Why read inspirational books?

Last year, I read an adult dystopian novel. It stayed in my memory, and not in a good way. Not that it was a badly written book. On the contrary, while it wouldn’t win any prizes for literary merit, the book did its job: it hooked me from the start and I kept reading all the way through to the end to see how it turned out.

All the same, I’ll never read it again, and I can’t say I’d recommend it. It was extremely depressing. It started off with a disaster (manmade? I think so), some kind of virus that killed off most everyone on the planet and left the remainder unable to reproduce. The characters tried to find ways to overcome their short and long-term problems of survival. But the story was so grim that halfway through the novel, characters just started committing suicide because it was all so hopeless.

For example, at the beginning of the story, the heroine is separated from her one true love. She survives all the evil things that happen to her and makes it through to the one place of safety, only to find that her one true love had been there for months. He’d killed himself a few weeks before she arrived because there was no point in going on.

Reading that book left an aftertaste of depression, alienation, a sense of overall grayness to my life that I really don’t think I need. Look, I don’t care how hopeless life is, not every waking moment of every day is always off the scale miserable for days and weeks and months on end. You can find hope even in desperate situations. Victor Frankl, in Man’s Search for Meaning, describes surviving life in a concentration camp by finding positive things to hold on to.

The next book I read after the dystopian story was an inspirational romance, Tracy Blalock’s Wed on the Wagon TrainThe heroine had problems. She was in a desperate situation. She worked to resolve her problems and she held on to Hope even when things looked pretty dire. I put that book down feeling encouraged to go on with my daily burdens, not ready to give up because Everything Was So Dark.

Every military working dog has his day 120323-F-OH250-042Life is dark enough already. I don’t need a book to depress me; I can watch the news for that. I want to read a book that gives me something to hold onto after I put the book down.

Characters do what they want

Jane Austen coloured version
There’s a scene in The Man Who Invented Christmas where Dickens complains, “I can’t make the characters do what I want… I’m the author here!”

That reminded me of Shannon Hale’s book, Austenland. It’s the story of a woman who’s becoming frustrated with her inability to find a modern-day Mr. Darcy. In an attempt to overcome her Darcy obsession, she goes off to a resort where guests can interact with actors pretending to be Regency-era characters. And of course, she meets a man who resembles Mr. Darcy, as well as another tempting man.

As I see it, there were three ways that Hale could have ended the story:

  1. The heroine ends up with the grumpy-but-charismatic Mr. Darcy-type hero.
  2. The heroine ends up with the lowly-but-charming gardener.
  3. The heroine rejects both men and ends up with living on her own and feeling good about it.

Reading this story, I had the strong impression that Hale wanted one ending and the heroine wanted another. That sounds odd, but it’s true that sometimes, as Dickens said, you can’t make the characters do what you want. It felt as if the author were pushing the heroine toward one particular potential hero. There were whole scenes where the heroine waffled back and forth about whether she should make that choice. The trouble was, that choice didn’t make sense in the context of the way the story was developing, how the heroine interacted with the two potential heroes.

The ending felt right, and I’m glad the heroine made the choice she did, but I don’t think it was the direction the author had wanted the story to go.

Can I trust C.S. Lewis or John Milton?

The Snow Queen by Elena Ringo
Mary Stewart’s books are now available on Kindle. I’ve been re-reading them, and I found myself puzzled. The e-books were taken straight from the British editions, and they’re not the same as the American versions. Indeed, sometimes the plots veer off significantly. For example, in The Gabriel Hounds the American edition has the hero and heroine as second cousins; it stresses that their only common ancestor is a great-great grandfather, or something like that. In the British edition, they’re first cousins whose fathers are identical twins. Perhaps this was considered too “icky” for American tastes–but it’s acceptable for the British readers? The Ivy Tree has a whole subplot about the heroine supposedly being pregnant. Edited out of the American version.

It reminds me of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, which in the original British was titled Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Supposedly the title was changed so as not to confuse the American children. Are Americans supposed to be less intelligent than the British? Or more squeamish? It bothers me that publishers have been quietly re-writing British stories to make them less complicated for Americans. Now I’m going to have to go re-read the Narnia books to see if they were modified from the originals, and after that Paradise Lost, I suppose. I mean, where do they draw the line? Sheesh.

Bad Reviews & How to Handle Them

Cartoon of Christina Rossetti having a tantrum after reading 'The Times' review of her poetry, 1862 (pen & ink on paper)

A cartoon caricature of Christina Rossetti, by her brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti, reacting to a review of her poetry.

I’m pleased to say that I haven’t gotten a single negative review of my book.

That is largely due to the fact that it is still in production and no advance copies have gone out, but hey, not one single bad review. (You have to take your positives where you can find them.)

It is possible to give a book a rating of three stars or more and yet still write a negative review: [This book] is utterly adequate. It has a beginning, middle and end. Ouch.

I am preparing for how to handle the bad reviews when they come. (I gather they’re not avoidable.)

  • Read negative reviews of books I really, really liked. Not for schadenfreunde* but for perspective. It’s Not Just Me.
  • Read articles like the one from Literary Hub, where publicists advise on how to handle a negative review.
  • Read satirical articles like this one from J.A. Konrath, which contains a lot of really bad ways to handle a negative review.
  • Climb on the elliptical and fire up the Rejection playlist. I’m still putting it together, but so far I have collected the following songs:
    • As tears go by
    • I’m still standing
    • Handle me with care
    • (It is time for you to) Stop your sobbing

Do you have any good songs for a Rejection playlist? Or other coping strategies?

Of course, there is always the approach that Nora Roberts uses.

How can sensitive writers steel themselves against the negative reviews? Stop reading reviews. Stop now.  -Nora Roberts, ‘A Chat with Nora Roberts’, RWA 2015

*If you’re interested in writerly schadenfreude, then you might like Clive James’ poem, The Book of my Enemy Has Been Remaindered.