Wednesday, November 11, 2015

"I suggest that you remove the suggestion box..."

Tomorrow will mark the two-month mark until the release of OTHER BROKEN THINGS. When I was writing that book a few years ago, I whispered to my friend Asher, "This is the one that holds a lot of my heart. This is the one. What if I can't create anything like this again?" He laughed and said, "So what if you can't?" Which is very Asher. This book was my special one, I thought. It was special because it was both easy and very hard to write. It was personal and difficult stuff of mine on page, but it was true to me, which made it feel important. 

I have now received four trade reviews for this book. For those who are not writers, these are the "professionals" weighing in on your books. My trade reviews have been good...and terrible. 

Here's the good (start with the positive, as my dad always tells me):

"Other Broken Things.
Advanced Review – Uncorrected Proof
Desir, C. (Author)
Jan 2016. 256 p. Simon & Schuster/Simon Pulse, hardcover, $17.99. (9781481437394).

In Desir’s latest, Natalie’s a fresh-out-of-rehab high-school senior beginning the 12-step program. Brash, unrepentant, and far from kind to herself, Nat strikes up an unlikely friendship—and possibly something more—with 38-year-old Joe, from her local AA group. Her journey toward recovery brims with bumps and potholes: old friends who haven’t dropped their drinking habits, parents who fail to offer the support system she needs, and the truth about what happened that fateful night that she doesn’t want to face. Though Nat’s relationship with her father could have used a bit more development, there is much to recommend here. The frank, sometimes profanity-laced prose suits the subject matter and will engage reluctant readers. Nat’s penchant for self-destructive behaviors, including her pursuit of Joe, only augments a reader’s sympathy and curiosity for what motivates her. In Nat—a female counterpart to Sutter Keeley of Tim Tharp’s The Spectacular Now (2008)—Desir crafts a portrait of a teenage alcoholic that is honest and unsparing."—BOOKLIST

"Gr 9 Up—Seventeen-year-old Natalie's story starts with "I'd cut a bitch for a cigarette," hooking readers immediately. In this gritty and honest tale, Nat's struggle with sobriety starts with court-ordered AA meetings and community service after a DUI incident. She is a fighter, literally. Her parents' demand that she quit boxing leads to her drinking. Nat fills the holes in her life with booze and sex. Without an addiction, she feels lost. Enter Joe, the sexy, 30-something would-be sponsor Nat bums cigarettes off of during meetings. Though Joe tries to shut down Nat's outrageous flirting, the sexual tension is palpable, foretelling the inevitable train wreck. Desir writes the relationship as an ill-fated May/December romance between two addicts. If Nat and Joe do not have alcohol, they will find something else to quench their needs. In this case, they find each other, until that implodes. While this situation lends itself to controversy, it also invites conversation. Other plot threads—losing friends and reuniting with others, relapses, and Natalie's parents' rocky marriage—round out the recovering addict's experience. Facing her demons, Nat evolves from a rightfully angry teen to a wiser, emotionally stronger young woman able to stand on her own without a man or alcohol, and readers will cheer for her success. Not for the faint of heart (Joe's rock bottom story involves a dead hooker), Natalie's story is told without judgement and with an uncanny understanding of the 12-step program. This is sure to appeal to fans of Nic Sheff's Tweak (S. & S., 2008), Koren Zailckas's Smashed (Viking, 2005), and the-like. VERDICT This title deserves a place on high school shelves."—School Library Journal

Here's the terrible (and there is really no sugar-coating "terrible" here):

(Simon Pulse; ISBN 978-1-4814-3739-4; 1/12/16; Spring 2016 catalog)

Seventeen-year-old Natalie is a rich kid in the throes of addiction, fresh off a DUI conviction and court-ordered rehab. She flings herself headfirst into an obsession with Joe, a man more than twice her age whom she meets in AA, and dabbles in her former life, trading sex to her ex for vodka. What she really wants is to return to the boxing ring, a hobby forbidden by her father, who's more concerned with his own reputation than with reality. Unfortunately, Natalie's attention is so narrowly focused on her attraction to Joe and getting high when she gets stressed out that little ink is spent exploring her passion for the "sweet science"or its role as an outlet for her turmoil. Desir (Bleed Like Me) compresses Natalie's story into a book-long AA meeting, pushing forward rapidly while glossing over scenes that might have provided more depth to her characters. Even the revelation of a secret that Natalie has been holding doesn't land with the intended impact."—Publisher's Weekly

Author: C. Desir
Despite a drunken driving charge, a stint in rehab, and an unshakeable thirst for vodka-induced oblivion, 17-year-old Natalie is not an alcoholic. The label doesn't fit, not for Natalie and certainly not for her father, who is hellbent on keeping up appearances in their wealthy Chicago suburb. Yet when Natalie returns from a court-ordered trip to rehab, her old life doesn't quite seem to fit right either. While ticking off Alcoholics Anonymous meetings on her court card, Natalie develops a relationship with a much older recovering alcoholic, a white guy. (Natalie specifies the racial makeup of the AA group but never directly reveals her own.) Joe breaks through Natalie's tough-girl facade and forces her to face the truth. Natalie's growing feelings for Joe muddy the waters. Distancing herself from destructive, party-girl friendships and resisting the temptation to drink when the going gets rough are difficult. Owning up to her mistakes and assuming responsibility for creating a healthy, new life is even harder. Readers will likely find Natalie's snarky, profanity-laced narration appealing and will easily relate to her struggle to navigate treacherous teen waters rife with unhealthy relationships, temptations, and self-doubt. Unfortunately, the May-December romance between Natalie and Joe is both predictable and clich├ęd, and it distracts from topics that would have been far more interesting to explore, such as Natalie's passion for boxing. A teen-issue book with loads of potential that only achieves mediocrity. (Fiction. 14-18)"—Kirkus
And here's a picture of Lenny Kravitz making some eggs so we can all have a palette cleanser.

