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You all were busy this weekend, as I woke up to more than a thousand reviews on Goodreads.

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I guess that means it’s time to take a look at the poll for deleted scenes…

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I think one of the hardest things I had to cut from All the Ugly and Wonderful Things was most of Donal’s story after he was taken away from Wavy. When one is a famous, established author, one can get away with producing a sprawling 800-page saga, but publishing frowns on that for unknown, unestablished writers such as myself. So most of Donal’s life with Sean got axed early on, because it required the reader to follow and invest in two rapidly diverging story lines.

Because that’s such a big chunk, and I’m essentially a devious person, I’m not sending it all out at once. I’ll send the first two chapters tonight, and the next two when I hit one of the other two goals. Over on Amazon, only 26 reviews to go to hit 200. Mwahahahahah. If you’ve already written a review on Goodreads, it’s easy enough to copy and paste over to Amazon or B&N.

Or you could try giving your friends who’ve reviewed on Goodreads sad puppy eyes to convince them to post their review elsewhere. Here, you can use Josey.

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If you saw me at any of my recent events, you may have heard me admit that the first draft of All the Ugly and Wonderful Things weighed in at a hefty 200,000 words. Nearly 80,000 words more than the final, published version.

So what became of those roughly 300 pages that I whittled off? I’ve been saving them in a file called Lost Scenes. What’s in there? All the stuff I wrote that just never quite had a place in the book. Some of it I was sad to cut. Some of it I knew I wouldn’t be able to use, even as I wrote it.

How can you get your hands on those deleted scenes?

I’m sending them out to my newsletter subscribers, so step one: sign up for my newsletter.

I’ll be sending out deleted scenes as I hit certain review numbers on Goodreads and Amazon. (Darn it! There is a catch.) So step two: leave me a review, please. I’ll send out the first deleted scene when ATUAWT hits 1,000 reviews on Goodreads, another when it hits 200 reviews on Amazon, and another if it hits 50 reviews on Barnes & Noble.

Basically, the more reviews I have, the happier my publisher is, and the happier my publisher is, the more likely they are to want to buy another book from me. I believe that’s a win-win, if you enjoyed ATUAWT.

If you’ve already done steps 1 and 2, and you’re killing time, you can also vote in this poll to help decide which scenes I send out first. You can vote for up to three.

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Despite some doubts along the way, it turns out that I really wrote this book, my amazing agent really took a chance on it, my incredible editor really bought it, and it’s really for sale today!

ALL THE UGLY AND WONDERFUL

It’s for sale pretty much everywhere in North America: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, IndieBound, Books-A-Million, plus maybe even your local bookstore. If they don’t have it, they can order it for you.

Now, obviously, I love this book with all my heart, but you don’t have to take my word on whether it’s worth reading. Here are some of my reviews:

Kirkus Reviews called it a “powerful, provocative debut” and “Intelligent, honest, and unsentimental.”

Publishers Weekly says it’s “a memorable coming-of-age tale about loyalty, defiance, and the power of love under the most improbable circumstances.”

Library Journal said the book is “so freakishly good and dangerous that it should come with a warning label.” I’m pretty sure they mean that in a good way.

The Associated Press calls it “captivating and smartly written from the first page … instantly absorbing.” But they also warn would-be readers that “This book won’t pull at heartstrings but instead yank out the entire organ and shake it about before lodging it back in an unfamiliar position.”

Tonight I’ll be having a book release party at the lovely Lawrence Public Library at 7:30 pm. (Co-hosted by The Raven Book Store.) If you’re in the area, come on out!

Tomorrow night, I’ll be at Rainy Day Books in Kansas City. If you’re long distance and want to purchase a signed copy, you can order one through them.

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One of the cool things about getting book reviews isn’t just having people say nice things about your book. It’s getting a review from a reader who appreciates an element in your book that often gets overlooked.

