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Something to Remember

Writer reality

An Honest Review

A couple weeks ago, The Guardian published an essay that got the reading and writing world buzzing. Author Kathleen Hale received a particularly negative semi-review of her novel No One Else Can Have You and she kind of lost her mind over it.

Hale scoured the Internet for information about the reviewer and eventually showed up at the reviewer’s home and then called her at work under false pretenses. Hale did not threaten the reviewer, nor did she actually harm her physically. But it’s still just slightly creepy.

In another case, self-published British author Richard Brittain, known for bullying behavior on Wattpad, traveled to Scotland to assault a woman who left a negative review of his book on Goodreads. He sneaked up behind her and bashed her in the back of the head with a wine bottle.

There exists a website called Stop the Goodreads Bullies that takes on a number of reviewers and bloggers who criticize literary (and I use that word loosely) works. The site has given out some of these reviewers’ addresses and daily habits, encouraging members and blog readers to track them down.

More benign, but in the same vein and more to the point I’m coming to, the latest trend is that people are not allowed to give honest reviews of books if the honest review is negative. The common criticisms of such critique are, “it’s subjective so you can’t judge it”; “I admire anyone who can finish writing a book”; “the author worked really hard on it and it’s like a baby.”

Let me take these on.

First, “it’s subjective.” Whether a particular reader enjoyed a particular piece certainly is subjective. However, there are some very specific elements that make a literary work good or bad. These include grammar, avoiding alliteration (unless it’s purposeful and works), avoiding redundancy, using words correctly, pace, plotting … There are many more, but I won’t list them all. Some current popular books lack one or all of these elements, yet people give them five-star reviews. Those five-star reviewers, whom I suspect wouldn’t know good writing if it climbed up their rear ends, attack anyone who disagrees with their assessments.

Personally, even if I didn’t enjoy a particular read, I will never give fewer than three stars if I recognize it’s well-written but just wasn’t my thing. If you go to my Goodreads page and see one or two stars, it was a BAD BOOK. That doesn’t mean others can’t enjoy it, but call it what it is!

There is a scene in Mel Brooks’ comedy History of the World Part I where the first artist paints on a cave wall and immediately after, the first critic arises. In other words. critiquing art has been round as long as there has been art. People make entire careers of it. They critique books, movies, television shows, visual art, dance and even each other. If you search through Goodreads, you will find thousands of one-star reviews of Shakespeare, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Mark Twain … If those legends garner poor reviews, what makes someone like Hale think she won’t?

I long ago learned not to choose books to read based on Goodreads star ratings. I have utterly despised books that had average rating above four and loved books with much lower ratings.The average reader doesn’t know anything beyond, “I enjoyed that.” And the average reader probably isn’t nearly as critical as I am. I also question the quality of books the average reader is reading, based on the average quality of professionally published books in the last ten or so years.

For that matter, I just yesterday finished a novel I bought solely because it boasted a positive review from George RR Martin on the cover. (For those who don’t know, Martin wrote/is writing the A Song of Ice and Fire series that the HBO show Game of Thrones is based on.) The book? It sucked. It was dull, poorly-plotted. The character development was beyond bad. And that’s terribly frustrating.

But what is this trend of not being allowed to criticize something because someone worked hard and finished writing a book? Why do we admire a poor end product because someone “worked hard” on it? I admire writers who take the time and effort to perfect their craft. I admire writers who learn grammar and punctuation and who follow or break writing rules in a deliberate way that improves the product. I don’t admire someone who just slaps words onto paper and calls it a book and demands praise. I cannot support the popularization of terrible books.

To be clear, I am not criticizing subject matter or content. You like erotica? Great! But skip EL James and find something someone actually wrote WELL. Something with plot and character and, well, that’s written in a recognizable form of English. I’m not a fan of dystopian literature. It leaves me feeling very dark. But that doesn’t mean I can’t recognize that The Handmaid’s Tale is a brilliant novel. I’m not so sure about The Hunger Games, though. I only got through chapter six. It bored me and the writing, well, it wasn’t all that wonderful. I also suspect she stole a lot of the story and ideas from other authors.

Many who say we shouldn’t criticize call anyone who does “jealous.” Do I want to be a successful author? Absolutely. But that doesn’t mean I am jealous of others who already are. If that were true, I would hate JK Rowling, Stephen King, Amy Tan and many other talented, published, successful writers. I don’t. I only have a problem with books I think are not up to par, that don’t live up to the wonderful works those authors have put forth.

