Thursday, March 31, 2016

Book Review: The Neverland Wars

Book Review: The Neverland Wars by Audrey Greathouse 

Goodreads Description: Magic can do a lot—give you flight, show you mermaids, help you taste the stars, and… solve the budget crisis? That's what the grown-ups will do with it if they ever make it to Neverland to steal its magic and bring their children home.

However, Gwen doesn't know this. She's just a sixteen-year-old girl with a place on the debate team and a powerful crush on Jay, the soon-to-be homecoming king. She doesn't know her little sister could actually run away with Peter Pan, or that she might have to chase after her to bring her home safe. Gwen will find out though—and when she does, she'll discover she's in the middle of a looming war between Neverland and reality.

She'll be out of place as a teenager in Neverland, but she won't be the only one. Peter Pan's constant treks back to the mainland have slowly aged him into adolescence as well. Soon, Gwen will have to decide whether she's going to join impish, playful Peter in his fight for eternal youth… or if she's going to scramble back to reality in time for the homecoming dance.

My Review: I received a review copy of The Neverland Wars from the author, Audrey Greathouse, in exchange for an honest review.

The Neverland Wars is a whimsical tale that takes us to the forests of Neverland in a familiar and yet entirely new way. 16-year-old Gwen chases after her younger sister when Peter Pan shows up at their bedroom window and offers to whisk them away. Gwen insists she's going to protect her sister, in order to bring her home, but soon finds herself swept up in the magic and wonder of Neverland. And who can blame her? The author creates such a peaceful and serene place that it felt like escape just reading about it. It brought back all that I loved about Peter Pan as a child. Through this world, the author explores the themes of what it means to grow up. I really liked the contrast between reality and 'Neverland,' though by the end it hints there might be more fictional characters brought to life, turning the Neverland Wars into the war between reality and story. There are so many exciting possibilities there, and definitely a strong point for the series. But only future books will tell how those ideas will be explored.

Gwen is at a transitional period in her life as a teenager, and the author does a great job illustrating her discomfort, both back in 'reality' and in Neverland. She isn't really a lost child, nor is she an adult, and she feels torn between both worlds, which was a nice conflict. All in all, Gwen's character was great. Right off the bat I felt connected to Gwen because of how she looked at the world. Sure, arguably she has a very mature way of looking at things for a teenager, but as I was exactly the same way at 16, it's hard to cite that as a fault. Rather that endeared me to Gwen's character and made me want to see more of her perspective. I wished I could've gotten a bit more of Gwen's inner monologue, since her character gets a bit eclipsed by the events going on. It would be nice to see more of her thoughts and personality mixed in with the action.

Gwen's maturity aside, I found the writing style in this book rather verbose. The narration itself was a bit mature and didn't have the same tone as a lot of other YA books out there, though this isn't a bad thing. I'm vehemently against 'dumbing' down books for kids, and it's nice to see a YA novel that sells it straight to the audience.

The only things that took away from the story was the shifting POV and a lack of stakes. It seems like an 'omniscient' POV was used for this book, and while I'll admit there are books out there who manage it, it is an extremely difficult POV to do well. It takes away from my experience as a reader, as I never know when we're going to shift into someone else's head and see what's going on with them. Though I wasn't lost by shifting heads, it still took me out of the story and kept distance between me and the characters. I wanted to be all in Gwen's head, not partly in everyone's, because this is Gwen's story. Plus, it takes away the mystery when the narrator informs me what certain characters are thinking or what's motivating them, while our main character never has the opportunity (or it isn't shown) to learn that information. It creates distance when the reader and the main character are on different pages.

As well, I had a problem with the lack of stakes, which contributed to an overall lack of tension. Though there were heavily implied stakes of what would happen if Gwen couldn't bring her sister home, of what would happen to Neverland if the adults found their way to it, etc., but it was at times too thin. You need to outline what's at risk, what could be lost, otherwise there's no tension and 'edge of your seat' moment. If there are no consequences to your characters losing their mission, then what does it matter if they win, either?

Despite that, the ending really left me feeling light. I promise, no spoilers; the sudden ending kinda jarred me, but only because it took a moment for it to settle what the ending had implied, what Gwen's decision had been. It left me with a glowing smile and that soft happy ending feel. And as much as there are a lot of unanswered questions left, there was something really satisfying about that ending.

