Getting Reviewed: Other People’s Feelings

The Pulse

Greetings from sunny, sunny Stockholm! Like a proper writer, I’m hiding from the great yellow beast in the kitchen, typing and drinking tea.

Well, I worked out how to get people to review my book. I went to a couple of GoodReads groups I’d been in and signed up for a couple of RaR programmes. I’ve sent out about fifteen copies, and had a good handful of reviews back so far.

This has been a solid learning experience. Here are some things I’ve learnt.

1. Somehow, despite the lack of anything that might be termed vague sci-fi for a good third of the book, and despite it being in the dystopian reading group, my novel is too sci-fi for many people. I can’t tell you how confused I am by those reviews, and however much I put them down to disinterest, disillusionment or other negative reaction to my book (all of which are fine and honest reactions to have, of course they are), I still want to go, BUT WHY SPECIFICALLY DID YOU SAY THAT. Which is stupid of me. But continuous. I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t have said anything at all if the RaR system didn’t force them into “reviewing” even if they don’t read a book, which would have been better, but it wasn’t something I’d imagined happening. Lesson: say your book is more genre than it is to warn off people who really want mainstream?

The remaining reviews I’m incredibly grateful for, and they’re wonderfully written and thought out, and nothing makes me happier than having written enough for people to express rounded thoughts about it. Whatever their thoughts. I’ve only had positive reactions from people I know who’ve read it, and one of the reasons I wanted to get people who don’t know me to write proper honest reviews for me is because I had no idea how my book would fly in an actual readership.

Not very high, turns out.

But the reasonings surprise me rather.

2. People like liking characters. I have never understood this. You see it in reviews of all kinds of books. “I just didn’t like the character. I couldn’t sympathise with the character. I thought the character was naive/stupid/annoying/wrong/etc.” Yes, yes, Aiden isn’t likeable in a generic sense. He’s not attractive in any conventional sense, nor is he heroic, nor does he follow a conventional path of transformation into Normal Human. That was kind of what I loved about him to write, and it’s what a lot of people I’ve talked to in person about my book claim to have loved about him. But…his unlikeability is apparently a significant flaw for all my unknown reviwers. So that’s either:

a) My fault – they’re open to unlikeable characters, but I didn’t write well enough/plot well enough to make Aiden worthwhile in their eyes. Things like the popularity of writers like Stephen King, the absolute master of whole, vast ensembles of horrific, brain-smushingly horrible characters flung into generally brilliant plots, might speak for this. Also, consider the sheer amount of hideous characters that populate virtually every TV show. Note to self: should’ve made Aiden more like Don Draper.*

b) No-one’s fault – a matter of taste and not the kind of thing the reader wanted to encounter at this time, if at all.

c) The fault of expectation – a YA book’s major protagonist should be someone likeable/with whom the reader can sympathise (I’d really like to argue that Aiden is a completely sympathetic character – given his circumstances and well-discussed lifestyle, what more could you ask for from him?!).

d) Coincidence, and the reviewers are a small, non-representative group. But I don’t think this, because I see these kind of comments all the time for books with more unusual characters – “I didn’t like/sympathise with x character so I didn’t like the book.” But it’s amazing how, once a book is popular, that kind of instinctive issue is sidelined – once people become aware that someone likes x character, they become instantly more interesting, regardless of how likeable they truly are. Sidenote: whilst I wouldn’t try and compare The Pulse with The Hunger Games, it’s one of the reasons I really, really don’t understand anyone who’s read the whole trilogy rooting for Gale AT ALL. And also, one of the reasons I like those books a lot is because both major male characters (who are always, let’s recall, presented through Katniss’ eyes) fall outside the YA norms.

So there’s that. Lesson: don’t be surprised if people don’t share your own tastes, not just in characters, but in the act of reading itself.

Which brings me to:

3. No-one likes present narrator.

I exaggerate. In fact, my favourite part of any review received so far was in the one where the reviewer sort of came to like the present narrator aspect of my book. And my favourite moment possibly of the whole thing was when an old school friend I haven’t spoken to in a decade sent me a message telling me how much he’d enjoyed that.

