book promotion, book reviews

This Way Madness Lies, But So What?

There is probably no more ill-advised pastime for a writer than to engage with his or her negative critics. Reviews are what they are, and any response on your part will only make you seem thin-skinned and defensive. Not everyone is going to love your books, so get over it and let it go.0

Nevertheless, I’m presented here with a rare opportunity. Friend, fellow writer, and notorious gadfly Mimi Speike found fault with my new book, Whisper Blue. Now this, I promise you, is not an attack on Mimi, who I love and admire. In fact, I appreciate and cherish her honesty. Nor will it, I hope, degenerate into a series of mere ripostes and touchy rejoinders. Mimi and I have already exchanged opinions via email and remain the best of pals. Her criticisms are insightful and thought provoking. Do I agree with them? Well, no, because I have my natural arrogance to fall back on, not to mention a fair number of favorable reviews to take comfort in. So why am I focusing on a bad review? Just naturally a contrarian, I guess.  But dissent will nearly always spark a more interesting discussion than agreement. So, what the heck. Let’s rumble!

Mimi: “Your prose style, as usual, is flawless. (I had to include that bit. -AG) I do have some problems with the plot. The uncomplicated style says to me YA, and I do believe Miles’ rather mumbo-jumbo rationale for the odd business would fit nicely into the mouth of a fascinated-with-psychic/not-overly-critical teen.”

A fair point. I wrote back: “If Miles’ explanation for Whisper’s manifestation seems a little addled, well, he’s a little addled, and it seems like exactly the kind of explanation he would come up with. (He needs an explanation, because he’s a rationalist.) It may not make a lick of sense, but it’s at least a self-consistent construction (really, almost more a science fiction explanation than a ghost story one, which fits Miles’ personality.) In the end, it doesn’t matter whether you or I find it believable, just so long as Miles (nearly) does. It’s a bandaid on the gaping wound that has sundered his reality. The fact that it barely works is, well, just as it should be.”

I didn’t add, but will here, that I think Miles’ explanation is actually pretty good, certainly well in line with some of the norms of paranormal fiction. But therein lies one of the bones of incompatibility betwixt Mimi and myself. She really doesn’t care for paranormals, and I obviously do.

Mimi: “I do not find gut-wrenching emotion, that jumps off the page. You tell us that your characters are stunned, upset, all that, but where is the out-and-out frenzy? (On Marieka’s part. We’ve already written Miles off.) Especially with a first-person telling, it would be so easy to show.”

Yes, and I’m afraid there isn’t a lot to say on this point. My natural tendency is to soft-pedal emotion and to minimize introspection, even in first-person. It’s just a personal preference, which Mimi astutely recognized later in her critique, saying: “But that means interior stuff, and I understand that is not your impulse.” And she’s right. It really isn’t. Too often, the examination and explanation of why-my-characters-are-feeling-what-they-feel only clutters up the landscape, making it more difficult for readers to feel what they feel, which is more what I hope will happen. Some people can do the introspection thing very well and to great effect. Me, not so much. I won’t walk away from a poignant moment, but I prefer them to be few and far between.

As far as me telling rather than showing, well, I don’t actually have a problem with telling. It is part of writing. But as far as me telling rather than showing the emotions of my characters, particularly Marieke, I disagree. For the most part, I think I did as little of either as I could reasonably get away with.

Mimi: “Taylor James says, ‘The story is fast paced.’ I would think that fast paced here is not a desirable thing. I say you need to immerse your kooks in a slow-simmer soup, and let them stew in it but good, with plenty of reflection. Instead we get mysteriously matter-of-fact reportage. Everything moves too fast, for my money.”

Again, we are simply at odds here. I love a slow-simmer, and I expect nothing less from Mimi’s own epic cat-o-many-tales, Sly. But…that isn’t Whisper. I wanted something agile enough to slither and scurry up the lattice of plot and emerge with a “what just happened here?” feeling. So fast-paced pleases me. As does “mysteriously matter-of-fact reportage.” Couldn’t have said it better myself.