TL;DR: All in all, 3/5 stars. Such a lovely, whimsical tale. Made my heart happy.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Self-Care in Publishing

Self-care is something that is often brushed under the rug in our society. Who has the time to stop and take care of yourself in our go, go, go world? I deal with it a lot in the context of my dayjob. With child protective services, it is a necessary component of the job, which makes sense when you're going up against troubled kids dealing with mental health and behavioural problems, as well as hostile parents who see CPS as the enemy. Every week it comes up, if not every other day, with "How are you taking care of yourself?" It can be a hard question to answer, especially when people in this industry are so used to putting other people ahead of them. Myself included.

CPS workers are far from the only ones who need to practice self-care. There are some scary misconceptions about publishing that can create a lot of tension between writers, editors, agents, and everyone else involved with the process. After all, you don't need to be screamed at every day to have stress and expectations mount on top of you. In publishing, there is a silent expectation that runs in the background of everyone involved: Work Faster. It's fueled by passion and excitement, the anticipation of an answer that could affect your entire career. But that expectation sits on the shoulders of everyone, whether they're waiting for a response or working to get one out. Though it may be an exciting kind of stress, it is still stress, which can still overwhelm you. It isn't about the severity of the stress, but how long you have to endure it.

It's like this: imagine holding a glass of water at shoulder height. Nothing too scary, right? Now, how heavy is that glass of water when you've been holding it for two, three weeks straight? Imagine this glass of water as the expectations of publishing: work faster, work harder, work passionately. Nothing too serious to carry, until you can't put it down.

Self-care is being able to put the glass down, take a breath, and rest. It is absolutely essential for anyone, whether you have to deal with attempted assaults from angry clients, or just impatient nudging emails from writers  hoping you've read their work. But self-care isn't as easy as setting down a glass of water. Often we have dozens of others in the industry hanging over us (or at least in our heads) waiting for that response. So how do you practice self-care in an industry where speed in an important factor?

Literary agent Laura Zats put it beautifully:

TS Ferguson, an editor over at Harlequin Teen also posted some great thoughts on burn out and self-care within the publishing industry. For the sake of length, I'll add in just a few (though he's an awesome person to follow on Twitter, so I suggest checking out his feed.)

Obviously, we have a problem here. The things that really jump out at me are the high turnover rate, and the fact that agents REQUIRE A BLOODY DAYJOB. It leads back to two significant needs that I face every day in CPS: high turnover in the industry means its employees require more support and self-care. There is a high turnover in CPS because of obvious reasons: not everyone can face child abuse day in and day out. There's only so much self-care you can do to handle it. But for publishing to have such a high turnover rate, when so many people claim that this is their dream job just doesn't make any sense. So why does it happen? Why do literary agents need a day job just to survive? How did we get to a place where the most passionate and driven people, who make books happen, have to struggle just to make end's meat?

So what do we do? How do we fix this broken system? Because our entire industry needs self-care, not just one or two of us. As a group, we need to learn how to put down that glass of water and understand what it means when we see others (agents, editors, writers) taking that time to rest their arm. But how do we get to that place, especially when we're all so anxious to hear back from each other?

Self-Care as a Group

  •  The first step has already been taken. We need to talk about it. This isn't a case of mental illness where a few people have a disorder and we should take the time to acknowledge it. This is about EVERYONE'S well-being. We need to acknowledge that we are all human, that we can all get overworked. No one here is slacking off just to take a paycheck from the big boss. We are all here because we want to be, because we're passionate about words. That means that when agents, editors, writers, whoever, wants to talk about what they're facing, we must let them. Laura Zats and TS Ferguson and everyone else out there neck deep in submissions should be able to say "I'm exhausted" without fearing for their careers. Part of having a community is the support that we're able to give each other.
  • We need to dispel the stereotypes already. In a world where we can log onto the net and find every answer we need at our fingertips, we can't keep perpetuating ideas about each other and the industry that simply aren't true. Such as, agents and editors being free to post on social media (we all need a brain dump after working non-stop) without fear of being seen as 'lazy', that agent and editors are merely 'gatekeepers' who want to keep people out (c'mon, let's get realistic), or that short form rejects are a personal attack. These ideas are all born out of an impatient and blinded mindset that comes from vulnerability. As writers, we make ourselves vulnerable by presenting our soul on paper. But you can't let fear of that vulnerability lead to angry or spiteful actions that will only destroy your career in the long run. Remember: always think of the person first, then their profession. 
  • We are running a marathon, not a sprint. This applies to everyone in the industry. For some people, it only takes a few hours to read through a book. For some, it will only take them a handful of weeks to pound out the first draft and start combing through with edits (I know a writer even who does marathon writing weekends, where he finishes a book in two days. Talk about a headache). But these people are the exceptions. It will take you a while to read through a requested manuscript, or to write out a first draft, or go through edits with a beta reader. IT. TAKES. TIME. I think all of us feel guilty knowing there are people waiting on us, knowing that we hold their heart and soul within bound pages. I know the weight of that guilt can push you to rush rush rush. I've felt it myself with publicists and authors waiting up on me for a review, and while I'm reading as fast as I can, it never seems to be fast enough. If you feel this way, YOU ARE NOT ALONE. This is one of those things that, as a group, we need to accept. We are running marathons, and that takes a little longer, but the prize waiting at the finish line is so worth every step, especially when you can take the time to appreciate the journey. 
  • Above all, kindness. Like I mentioned before, writers are often vulnerable due to the fact that they are turning their passion into a business. It can be taxing on the soul to wait and wait and wait only to be told no. Or you could be an agent or editor, tired of seeing the same rookie mistakes again and again. I think we're all smart enough (for the most part) not to air out our dirty laundry online and harass others in the business. However, I ask everyone to go one step further. The next time you find yourself annoyed by how long someone is taking to respond, or if you think they're tweeting too much, or you're overwhelmed by the urge to poke them with your very long pointy stick... just pause. Stop those thoughts in their tracks. Dialectal Behaviour Therapy is a strategy of therapy in which you acknowledge the patterns of behavior and do a complete 180 degree spin in the hopes of 'retraining' your thought patterns. So let's, all of us, start retraining our thinking. As much as business is competitive, we don't have to be. We have an incredible community that can allow us to achieve impossible things (like the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement and #YASaves), but unless we band together and support each other, there won't be a community out there much longer. When we stop to ask each other how we're doing, remind each other that we're all doing the best we can, and grant each other kindness, patience, and understanding, we will be able to build an incredibly powerful community. One where people can thrive and see their dreams flourish. 