But still. I’ve had a few responses around and about where people seemed to think that present narrator was a mistake, something I’d not meant to do, or that suggest that the reader hasn’t previously encountered present narrator in anything at all and is completely and utterly thrown by it. Or, they just hate it.

This is one thing I’d sort of expected. When I was looking around agents, and even when I was writing the book I saw over and over in ‘how to novel’ sort of things block capital advice against using present narrator, or flat out hatred for the device. I just don’t understand it, and, because much of my process in self-publishing this novel at all has been “My book: my way”, I ignored it.

I LOVE well-used present narrator. Again, I’m not ruling out the idea that I didn’t use it well, or didn’t make the most of the device. It’s perfectly possible. I’m glad I’ve had enough feedback about it that’s positive enough that I’m not retreating into the background and pretending this all never happened, but I’m not obstinately proclaiming my own authorly brilliance to the exclusion of all criticism.

But again, I really do love it. And I find it all the time. I think that’s something I find particularly surprising – a lot of people just haven’t come across it. One review mentions how it’s done much better in Narnia, and that’s true, but it’s a different kind of present narrator, a lighter, less interfering one, for sure, with no intent to foreshadow or prescribe, more to handhold and keep pace. I love being hauled through a story by a strong authorial voice, and since I’ve written, I’ve enjoyed trying to use that – even my earliest stories have it knocking about. For goodness’ sake, even my fanfiction has it (I don’t remember anyone complaining about it there, actually).

I wonder if it’s more to do with one’s own reading experience – it probably is, because, obviously, every book you read is, I think, shaped by the ones that come before and after it, not to mention your day, your mood, your life and your self – but growing up amidst a library rammed with wordy, interfering Victorian and pre-1950s British authors, there was definitely a lot of present narrator about in virtually everything I read. I’m not sure if that’s the case in prevalent Stateside literature so much. It’s a thought, anyway.

And again – because I’d had this idea that it wasn’t a popular device when I was writing it – it was another thing I was glad to uncover more thoughts on in reviews by people I didn’t know. Lesson: if people tell you something isn’t welcome in literature, they’re probably right. Caveat: That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it.

The best lesson of all, though, thus far, is this:

5. I can take it. Yes, I have strong feelings about other people’s feelings. Yes, I want to respond to everyone and have some epic dialogue about WHY WHY WHY WHAT and occasionally WTF, but I really do, it turns out, have a fervent enough belief in everyone’s right to think whatever they like about whatever it is that they read and just to be thrilled that people are actually reading (recall, I grew up in a time pre-Harry Potter, where reading seemed to be a very peculiar thing to do indeed, and everyone was terrified that no-one would bother with it In The Future), that I don’t burst into tears if someone doesn’t like my novel, and I am overjoyed if, even if they didn’t specifically like it, or think that it was any good, they gave those thoughts care and time.

I wasn’t sure about that. I’ve been terrified of a bad review. I’ve had a few now. And yes, obviously I’m sad that I’ve only had one or two people I don’t know feel overwhelmingly positive about the book, or that I’ve not had more enthusiastic reviews, or indeed any yet from the free day (that’s another blog…) but there it is, and also, I must remind myself on a continual basis that it is a sodding sizeable book, which people can’t just get through in an afternoon unless they have considerable interest, space in their life, and dedication to doing so.

But it’s okay. I genuinely, truly want to know what people think about The Pulse. What they like, what they don’t. How they found the experience of reading it.

If you’d like to let me know your thoughts on The Pulse, you’re always welcome to email as per the acknowledgements page in the back of the book, or, obviously to review on Amazon or . I’d love it if you would. Unless you stopped after two pages because you hated it. Whilst, once more, I utterly defend your right to post such a review, I’d be lying if I said it made me happy XD

And, if you’ve not bought The Pulse and somehow, despite the not-exactly-selling-it nature of this blog would like to, then it’s HERE on Amazon UK and HERE on Amazon US (and on all the regional Amazons, too, including the new Amazon India, yay! Search “the Pulse Shaw” and it’ll appear pronto).

