Monday, June 23, 2014

Self-published Novels: Should They Be Held to a Lower Standard?

As a review for Chick Lit Central, an email I always hate to send is the one in which I tell the site’s administrator that the book I offered to read would result in a negative review, and would she mind asking the writer if we should run the review anyway. The writer almost always declines – who wants a negative review published on a site with hundreds of regular viewers? I wouldn’t.

Thanks to CLC and my job working for an agent, I read about five to six self-published or unpublished manuscripts a month. I also try to get in at least one or two traditionally published books from my favorite authors. Add that to my own writing, and it’s a lot of stories.

There’s nothing better than reading a book you love. For my agent, I write a glowing report and keep my fingers crossed that she’ll love it as much as I do, and think she can sell it. For CLC, I write long reviews about the terrific protagonist, the witty writing, the fast-paced storytelling. I tweet the review and hope that my praise plays a role in helping the writer get sales.

Then there are the books in between. By and large, they work, but there are issues – often a muddy middle, or characters with weak motivations, or characters who are just stupid (Stupid is the worst. You’ll lose me completely there.) I’ll write reviews for these books, and they’ll be mostly positive, but I’ll point out the book’s weak parts, as well.

But should I?

Many of the books that Chick Lit Central reviews are self-published, and many others are published by small presses that specialize in women’s fiction. Sadly, for those of us who are fans of the genre, traditional publishers now find chick lit a hard sell, and are more inclined to invest in YA, straight romance or memoir. That means that a lot of really good chick lit books have gone the self-published route, not because of an issue with the writing, but because traditional publishers didn’t think they could sell enough copies to pay off an investment.

(And just because a book is traditionally published doesn’t mean it’s worth your reading time. Last year I reviewed a book by a multi-millionaire author whom I’d never got around to reading before. I was stunned by how bad the book was. Since it was traditionally published, CLC did run the review, and I got a lot of feedback from readers telling me that everyone knew how bad this writer was. She still makes the bestseller list with every new book, so I guess that everyone hasn’t hurt her sales at all!)

Still, that leaves many self-published books out there on Amazon, selling for $3.99 or less, that are there because they aren’t quite good enough to attract an agent or a traditional publisher. Perhaps the writer was eager to rush to press, or perhaps she just didn’t have strong enough beta readers to steer her into a stronger edit. Whatever the case, though, the majority of these authors do invest in their books – they hire book designers, maybe formatters so that they can upload to all the on-line books stores; some even hire professional freelance editors (and believe me, they are not cheap!) All of this, and chances are, they aren’t going to make very much money from this endeavor. Even with Amazon’s generous royalty rates, when the writer factors in money lost to 99 cent sales, BookBub ads and other programs, there isn’t a lot left over.

So, knowing all this, as readers and reviewers – do we give self-published authors a break? Do we read their $1.99 offering about a new mom convinced her baby’s been switched with her ex’s newborn, and forgive the inconsistent tone and a few obvious plot points? Do we do what we can to help this writer sell her book, because it’s funny and the ending really works? Or do we hold her to the same standard that has been set by Emily Giffin, Jennifer Weiner and Sarah Pekkanen, and insist that everything works as well in her book as it does in these books by famous authors who work with agents, publishers, and publicists?

What do you think?

PS – Let me know what think about that baby switch idea. Maybe I’ll write it….

PPS – I just signed on with a broker so I can help people buy and sell houses here in St. Pete Beach, Florida! If you want to live in paradise, let me know!

Monday, June 9, 2014

In Defense of Travel Sports and Helicopter Parenting

This past weekend was the draft for Major League Baseball. Seven kids whom my son played with throughout the years (and many others whom he played against) heard their names called. Sadly, my son was not among them.

My book, KEEPING SCORE, is about a “helicopter mom” whose nine-year-old son asks to play travel baseball. It’s the story of that summer, and all the trials and tribulations that went along with it – the politics, the petty competitiveness among the parents, and the particular agony it is to watch your child try his hardest – and fail.

“Helicopter parenting” has always been a pejorative term, and even more so over the past few years. We parents of early 1990s babies were encouraged to sleep with them, breastfeed on demand, wear them, play with them on the floor, and pick them up every time they cried. When they hit school age, we were told to sit with them while they did their homework, schedule them for multiple afterschool activities, and give them trophies for just participating. (Aside: I don’t really have a problem with the trophy thing. It only happens at the lowest level of sports – “rec” – and it may encourage kids who are bad at sports to stick with them. Sports provide exercise even to uncoordinated children and if they stick with them, they might get better. It sucks to be the worst kid on your team. Give them a trophy and maybe they’ll sign up again.)

After doing all that, we were told we created a generation of helpless, fragile butterflies who needed their parents to call their college professors and even their bosses when things got a little rough. And the worst kind of helicopter parents were those who forced their children into all those extra-curricular activities that they didn’t want to be doing. We were creating overscheduled, stressed-out kids who would much rather be playing kick ball with their friends in the neighborhood than travel baseball all over the country.