Mimi: “I buy that a once alive girl might be called up from the dead, but a totally made-up one? I wish at least that Miles had found a mention of a child who had actually existed, and had created additions to the story that just happened to be very close to the truth. (Wouldn’t that be way stranger? And it would solve the problem of reporters digging into a lie.) A demand, by a side-branch descendant of the clan, to know how he came by a piece of information that had never been disclosed, a connection he is able to verify, may be what sends him over the edge.”

A fascinating angle, and in a conventional ghost story, a wholly valid point. But Whisper isn’t really a ghost story. And…well, I’ll quote from my own email reply: “The book isn’t about voodoo or mental illness or even about the madness of the internet crowd. It isn’t even about Marieke and Miles and Mama Jay. It is about the relationship between fiction and reality. The central metaphor of the book is that a fictional character can become as real as a flesh-and-blood person. This is an emotional truth, of course. Who hasn’t experienced that? In Whisper, the metaphor is made real (that’s what paranormal and fantasy fiction do, they treat the metaphorical as if it were an actual thing.) In Whisper’s case, even the meta-metaphor is made real. It’s a work of fiction about a work of fiction coming to life. That, really, is what I was interested in. Miles’ fiction—particularly Wisteria’s diary—the reports on the web, even Stokes’ stories about James Randi are all stirring this same pot. For that reason, it’s absolutely essential that Whisper be fiction, not a real girl. That would completely undermine the metaphor.”

Of course, that metaphor didn’t work for Mimi, and I have no one but myself to blame for that. Assuming we really need someone to blame, which is arguable.

Okay, one more point. Mimi: “We never get a satisfying resolution, just a hook-up with the professor. Okay, I guess the gris-gris around her neck is the resolution. Marieka has caved. She is a convert to tinfoil-hat beliefs, is now generating her own delusions. It’s either that or a mass-hypnosis situation. A buy-in is the easiest, neatest option.”

And that, I guess, was a swing and a miss on my part. Marieke’s gris-gris never smacked of tin-foil hat conversion to me, partly because I don’t regard voodoo as any more delusional than most of your standard religions, but also because Marieke’s appropriation of one of its trappings doesn’t necessarily make her a believer. In her own private way, she’s trying to deal with what she has seen and experienced. If I were to sort it out (and no, I never did, because it seemed perfectly natural to me) I’d say she wears it out of respect for Whisper, and maybe for Mama Jay as well. But if that didn’t come across to Mimi, then perhaps I could’ve done better. But people who go to my books looking for satisfying resolutions are probably going to be disappointed. Emotionally satisfying? Well, I hope so. But plot-resolution satisfaction? Not always one of my priorities.

And, perhaps, this just wasn’t going to be Mimi’s cup of tea, no matter how well I prepared and presented it. Near the end of her email she apologized for “being anal about making sense” and that, may be the crux of our failure to connect. There are things about Whisper Blue that don’t make perfect sense. That’s not an accident, it’s a choice. Paranormal fiction appeals to those of us who like floating in that shadow realm between the real and the other. We are drawn to those uncanny lands, where the various layers of reality rub up against other, twining about, until they become, maybe, interchangeable.

I can’t say whether I achieved that with Whisper Blue, but if you want to find out for yourself, it is available at Amazon,  Kobo,  Barnes and Noble, other places as well. I think it’s good, but I’m open to discussion.

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17 thoughts on “This Way Madness Lies, But So What?

  1. GD Deckard says:

    Ha! I love this.

    Because I enjoyed Whisper Blue as written and agree with Mimi’s criticisms I obviously see two versions of the same story, Atthys’ and Mimi’s.

    I prefer Atthys’ version as written. Mozart said, “Music is the space between the notes.” Meaning here, that I enjoyed the explanations not explicitly stated.

    But Mimi wins the debate (if this were one 🙂 ). Sorry, Atthys but you cannot defend your story by arguments made in emails! What is not actually in the story cannot be used to defend it.
    ;p!

    Thanks, you two. This was fun!