Recently I got a review from a reader named Gretchen who wrote: “I was wary of yet-another-multiple-POV-story but this is next level sh*t. There are probably over a dozen (or more? I didn’t count) narrators, some first person, some third person, and yet the corners where they meet are perfectly joined. The math of it is impressive. This is hard mechanics but you don’t notice it because it’s done so well. Someone, please analyze this and tell me how she did it.”

There are, in fact, 16 narrators in All the Ugly and Wonderful Things.

Some of them are integral to the story, at both the emotional center of the book and at the center of the action. Other narrators are observers. People who know Kellen or Wavy in one way or another, or who meet them in passing.

I have always been a multiple narrator writer. The first real novel I ever finished in 2004 had three narrators, and I can remember going to a conference, where three different agents gave me the puzzled dog head tilt during my pitch sessions. Three narrators? Two of them said they couldn’t even think of a successful novel with multiple narrators, and I helpfully reminded them of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. I like writing in multiple narrators, but my reason for using so many in All the Ugly and Wonderful Things was more than just a matter of personal taste.

I chose to tell the story through sixteen narrators for two reasons. Firstly, I needed a way to manage the impact of Wavy’s narrative on readers. When she speaks, it’s fairly intense and to the point. Putting too much of her voice in the story felt like putting too much salt in a dish.

The second reason for all those narrators was to be sure I was being honest with myself. I’m not ashamed of the controversial nature of the story, but I’m not in denial about it, either. By checking in repeatedly with other characters, looking at Wavy and Kellen from other points of view, I was able to write the story almost like a documentary.

As for how I did it? As with all of my writing projects, I radically over-wrote. The first draft of the book was 200,000 words, and before it was all said and done, I had 280,000 words, which I ultimately cut down to the final published length of 120,000 words. When I’m writing the first draft of a book like this, I’m walking through the story with the main characters, and I’m noting the ways they interact with the rest of the world. I’m identifying people who are “key witnesses,” if you will. Then I investigate them. Not just what they saw and felt about their interactions with the main characters, but what kind of people they are, and how they view the world. For every narrator in the book, I could tell you what they were doing the day before the chapter they narrated and the day after, and possibly the most embarrassing thing that happened to them in sixth grade.

woodworking1Sometimes I think of it like woodworking, but instead of joining one piece of wood to another, I’m building multiple iterations of the same piece of furniture and then cutting out the sections I need from each piece, and joining those together to produce a single piece of furniture made up of those parts. For some narrators, I’m literally writing a novel about them, and then superimposing all of those stories together and choosing where they overlap with the story I want to tell.

For example, I have what is essentially a whole novel about Wavy’s cousin Amy. Not just where her life intersected with Wavy’s, but all the other parts of her life, too. There are other narrators for whom I wrote novellas, so that I could understand how they fit in. Of course, there are also narrators who didn’t make the cut, including a few very important characters, like Wavy’s parents and her aunt. Ultimately, Wavy’s mother and father were too self-absorbed to make the cut–they weren’t focused on Wavy enough to tell part of her story. Wavy’s aunt simply had a habit of derailing the narrative with peripheral concerns, and she did so well at verbalizing her opinion in other character’s scenes.

Ultimately, my goal in the revision process for All the Ugly and Wonderful Things was to give every character a narrative arc. Some of them are quite small, and some of them take place off stage, but by the time I’m finished writing a novel, I know all these people intimately and I want to understand how they got here and what happens to them.

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You might think the title of this blog post goes without saying, but considering some of the wacky things happening in the writing community these days, you’d be mistaken. We’ve had an author confess to stalking and harassing someone who gave her novel a poor review, and we’ve had a blogger apologize for years of harassment and threats against writers whose work she didn’t like.

