Great Review from Writer's Digest!

large_logo"From the moment God, sitting in a diner, hears Joan Osborne's 'What If God Was One of Us?' and says, 'I hate this fucking song,' the reader knows this isn't just any run-of-the-mill book. Sum is a funny, funny, funny, fast-paced and insightful commentary on religion, social mores and, most importantly, human relations. Even God has marital problems.

"The author gives his audience credit for intelligence, not spelling out or explain too much, but also salting in explanations of various gods and religious beliefs smoothly enough so it doesn't slow down the narrative. The acceptance of other gods and religious eras is refreshing and he uses it masterfully, weaving together a good plot on top of great character development. To top it off, the voice is spot-on. Funny, knowing and sarcastic.

"A refreshing and needed book in an era of aggressive religiosity, the book also makes the reader examine religious belief. Atheists and agnostics will enjoy it immensely, but anyone with an open mind will appreciate it and look at the deeper meaning; how much of our belief in a 'superior being' exists inside our heads? Or is simply a product of our era? Readers aren't getting the book if one of God's final statement's to Joe ('Don't trust people who tell you things will work out for the best.')  doesn't have them laughing and nodding with appreciation. Things worked out for God, but just barely.

"Overall, a book that hits its marks and hits them well. A serious, deep treatment wrapped in hilarity."

-Writer's Digest

Judge, 22nd Annual Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards

Review of Divergent

Divergent coverToday I read Veronica Roth's Divergent. All of it. In one day. I'm not a fast reader like my wife or some of my colleagues, so that feels like an accomplishment to me. My verdict is ...mixed. The fact that it's a remarkably fast read doesn't really win or lose the book any points for me. I've torn through books before because they were so good I couldn't put them down. I also read Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code very quickly, rolling my eyes every time he described Audrey Tautou's character as "incredulous," which was about 400 times. Roth's writing is certainly better than Dan Brown's, but that compliment feels more like an insult than I intend.

The world of Divergent is genuinely interesting and engrossing. I love dystopias, and the use of factions based on virtues is interesting. Calling the factions "factions" is a bit on-the-nose, but I can forgive that in YA. The choosing of the faction, though cliché, is also forgivable in a YA coming-of-age story. Whether it's the sorting hat or the Reaping or the shooting of a first deer, these moments are dramatic and speak to a longing in our culture for distinct coming-of-age rituals which we lack. I get that, and Roth handled that part just fine even if it wasn't unique. The protagonist, Tris, isn't sure whether she belongs in Slytherin Dauntless or Hufflepuff Abnegation, wrestles with the decision, and ultimately chooses a faction only to find that they are all flawed and none fit her perfectly. It works, and if it ain't broke ...well, a bit more creativity would be nice, but I can handle it.

Here's what is broken and which must be fixed. The narrator, Tris, is a gawky, accident-prone, scrawny, pretty (but not too pretty) girl who thinks she is ugly. Since she's the narrator, we are only exposed to her beauty by reading about all her self-doubts and then recognizing that they don't fit with the reactions of the boys around her who find her attractive. I can forgive Roth for drawing from the archetypal coming-of-age myths, but do we need another Bella Swann or Katniss Everdeen? Katniss is better than Tris in that she has confidence in her hunting ability and her role as the provider for her family. Tris has more pride than Bella Swann, but she even feels guilty about that pride. At least Tris doesn't have to get knocked-up by a guy who is more than a hundred years old on their honeymoon in order to discover her own self-worth by becoming a mother. Can we please stop telling teenage girls that, in order to be likable, they have to have unrealistically low opinions of themselves? This trend can't be good for anybody.

It's difficult to read around a protagonist who is unlikeable, but the other characters kept me going. Tobias/Four, the love interest, is genuinely interesting and somewhat complicated, at least until his unswerving adoration of Tris becomes clear. Then he just becomes a realistic swooning teenage boy, and that's bearable, too. Considering his backstory, he could have been a lot more insufferable in his brooding. Points for Roth on that.