Of course, it's easy to say what we as a group can do, but a herd won't start charging until its members start moving. So what can you when at times this business can make us all feel so powerless and isolated? Everything starts small. How can you hope to check in with the well-being of those around, if you never stop to check in on your own well-being? As they say in CPS, the only way you'll be able to help anyone is to make sure you're strong and healthy first. Then you are best prepared to extend support to others. 

Self-Care as an Individual 
  •  Take care of yourself! Often the most overlooked self-care tip. Eat right, make sure you get enough sleep, and take time to exercise. They're such small things, and can seem so freakin' unimportant when you've got deadlines and people breathing down your neck, but it is crucial. If you run yourself down and get sick, it will only stress you out more, and odds are you'll end up further behind. You'll be able to handle more stress and more shit slinging if you take time to stop, get some restful sleep, and eat an apple. Give yourself energy that will last. Don't let sugar and junk food make you feel sluggish. 
  • UNPLUG! This is probably the second most important thing when it comes to publishing. We are all bound to our screens, yes, but we need to take time away. Staring at your email and refreshing it every five minutes will only serve to make you more anxious. Cyber stalking someone you're waiting on an answer from will also only add to your impatience and make the response take that much longer to get to you (or at least it feels that way). It may feel like it's helping when you're having a staring contest with your inbox, but the reality is, it just makes things worse. Think of an addict-- getting stoned doesn't get rid of the craving, and will only make the craving for it much worse, later. Schedule a time to go in and check your emails instead of sitting on it all day. You'll never get your mind off it while hitting refresh. 
  • Use sensory items to help relax. This is a form of therapy that we use on traumatized kids in our facility. By utilizing the senses, you can actually help to regulate your emotions and calm yourself. Anything that invokes the senses can help: bubble baths, baking cookies, playing with Play-Doh, listening to music, listening to a river or fountain, etc. Try to invoke as many sense as you can (e.g., use bath salts or nice smelling oils during a bath). Again, this is such a small thing that has a powerful and lasting effect on your overall mental health. 
  • Achieve something small! Some days, it can feel like you're paralyzed by your anxiety or depression or frustration with the industry as a whole. You can easily feel like you have no control, and in a lot of cases, you don't. But that's not the end of the world! There are things you can control and by stepping out and achieving things, you'll feel more confident in your ability to be patient. It's more than simply working on your next project-- it's about starting something small and being able to finish it to achieve a sense of accomplishment. That feeling  is addictive, and helps to keep the impatient demons at bay. 
  • Get down, get weird, get CRAZY! This is a business, and we're all professionals standing around the imaginary water cooler. Often it can be hard to hold your tongue when colleagues are pissing you off, or unplug when you have four people who need you RIGHT NOW. Bottling up all those emotions will wear you down as quickly as not sleeping or eating poorly. So let loose. Go out and run about, fall to the floor laughing at your own jokes, rant at friends until your face turns blue. Express yourself, because your thoughts and feelings matter! But, as my mother would say, you've got to have the right place and the right time.