Anyone else have review experiences/blogs they’d like to share on this? It’s definitely the kind of process that’s both precisely as I’d imagined, and quite a surprise!

*On reflection, I think Aiden might have rather more in common with Don Draper than I’d imagined. Iiiiiinteresting.

It’s my birthday: my novel is free to celebrate!

I’m 31 years old today!

To celebrate, my twisty-turny dystopian YA novel The Pulse is FREE to download from Amazon UK and Amazon US (and on all the regional Amazons, too!) so do, please, download, share the link and either forget about it completely, or enjoy it!

I’ve had a wonderful year. Being 30 was much better than I’d imagined. I thought my thirties would be all grown-up and scary, but actually, I’ve been surprisingly childlike and daft, and also, also, much braver than in years. I’ve published my novel, run a half-marathon, lost a slew of weight and fixed a lot of food and exercise things in my mind and body, made some big decisions about who and where I want to be, and, more than anything, I’ve had some really great times. Actual fun. I forgot to have fun a lot in my twenties, perhaps because I was so sure I ought to be, and that I was in some way doing it wrong. I am now much more sure that I’m doing things right.

Here’s to 31! (And download my book, or get someone else to do it 😉 I’m sure I’ll blog about this whole giving-away-a-book experience at some point, but more than anything, it’s the most I’ve achieved in ages, and giving it away for a day seems like a genuinely good way to celebrate.

A Q&A With Myself

Because I’ve just done the thing I always wanted to do, so I figured I’d talk to myself about it. I’m all of a quiver of excitement because, as I keep saying, having a Real Live Book is the only proper solid goal I’ve ever had in my entire life. I want to remember this day as slightly more than formatting fails and fear, so…yeah. Let me be self-indulgent and overshare.

– Doesn’t self-publishing feel like cheating in some way?

It feels a bit like I might not have published the same book as the one that would’ve come out if I’d had an agent and editor rip their way through it. In that sense, this almost feels less like cheating, because I haven’t done anything to this book to make it easier either to sell or to read, apart from the things that I consider common courtesy, like panicking about spelling and trying to keep chapters short and organised.

– What inspired this book?

Living in a castle. Even when they do have windows, the air has a very special texture, and they’re so winding and interesting you sort of don’t need to go outside. As for the rest of it? I can only say it all came together so neatly even I was surprised and confused. I don’t know what it comes from. There are a couple of scenes that I’ve always wanted to write – some of the best writing advice is ‘don’t save your good ideas for a different book’ – and so I very much wrote things I’d always wanted to in here.

– Where did you write it?

The first 60k I wrote in bed, in my bedroom, which was more of a heap of everything I’d ever owned. It was most uncomfortable, but the book carried me right away from it all. The rest of it took a long time. In March 2012 I rented a tiny office and treated working on this, and a few other things, like a proper job, working from 6.30am-3pm every day. By the time I’d finished that, I had a solid first draft…which was 140k. Obviously far too long.

After that, I saw the HarperVoyager contest which was looking for YA dystopia, amongst other things, and thought, eh, I will have a crack at it. I edited like a mad thing, hacked 20k out of the story and sent it off. They weren’t interested, but hey, it got me through the first serious polish.

Then I thought I’d try proper agents. I polished further, rewrote a few things. No dice. Then I found a handful of agents’ blogs begging people not to send them novels that started with a dream, and I thought about changing the beginning and everything again…and then I read some stuff from people who’d been accepted by agents and were thrilled about their novel coming out in Summer 2014…and I thought, no, no, I love this right now and I want it to go off and play, not have to do another round of being sold, which, besides, doesn’t sound like something this can be. And that’s okay.

So I’ve spent the last two months polishing and polishing as best I can. I’ve nowhere near the funds to employ anyone to help me polish, so I hope it’s going to suffice. I’d say I’ve been through this manuscript at least forty times, although the very last time I still found a space where a space ought not to be, so…there comes a time when, for me, it is time to put the thing aside and do the next thing. This is that time.

