Friday, January 25, 2008

Publishers Weekly Slap

Writing is a journey of scaling mountains and sliding into deep valleys. Climbing the mountain to publication is an arduous task. Then when the writer almost makes it there it never fails. A big bully is waiting there to slap you back down.

It is the nature of the writing beast.

I had that happen to me this week. I made it to the semi-finals in the Amazon Novel Breakout Award. I was amazed, astounded, thrilled! To be one of the top 900 out of 5000 was such a mountain top experience. I sent the word out through my writing list serves and got great reviews from friends and people I don't know. And then came the Publishers Weekly review.

Here is what that reviewer wrote:

This uninspired depiction of a pioneer family during the height of the California Gold Rush presents a often unrealistic version of the struggles and triumphs of that era. When her mother dies in childbirth, spoiled 16-year-old Elizabeth thinks things can't possibly get worse. Then, her heartbroken and distant father takes her from their luxurious mansion and servants and drops her off at her grandfather's home on his way to California in search of a new life-and gold. Without any parental guidance, Elizabeth divides her time between flirting with Will, her doctor grandfather's pious and boring intern, and learning how to cook. When her father writes to say he's struck gold, she begrudgingly goes to him, crossing the mountains with her grandfather and attempting to learn what it means to be a woman along the way. The prose does little to inspire interest in the unmemorable characters, whose petty internal struggles overshadow the larger story.

I have to be honest, after reading this I slipped a bit down the mountain. After all, this is a huge slap for more reasons than one. To be fair to the reviewer, that person read a lot of manuscripts and probably skimmed those that did not catch his/her interest. We all have a personal preference for the genre' we like to read.

When I got my footing and stop the slid to the pit of despair, I was able to analyze this review. It became clear the reviewer either skimmed the manuscript, or doesn't have much knowledge of the gold rush era, and that this person doesn't appreciate my writing about the greatest love of all time, Jesus Christ. The following are excerpts that evidence my point.

1. This uninspired depiction of a pioneer family during the height of the California Gold Rush presents a often unrealistic version of the struggles and triumphs of that era.

Uninspired: That is the reviewer's personal opinion. Many found my manuscript extremely inspiring. So I won't worry about that.

Unrealistic: I spent a year reading journals, books, letters, and diaries written in the gold rush era (1849-1859) by people traveling to California seeking gold. My scenes came from that information. I even traveled the "Southern Route" described in Captain Marcy's journal, the man who blazed that path. I went to museums and spoke to historians. From dress to how life was in San Francisco, from life in a wagon to those who actually got on board steam ships in San Diego and sailed to San Fran (did you know people did that?) I used all that "realistic" information.

2. Without any parental guidance, Elizabeth divides her time between flirting with Will, her doctor grandfather's pious and boring intern, and learning how to cook.

Without any parental guidance: Elizabeth was 16. Many girls were married by that age. I suppose the reviewer got that idea when he/she read how Grandpa was worried about her being alone and came up with the idea of her learning to cook at the local restaurant to keep her busy.

Flirting: No flirting with Will was in the manuscript. She enjoyed his company, he taught her to play chess, they discussed history and books. Her grandfather was worried about her growing up and she found that funny. When she had to leave him to go to the gold fields, she wondered "IF" anything could have come from the relationship.

Pious and Boring: If the reviewer found Will boring, that is his/her prerogative. But pious? Will is a Christian. But he doesn't lay down the four spiritual laws and take her down the Roman Road. However, when she sits with him one evening on the steps and forks her cake to crumbs he asks her what is wrong. She explains and he can tell she is bitter. He encourages her to give him the benefit of the doubt and explains how to take the hardships in life and allow them to make her a better person. After she is gone, he does pray for her.

Being pious can mean:

having or showing a dutiful spirit of reverence for God or an earnest wish to fulfill religious obligations. OR:

practiced or used in the name of real or pretended religious motives, or for some ostensibly good object; falsely earnest or sincere: a pious deception.

If the reviewer was referring to the first definition, then the reviewer is correct. If he/she meant the second one, the reviewer totally missed it.

3. The prose does little to inspire interest in the unmemorable characters, whose petty internal struggles overshadow the larger story.

Unmemorable characters: The reviewer had a right to like or dislike the characters. My characters are from the "States," Scotland and Ireland. I used some history for each and later plan to use information I learned while visiting there last fall.

Petty internal struggles: Elizabeth is struggling from essentially the loss of both her parents, her father from the loss of his wife. Struggles in the secondary characters in three families in the train involve marriage conflict, death, barrenness, running away from life. There are the villains who spread fear, discontent, and stir up trouble. Petty? More like real life when you get 200 strangers from all walks of life together. Many of the "petty struggles" were in the pages of the diaries I read. I guess petty is in the eye of the person struggling with a particular issue.

The Larger Story: Relationships ARE the story. I don't know what this person had in mind when he/she penned these words.

The reviewer got 2 things right. Elizabeth does start out as a 16-year-old spoiled girl, but she doesn't end up that way. She changes to a thankful 17 year-old young woman. And her father does drop her off on his way to find a new life and gold.

What did I learn from this?

1. That review was from one person's opinion. Because this person works for PW doesn't make his/her opinion more valuable than all the others. If anything, that person may be more "jaded" because of his/her work.

2. I wrote a story of faith and freely expressed the love of Jesus Christ and I shouldn't apologize for that. And although my book is being marketed to Christian publishing houses I am careful to refrain from being preachy or creating contrived scenes to present the gospel.

3. A writer must allow for the personal opinions of others. As a good friend once wrote me when I was whining, "Not everybody is gonna like you!" I know I don't care for sci-fi, and I'd be a poor judge of it. But that doesn't make a sci-fi writer a poor writer!

4. My writing destiny isn't in the hands of PW or any other magazine or publishing house. It is in the hands of the one for whom I write.

I know there are many of you who feel like quitting. Don't. As my character, Will, said to Elizabeth, let the hardships in your life make you stronger.

Let the hardships in your writing life make you a better writer!

I want to end this blog with my sincere gratitude to Publishers Weekly for his/her time and opinion. I will use this experience to make me a better writer.





2 comments:

Terry Burns, Hartline Literary said...

I've had many reviews over the years, some good and some bad. They are each, as you realized, one person's opinion. I try not to get overly flattered by the good or overly discouraged by the bad. As to you work, I liked it or I wouldn't have agreed to represent it. There were 840 others submitted that I didn't feel I could represent.

David A. Todd said...

An older post, I know, but given that I've just discovered your blog, I thought I'd comment.

Sorry for the bad review, but it seems like you've processed through it. The story interests me (too bad I don't read romances). My wife's great-grandfather was a 49er. He left Vermont as a 16-year old and arrived in SanFran in June 1850--if I have the ship info right. He disappeared for 30 years, then showed up in the Texas panhandle by 1880, followed a sweet young thing to Kansas and married her in Dodge City. It's a great story. I've written a short bio of him, and someday hope to fictionalize his story.

I might look for you book for my wife.