Read The Shining, then read 50 Shades of Grey and tell me again that EL James is a great writer.

Party On, Garth!

Twenty-one years ago I met a boy — well, two boys to be specific. They were best friends and I was with my best friends and after a very strange first night we all ended up becoming friends for a short time and one of them became my boyfriend for an even shorter time — so short that my own mother doesn’t even remember him. I’ve seen him exactly once since then, and that was nearly two decades ago, too.

And yet to this day, he has left an indelible mark upon my life. You see, I grew up in a place and time where country music was verboten. You just didn’t listen to it if you wanted to be thought of as some version of “cool.” I think we still said that back then. But this boy and his friend — with whom I spent a great deal of time — loved it. I don’t think they listened to anything else. I was in the boy’s bedroom the first time I heard John Anderson’s Straight Tequila Night, which is still one of my favorite songs. (Fast-forward another dozen years to the first months of dating my fiance and we went to see Anderson play at a little bar called The Barn in Sanford, Florida. I guess old Johnny is a pretty big musical deal in my life.)

Garth Brooks, Veterans Memorial Arena, Jacksonville, FL, Oct. 18, 2014. ©Renée M. Liss

Garth Brooks, Veterans Memorial Arena, Jacksonville, FL, Oct. 18, 2014. ©Renée M. Liss

So the country thing stuck. It isn’t the only music I listen to, but it grew on me. I find it fun but also it can be pretty poignant. After all these years, it finally came full-circle when a friend mentioned one night that the legendary Garth Brooks was going to be in Jacksonville, Florida, for one of his new world tour stops.

I have a couple of his CDs, and like most of America, I love his iconic Friends in Low Places. Even so, I never really thought myself a particularly huge Garth fan. Regardless, he’s Garth Brooks. He’s a legend. I had to see him. And I did — last Saturday night with my best friend of way-too-many-years (who was there when I met the boy and there when I met my fiance and has just always been there for just about everything that has ever mattered whenever possible) and my fiance. I couldn’t wish for two better companions for that night.

Despite my belief that Garth was no more to me than a casual interest, sitting in that arena listening to him play 26 years worth of his music, I realized just how much he had been a part of my life’s soundtrack. Every song held a memory — most good. I was nearly in tears by the end. I barely sat down at all through the entire concert. I have never enjoyed myself that much at another concert ever. Had Garth played every song he ever recorded, we would have been there all night and it still would have been too short.

Others had mentioned that this man puts on a great show, but I had no idea what that meant until I actually experienced it. Every person walked out of that concert with a smile. I don’t think anyone left disappointed.

Garth isn’t young. I’m not sure his exact age, but he’s been recording music since 1988 or 1989 — I was in middle school then and I’m pushing 40 now. Yet he spent hours on that stage, playing guitar, singing, running around, climbing props like he was 5 years old.

I hope I get another chance to see him one day and if you do, go. Just go. Even if you hate country music, even if you have to spend your last penny. Go.

An addendum: I have been listening to Brooks’ music for the last couple days on CDs and MP3 and I had to add that you haven’t experienced him if you haven’t heard him live. He’s 100 times better in person.

50 Happy Things

I posted this yesterday in response to a challenge on a fitness site I frequent, but I thought it was a good post for here. I know, I know … I have been quite absent from this place for a long time. But I’m posting today, so you all may rejoice.

Anywho, here is my list of 50 things that make me happy: 

  1. A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones (even when the show deviates from the books and annoys me)Image
  2. Mad Men
  3. Getting lost in a good book (noticing a theme …)
  4. Rolling green fields
  5. Large bodies of water
  6. Swimming
  7. Finding clothes that look super cute on me
  8. That awesome pair (or 50) of shoes
  9. Cuddling
  10. Finding long-lost friends online
  11. Pinterest
  12. Writing
  13. Listening to music I love at full volume and singing along
  14. Dancing
    Image

    Center Stage screen shot.