– Who will like this book?

I’ve no idea. *I* like this book. I love the characters. I worry that’s because I know them better than the reader will, but I’ve had a tiny handful of others read it and they seemed fond enough. It’s dark in places, there are one or two unpleasant scenes, but it’s nothing I didn’t let my mother read, and she claims to love it, but she really is saying that out of terrible bias, because she doesn’t like all kinds of awesome books that are better written than mine. I don’t even really know what to compare this to, although I haven’t been allowed to read Gormenghast; for the whole duration of my work on this because I’m told it’s bothersomely similar in places. Which is fine, and entirely unintentional on my part, because I haven’t gone near it since I was about 17, but damn, when someone tells you you can’t read something, if it doesn’t become the only thing you want to read at all, and a lot, please thanks.

– What did you cut out?

Overall, I’ve cut at least 50k. Almost all of it was adverbs and internal monologue which was repeated elsewhere. It was an exhausting process. I fear, occasionally, I cut too much, that my characters will be a bit hindered by not having all their weird exposition, but then less is almost always more with writing, so, here’s hoping. Also infinite instances of the word ‘that’, and a shedload of ellipses.

– Do you feel like you’ve fulfilled a dream?

Honestly, yes. Way more than I’d thought I would. It’s very exciting. It’s very small and I know it’s something anyone can do, I know a lot of things, but there is a thing with my name on it and it is a complete story. That’s amazing for me. Hurrah for me 🙂

– You say you could keep changing things. What else would you change?

When I wrote the first draft, for reasons best known to myself I decided to write like it was 1749, in a magnificently stupid voice which was precious close to “hast thou thine shiny things” or something, with a lot of “I cannot this” and “I shall not that” and, whilst I’m a huge proponent of keeping shall and shan’t in the English language, too much “but he is” and “she is that” is exhausting when the eye skims “he’s”, “can’t”, “won’t” etc so easily. There’s rather more left than might be sensible. I could make it all snappier. But then again, this is supposed to be on the side of archaic, and I want the speech patterns to grate and be peculiar at times. I’m not saying I made it deliberately rubbish, but I am saying that it felt odd to delete the lot in one (or even three) go(es). I don’t think I’d change any of the plot, or indeed any of the scenes.

One thing that confuses me is that, personally, I really don’t like reading books with alternating chapters. I’ve NO idea how I ended up writing one. I’m sorry about that, I want to say, because, yeah, they don’t agree with me…but there it is, there’s literally no other way I could tell this story!

– Are there any deleted scenes?

The book I started writing was not, well, let’s say it wasn’t a book I’d share with my mother. I realised after the initial NaNoWriMo thing, though, that that wasn’t really the story I wanted to tell, that there was a lot more going on in the world and the background, and that the story was actually about legacy and responsibility and things like that. Plus I thought I might actually like other people to read it, without having to pretend I was someone else. So I kept all the scenes, but drastically changed their content. That’s weird to think of, actually, that I didn’t really add any scenes or take any away – some got longer and more convoluted, but everything was basically there.

– Is there anything that doesn’t make sense?

I’ve a terrible feeling that if you did a timeline it’s very difficult to make everyone’s days and nights add up. I can’t tell you how hard I tried to fix that, but there came a point where I figured that it would probably be a better book if I stopped trying to mash it into a super-organised, carefully-filed place.

– Do you really think it’s good?

This is the question, really. I like it. I’ve said that. Objectively, is it brilliantly written? I don’t think so, but I think I’ve read worse writing, and I’ve read infinitely better. I think I’ve some nice turns of phrase, and there are certainly places where I’m punching above my weight, and others where it could undoubtedly be better. But this is my first book. I want to get better. I’m doing this on my own, and if I’d had a proper editor then I’m sure this would read like a more professional book. That’s not meant to be an excuse, exactly, just that it would read more as books-on-shelves read. I am proud of it, I’m nervous about whether it comes across as something worth being proud of, but it’s definitely time to put it out there and move on.

– Where can I buy it?

Oh right, yeah. UK edition, US edition.