And why present tense? Writers, listen to me! Present tense is great for action sequences, so I can see why it appeals to people who are setting out to write fast-paced, action heavy books. If you have any sense that the time period covered by the book will extend for any prolonged period of time, resist this temptation, especially if the book is written in first person. Learn from Suzanne Collins' mistake. After a second reading, I have grown to like Mockingjay, the third Hunger Games book, but I completely understand why it gets such mixed reviews from my students. In The Hunger Games trilogy. the first book happens over the course of a handful of days, so the present tense works. The second book happens over the course of a couple weeks, so it works, but slightly less well. The third covers a much longer period of time, but Collins couldn't switch because she'd painted herself into a corner. Unless you can maintain the urgency of an action scene for the whole series (which would probably be exhausting for the reader and would lead to a lot of blunt exposition at the expense of more beautiful prose), don't make this mistake. Better yet, write the thing in one tense, then rewrite it in another and see which works better. I suspect that, most of the time, you'll find that the demand for intensity is overbalanced by the fact that we naturally tell stories in the past tense in our daily lives, so this compulsion to haste leads to a stiff, awkward writing style.

The most interesting element of Divergent is the mystery of how this seeming-utopia is breaking down and what that says about the virtues which under-gird it. We really only get to see that starting to play out in the last third of the book, so I'll read the sequels to see if the series gets deeper into those questions of values and motivations. Also, my wife says Tris gets more likable. Color me skeptical. Still, I have to remind myself that The Lightning Thief, the first book in the Percy Jackson series, was painfully derivative of Harry Potter, but the series found its own way in the second book and ended up being pretty great by the end. Maybe the Divergent trilogy will find its own path and break free from some of the more well-worn elements of YA fiction in the second and third book.

Divergent-2014-Movie-Poster1I admit I'm very curious to see how they handle the severity of the book's violence in the film, so I'll be checking that out, too. My prediction, a largely bloodless version of a bloody, savage story. Hopefully my low expectations will cause me to be pleasantly surprised. Those who've seen the movie, are the directors really bold enough to make the audience sit through multiple beatings that continue until one of the participants is an unconscious, bloody pulp? I would respect that for both its faithfulness to the book and its audacity, but it doesn't sound like a lot of fun, and it would certainly upset some parents. How far do they go? Far enough? Too far?


Skin That’s Thick and Thin: Some Advice for Writers

One cliché bit of advice doled out to writers (and actors, artists, politicians, and various other people who elect professions where they face a lot of criticism) is that they should grow a thick skin. Like rhinos, perhaps. rhinoOr crustaceans of some kind. The assumption is that this will make us more successful. That might be true. Perhaps due to our society’s conflation of financial success and happiness, there’s also an underlying implication that this thick skin will lead to happiness. Or to better art. I am unpersuaded.Skeptical Hippo


This week, I hung out with a friend who had a particular verbal tick. In the midst of conversation, he'd say, "I don't care about that." This struck me as a harsh way to segue from one subject to another, or to make a point. This tick can be partly explained by the fact that English is his third language; a native speaker, learning English as a child with less strongly formed opinions, might have learned some gentler way to say, “I disagree,” or “Well, I’m not sure that’s relevant to the point at hand.” This friend simply and boldly asserted that he didn’t care. He even doubled-down, voicing his admiration for a particular writer who had achieved great success by promoting unpopular theories due to his complete disregard for the opinions of critics or academics who disagreed with him.

I shared my current dilemma. My novel comes out in a little over a month, and I can’t help but hope that readers enjoy it. I attributed this to a personality flaw. “I’m a people-pleaser,” I told my friend, as though making a confession to a habit of cannibalism or necrophilia. My confessor encouraged me to go and sin no more, to grow a thick skin, to not give a -well, he didn’t use the word “care” that time- let’s just say he advised me not to donate any carnal acts to critics.

On the surface, this seems like good advice. Why should a writer allow himself/herself to be cut to the core by the rantings of some Greenwich Village hipster he’ll never meet, the invective of a mommy-blogger who was too distracted by her children to read the book carefully, the ad hominem insults of a sixteen-year-old who likes to post nasty reviews on Amazon just to see if he can get a reaction?

Why? Because those three people are readers! The guy from the village walks down to Washington Square Park, finds an empty bench, and he reads!Reader at Washington Square Park The stay-at-home mom carves out the few precious minutes when both her kids are napping, and she reads! The kid on Amazon… okay, he’s really a 35 year-old troll who lives in his mom’s basement, and he doesn’t really read novels, but his life is sad and he deserves some sympathy. Though the writer may never meet them, the guy in Washington Square Park and the woman sitting on her toilet next to the baby monitor… They are the reason he writes. Their opinions matter, not just because they are human beings with intrinsic worth, but because they read the book. If the writer doesn’t care about that, he should stick to journaling.

