Thick Skin Needed: Book Reviews and the Author

A lot of writers, when they’re first starting out, are really sensitive and often afraid for anyone to read their work at all. They eventually get braver, and anyone serious about it will develop thick skin, because you pretty much have to if you want to improve as a writer. I think critique is probably the most important thing for a writer to develop their skills. You have to learn how to convey what’s actually in your head, and only other people can tell you if you’ve accomplished that. The quality of the critique definitely matters, so it’s important to find people that are roughly at your level (or a little better), so you can all grow together while giving each other relevant and not-too-advanced critique (which isn’t helpful). The thing about critique is that you always submit your work hoping that they’re going to turn around and say, “This is perfect. Don’t change anything.” This never happens with a good critique group (if it does, find a new group, because they’re not doing their job). So you have to get used to people telling you things you’re doing that don’t work, and so on. The only caveat is they’re not allowed to be mean about it. Most of the critique partners I have been with for years can take virtually anything at this point. But we’re all also nice to each other and we all know the critique is truly just trying to help. So you get that thick skin.

But reviews are another matter. It’s one thing to have your work read by a few people who know you and your work, and a totally different thing to have strangers read the work you poured your heart into. Because here’s the thing about strangers: some of them are mean. Some people actually feel obligated to “tell the world” about a book they don’t like. Which is stupid because the fact that you, just one person, didn’t like a book says nothing about that book. It’s all about the numbers. Any book that has a lot of ratings is going to have a handful of ones and twos even if the average is over four. Conventional author wisdom is that you shouldn’t read your reviews, especially those by randos on Amazon and Goodreads. If you do decide to do this, you’d better have that thick skin in place because there’s going to be some pain. Reviews by the major review sites like Kirkus and Publishers Weekly are kind of another matter since these are by professional reviewers, so we sort of value their opinions more. However, it is still true that one person’s reaction to your book does not indicate how everyone else’s reactions will go. 

As a case in point, I’m going to talk about my experience with my book Always the New Girl, releasing on Tuesday. I entered this book as an unpublished manuscript in the 2021 BookLife Prize (BookLife is an arm of Publishers Weekly focused on indie books). They take self and unpublished books. It ended up being a quarter-finalist in that contest, getting a perfect 10/10 score. I’m going to share the review here, as it’s really good. 

But first I’m going to explain a little about the book in case you don’t know it. It’s a little odd, and I always planned to self-publish it and never even tried to sell it because of its oddness. The book came about only because of something one of my writing instructors told me. I had written this short story based on a scene I had removed from Finding Frances when a critique partner (wisely) posed the question of whether it was really needed in that book. It definitely was not. So I created a new character and put her in the situation I’d originally had Retta in, and ran with it. It turned into a revenge story and I liked it a lot. My instructor casually suggested I write several more stories about this character. At first I didn’t think much about it, but then I thought of several other stories I could tell about Sarah. So there were seven stories I ended up with, one while she’s in eighth grade, the others in her last two years of high school. The stories were all pretty long (the eighth grade book is 20,000 words, or over 70 pages). I struggled with how to present this. A collection of short stories? A novel? I decided to do it as a novel in parts. So I assumed the reader read them all in order (short stories would ideally fully stand on their own) and structured it that way. My goal was that each part would stand on its own plot-wise, but that the overall book would have a clear character arc. Because of the nature of it, not all the characters were there throughout. Some important characters disappear and others don’t show up until later, which is a no-no in a typical novel. There are varying time jumps between the parts, and the eighth grade story was pulled out as a prequel. So the book I submitted to the contest and Kirkus started with the original story, the revenge one. And I think it works. And it clearly did for the BookLife Prize reviewer. Here’s what they said (this also published on their site here):

Plot: This plot delves into serious bullying and other grave social issues that can impact teens, and it accurately portrays the extraordinary importance of social media in kids’ lives.

Prose/Style: Vincent writes convincing teenage dialogue with all of the meanness and profanity that can surface at that age. Vincent’s style is spare and to the point, giving just enough detail for to engage the reader’s interest and imagination.

Originality: Vincent’s second YA novel, Always the New Girl, started out as a series of short stories, each of which is well thought out and fully developed. Vincent has woven them together masterfully.

Character Development/Execution: With parents who can be described as negligent at best, Sarah is out of necessity a fiercely independent young woman trying to find her way in the world with very little adult support, but she is able to make good choices for herself and forge a future that should turn out well. Vincent depicts Sarah as an utterly believable character whom one cannot help but respect.