  15. Long walks and talks with good friends
  16. Alone time
  17. Yoga
  18. Animals
  19. Mike Rowe (hee hee hee)
  20. Introducing people to things I love and seeing them love those things, too (i.e. yesterday I told my daughter’s boyfriend all about Top Secret! and insisted he watch it or he isn’t allowed to date her anymore — I know he’ll love it. Who doesn’t? But anyway, I’ve turned many people on to that movie and also Real Genius and none have been sorry.)
  21. Natalie Merchant live
  22. Sarah McLachlan live
  23. Editing
  24. A cheese plate and chocolate mousse from France at EPCOT
  25. The county fair
    Image

    2013 North Florida Fair. Photo by Renée M. Liss (c) 2014

  26. Cherry candy-dipped soft serve chocolate ice cream
  27. Shirley Temples (the drink)
  28. Waterfalls
    Image

    Ithaca, NY. Photo by Renée M. Liss (c) 2014

  29. Sitting outside reading a book
  30. Discussions with intelligent people
  31. Pretty language
  32. British sitcoms
  33. A dark, clear night looking at the stars
  34. Beautiful art
  35. Getting so lost in a movie that you wish it wouldn’t end
  36. Monty Python 
  37. Anything John Cleese
  38. Visiting old friends I haven’t seen in years and feeling like I just saw them yesterdayImage
  39. Halloween
  40. Baseball (live!)
  41. Boston
  42. A northeast autumn
  43. Snow during the winter holidays
  44. Throwing parties
  45. Realizing I have a wonderful group of friends where I live, even though I moved here as an adult and it’s difficut to meet people and make close friends once you’re out of school, especially if you move away from home
  46. Flowers
  47. A drama-free life
  48. Bookstores
  49. Caramel hot apple cider
  50. English breakfast tea with honey and cream

Call it Writer’s Block

On Facebook, I “like” a particular page for writers that regularly posts quotes about writing. Imagine that!

Today, the page administrator(s) posted,

Writing about writer’s block is better than not writing at all. — Charles Bukowski

I don’t think I necessarily have writer’s block. I’m not really sure what’s going on with me. Last spring, I hit my stride. I was writing like a madwoman. I would estimate I was about two weeks away from actually finishing a novel for the first time, with two more on its heals. I was on a roll.

Then I went rollerblading one Saturday morning.

Write SomethingI shattered my right wrist and fractured my left elbow. I was in a lot of pain. I had to have surgery to put a metal plate in my wrist and after they removed the splint, I had to wear a brace. My wrist hurt all.the.time. Even if my brain hadn’t been muddled by the pain killers, the pain was too much and I could only type with my right hand, which got tiring.

I lost my momentum. I figured I’d be able to pick right back up where I’d ended, but I couldn’t. I had to restart the book I had nearly finished and now the writing is coming hard and in spits and spurts. I’m frustrated.

Last week, I committed myself to write one hour a day, every day. I managed two or three days of that and haven’t done much else. I can’t get in the mood. I’m annoyed with myself.

So here I am blogging and hoping this little exercise will help me get back on track. While I love that I at least am able to make a living by being a writer, technical writer for a government agency is not my dream. I appreciate that I can be a little creative, that I can spend my days writing and editing and even more, I appreciate the paycheck and benefits that come with it.

I’m also quite afraid that if I do finish writing a novel, I will not find an agent or a publisher. I am afraid to fail. I’m not afraid of failure on its face. I’m afraid to find out that being a novelist is not really the life I was born to live. I’m afraid to lose my dream. But if I never try, I will fail for certain. That’s even worse.

And so back to the grind.

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A Plan Forms

It’s time to get serious. I have been writing on and off quite a bit. I have four or five novels in the works, none of which I’m working on nearly enough and none of which are anywhere close to finished, but they’re all good in their own right and I have goals. I want to be a novelist. I want to write for a living. It’s important to me to get there.

And I’m fat again. It’s mostly not my fault. The weight I gained over the past few years was a direct result of my birth control, but now that I’ve had that removed, I need to take control and lose it. I started out well with that yesterday. I planned a full day of healthy eating and I walked and jogged more than four miles after work. Then I went to a friend’s house and ate this:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And this morning, I nearly got sick in the shower (if you’ve ever experienced morning sickness, it felt like that) and then a pair of pants that fit me fine last year wouldn’t even come close to buttoning. Yeah. That happened.

But no worries because even before the truffle/cheesecake incident, during my workout, I had formed a plan in my mind. I am going to remedy all my woes.

First, I will go to the gym three times a week to lift weights. On the days I go to the gym, I will do some sort of cardio exercise to round out a full hour and on the days I don’t go, I will do a full hour of cardio. I will also do at least thirty minutes of yoga every day. I will write for a minimum of one hour per day and I will read a book each week. I mean, I started the book review blog before my surgery and I feel like I wrote two great reviews and was on a roll and then … I stopped. And that isn’t OK with me. I have big plans for that blog. It has a theme and a purpose and it’s pretty. It’s time to get serious.

 

 

 

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