Friday, January 30, 2015


The keyboard is always waiting
The popular readers' site, Goodreads, is democracy in action; anybody can use it and everybody's opinion has the same value. It also proves the old adage that you can't please all of the people all of the time. An author learns pretty quick that however much blood, sweat, heart and soul you poured into your literary baby, there are plenty of readers out there for whom it is just not their thing.

And that's okay. The sooner you learn to tune out the babble of conflicting opinions, the sooner you can get back to the keyboard!

Most authors set up a page on Goodreads before their book's official release, when the only people who have read it are the author's mom and a few close, personal friends. So those first reviews are glowing, four or five stars out of five, racking up a 4.5 or even 5.0 "average rating." Then the pub date arrives, and the (dreaded) public starts chiming in.

I try not to obsess over my ratings, rankings, and/or stars. If you get all euphoric over a terrific rating, you feel obliged to get all miserable when your rating falls. So I'm not constantly on my Goodreads page; I'd rather be writing.

But Art Boy has no such qualms. When Alias Hook was released, he was checking my ratings several times a day. And he began to notice something weird. Within about a month, my book started racking up a ton of one-star ratings. Often, the readers who posted them came from someplace where my book was not even available (like Libya, or Saudi Arabia, although books can be ordered online, of course). And in every case, the person had either just joined Goodreads or added their list of ratings that month.
I couldn't be in better company, but still...

But strangest of all: in every case, Alias Hook was included in a list of 20 or so titles, most of them literary classics, each of which had only received a one-star rating. And it was always the same 10-20 titles: To Kill A Mockingbird, 1984, Romeo & Juliet, The Great Gatsby, Animal Farm, Little Women, Great Expectations, Lord Of the Flies, Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, and a few others. Company I'd be thrilled to have my book compared to in any other circumstances!

Often, these readers' lists only included 20 books—as if they had been asked to score 20 titles to qualify for something, and there was one list of titles that everybody was using. And then they'd just hastened down the list, ticking off one star for each title to get on with it.

I have no problem with a one-star review. No, really; if a person reads my book and decides it's not for them and says why, that's a legitimate response. The problem here was a sudden outbreak of one-star reviews posted by people who had pretty obviously not read the book. Bogus ratings that were skewing my precious "average rating" to way down below the Mendoza Line.
Help! Get me off this grid!
 At last, I broke down and contacted the social media diva at my publishing house for advice. I didn't expect anyone to purge the dozens of bogus ratings off my Alias Hook page; I'm sure that's contrary to the Tao of Goodreads. But, I asked, could I at least get my book taken off that list?

And here's what we found out: there was no "list," per se. But there was an algorithm (as opposed to "editorial selection," we were told, which could have been adjusted). Somehow, my book had been randomly sorted in with all these classic titles that were presented to incoming Goodreaders to be "rated" before they could move on to the next level of Goodreadership.

Why? How? Forget it, Jake, it's technology. It was like Tron, my poor little book trapped forever in an algorithm, battling to get out. An apt metaphor, I suppose, for the way James Hook is trapped forever in the Neverland, if you want to get all abstract.

The good news is, after another few weeks, the program shifted gears, and my one-star reviews stabilized. The downside is, now, whenever a new one-star review appears on my page (much less often than before), I have to admit I've earned it.

Still, this can be very liberating. As soon as you realize how impossible it is to please everybody, you can give yourself permission to stop trying, and go write your book the way it needs to be written.

Sunday, January 18, 2015


I was recently invited to sum up last year, 2014, in one word. I chose "Beginnings," thinking of the chance I got last year to spread my wings as a fledgling author. But I realize now if I was going to be 100% accurate, I should have said simply "Change."

The one constant in life is change, as some wag or other probably said once. Some things we confidently expect to last forever, and it's always a rude surprise when they don't. The much beloved Capitola Book Cafe closed its doors last year, to the despair of readers everywhere. Ditto Pretty Mama's, after decades as the place to go for discount chic with attitude.

Santa Cruz's favorite free cinema event, the Pacific Rim Film Festival, was unable to produce a 2014 edition. And while the show finally did go on for the critically endangered Shakespeare Santa Cruz, abruptly unmoored from the support of UCSC, the old entity had to reinvent itself, phoenix-like, as Santa Cruz Shakespeare, before presenting a season entirely funded by patrons and sponsors.

2014 was also the year the entire editorial staff at Good Times, my home port for nearly (ulp) 40 years, were unceremoniously shown the door when the entity formerly known as Metro/Santa Cruz Weekly moved in to run the show. So nothing lasts forever.

Meanwhile, I find myself on the brink of more changes in the New Year. Last July, after toiling away on the fringes forever, I had a novel published by a major US book publisher. I enjoyed the thrill of working with a professional editor and PR team at Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press in support of Alias Hook; I had a fabulous book event at Bookshop Santa Cruz, embarked on an extensive book blog tour, and launched Alias Hook pages on Facebook and Pinterest.

The question is, now what?

Most writers lucky enough to get a novel published have a couple of spares waiting in the wings. I certainly do! And when I showed my favorite of the lot, another story in the fractured fairy tale line, to the agent who took me on last spring, she loved it! But my editor at TDB was not so enthused, so even though I did an extensive rewrite, that book (let's call it Book B) was put back on hold indefinitely.

Another book? I do have a few ideas...
My editor was interested in a sequel to Alias Hook, however. And while I've always considered that book a stand-alone—poor James and Stella have been through enough: I had no plans to drag them through any more complications—an idea did occur to me for approaching the Neverland from a completely new perspective.

After all, my Neverland already exists fully-fledged in the percolating hothouse of my brain, so the world-building has already been done.

All I had to do was think of a plot, which, okay, is usually my Achilles Heel. (Plot? You mean the characters can't just sit around lobbing witty remarks at each other?) But just like a grown-up author, I wrote up an 8-page plot outline for the sequel (let's call it Book C) and submitted it as a proposal to my editor.

He liked it enough to make an offer. But my agent didn't want to close a deal on Book C if it meant Book B would never see the light of print. She wanted to shop both books elsewhere. So throughout December, in addition to year-end movie deadlines and the holidays, I was jamming away at revising Book B.

The problem was, even though I finally got the approval of my beta reader (okay, it was Art Boy), and even though my agent loved the rest of the book, she and her minions had reservations about the opening. They were afraid that the early scenes/pages/chapters didn't get to the good stuff fast enough. And of course, every time you add or subtract anything in the front of a book, you have to comb through the rest of the book to make sure it all adds up. In one month, I revised the entire manuscript three times.

After so many revisions, the only solution is a brain transplant.

But my agent and I finally had to agree to disagree. Outside of a brain transplant for new ideas, there wasn't anything else I felt I could do to it. Lucky for me, we opted for something a bit less drastic—we decided to send out the most recent revision to an editor my agent had mentioned the book to before the holidays, who was evidently dying to read it. At the very least, we thought we might get some valuable insight before I plunged into yet another rewrite.

But, surprise! The editor loves it.

Understand that this in no way constitutes an offer on Book B, much less a sale. The editor has to discuss it with her team at her publishing house, and it's not enough if they simply love it as much as she does. She has to convince them it's a book they can market, or else they have to convince her that it's not. So the fat lady hasn't sung quite yet.

But at least two people in the NY publishing world love my little book! Now we just have to wait and see what happens next. Will Book B make the cut? Will this be the beginning of a beautiful new professional friendship? And what about Book C?

Stay tuned...

(Top: painting by Heinrich Vogel, 1902.)