Blurb: Always the New Girl is a carefully considered and executed coming-of-age story about a resourceful young woman who matures from a somewhat rebellious high school junior into a successful senior on her way to college, all with very little help from the adults in her life, but a lot of help from her friends.

So that made me feel great, when I got that back and then found out it was a quarter-finalist. It stalled out there, as the reader for those books probably just didn’t feel the same about it. Perhaps they felt like the Kirkus reviewer did, like it was a hot mess. I can’t directly quote the Kirkus review here because I opted to not publish it. But I can summarize their main issues, which I do here:

Unsatisfactory resolution: There wasn’t a good resolution at the end

Fractured time

Rushed pacing: Pacing feels rushed in each of the parts, like they were written separately and just crammed together

A disjointed story: The various threads never come together 

Unnatural character change: Sarah’s changes in her interests seem to be because of the narrative, not a natural thing

Incomplete and weak characterization: Characters are interesting when first introduced, but are gone before they’re developed enough

Inauthentic teen culture

Some of these really do surprise me, like the resolution issue. I really disagree—I think the resolution is solid. There is a storyline with her mom that isn’t resolved, but it’s intentional because that’s life—it’s not always neat and tidy. But Sarah herself is on a clear path at the very end, which came across in the BookLife Prize review. The next two are clearly related to the structure. The BookLife reader totally got it—they went along with the short story concept—but the Kirkus reviewer didn’t seem to find this acceptable in a “novel.”  It cracks me up that the BookLife reader said I’d woven them together “masterfully” and the Kirkus reviewer thought they were thrown together haphazardly. I mean, man, is this subjective. It’s also funny that the BookLife reader specifically called out Sarah’s authenticity and the Kirkus reviewer thought her growth was unnatural. I also am surprised at the fact that the Kirkus reviews thought the teen culture I wrote about was unrealistic. It is true that I don’t have a lot of experience with actual teens today. But I read tons of YA, so I know teen culture as it’s represented in YA fiction, which is what I’m writing. So yeah. I think I’m good. But I wondered if the reviewer isn’t widely read in YA. I have no idea how they assign books. 

So that was an unfortunate waste of $375. Oh, well. At least it was on sale. Doesn’t mean I won’t try again. Finding Frances got a star, after all (I think only about 10% get them) and the Ugly one was mostly positive. Even my romance got an overall decent review. I just have to move on and do whatever I am going to be doing (once I figure that out).

First Book Event and a Contest Milestone

Yesterday was my first book event, at Best of Books in Edmond, Oklahoma. It was with four other authors of three other books. They put me at a table with another YA author, Talitha DeVilliers, and we had a nice chat about YA and writing. The staff was all really nice, too, although we didn’t interact much. I even broke the double digits in sold copies of Finding Frances (I had very low expectations) and I was able to leave three signed copies on consignment. I handed out a few bookmarks that also had Always the New Girl information on there. I also got to see a friend I hadn’t seen since she visited me when I lived in Scotland, I think in 2002.

Here’s a photo my mom took of all of us:

Author Event
Best of Books in Edmond, OK

Also, in other good news, I submitted Always the New Girl (stories 1-6, not the prequel) to the BookLife Prize contest (the one Ugly semi-finaled in in 2019) and got the score back a few days ago—a perfect 10 out of 10. This should mean I should make it to the quarterfinal round, at least, which is awesome. It’s just nice that somebody in the industry thinks it’s good. The listing can be seen here. It includes the score and review, which was really glowing. 

Another Win and New Release

I found out Finding Frances placed 1st in the YA Novel category of the NEST (National Excellence in StoryTelling) contest run by the Central Region Oklahoma Writers. You can check out the winners page. So that’s nice, too. 

But bigger news is that I’ve released a new book, on the new serial platform, Kindle Vella. This is the Sarah stories, which I’m now collectively calling Always the New Girl. I released it as seven separate stories, as #1 (Now Would Be Good) through #6 (The Weight of Choices) plus the prequel (Binding Off). If you are interested in reading it, you can search for my name or the series name on the Vella page linked above. To read the entire series, you’ll have have to have 703 tokens, which you should be able to get with the free 200 and a purchase of 525 for $4.99. I’d love it if you could:

  • Follow the story
  • Like each episode
  • Review the story
  • Fave the story (you can only do one a week, and only after you’ve purchased tokens)

One downside to this is that you can’t read on an actual Kindle, only in the app or on the website. But I’m really hoping this takes off a little and gets me new readers for Finding Frances (probably wishful thinking, but why not?). 