But this is an over-simplification as well. I never want to achieve “universal acclaim.” First of all, if everyone knows that a book is good, they file it away as a “classic,” a book everyone has heard of and no one is excited to read. Second, if the world of literary criticism ever becomes so homogeneous in its thinking that there are no contrarian voices, the whole pursuit becomes something I’d prefer to avoid. I hope for some bad reviews. By all the gods, I’d love to have a few high profile bad reviews. But only because they would drive more people to the book. I want the majority of readers to enjoy it. At least 51%. There. I’ve confessed. I want it to be (gasp) popular.

Having a thin skin may actually help in that department. Thin skin may be fragile, but it’s also sensitive. It feels effectively. Absorbing that information allows the writer to more accurately predict what might be pleasing to the reader. Consider, who would you rather curl up next to on a thick rug in front of a roaring fire, a beautiful woman/man with very sensitive skin, or the aforementioned rhinoceros? I would hypothesize rhino chargingthat the human is more likely to be able to satisfy your sexual desires, but I don’t know what you’re into.

Still, despite Stephen King’s assertion, writing isn’t seduction. A desire to be sensitive  to reader’s tastes can lead to trend-chasing, a bad habit that has bred a thousand Twilight knock-offs which should have stayed hidden away in fan-fiction forums. Trend-chasers are about as seductive as the kid in middle school who asked every single girl to the dance and found out they were all planning on washing their hair that night. A writer has to have some small measure of self-respect.

After writing a handful of novels, I finally decided this was the one to publish not just because I’d honed my craft to a point I could be proud of, but because this book was my bravest one yet. I was able to put the disapproval of my grandmother out of my mind on some previous projects, but this time I was finally able to risk the disapproval of my parents, my dearest friends, even my wife, because I was nine-and-a-half months pregnant with a story that just had to come out. As I wrote it, I caught myself thinking, “Oh, that line is going to piss-off Christians,” and “Oooo, Muslims won’t like this chapter very much,” and “Some atheists won’t appreciate that crack,” and “Dammit. There go the Orthodox Jews.” I didn’t set off to offend religious people. Most of my favorite people are adherents of one religion or another. The book will only offend the kind of believers who lack a sense of humor. Luckily for me, they aren’t known for their habit of searching out opinions that disagree with their own. Scary Westboro BaptistBut they are the scariest kind of believers! Their bad reviews sometimes take the form of bullets. I was aware of that. I couldn’t let it stop me, though. I was processing the loss of my own faith, and I had to turn that pain into something positive, even fun, for myself. Then I discovered that the story I needed to tell myself was a good one, one that others might enjoy.

I couldn’t back down from the story, but I couldn’t ignore my audience either. If I was going to make it available for them, it had to be more than a story for my own benefit. I had to revise and edit. Those phases are the least popular among writers precisely because they exist to serve the reader’s needs, not the writer’s pleasure. I can’t overstate their importance, though. Not only did a willingness to revise, to truly “see again,” deepen my own experience of the story, it made the novel into something I’m far more proud of. And editing? Editing doesn’t build pride; it prevents shame. Now I’m neck deep in online writer’s groups where we share marketing ideas, and I am constantly amazed by the number of writers who post ungrammatical, misspelled, incorrectly punctuated comments online. Sure, these might be informal forums, but we’re writers, for Valhalla’s sake! Every typo is an offense to potential readers. I paid good money to hire an editor to save me from any of those mistakes in my book. You can bet I’m going to try to communicate that level of quality to potential readers in every online post.

So, if this novel is any kind of model, writing should have some measure of swagger. It should be hard at its core but soft on the outside. It should be confident but also sensitive. On second thought, I guess Stephen King was right about seduction.

In my life, my need to please others has led to my most embarrassing moments (made all the more excruciating by the fact that I’m so sensitive to embarrassment), my most ill-conceived blunders (desperate, impulsive attempts to win favor), and my most shameful acts (failed efforts to make people like me at the expense of others). However, the same impulse has led to my greatest successes. When I wanted the approval of the right people and went about acquiring it in the right way, I not only found my greatest joys but brought the most joy to others. Furthermore, my need to please demands that I look for the good in people, give them the benefit of the doubt at every turn, and though this has burned me quite a few times, it’s also proven to be a good bet; most people, it turns out, are worth pleasing.