That last argument, by the way, has been proven wrong. Take a look at this study that shows that kids involved in a lot of activities are happy and healthy – it’s their parents who are stressed – and that kids who aren’t doing anything are withdrawn and depressed.

Score one for helicopter parents.

Now, about the fragile butterfly thing, and how that relates to sports. In KEEPING SCORE, nine-year-old Sam has to get on the mound and pitch right after he struck out in the most humiliating fashion. All through the season, he has ups and downs that on the best days have him crowing, and on the worst days begging to quit. His mother, Shannon, constantly questions whether she should be pushing him, or whether she should just let him quit.

That was just a single summer. Sam, like my son Alex, will go on to have years of ups and downs. That’s what playing sports does – especially at the most competitive levels. It forces you to get back up after having the lowest down. It creates resilience, and there’s nothing more important for success in this ultra-competitive world we’ve created than resiliency.

So while we travel-ball parents are criticized for trying to live out our dreams through our children, for being too obsessed and worried about things we can’t control (and I agree that parents of children who do not want to be playing sports at this level should not be pushing them), -- and through my book, I am one of the critics – I would also like to point out that we are developing children who can withstand failure and get back in the game. When you have a child who can give up a home run, and then hit one himself, you have a child who is developing the mental strength to deal with all of life’s curveballs.

So, no, my son did not get drafted. But he was genuinely pleased for his teammate who did. The day after the draft ended, he threw a perfect inning and came home to talk to the college coaches that are interested in having him play. This is just a temporary set-back – one that years of playing competitive sports has equipped him to handle.

Long live the helicopter parent.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Laughing at a Funeral – Writer Issues with Tone

It’s not that people don’t laugh at funerals. But they do try to do it quietly, and get embarrassed when they get caught. Usually there’s some elderly aunt who shoots them the fish-eye. Why? Funerals are solemn, sad occasions – people know better than to look like they’re having fun.

Writing a book is nothing like attending a funeral, except that sometimes writers feel like they’re going to die or kill themselves before the book gets done. And writers who would never laugh at a funeral in real life might find themselves doing so in print. Have you ever read a light, funny chick lit book where the heroine’s younger brother is fighting a painful, terminal battle with cancer? Probably not – or if you did, it was probably self-published. Cancer in the middle of a chick lit book is like laughing at a funeral, or maybe crying at a birthday party. It doesn’t belong. It destroys the whole atmosphere.

Yet new writers make this mistake on a fairly regular basis. It might be due to the overuse of the Hollywood term “dramedy,” which implies an even meshing of drama and comedy. Usually, though, most dramedies are dramas with some funny dialogue or a few mild pratfalls.

Almost all genres offer some comedy – even Shakespeare used comic relief in plays like Hamlet (“Alas, poor Yorrick”) and Macbeth. So what is the difference between comic relief and laughing at a funeral? The first step is knowing if you’re writing a comedy or a drama. My English teacher (and probably yours) differentiated Shakespeare’s comedies and tragedies by having us examine the ending – a happy ending meant it was a comedy. (Presumably this was because we were not sophisticated enough to get jokes written in the 16th century.) This tactic is still valid today. If you’re writing a comedy, the humor is built into the premise of the story. The funniest books and movies out there feature characters who have no idea they’re supposed to be in a comedy. (Characters in TV shows seem to know; that’s why they’re always telling jokes.) The guy who dresses up like a woman because he’s desperate to spend time with his children and can only do that as their babysitter is pretty desperate. He’s not laughing. But we are.

A typical comedic premise has someone pretending to be someone or something she isn’t. It’s a story in which the protagonist pretends to be someone of a different age, race, gender, or sexual orientation, or their own twin. Or they’re an FBI agent pretending to be a beauty contestant, or a boss pretending to be an employee. Something sad and a little scary might happen to someone during the course of the story, but it’s not someone especially close to the protagonist, or the scare is a false alarm. None of Mrs. Doubtfire’s children got hit by a car.

On a similar note, if you’re writing a drama about a lawyer who returns home to help his terminally ill mother, don’t have him dress up as his female fraternal twin to romance the doctor who’s treating her so he can steal drugs to help her commit suicide.

Simply put, if you’re writing a comedy, stay away from plot points that would show up on the news --- dying children, battered women, drive-by shootings, etc. And if you’re writing a drama, keep the comedy limited to comic relief – some funny dialogue or a few small character reactions.

Issues with tone jar the reader right out of the story. They reveal a storyteller who’s inconsistent and unaware of which emotions she’s trying to elicit from the reader. If you have great ideas for comic set ups and tear-jerker endings, there’s no reason why you can’t write more than one book. But trying to stuff everything into one work of fiction is like trying to put chocolate cake on pepperoni pizza. They taste great separately, but together, what a mess!