bad boy. Just misunderstood. Or framed. Or his reputation is just rumors. Don’t get me wrong, I’m ALL about a great redemption story (even bad boys turned romantic saps.) But when you do that, it’s cutting corners. It’s a cheat. The bad boy needs to be actually bad, and needs to 100% regret or change. Enough said.
[Well done example: Perfect Chemistry by Simone Elkeles]  

Amen. To everything.
Authors take note, your critique partners hopefully point this out. If not, it’s time to beg for deeper criticism.

Rachel, what’s the latest trend with Young Adult and New Adult?

YA: Seafaring people. Whether it’s pirates, ocean survival, or mermaids, it’s in.
Also, people in royal courts. From Princes, to food testers, to servant girls, it’s also in.
Lastly, Retellings! You name it, it’s being re-told. I think in the last 6 months; four different Aladdin retellings have been published. Don’t even get me started on Cinderella. A bunch of sleeping beauty retellings are coming up. (Briar Rose, Once Upon a Dream, Etc.)  
Covers: I’m LOVING this trend of stylized covers. Ones done in a vintage-ish illustration style.

I Can’t get enough of them. Definitely better than the trend of a few years ago. I like to refer to that one as ‘Strung-out-girls-in-fancy-dresses’ trend.

NA: I don’t know. The genre is new enough that I’m not sure if what I’m seeing is the current trend, or the status quo.
If it is a trend, then I’d say: College girl meets young/attractive entrepreneur/business owner? Also, it might be my imagination, but it seems to be getting risqué.  

I agree. In fact, I was just speaking with an acquisition editor; she’s crossing fingers that the risqué part of NA sloughs off. It was originally in the romance/erotica arena. It sold better in that genre. As NA it sold well and slowly tapered. Now it’s once again in limbo.

What’s a trend/idea you’d love to see come back?

You know, I’m not sure. I’m highly entertained by what’s being published now. From Middle Grades about crime fighting dogs, to Pirate stories. It’s all fun right now. (as long as I don’t read too many in a row. Then it’s just confusing.) Perhaps I’ll say that I’d like more originality and less trend dominance.

So, you’re hoping for more of the same but more originality.

It’s telling about authors if they have the same idea but only one is well executed. Maybe trends make my job easier. At least one of my jobs anyway. Haha.

What’s an idea/trend that you’d wish would cease and desist?

NYT best sellers.
I know!
I’d like to be an NYT too. Because it comes with the following words: Best-Sellers. Getting money doesn’t matter in the long run, but we all think it would be nice, right?
I’m of the belief that book’s success relies largely on the publicity department. Not the author, not the book. Not the title, or the cover.
It’s about the hype. And, unfortunately, name-pulling.
There’s lots of hype about Red Queen right now. You know what? The book was par. The ending had a nice twist, but the pace was slow, and it had annoying political-messages strewn everywhere.
It’s sold millions of copies, and has recently been optioned for film. I have about 200 other books I’ve read that I would option for film before Red Queen. The reason why it was optioned? The author used to be a television script writer. End of story. 
Those fancy blurbs on the back don’t mean much. To get reviewed by those guys, here’s the golden rules:

I think I just threw up in my mouth. I work with Dan McGuire, both on the Writers of Kern board but also in critique coordination. We were discussing City on Fire and Goldfinch both were significant deals—as in two million dollars—but both were difficult to read. Between prose and plot, they were (cough, cough) less than stellar.

Big names cost big bucks.
I wish the NYT’s were chosen based on the best plots and writing. It’s just not that way anymore. It’s about pre-suggestion and media opportunity.
Ok, I’ll get off my soapbox now.

How does reviewing other books affect your own writing?

It majorly effects how I write. I’ll be first to admit (and my critique members will say as much,) that grammar/punctuation/spelling are not my strong points. Plot and characters are another story.
I’m not saying I’m perfect, I’m just saying that they are my strong points. Reading 600+ books will teach you something. Every book has a lesson for readers & writers, whether it was intended or not.

Yes. Yes. Yes!!! Where’s Stephen King? Where’s James Patterson? I think I hear them clapping their hands (slow clap, obviously).

There’s a saying I love so much: “We are the sum of everything we’ve ever read.”
It’s true.
Reviewing books trained bmy brain to deconstruct the books I read. Why did I like them? Why didn’t I like them? It’s like being an inventor. Why did others like/dislike it? You take everything a part to see what makes it tick. 
Take what works and make it your own.

 How and why are you involved in Writers of Kern?

Well, I actually didn’t know it existed until 2013. I’d just moved out of my house, and me and my dad went to Lowe’s to pick up something (probably screws or nails. Maybe our broom/Swiffer.) We ran into you and your husband outside and we ended up chatting for an hour or so. You invited me to come to the next meeting! I think I finally made it there a few months later.

Oh my gosh—you’re right. I forgot all about that. In my mind you’ve always been a part of Writers of Kern. You write, you review books, I suppose it just seemed natural that you’d be a WOKian.

As to why, I feel like it’s important to be in a community. Even if I don’t make it to a lot of the meetings, I still love the group and all it has to offer.

Speaking of, you’re a critique leader. I do remember this part. For me, as a coordinator I saw a wealth of information—and selfishly, we need it. You have an eye for story arc and characters. Agents and editors can (not that they want to) but they can forgive on prose if the story snags them.
For you, is there much of a crossover from reviewing books to being a critique leader?