So we're not supposed to point out our terrible reviews or talk about them because...well, because I guess maybe people think that they'll go away? As if I could shake off a professional saying this book I put all my heart into "only achieves mediocrity." As if other people aren't seeing that in trade reviews and wincing a little, feeling sorry for me, and secretly grateful it didn't happen to them. 
Most people who know me by now know that I tend to live out loud. The reason I do this is not only to demystify the absurd notion that writers (or frankly human beings) are perfect and always only make good life choices and have great things happen to them, but also because not saying out loud the things that hurt, or the things that I'm carrying around, is a death sentence for me. If I don't bleed hurt or process things out loud or talk about the things that aren't easy (whether with my people or in public spaces), then they become locked inside of me in little drawers of toxicity and the results are incredibly unhealthy. 
So yeah, I got some super shitty reviews. Good ones too, but honestly, I'm me and I'm not thinking about the good ones, I'm thinking about the horrible ones. Which brings me to the way that the universe works (or maybe God, for those who are believers), because I have long held the belief that the world lines up in the way it needs to for us to keep moving forward.
And thus these terrible reviews of mine happen to be coming on the heels of me reading Elizabeth Gilbert's BIG MAGIC which is a book I can't recommend enough for every human being doing anything creative in their life. Here's Gilbert talking about 'being on top':
"I mean, if you cannot repeat a once-in-a-lifetime miracle—if you can never again reach the top—then why bother creating at all? (...) But such thinking assumes there is a "top"—and that reaching that top (and staying there) is the only motive one has to create. Such thinking assumes that the mysteries of inspiration operate on the same scale that we do—on a limited human scale of success and failure, of winning and losing, of comparison and competition... Such thinking assumes that you must be constantly victorious—not only against your peers, but also against an earlier version of your own poor self. Most dangerously of all, such thinking assumes that if you cannot win, then you must not continue to play."
These words, which are really about Gilbert's Eat Pray Love success, ended up being the perfect ones for my own failures. Because they reminded me of why I play in the first place, of what I'm trying to do with my writing, of who I'm trying to reach, of what living a creative life means. And the truth is, that it doesn't mean reading reviews. Good ones or bad ones. These get in the way of my creative life. Even the good ones because they do not steer me in a direction toward growing as a writer.
I have learned more about writing in the past 11 months from my agent than I have in the past 11 years. And this is a little bit of a love note to Barry Goldblatt who has figured out that if I'm not passionate about what I'm writing, I'm not living a good creative life. So he gets on the phone with me and says, "Are you passionate about this? Do you care about this?" and when I say, "I don't know," he says, "Then why should anyone else care?" And those are the words that are hard to hear but make me grow. Because that is really how I find my way into living my best creative life. 
How do we continue to play when a professional implies we're on the B-squad or worse, we don't belong on the field at all? We take it outside of the human realm of failure and success and bring it into a universal realm. Reviews cannot and should not make or break us. Giving them power to do so compromises who we are as creative people. As Gilbert says, "What does any of that have to do with the quiet glory of merely making things, and then sharing those things with an open heart and no expectations?"

Thanks for reading this long post. I remain your "well-meaning but deeply flawed" friend.


M.J. Fifield said...

I'm kind of a chicken when it comes to reviews. I read one once by accident (which sounds odd and perhaps impossible, but its true), and though it was a nice review, I was miserable for weeks. So now I avoid them and the websites that post them like I would a salad bar. Which is to say completely.

My brother emails me once in a while to tell me about the existence of a review he thinks I should read, and I never do. I can barely do what I do now.

So, I applaud you for reading, posting, and talking about it. Especially the ones that hurt.

Also, I'm really looking forward to reading this book.

gae polisner said...

I love this. I need this. I'm sharing this. And I'm grateful for the Lenny Kravitz palette cleanser.

Nora Raleigh B. said...

I think I need to meet you..! And here's the quote I've been living with lately. It's from Isadora Duncan.
"I would rather be an artistic failure than an unartistic success." Yup, that's me!

Lisa Schroeder said...

Sending you chocolate and commiseration. My most recent YA has gotten, and continues to get, such mixed reviews. I'm not gonna lie, even after publishing over a dozen novels, the bad reviews sting. But Brene Brown is a fan of this Theodore Roosevelt quote, and I remind myself of it often:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly..."

We are in the arena, doing the work, putting ourselves out there -- to hell to the rest of them. :)

I can't wait to read this book!!

Sharon said...

Hi! My 16 year old daughter just got one of your books, and I usually read a lot of her YA novels so I'm looking forward to reading it when she's through. I also like to check out the book's author, so that's why I'm here. I love your honest and open style!

About your bad reviews. Let's have some perspective. You, my dear, are a published AUTHOR. They are just book reviewers. Easy for them to just read the writings of others and pass judgement. You're the real deal, and they are wannabe's. Keep on keepin' on girl!

-blessed b9, Catalyst4Christ said...

I. Love. You.
Why dost I loveth thee so?
Im a NDE, dear:
ignorance wont save you.
Jesus will.
God bless your indelible soul.

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