As a passionate reader, I have always maintained a “review” of books I’ve read. In ye olde pre-internet days, I kept a little notebook in which I recorded the books I’d read with a few lines about the book. When Goodreads emerged, I joined and began to track my reading habits there. I viewed it primarily as a tool for me as a reader. Of course, as I connected with people on GR, I also began to see my notes on books as useful to like-minded readers. All the same, in the age of the internet, where data is perpetually retained and easily accessed, I have always tried to be polite when I write reviews of books. I am neither a professional reviewer nor someone who relishes drama. Just as I would hate to read a review of my books that was nasty or personal, I would never want a writer to read one of my reviews and feel that I was being anything but professional, even if I disliked the book.

Despite my policy of being polite, I’ve still received a few nastygrams, typically from people who loved a book I didn’t, and who wished to inform me that I was a stupid poopypants. I don’t think those were the exact words, but something juvenile and unnecessary.

Not a few people have cautioned me of late that as a published writer I ought to be more careful about reviewing and rating books, so as not to attract haters. I’ve considered it, and someday, maybe I’ll need to make a more anonymous Goodreads account, but in the interim, I’ve made a different choice.

I’ve always had a Did Not Finish shelf on my Goodreads account, to identify books that I did not or could not read through to the ending. Rarely do I remark on those books and never do I rate them. This week, however, I added a new shelf: Not Every Book Is for Everybody. Let’s call it NEBIFE. We know in our hearts that this is true, but it seems to get lost within the book community sometimes. A book isn’t bad, just because we didn’t like it, and a reviewer isn’t stupid or evil or many far worse things, just because they didn’t like our favorite book. I come face-to-face with this when I realize that almost 17,000 people on Goodreads have given Nabokov’s Lolita a 1-star rating. 1 star? One? Are you kidding me? I consider Lolita to be one of the greatest English novels of the 20th Century. I love this book.

ONE STAR?!?!?! OMGAAAAAAH!!?!?!?

ONE STAR?!?!?! OMGAAAAAAH!!?!?!?

Yet Goodreads reveals that two people whose opinions I respect have rated Lolita as 1 star. Huh. I guess we’re gonna have to disagree on that one, but I’m not going to send them emails to tell them they’re stupid poopypants. Primarily, because I don’t think they are. Secondarily, because I accept that even a brilliant book will not be the right book for every reader.

I was looking for an apt comparison, and found it quite by accident. I occasionally pull a recipe off allrecipes.com, and it struck me that even when people dislike a recipe and give it a low rating, I have never seen anybody get nasty or personal in a recipe review. I’ve never seen a recipe submitter called a stupid bitch, or a recipe called corrosive garbage, or seen someone wish the original recipe writer be raped to death, all things I’ve seen in book reviews. Similarly, I’ve never seen a recipe submitter get hostile with someone who didn’t like a recipe. Why? Because on some level, as a society, we’ve done well at accepting that not everyone has the same tastes. After all, my mother hates Indian food. Hates it. We’re still on speaking terms, because why wouldn’t we be? I think it’s silly that she dislikes an entire culinary tradition on the basis of one ill-fated buffet visit, but I’m not going to cut her out of my life over it. Similarly, I’m not going to kill a friendship over Lolita. Or even a potential friendship.

In this week, where madness is swirling all around us, I’d like to ask everybody to embrace the concept of NEBIFE. If you get a negative review on a book you wrote, keep in mind that not everybody loves the same books. You can’t expect everybody to love your book. If you read a book you disliked, try framing your review from the perspective that not every book is for everybody, and that this book wasn’t for you.

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My publisher, Ken at Stairway Press, sent me pictures of the folks who are working today to put together book packages. The book, plus a press release, is going out the door to reviewers. 130 copies in all are going. Check it out!

That's a lot of books!

They seem like very nice people, if a little fuzzy. ;o)

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I’m not sure where the star rating system first originated. (Curse you, internet, for failing to provide immediate trivia information!) I believe it became well-known by its use in the Michelin hotel and restaurant guides, which have been giving stars to deserving establishments since 1926. Now? Star rankings are everywhere. From football stadiums to random hotel sites to amazon.com to this new-fangled GoodReads.