Another Contest Update

So I know I posted last week after ages, so posting again one week later is a little odd… but I found out Finding Frances got another award, an Independent Publisher Book Award (an “IPPY”). This is another one with tons of categories, but it’s still nice to get some more recognition. Last year they had close to 5000 entries (I couldn’t find this year’s number). This time the book placed third (in another tie—what the heck is up with that?) in the Juvenile/Young Adult Fiction E-book category, which can be seen on this page. 

On the heels of these wins, I felt emboldened enough to apply for another BookBub Featured Deal. And got a big fat rejection a couple days later. So I’ve signed up for another Bargain Booksy deal for June 26 (the ebook version will be on sale for 99 cents from June 25 through July 1, in case that is of interest to anyone... anyone?). Because I found out—and it’s a little embarrassing to write this, but whatever—I have not sold a single book in 2021. A couple books (maybe 3?) sold on Amazon, but apparently they had a few in stock, so not a single one has been purchased from the publisher (I did confirm this with them). No Kindle or other ebook, either. I knew this was going to be hard, but not this hard. Ugh.

Maybe if I can make some progress with the Sarah stories, starting with “Now Would Be Good,” on Kindle Vella, I’ll get some new readers for Finding Frances. I mean, it can’t make things any worse, as it’s not possible to have a negative number of readers. Also from the department of maybe-not-bad news: I heard from my developmental editor on this book that she started reading this past week, so I’m hoping she’s as fast as she’s been in the past, and I get it back in a week or two. I can get “Now Would Be Good” ready to post pretty quickly, as I’m not going to worry about sending it to a copy editor first since it’s been gone over so many times as part of my thesis and more. I am still going to send the whole book to a copy editor, so if they do find anything wrong with that story, I can always update the text later. The only thing that will slow me down is if my developmental editor suggests any major structural changes that impact that story (or anything that comes later but I need to set up there). 

Random image: here’s a self-portrait I had to do for a class. My mom says it’s “frownier” than the photo I drew it from. Maybe I was subconsciously depicting how I feel about my less-than-stellar writing career? 

May 2021 Update

So it’s been a couple months since my last post. Although my break has actually been kind of nice, I’m in a weird place. I haven’t been able to read YA lately (or anything other than picture books, really). Still, things have changed a little since then. I decided to send Ugly to a developmental editor my book coach recommended, as she thinks this editor could make the difference for me. So I’m going to give it one more shot. I should get it back from her soon, and then I’ll have to dive in. 

Additionally, I’ve decided to clean up the Sarah stories and publish them through Kindle Vella, which is a new serial platform that hasn’t been released yet, but is coming soon. This book is odd and was always going to be hard to sell. But it’s perfect for serialization, because it’s always been a novel in parts, where each part is a self-contained story, with all of them adding up to a larger story. So each novel part can be one “story” in Kindle Vella, with each chapter (or maybe a few chapters) making up an “episode”. Here’s an article if you’re interested in learning more about Kindle Vella. I’m in the process of finishing up the full draft (meeting with my critique partner today to go over the revised last story), and I’ll make any needed changes and send it to a developmental editor this week. Then, once I make any of her recommended changes, I’ve still got to send it to a copy editor (I could skip this step, but I probably shouldn’t—though I might be able to get away with it for the first one, since it’s been edited so heavily in preparation for going into my thesis). I’m still hoping to get the first story (I’m starting with “Now Would Be Good,” which is technically the second story chronologically, but I’m planning to do the actual first one at the end, as a prequel) published on Vella before it releases, but that probably won’t happen. But I can hope. 

I also found out that Finding Frances has won an indie award called the Next Generation Indie Book Award. There hasn’t been a press release yet, but I was notified earlier and you can see the list here. Once they’ve officially announced it, it will show up on this page. The book tied for first place in the First Novel (70k-90k) category. Now, this award isn’t exactly prestigious and there are a million categories, and I really would have rather placed in the YA category, but it’s still really nice to get some recognition. Somebody somewhere thinks it’s a good book, even if nobody is buying it. Also, the prize is $100, which I assume they’ll split in half since it was a tie. Which increases my income from this book by more than 50%. This book hasn’t exactly been a rousing success. 

