Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Digital Critique Partner

Greg Pincus from The Happy Accident mentioned this in an email and I'll admit, as a bit of a techno geek, I was curious. It's called Auto Crit and it's basically an automated critique wizard. Seriously. Gives a whole new meaning to an online critique.

So obviously, I had serious doubts as to what this thing could do, but since I had a chapter that was annoying me, I thought I'd paste it in and see how the program worked. I was impressed by the points it claimed it could critique: overused words, sentence variation, cliches & redundancies, repeated words & phrases, pacing, dialogue, initial pronouns, readability and homonyms.

Since I was testing the free version, it would only accept about 800 words and it only critiqued the first three points. Once you pay an annual fee ($47 – $117, depending on the level you choose) you can enter more text and access more critique points. But what it found in those first few points was kind of cool.

The programmed false praise "Awesome! Nice work!" was kind of annoying, but the information was good, especially since this list was followed by my text, with overused words highlighted in red. Guess I need to cut back on it/there and knew/know! The second report on sentence variation was interesting, too.

I like how it gives a visual representation with the red dots of how long the sentences are and I was glad to see that my sentences vary in length. And just in case you were wondering, I blurred my words since this is a first draft of this story :)  The third report showed that I had no redundancies (Yay) and no clichés (Great work).

Of course, these are technical points and it makes sense that an automated editor could find these issues. But can a robot really judge these finer aspects of a story? I'm really curious to know how the algorhythms work on pacing, dialogue and readability. Just not sure if I'm $47-$117 curious.

What do you think? Would you invest in a robot critique partner?


And the winner of the paperback copy of Samuel Park's THIS BURNS MY HEART is:

Congratulations, Ivanova! Email me at solvang sherrie at gmail dot com and I'll get that book sent out to you pronto.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Author Spotlight on: Samuel Park

Today I have a treat here on the blog – best selling author Samuel Park. I “met” Sam through blogging, shared his excitement when his book sold, gave my opinion when he chose his author photo. It's so much fun to see blogging friends do well!

His novel, This Burns my Heart, was recently released in paperback and he has generously offered to give away a copy to one lucky blog reader. Isn’t it a gorgeous new cover? Even more evocative than the original.

Sam, I’m so happy to have you here!

Thank you so much for having me on your blog. I remember when my book became an Amazon Best of the Month, you were one of the first people to email me and congratulate me, and I really loved that.

Oh, well, I’m kinda nerdy that way. I get ridiculously excited when I see press about people I know. (See my blog post on Friday for proof!)

I don’t read a lot of books for grownups, but I have to tell you that I loved This Burns my Heart. There was one scene near the end, where they’re in the park listening to street musicians – omigosh, the longing, the covert thing with the hands – I don’t want to give away too much, but it was so beautifully written. Did it take a long time, getting the prose just the way you wanted it?

I think it's a tricky balance. On the one hand, you have to hold the reader's attention through beautiful language, almost like poetry. And I think this is particularly true nowadays, with all the competition from other mediums, and the availability of so much other (often free) entertainment--beautiful language is the only thing fiction can offer that other mediums can't. But I also believe that in order for the reading to become an immersive experience, the reader shouldn't even notice the language, and just become engulfed by the story.

I suppose in a way I just described the difference between literary and commercial fiction. The goal for me, then, is to find scenes where it feels organic to pause and engage in some beautiful language. Like the scene you're talking about--the descriptions of the musicians and the song involve lyrical language, but they're also embedded within the plot, since that's what the characters are listening to in that very moment. You look for moments where those two things can overlap, or where the fast moving plot can discreetly cede way, for a moment, for a beautiful reflection, or a metaphor.

English is not your native language, and yet you have a doctorate and you’re a professor of English. I know you decided as soon as you could read that you wanted to be a writer. What made you want to be a teacher?

I think it started when I was six years old and I would put mine and my sister's teddy bears and dolls in front of me and pretend that I was giving them a lecture. I don't remember what I would teach them, but it must've been pretty engrossing, since they would never move. Also, growing up, I always loved teachers. I was a classic teacher's pet, you know, the one the teacher would put in charge while she stepped out? In college, I would go to my professors' office hours and plant myself there. They could not get rid of me. I always liked teachers, partly because my first teacher, in many ways, was my mother, and I liked *her* a lot, too.

Have you had to autograph books after class? Do you have students asking for novel critiques and/or advice on being an author?

My students are starting to now, but for the most part they're much more interested in getting an extension for their papers, or figuring out how many points I take off for a late midterm. I teach art students, and they're very cagey, not at all the way I was back in college. (See answer above.)