Originally, the star itself was a marker of quality. To be singled out by Guide Michelin with a star was to be raised to the firmament, put above lesser establishments. (See what I did there? ;o) Pretty quickly, however, Michelin added two- and then three-star ratings. Three stars represented the very best restaurants and hotels. As of this year, there are only 79 three-star restaurants in the world.

Michelin, like some redoubtable academic stronghold, has resisted ratings inflation over the years. The new reader-based internet rating systems for books has not held up so well. In fact, the whole system seems to be plunging from the sky in a ball of fire, like some Sputnik/Skylab/Challenger disaster of literary proportions. The whole thing is blowing up faster than I can read the latest review kerfuffle on Amazon or GoodReads.

The first time I really noticed how rapidly book reviews were becoming inflated was when a friend lamented that she’d gotten a “bad rating” for her book on GoodReads. I sympathized with her and went to see the damage. The review wasn’t vituperative or even particularly harsh, and then I noted that the reviewer had marked the book with 3 stars.

But wait! What? 3 stars? I hesitated, confused, as I scrolled back up to pass my cursor over the offending rating in question. The hover text obligingly popped up: “3 of 5 stars, liked it.” That was what I thought. 3 stars means the reader liked the book. That was the presumption upon which I’d based all of the ratings I’d doled out on GoodReads. Not that I’m all that adept at remembering to enter the books I’ve read and my ratings of them, but there were several good books I’d rated at 3 stars. Because I liked them. Not loved them. Not felt gushy and world-altered. Just liked. You know, in a positive, hey, I enjoyed reading that kind of way.

So how the heck did 3 stars became a “bad review”?

Oh, right… the same way a C became a bad grade, when we all started expecting to be above average. When we all started expecting our work to be deemed “amazing,” or “brilliant,” or “earth-shattering.” When we started getting our little feelings hurt if we weren’t deemed geniuses by everyone who read our stories.

It’s not that I don’t understand. Yes, when my first book comes out later this year, I will hope for mostly 4- and 5-star ratings. That would be very nice. We all want to be loved and admired. But it’s crazy when we expect that. Because like the old Freshman Composition teacher I am, I still want a system of evaluation to maintain its credibility. I still want there to be standards for what makes a student essay a B+, as opposed to a C. I don’t think “average” is a “bad grade.” I don’t think marking that I liked a book should be interpreted in a negative way.

The truth is, I don’t think most books I read are 5-star books. There are a few. Books that just blow me away. Books that have changed the way I think about the world. Books that I can re-read over and over and never get bored. Those are 5-star books. Maybe I’m just a bitch, but generally the highest rating I’ll give, even to the aforementioned dear friend, is 4 stars. Because although I think some of my friends are very talented writers who’ve written enjoyable books, I don’t feel like going around proclaiming they’re works of genius, just … because. For the sake of friendship. To be nice. That’s not really what book reveiews/ratings are for, right? Or is it?

A Theme

I won’t even get into the question of writers rating their own books at 5 stars. Do I think my forthcoming book is a 5-star book? No. I think it’s pretty good. Mostly well-written with some nicely crafted characters. The plot’s no beauty pageant winner, but that’s just it. Not every book is gonna be the winner. The Pulitzer Prize–only goes to one book. Not every student essay is an A++++++++++++++++

Which is not to say that everybody should have the same 5-star book. Ridiculous. The joy of such reader-centric sites as GoodReads is that each reader can expound on the virtues of their favorite books. The other side of that coin is that every reader can discourse on the failures of the books they deem deserving of 1-star ratings.

The problem, as I see it, is when we get sucked into a system of over-rating books, because we’re afraid of offending someone or being attacked for our honest opinion. Having been lambasted for giving my honest, but not cruel opinion on books that I thought were less than stellar, I’ve all but given up rating books on GoodReads. I cringe in anticipation of my entry into the land of stars and reviews and revenge ratings, but there doesn’t seem to be an alternative…

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