Other than that, I haven’t been working on any other YA stories, instead focusing on my picture book venture. I’ve got two different drafts that are coming along nicely, and another new one I wrote a first draft of on Friday. I’m going to be starting drawing up thumbnails for the first one, even though it’s going to be a while before I can actually do the artwork. I’m taking Life Drawing this term, and let’s just say my ability to draw people… needs to develop a little. 

Here is a sketch I did in my Life Drawing class that doesn't suck.

 

How Not to Be a Writing Contest Judge

I got feedback from the PNWA literary contest I entered early this year. I entered four categories this year (young adult, romance, short story, and short nonfiction). It was interesting. For the most part the feedback was generally positive (and in some cases like one judge for Ugly, really positive). But one of my judges for Ugly was atrocious. Bad enough that I’m going to share what they said to show what you should never do as a writing contest judge. Fortunately I have pretty thick skin when it comes to critiques of my writing. And for context, what they judged was a one-page double-spaced synopsis of the overall story and the first 27 pages of the book.

I’m going to start with their comments about mechanics:

The author might consider using stronger verbs instead of all the adverbs. Start chapter headings midway down the page. If this is a modern story, phones don’t dial.

Strong verbs don’t have anything to do with mechanics—it’s grammar, industry practices, etc. Second, the industry standard for chapter headings is 1/3 of the way down the page not halfway. And third, talk about picking nits. That’s what editors are for.

In their comments about my synopsis/plot, they said:

Good job of placing main character names in all caps and the title. Just because a girl doesn’t wear make-up doesn’t make her ugly. The author might try a different approach for bullying. Is she a nerd perhaps? Some people are beautiful without make-up. I suggest a better title.

Uh… I was bullied for being ugly and fat. Maybe the reader should tell all teenagers not to be mean about people’s looks? I don’t really know what to say. And in Oklahoma, it would be very hard for a girl to be considered beautiful without makeup. Things may be different in the Pacific Northwest, but that’s not where the book is set.

In the viewpoint section, they just commented that I stayed in the right point of view. Woot.

In the characterization section they said:

The author might try using a character plan to round out their characters before writing the story. They can be found on the internet. The reader doesn’t identify with the protagonist nor cares because the character doesn’t sound realistic.

To tell someone something “can be found on the internet” without pointing them to something specific is actually pretty insulting.

About dialogue/internal narrative, they said:

There isn’t much dialogue and it’s short. The author might try to distinguish characters by habits, certain phrases used, etc. Most of the story is internal narrative which is good, but could use improvement also. If the main character was molested, the author might consider her thoughts on it and how she feels. Is she afraid of boys or men? If she thinks she’s gay the author might have her gaze at other girls in the locker room or wear boy clothes. Something to show the reader what is going on with her.

Is she afraid of boys or men? No. If she thinks she’s gay… have her gaze at other girls (she’s not actually gay, as it turns out) or wear boy clothes (she wears nothing but jeans, unisex t-shirts, and Converse or Vans). If the book has little dialogue and little action (mentioned below) and lots of internal narrative, what is that internal narrative doing other than telling the reader what is going on with her? It’s normal for different readers to contradict each other, but it’s not acceptable for one reader to contradict him- or herself, especially when they’re supposed to be doing a close reading.

On conflict/tension/pacing:

The author talks about tension and conflict, but the reader doesn’t see it. It’s more empty words. The pace is also slow.

I am confused by this comment. Are they saying I stopped the story and wrote, “Hey man, reader, that right there was some tension!” I used the word ”conflict” twice in the entire manuscript (not in the selection they had) and never used “tension.” And “more empty words”? That’s just tacky.

They completely skipped the hooks/transitions and the setting/description sections. Then for voice, they said:

The voice could be stronger for YA and more action.

Generic much? And action has nothing to do with voice.

In the final category, which is meant to be the one section that the reader can be subjective in giving their opinion of the overall appeal of the story to the intended audience, they said:

I don’t believe a YA would find this story interesting. It lacks action and the characters aren’t well-defined.

Nobody in the genre would refer to “a YA”—they’re called teens, last I checked. It’s obvious this person got roped into judging a genre they have no understanding of. Just my great luck to get this one.

Seriously. What a jerk. This was not worth my 35 bucks.