Ah, the tunnel vision of youth :-)

You’ve also made a short film and then developed a novella based on that screenplay. Tell me how that came about.

Well, I was living in L.A. at that time, and when you live in L.A., you're practically obligated to write a screenplay. They won't give you a driver's license, unless you show proof of WGA copyright. So I wrote a screenplay based on a play and then a short film based on the screenplay and then a novella based on all that. And if you were able to follow that, you deserve an award. The novella was basically the screenplay, plus what I like to call "stage directions," which is what I call all that stuff that is not between quotations. It's very short, about 50,000 words.

Um, you're talking to someone who writes books for kids. 50K is an average sized novel around here!

Now that This Burns my Heart has been out for eight months, how has the experience of being a debut novelist changed from how you thought it would be?

Signing books at Vroman's in Los Angeles
The thing that surprised me, in a really good way, was to find out that in this age of movies and video games and Internet, people are still very passionate about books. In spite of all the bad news that we all know, with newspaper circulations declining and people reading less than ever, there is still a passionate core group of readers, journalists, reviewers, booksellers, and book lovers who are out there, all over the country, championing books. And that was really wonderful to see, and be a part of, 'cos I got to meet in person a lot of people doing events, and I saw that there's a huge community out there of people involved in book festivals, radio shows, etc, whose lives revolve around keeping literary culture alive.

There's a lot of doom and gloom out there so this is nice to hear.

I’ve heard people say that aside from editing, they have very little input once they turn their novel over to a publisher. Was that the case for you or did you have any involvement with the cover or the marketing?

 You know, I had some input, yes, but here's what I'm gonna say about that: I don't think authors should have any input on book covers. You're just too close to the book, and you're too distracted by your own projections about what this Platonic ideal of this thing that you created should look like. You really need someone more objective, someone who actually saw what you created, rather than what you think you created, and can express that visually. I'm a big believer in expertise, so if an expert art designer thinks that this is what I should go with, then I'm happy to sign off. Having said that, I'm not shy about forwarding them suggestions before they come up with a cover and saying, "This is what I think might be a nice inspiration. This is what I imagine the world of the book to be." For the paperback of This Burns my Heart, I really wanted the book to have a very soft, feminine quality, and I was really happy with what the designers came up with.

How much support did you get from Simon & Schuster and what things did you have to do on your own?

They were/are incredible. I literally could not ask for more. What I admired about their handling of the book was that they always knew what was right for it, and at what point. They're incredibly smart about how to market books. They know how the business works, and knew who I should meet, and where our energies should go toward. And their focus was to just get the book in people's hands. They really thought that the book was going to sell itself, and they were right. The weird thing is that up to that point I was very much used to having to do things on my own. So I thought with the book, I'd have to do my own marketing, but instead they did everything for me. And they did it a thousand times better than I could, because they knew things that I, and most authors, don't know.

It had to be pretty surreal having one of the morning hosts talking about your book on the Today Show. And being chosen by Amazon and Kirkus as one of the best books of 2011. Were you surprised by how much praise your novel received?

That day I learned about the incredible power of television. And the way it unfolded was pretty surreal. I didn't know the endorsement was coming. I just noticed that day that my Amazon ranking (which I have to confess, I check way more than I should!) had shot up to #90 or something crazy like that. I thought, "Huh, something must've happened." And I went online and googled the book and found nothing unusual, or new. But then I noticed on twitter somebody thanking Hoda Kotb of the Today Show for her recommending This Burns my Heart. This light bulb went off on my head that said, "Oh wow, maybe she mentioned it on the show."

By then, I had already missed that morning's show, but fortunately, they put up clips of it right away on the Today show website. So lo and behold, I saw the clip from the show, and I found out that Hoda Kotb and Kathie Lee Gifford have a segment called "Favorite Things." The book was Hoda's "Favorite Thing" for that week. And she gave it an amazing review, which I'm so thankful for. The book's sales really shot up--apparently it had gone up to #2 on Amazon that day. People tend to associate Oprah with endorsing books, but I think Hoda has an incredible fan base and an amazing ability to be a tastemaker.

Wow. I can't even imagine how amazing that must have been!

And you know, I wish I were cool enough to say "Oh, yeah, I totally expected all those best of 2011 picks!" But the truth is that I was totally surprised. That's kind of my personality: every time something good happens, it takes me completely by surprise and I'm totally grateful for. I didn't think I was going to get any of those shout-outs at the end of the year. I mean, this is the year so many incredible people had books out: Eugenides, Oondatje, Murakami, Tea Obreht, Geraldine Brooks, etc. So no, I wasn't expecting any of it--but once I did, I loved it!