At the end of the day, you know you best and have the final say in what works and what doesn't. For myself, unplugging is essential. Often I'll get overwhelmed by others' successes, and when that happens I know it's time to step back and breathe. I also find going out for walks along the water and listening to the fountain in my condo's lobby incredibly peaceful.

So, what are your best self-care tips? What do you do to stay a #healthywriter? I would love to hear it!

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Author Interview with Eliza Green!

Hello all! I'm excited to have Eliza Green, author of Becoming Human, stop by for an interview. I love getting to know the face behind the pages and Eliza has good advice and insight into self-publishing and building an author platform. I hope you'll all help me welcome her to the Underground (again :) )

You’ve had a myriad of other jobs besides writing (Ghost hunting? Super jelly over here), what do you think influenced your writing the most?

Every job I had, and currently have, involves some sort of administrative role. I’m a highly organised person (I love lists!) which is probably why I stuck with that role for so long. So maybe that influences my writing to a higher degree and the types of roles my characters get saddled with initially. But I started writing to break away from my day job and do something more creative. I think as I go along that influence will lessen and other experiences will creep into the writing.

The ghost hunting followed years of watching every ghost hunting show I could. I’m an open minded sceptic who needs proof of ghostly occurrences before I’ll believe it. So I tried a night of hunting and I loved it so much I plan to do more!

Are you a planner or a pantser? Do you prefer to outline your work or let the characters guide you?

A bit of both. I start out with an outline then deepen that outline once I’ve written my first draft. I try not to stick too rigidly to the script because my characters often take over and steer the story in a particular direction. I’ve tried being a pantser but you just end up going around in circles. An outline is helpful to focus the mind and to make the best use of your writing time.

What goals do you have for your writing career? What would be your “dream come true” moment?

Thinking big, I’d love to see one of my stories on the big screen. But being more realistic, I’d love to make enough money where I can write full time and not worry about the bills. I doubled my income in 2015 compared to 2014, so I’m definitely on the right track!

What are some struggles you’ve faced with self-publishing? What are some of the highlights?

The biggest struggle I’ve faced in self-publishing is acceptance from industry professionals.

At the London Book Fair in 2013, an audio book company keen to work with me turned the other cheek when they heard I was self published. In 2012 when Amazon opened their doors to self published authors, some reader reviews pointed fingers at self-published authors accusing them of being part of the vanity publishing movement. Vanity publishers allow authors of any calibre to publish their books with them, regardless of quality and usually at a steep cost. But there was a market for it because some readers still equated quality with a publishing house name. Now the market is saturated with self-published books and the cream is finally rising to the top—I rarely hear the term vanity publishing being mentioned these days. Readers are noticing and demanding quality, caring less about whether a book is self-published or traditionally-published. That sets the bar higher for the rest of us, which is a good thing. Many self-published authors have gone on to accept traditional deals.

The highlight for me is the strong supportive community that exists within self publishing. The writers, regardless of their levels of success, are so generous with their time and advice. I was at the London Book Fair in 2014 and got to see Liliana Hart, Hugh Howey, Jasinda Wilder and more speak about their experiences. They were so open with their advice, and so accessible.

I also love the control I have over my product and where I sell it. And while self-published authors didn’t write the book on connecting with readers, they understand the value of doing so. They understand that readers are central to everything they do. Most traditional authors are equally as accessible but some hide behind agents and that can be off putting to a reader.

Where do you draw on your inspiration to write? When faced with writer’s block, how do you overcome it?

Life, movies, TV shows, books—any activity where I don’t have to think too much. The more I switch my brain off the better the ideas flow. Science Fiction is my go-to genre and I devour as many stories as I can. I study everything from characters to plot lines to things I like, things I hate. Tangential ideas will spring forth when I’m least expecting them.

Walking helps to unravel the stories or tease out the difficult parts I just can’t get past. And in the shower (this is a totally clean example, I promise!), my mind wanders and ideas just pop into my head.

What’s some of the best feedback you’ve received from fans? Have any stories?

I’ve received so many lovely emails from new fans (both male and female) who’ve read Becoming Human or all the books available in the series. A retired chemistry teacher emailed me recently to tell me he loved my book and another man told me his son at age fifteen had written a similar idea to mine but abandoned writing because he wasn’t given the right encouragement. Luckily our ideas were a little different :) His son is working in film now, so that was a happy ending.

My favourite was from a man who said my books gave him back his love of reading. That really blew me away. To influence someone in such a way is the highest compliment I can think of.

As a writer, how do you decipher between constructive criticism and destructive criticism?

