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The Critical Eye

Looking_Back_at_2014

Looking Back at 2014

With the calendar year about to quickly come to an end, I’ve been giving some thought to positives and negatives in the book trade, and personal lessons learned. So here are a few musings.

The All-Too-Common Plot

One thing that has highly surprised me this year is how often I’ve seen novels – virtually all written by women writers, which have been built on the same plot structure. It’s a bit odd to have seen at least tens of books using a very similar story line in 2014. Here’s the story: Judy Johnston has been away from her hometown for years. She is estranged from her family and her old friends, but returns due to the death of a parent, a once-close relative, a one-time good friend and/or classmate or an old flame. While back in her old stomping grounds, she discovers that her family has a deep, dark secret. It’s something major which, when she discovers and releases it – and she, no doubt, will do so – will either fix the family or utterly destroy it.

I have no problem with a writer finding a good story line and using it, even if others have done so. But I have been surprised that publishers don’t exercise more effort to prevent the recycling of an over-used, if fictional, tale.

Facebooking It

It’s clear that more writers, especially debut authors, are participating in social media such as Twitter and Facebook. I see author pages on Facebook as being quite helpful. In fact, when I receive a new book from a publisher one of the first things I do is to check to see if the writer is on Facebook. Why? This viewing gives me a quick sense of his or her personality.

They say that first impressions count and one’s Facebook page often makes one seem likeable or not. Arrogance on the part of a writer is probably the biggest negative on social media; Facebook makes it easy to come across as humble and excited. (One of the best things about debut authors is their use of exclamation points on Facebook, which demonstrates their genuine excitement as “newbies” to the publishing world!)

I think it’s hard to “fake it” and appear to be something you’re not on Facebook. You either love working with other others or don’t; you love cats and dogs, or don’t. You either can handle criticism or you can’t. Again, one’s personality shines through for better or worse.

What’s my point here? Simply that I’m more likely to read and review a book by a writer whose personality and experiences I like and identify with. And the more I know about new writers, the more I’m likely to bond with them. (Which translates into my being more likely to read their current and future work.)

Everything Changes

Most of us have had the experience of listening to a record album for the first time after decades and wondering why we liked it in the first place. The reverse also occurs… I was never drawn to the music of David Bowie when it was originally released; however, now I find it fascinating. Why this happens is unclear, but this year I learned that what one thinks of a book can change with the times and circumstances.

As an example, I offer The Nobodies Album: A Novel by Carolyn Parkhurst. I first read the book when it was released and my reaction was, Meh. It had no impact on me, and I decided not to write up a review. Recently, I happened to pick up the book and learned to my surprise that I now found it engaging and extremely well-written. I initially missed the clue that Parkhurst was writing somewhat in the style of Joan Didion – the connection between The White Album by the Beatles (and the book by Didion) and The Nobodies Album title is made clear early on. And then there’s the fact that the story is set in San Francisco – a place I’ve come to better know, and Parkhurst’s scene descriptions are true and realistic.

The Nobodies Album (audio)

And so I went from having no opinion on The Nobodies Album to viewing it as a 4.5 star novel.

Falling Off A Cliff

The final trend that I, and my wife, discovered this year is an unfortunate one. This is when the initially successful author writes a second or third novel and it flows quite well, until… It quickly and abruptly ends! Ends so suddenly that the story seems to have fallen off of a cliff. I suspect that this happens because the publisher wants a follow-up to a successful book and sets a strict timeframe for its delivery. I’d like to optimistically believe that in 2015, publishers will display a bit more patience and allow their writers the time it takes to bring a story to its natural conclusion.

Looking Forward

Let’s hope that in 2015 we see more originality, increased social networking on the part of authors, and novels with well constructed endings. And, as readers, let’s remember that one benefit of owning a book is the chance to re-experience it at our leisure.

Joseph Arellano

This article originally appeared on the San Francisco Book Review site:

http://sanfranciscobookreview.com/2014/12/looking-back-at-2014/

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The Author’s Perspective

Today we’re continuing and concluding our two-part interview with writer Jenna Blum, author of the novels The Stormchasers and Those Who Save Us.

3.   What is the hardest part of publicizing a novel?   Is it answering personal questions, the time spent traveling, trying to write the next book as you travel, missing friends and family, etc.?

I actually love publicizing my novels, so I don’t find anything about it difficult!   I do admit that I’m something of an extremist.   I travel a lot more than many writers do, 300 days of the year, to events, fundraisers, book clubs, colleges and libraries across the country  — literally from Seattle to Florida and everywhere in between — to talk about my novels.   I absolutely love meeting readers and consider it an honor, so whomever asks me to come and speak, I’ll try to make that happen!

This is a considerable challenge sometimes to  my personal energy levels, and I miss important events back in Boston, where I live:  weddings, births, milestone birthdays.   That’s hard.   I feel bad about that.   And I spend at least four hours a day in correspondence and with social media, so I have to protect and ration my time wisely.   Really, though, when I’m promoting, I promote full-time, and when I’m working on a book, I’m in the Writer’s Protection Program, leaving the house only to get more coffee and walk my black Lab, Woodrow.   My life is kind of like crop rotation, with distinct times for both activities.

4.   Lessons I’ve learned…  What do you wish you had known before writing your first novel and/or the second?

I wish I’d known that frustration is part of the process — when you’re asking the questions and the answers just won’t come, until they do.   Getting frustrated about my own frustration instead of just saying, “I did the best I could do today, I’ll try again tomorrow, let’s go have a beer!” only compounds the issue.   The creative process always has its ebb and flow.   (Ask me how I feel about that in a couple of months, when I’m starting to circle Book 3!)

5.   Support from your fellow writers…  Is this important to you?   It seems from the outside that more and more women authors are discovering and supporting each other, which is quite positive.   But is there a point at which you run up against the need to be competitors?

I’m thrilled that Facebook and Twitter are providing new channels for writers to find and support each other.   And I really do see that happening!   There’s nothing to be lost and everything to be gained, I feel, from getting to know each other and our work, sharing that and broadcasting to the world when you really love a book and its writer.

When I have met the writers I’ve connected with online, it’s as though we’ve known each other for years.   It’s a joy for me to have this venue to support them.

I never feel the need to be competitive with other writers.   There’s no point to it.   For one thing, nobody can write exactly the way you do, so really, there’s no way to compete.   And there’s enough of the pie to go around.   It’s not as though there’s a quota of books published per year, and if you publish one, somebody else can’t.   People will always be hungry for what we give them:  good stories, well told.

Thank you, Jenna!

Joseph Arellano

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