I’m torn between saying none, or tons. None, because it never really comes into conversation or anything. But tons because of everything I’ve learned from it. I’m not perfect, but another thing my reviewing gave me was confidence.
I call it as I see it, and try to do so as gracefully as possible. I refuse to be intimidated by other people’s sense of self.
Being a reviewer led me to attend huge conventions. Thousands of people are there, and at least two thousand are after the same books you are. There are only a few hundred copies of the book(s) you want.
How do you prove you are the proper investment? By acting like it. If you appear like you belong, you do. False confidence looks like real confidence if you fake it well enough. Eventually, it turns into real confidence.
Also, an observation. You can’t prove something if you don’t know who to prove it to. Case the joint like an undercover-FBI agent. Quickly decide who’s in charge. Quickly decide what they find interesting.
Talk about it. Prove yourself interesting. Problem solved.  

Yes! Writers of Kern is hoping to present a Pitch Conference. Everything you just said applies to pitching an agent. Or editor. Believe in your work. Believe in your craft. Believe in yourself.

Rachel, I have to know, what is your all time, hands-down favorite book?

This question is illegal. It is.

What? (I may have grinned. A lot)

So. Many. Books. I’ll pick three that stand out to me right now. (Two were 2015 Debut authors.) 
Trouble is a Friend of Mine by Stephanie Tromly.
So cute! One of those rare books that make the ‘manic pixie-dream-boy’ stereotype actually work. It’s funny, the characters are fantastic, and the ending was perfect. Short and to the point, it’s about a girl getting sucked into the world of a new boy, who’s awkward and always ends up in trouble. But, he somehow also always manages to escape unscathed.

A Madness So Discreet by Mindy McGinnis
This one is dark but, it was also genius. It’s historical fiction, about a girl committed to an insane asylum (by her politically influential father) because of her pregnancy out of wedlock. From there, it gets darker.
Eventually, she is taken out of the asylum by a young professor who recognizes her intellectual potential. He has come up with the idea that you can look at a crime scene, and figure out what the killer is like or who he is or what he does. Basically, it’s a fictional account of the beginning of criminal profiling. It’s genius. I can’t recommend it enough.
It even features a title drop near the end that will give you chills. So good.

Lock & Mori by Heather Petty

The title makes it fairly obvious that this one is a retelling of Sherlock and Moriarty. It’s explosive, and also gets dark (though perhaps not as dark as the above.) There’s an addictive quality to Lock and Mori’s relationship. They spend the entire novel trying to one-up each other.
I won’t tell you the ending, but it was the most perfect ending to a Sherlock retelling I’ve ever seen. The clincher? The very last line for the book, is a punch to the gut. Perfect.    

I have got to read this. I’m a sucker for a good ol’ Sherlock retelling. Don’t tell my husband. My shelves are already bursting at the seams. I may or may not have piles of books in the office. And in the library. And in the bedroom. I think I have a problem.

What advice do you have for authors?
Three points:

One: Read. READ! You need to do this to gain an instinctive understanding of plot/story/character arcs. Read something, figure out why you like it and why you don’t. That’s it.

Two: Read aloud what you write. It doesn’t have to be in front of everyone (I would never do it, I’m WAY too shy.) But speaking something gives you the idea of where there are awkward breaks. If it doesn’t flow, you’ll know it. Stutter, slip up on a word? Probably something needs to be rearranged a bit. Change in tenses will be more obvious to you as well.  

Three: Some people say to write what you know. Some people say to write what you don’t. I say that both of those points are irrelevant. You can learn (and forget) anything.
I say, write what hurts.
Figure out why it hurts and build from there.

That is beautiful. Oh, Rachel, you’re right. On all accounts.
That’s all I have to say! Thanks for interviewing me, Clarissa! Thanks to the readers for reading it!

Thank you—not just for your time today but also for your contributions. Your influence goes well beyond your keyboard. Thank your for your thoughts and guidance.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Inciting Epiphany

Grandma and Grandpa dropped Damon and I off at the airport (and cackled all the way home). I didn't have a chance to triple check my children's food for the week—or their activities—or their homework—or everything else that I wanted to obsess over. It was the first time we left our youngest. We’ve tag teamed our business trips instead of leaving together.

But Grandma and Grandpa destroyed every excuse. Every. Single. One.

It took twenty hours of travel and a promise to let go (I can let go—I swear I can, I just have to make sure that everything is okay. And then double check that things are okay...and then I can let go. Almost).

The British Virgin Islands had an entirely different agenda. There was warm, wonderful sun and soft, tempting sand. For once, having a disorder was to my benefit. I have a sensitivity to light, without the sun I struggle to balance the moods—with the heavy rays of the Caribbean I could think clearer. Faster.

The longer I stayed, the more calm I became. I stopped picking at my nails and checking my phone (forgetting it altogether). Waist deep in the ocean, I had an epiphany on my novel. It was completed several times but I’ve hated the ending(s). It took thousands of miles before I could feel confident enough to go with my gut, and close my story with my original vision.

Unfortunately, it’s not easy for someone like me to be saturated with sun and then suffer withdrawals. But today, I received the rest of the pictures from our trip and I remember the beauty of letting go—and how sometimes when we let go, we’re given a little miracle.