It’s hard to accept any criticism, but the more you write the tougher you need to become. Constructive criticism to me is anything that highlights an issue with the book like something structural, character development, plot line or editing. But you can’t change everything. You have to let some of the good criticism go and accept the flaws, then move on and write the next book while keeping that criticism in mind. I’ve never read a book that was perfect. No matter how good a book is, there’s always something in it we don’t like.

Destructive criticism is anything that detracts from the effort you knowingly put into a story. For example if someone says the editing is terrible and you know you’ve had the book professionally edited, you can probably chalk that up to bad criticism. But if everyone is saying the same thing, there may be genuine errors in your work.

Someone simply not liking your work is neither constructive nor destructive. It’s just an opinion and authors should never respond to a review like that, no matter how much they disagree with the review. My preference is to respond to reviews that I feel have been constructive and thank them for taking the time to point out the error.

What’s your favourite part of writing sci-fi? 

You get to go off the script a little! Modern day stories are easier to write, but you can’t put people on new planets or give them advanced weaponry. In Sci Fi it’s totally expected so you get to have a little fun creating new things.

What advice can you give to writers who want to break into self-publishing?

I’m not really sure you break into self-publishing. These days anyone can publish a book on Amazon or Kobo or Smashwords. What advice I’d give is don’t self-publish to make a quick buck. You won’t make it by the way!

To succeed in any new business you need to have drive and commitment for sure. But you also have to love what you’re doing. It takes long hours to build an author platform (social media, website, etc) and an even longer wait to find fans once the platform is in place. Once you’re ready to publish your first book, it should have a good cover and have been edited professionally at a minimum. But none of that matters unless your story is great.  I’ve put all my energy and free time (and a little of my savings) into writing because I believe in what I’m doing.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Book Review: Ghost Boy

Book Review: Ghost Boy by Martin Pistorius

Goodreads Description: They all thought he was gone. But he was alive and trapped inside his own body for ten years.

In January 1988 Martin Pistorius, aged twelve, fell inexplicably sick. First he lost his voice and stopped eating. Then he slept constantly and shunned human contact. Doctors were mystified. Within eighteen months he was mute and wheelchair-bound. Martin's parents were told an unknown degenerative disease left him with the mind of a baby and less than two years to live.

Martin was moved to care centers for severely disabled children. The stress and heartache shook his parents’ marriage and their family to the core. Their boy was gone. Or so they thought.

Ghost Boy is the heart-wrenching story of one boy’s return to life through the power of love and faith. In these pages, readers see a parent’s resilience, the consequences of misdiagnosis, abuse at the hands of cruel caretakers, and the unthinkable duration of Martin’s mental alertness betrayed by his lifeless body.

We also see a life reclaimed—a business created, a new love kindled—all from a wheelchair. Martin's emergence from his own darkness invites us to celebrate our own lives and fight for a better life for others.

My Review: At the heart of the story of the Ghost Boy lies a fear that lives within many people: being conscious but trapped, paralyzed in your own body. For Martin Pistorius, that fear was a reality for over ten years until caring people and his enormously devoted parents gave him the power to communicate again. The writing style in this book is simple but with an easy flow that keeps the reader emotionally engaged every step of the way. Martin's story isn't filled with long medical diagnoses or the step by step 'recovery' tale; it's how, given the opportunities and resources, a disabled person was able to live the life he'd always dreamed-- and then some. 

The part that drew me in was getting to see the perspective of someone who has to suffer in silence, like many people in our world still do. When someone can't speak, loved ones can spend hours wondering what's going on in their heads, and this book gives a glimpse of what it's like to be utterly at the mercy of those around you. The story highlights the best of humanity through those who loved and cared for Martin, and also touches on the dark sides only briefly, but with enough intensity to realize the importance of those good people. It is so easy, especially in overworked and underfunded medical and mental health services, for people like Martin to be forgotten. But when you face that possibility through Martin's eyes, the emotional impact is an intense blow. The narrative isn't preachy or depressing, it simply expresses a very real fear of getting left behind, and the hope for something more. 

The short chapters makes for an easy read. Though the story does leap around within the timeline, each chapter does well at establishing time a place, as well as Martin's level of functioning. The story progresses smoothly and doesn't linger on too much negativity. It is also interesting to see the perspective on communication from Martin as well. How he goes from ecstatic being able to communicate, to realizing that not everyone has the patience to wait while he spells things out using his devices, to finding those who don't care about that at all. 

All in all, the insights and perspectives this book has makes this a wonderful and engrossing read. For anyone working with those with disabilities, it is a definite keeper. 

TL;DR: 3/5 stars. A fascinating perspective with a simple and smooth writing style.