My paper-thin skin may be sliced to ribbons shortly after the book hits shelves. I certainly won’t participate in a public melt down like some have. I plan to take the best advice I’ve heard about book reviews: Say Nothing. If it’s bad, Say Nothing. Maybe have a good cry or a stiff drink. If it’s good, Tweet it, Facebook it, send everyone to it, but on the page itself, Say Nothing. Here’s what I’d like to say to a reviewer, though: “Thank you for reading the book. If you didn’t like it, I’m sorry I failed you. Truly sorry. If you liked it, that makes the whole process of revision and editing and publishing worthwhile. But, either way, I care about you, and I’m grateful for you.”

So here’s my current advice for writer, such as it is: Don’t grow thicker skin. Instead, change your clothes.

1) First, put on your best suit of armor. IRON MAN 3Climb into an M-1 Abrams Tank. Drive it into a nuclear submarine. Write like you are invincible. (Warning: People in suits of armor in tanks in submarines are lonely. And cold.)


2) Change into your shortest skirt. Revise for the reader. But rememberPretty Woman what you learned from the movie Pretty Woman: Don’t kiss on the mouth. Some things are off limits.




3) Put on a tuxedo. Adjust your cufflinks. Button the top button. Check your fly. Straighten your bow tie. Edit to protect yourself from shame.


4) Strip down to a swami’s loincloth and sit cross-legged under a tree for swamia while. Publish after a great deal of consideration.



5) Then, acknowledge that you’re basically naked. Run as fast as you can toward a garden of sweet, juicy blackberries and long thorns. Be willing to hurt.


That willingness to suffer shows more courage and more respect for the Runway Model Skin Apathyreader than any runway high-fashion name-brand rhino-skin apathy.

Two Book Recommendations

I know I haven't posted in a while, which means I'm breaking the two cardinal rules of blogging: Posts should be frequent and short. Well, I'll try to manage one of those by keeping this brief (I know. Too late.)

I would love to say I've been slaving away at my lesson plans for this next school year all summer, but that would be a lie. I've been camping a lot. And napping a lot. Everything else has fallen by the wayside. I have been trying to catch up on some reading, and I've just finished two very good books. Normally, a book recommendation is the worst kind of advice to give me. I write down the title, say I'll get to it one day, and promptly forget where I put the name. If you, dear reader, have the same proclivity, this might help. These book recommendations have time limits, because both these novels are being made into films, and after reading both, I fear the movies will be monumentally awful. They will either be overlayed with voice-over narration because anyone with any sense wants to make them into movies because of the beauty of their prose, or they will be vapid chronicles of the events in the books which really aren't the point of either novel.

Read The Lovely Bones. I am not a crier, but I teared up more than once. The writing is very good, and the picture of a family dealing with grief is so spot-on that you forget your first reaction, which is that the idea of a murder victim narrating her observations of the living is at best clever and probably lame, and instead decide it was brilliant. This isn't true, but the quality of the writing almost makes it so.

Time Limit: Read by 3/13/2009
(Peter Jackson is attached, but I'm worried this will be far more King Kong than The Lord of the Rings. At least it won't possibly be Meet The Feebles.)

Read The Road. Imagine Mad Max meets No County For Old Men (a novel also by Cormac McCarthy) but with a father and son set-up that rips your heart out over and over without ever getting schmaltzy. Not even once, and that's saying something. McCarthy could teach Hemingway a thing or two about the economy of language. It was the first time I ever felt a physical pain in my chest caused by words the writer didn't include. McCarthy plays with your ears, so you hear things the characters don't say on the page, and sometimes you're deafened by their silences, too. The text itself is scant, but the thick subtext (midtext?) makes you read the book more slowly, like a great basketball player who knows how to control the tempo on both sides of the court. When I finished I was so full of feeling it reminded me of the kind of passion I could manage as a teenager, only the book indulges (and even exhorts) an adult recognition of nuance so that I can't understand, let alone articulate, exactly which direction these feelings are pulling. When you finish it, please post a description of your emotional reaction here, so I can use your road map to navigate my own.

Time Limit: Read by 11/26/08
(The cast looks amazing. Charlize Theron, Robert Duvall, Guy Pierce, Viggo Mortensen. At the height of their powers, these folks might be able to convey a lot of what's going on inside these characters. But then we miss out on the prose. Plus, they'll need someone with Robert Duvall's skill and resume to play the four or five-year-old boy. Macaulay Culkin will not do.)

Okay, well, now I've managed Infrequent and Long. If you still have any free time left, read both these books.