I’ve heard rumors that you’re working on a novel based on mother-daughter relationships. What stage are you at with that? Do you feel like you’ll have as much time to develop it as you did with TBMH or are you feeling pressure to get it finished and turned in to your editor?

I'm going to plead the fifth on that one, before I get into trouble! I'm very superstitious about discussing books in progress. Actually, there's a really fascinating story about how this new book is coming together, but I'm going to wait to tell that story when the actual book eventually comes out. I have a tendency to spill the beans, and I need to hold myself back!

But to answer your question, I think everyone wants to know that you have something in the pipeline, but they'd rather you take longer and produce something great, than rush with a not-so-great book.

Okay, I'll accept that. For now :P

Anyway, thanks so much for having me on your blog! It's been a pleasure!

Thank YOU, Sam! And let me know when you're ready to talk about that new novel. I'm eager to see what you come up with next!

You can read more about Sam and This Burns my Heart by visiting his blog and website:

Watch his book trailer on YouTube.

If you'd like to win a copy of This Burns my Heart, let me know in the comments. This contest is only open to U.S. residents. Leave your comment before 9pm Pacific time on Tuesday, March 27. I'll announce the winner on Wednesday, March 28.

Friday, March 16, 2012

The Inspiring Katie Anderson

I can’t even begin to tell you how happy it made me to read this yesterday in Publisher’s Weekly.

Because I remember back in 2009, when Katie was depressed after the SCBWI conference. She thought she had finished writing a fabulous book, but editors and agents didn’t. They liked the concept but thought it needed major reworking.

I remember reading the first five chapters after she started revising and thinking, holy crap, if this book doesn’t make it big, then something’s wrong with the world.

I remember how excited she was when she had multiple agents trying to sign her, how sad she was when her book made it to acquisitions, only to be turned down. I can hear her voice in my head right now, encouraging me as we both went through Submissionitis.

Katie worked for YEARS revising and submitting and revising some more. She thought this book was dead. She even wrote a post, almost exactly one year ago, called "The Death of a Book." To have it come back to life, and in such a big way, it’s karma people. Good things have come to the woman who wrote and revised. And waited.

I am so proud of you Katie, so thrilled that the world is going to get to read your book, see your movie and wear your lip gloss! YES! It couldn’t have happened to a nicer person.

Read the Publisher's Weekly story then go congratulate her


Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Everyone Just Wants to be Loved

My 12yo plans to have a career in film, so he tends to analyze everything he watches. Nothing escapes his notice. He pays attention to the music, the acting, the storyline, the editing, and how they all work together.

As a rule, he tends to avoid romances. That mushy stuff has never been up his alley in books, and certainly not when it's acted out on the big screen. But he shared a realization with me the other day.

"All the best stories have romance in them, don't they?" he asked.

I gave him a quizzical look so he elaborated.

"My favorite movies, like Avatar. It's basically a love story, right? Inception? The most tragic love story of all. Every good movie has great action, funny stuff and an amazing story, but there's a romance at the center of it. All of it has to be there for it to be really good."

"Why do you think that is?" I asked.

He thought for a moment then shrugged. "I guess maybe everyone just wants to be loved."

Amazing, the lessons I keep learning from my kids...

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Poolside Recommendations

Vacation was amazing. So amazing in fact that it took me a week to get back into the swing of blogging again. But that doesn't mean I wasn't thinking about it. I was. In fact, I started thinking about this post long before I wrote it, every time I saw people reading by the pool.

Since I'm not as familiar with grown up books (is it me or just it just sound wrong to say "adult" books?) it was harder to remember the titles I saw. I recognized familiar authors like Nora Roberts, J. D. Robb, George R. R. Martin and Jodi Piccoult. But I also saw plenty of children's books, some even in the hands of children :)

Of course the number one title I saw being read was The Hunger Games. With the movie set to premiere in just 16 days (YAY!) plenty more people are discovering this series. Other popular MG/YA titles I saw on vacation:

Mockingjay (odd that I didn't see anyone reading Catching Fire)
What Boys Really Want
Lunch Money
Son of Neptune
39 Clues: Cahills vs. Vespers
The Fault in our Stars (love this book!) 
Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Cabin Fever

Obviously this is highly unscientific and it doesn't account for all the people on electronic readers. Much as I wanted to go up to them and ask what they were reading, I restrained myself. (Most popular reader by the pool? iPads dominated by far.)

And what was I reading poolside?

Catching Jordan
Incredibly Loud and Extremely Close
Brightest Kind of Darkness
The Ausslander
I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone

What I'm reading now: This Burns my Heart by Samuel Park

What titles have you seen others reading that you want to pick up?
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