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.

Great Opening Lines

Henrik Nordenberg Blick aus dem Entrée

“Our Dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley.” – Uprooted, Naomi Novik

“Sabrina had never picked a lock in her life, but it was done every day in books.” – Tryst, Elswyth Thane

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” – The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien

Random thoughts of a problem I’m trying to work out for myself: how to start the story. This isn’t something I worry about when I start writing. The idea is on fire and off I go. But when editing, I come back and look at what I wrote. That’s when I start to question everything.

I love the feeling I get when I open a book and read a great opening line. I want to find a secluded corner and settle in for a good read. The stories don’t always live up to their opening lines, but the promise is there. The promise of a wonderful adventure.

What makes an opening line work? I love the above samples because of their promise. They intrigued me into reading more, which is the basic goal of an opening line.

It’s so simple when someone else does it! It’s harder when I try to do it.

I like to start by grabbing the reader and that doesn’t work for everyone. Some people love a leisurely opening and feel disoriented when they get thrown in the deep end. Plus, there is the plain truth that no matter how shiny and promising the idea starts out in my mind, the actual words on the page are going to look flat in comparison.

The opening of His Forgotten Fiancée:

“Who am I?”

Liza Fitzpatrick dropped the cleaning rag onto the counter of the dry goods store and spun around. A man stood in the doorway, his rough, workingman clothes soaked to the skin. He stared at her as if she were the first woman he’d ever seen.

The opening of Geoff and Lia’s story, tentatively titled A Gentleman of Leisure:

Geoff heard the click of a gun from the bushes behind him, and then a woman’s voice, deadly calm: “Stand up — slowly, now — and keep your hands where I can see ‘em.”

I like to start out in the middle of the action, in medias res, but even so the reader needs some basic orientation. I remember one contest entry that I read. All I knew was that the heroine was near the seashore looking at a ship. I didn’t know if she were sitting or standing or floating sideways. I didn’t know if she were on a dock or standing on a beach or looking out of a window of a house on the shore. I was trying to picture the scene and I was missing fundamental elements, which threw me out of the story at the start.

I want to start with something happening, but while it is happening I have to slip in some crucial details. Just enough for the reader to feel grounded, not enough for them to feel swamped. Argh!

What’s your favorite opening line for a book? Why does it work for you? Do you get disoriented if an author starts out too abruptly?

It’s tricky, achieving that balance between hooking the reader’s attention and throwing too much at them all at once. It’s frustrating, trying to convey an idea from one mind to another through the medium of words on a page. It’s amazing, to look at a whole book and think, “I did that. I want to do it again.”

Reviews: the good, the bad, the ugly


Isaac Asimov once listened to someone giving a lecture that explained in detail his personal theory of what one of Asimov’s stories meant. After the lecture, Asimov came up to the man and kindly pointed out that while the man’s theory was ingenious, it was also completely off base regarding the story. When the man asked why he was so sure, Asimov said “Because I wrote it.” I loved the man’s response.

“… tell me, what makes you think, just because you are the author of ‘Nightfall,’ that you have the slightest inkling of what is in it?”
-Gotthard Guenther

The other day, I read a blog written by an author who, some years back, wrote a critical review of a book. It wasn’t nasty, there was good and bad in the review, but now he is wondering if perhaps he should not leave the review up. Other authors chimed in to agree, saying less-than-positive reviews aren’t helpful for the author.

I have to say that I don’t agree with that point of view. I don’t think the point of a review is to be helpful or hurtful to a writer. It’s written by a reader and is helpful to other readers. Reviews are opinions and as such as wholly subjective and not designed to be anything else.

Reviews are not written about what the author put into the book; they’re about what the reader got out of the book. Just because I wrote a book doesn’t mean that I know what’s in it. Not, that is, from the reader’s point of view.

Reading a book is a joint effort between the author and the reader. What I get out of a book is not necessarily what the author put into the book, because my experience of reading it is shaped by the mood I’m in, my past experiences, etc.  There’s no point in an author getting upset about a review, arguing with the reviewer, saying “you just don’t understand.” What they got out of the book is their experience, not yours.

I have bought books based on one-star reviews that I read in Amazon, because the reviewers mentioned why they disliked the book, and the things they called out would not bother me. On the other hand, I’ve read five-star reviews that deterred me from buying the book. If the reader thinks the book is wonderful even though it’s riddled with grammatical errors, I know I will be too distracted by the poor writing to enjoy the book. That’s just me.

Note: when I’m talking about a review, I’m talking about someone’s honest opinion about what they liked and what they didn’t like. I am not talking about one of those reviewers who enjoys being witty at someone’s expense. That’s someone who enjoys being cruel. It’s got nothing to do with whether the book is good or bad, often I suspect the person skimmed the book if they read it at all.

I’m coming from the perspective of someone who’s spent the last 20+ years writing books. Granted, they were non-fiction and usually only reviewed by engineers, but I wrote ’em,  my livelihood depended on them, and I got the equivalent of some one-star reviews. Not fun. However. As a professional writer, I considered it part of the job not to get upset or argue with someone’s opinion. If I write a book, I will sweat over it, bleed over it, angst over it, but then I will let it go. If you don’t like it, that’s your prerogative. You probably love books that I can’t stand. And that’s okay.

P.S. Blog posts are also subjective. The above is my opinion. I won’t feel hurt if you give this post a one-star comment.