    Liked by 2 people

      • Atthys: I enjoyed reading your response to Mimi’s criticism. Mimi and I have a similiar working relationship to yours: I tell her “let it rip” on her initial criticism of my work; I don’t want her (or anyone else, for that matter) expending extra effort to be ultra-tactful or sickeningly nicey-nice. But Mimi–veteran writer that she is, and always interested in why writers make the choices they do (in my experience with her she’s actually asked that question: ‘Why did you do this, Carl? I don’t get it,”)–will take the time to consider your response and reevaluate accordingly. It’s nice when someone actually asks that question, though I believe that writing only gets one shot at an audience. Either it works or it doesn’t. The hard part is trying to decide if you could have done something better (and let’s face it, most of the time we could have) or if you’ve simply submitted the wrong genre piece to an indifferent audience.

        Liked by 1 person

        • mimispeike says:

          Sorry Carl, I’ve given many a tactful review. Not to you, not to Atthys. I gave one as tactful as I could to DocTom, back on Bookkus. Some of that world of his had me shaking my head and/or giggling. I’ll say no more. I annoyed him enough already.

          Regarding Bookkus: I participated for about a year and a half. Those folks adored some of the sappiest chick-lit I’ve ever seen. A review I found on Amazon the other night sums it up nicely. Superficial, cheesy, predictable applies to a good number of the works I read on that site.

          I’m afraid I was the resident Wicked Witch of the West. They were probably relieved to see me go.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Confession: I haven’t yet read Whisper Blue. (I intend to, Atthys; I intend to! And I hope to god I like it so that I can shout superlatives for this novel all over the internet. Just gotta tamp down the financial drama in my own life first and find the time. . . .)

    Having said that, however—and because I suspect that you, GD and Mimi (& Curtis? & Perry?) expect me to respond in some manner, as we all invariably comment on each other’s postings here—I’m gonna pop off with some things that struck me after reading your latest post. Please consider these but tangential musings to your original piece.

    1.) You expressed it well but Mimi’s criticism irritated you. NOW HOLD ON, HEH! I’m not saying you overreacted, sulked or lashed out. Not at all. I’m simply sayin’ that any writer who reads your words on this matter will do so with a knowing, rueful smile, because it all boils down to this: “She didn’t get it; she didn’t appreciate my art.” (We’ve all been there, those of us who have been doing this for awhile.) And you know what? Maybe she didn’t. I can’t know until I read your work and form my own opinion of your execution of craft with this particular book. I do appreciate and applaud your defense-within-a-defense of Mimi’s right to her own opinion and aesthetic judgments. You’re too much the decent guy/veteran writer/empathetic human being NOT to recognize that, as your posting shows.

    2.) Re: Yes, and I’m afraid there isn’t a lot to say on this point. My natural tendency is to soft-pedal emotion and to minimize introspection, even in first-person. It’s just a personal preference, which Mimi astutely recognized later in her critique, saying: “But that means interior stuff, and I understand that is not your impulse.” And she’s right. It really isn’t. Too often, the examination and explanation of why-my-characters-are-feeling-what-they-feel only clutters up the landscape, making it more difficult for readers to feel what they feel, which is more what I hope will happen. Some people can do the introspection thing very well and to great effect. Me, not so much. I won’t walk away from a poignant moment, but I prefer them to be few and far between.

    Well . . . but you DID choose 1st-person, right? It strikes me that the objective 3rd-person POV might have served you better if you simply want to record the scene like a camera+microphone and let the readers draw their own conclusions regarding character behavior. That’s exactly why writers choose this POV; it’s a way of underplaying, if you will, a scene that prevents the reader from being constantly hit over the head with interior monologue and/or authorial commentary as to character thoughts and feelings. I’m not saying you chose the wrong POV; I trust your choices and artistic instincts. I am saying that my initial knee-jerk sympathies are with Mimi here: first-person POV is by definition a self-absorbed, narcissistic voice, so we would expect there to be plenty of interior vocalized drama as regards damn near anything that happens to the narrator.

    3.) Re: As far as me telling rather than showing, well, I don’t actually have a problem with telling. It is part of writing.

    Hear-hear! Just read an article in a magazine this weekend (further details escape me at the moment, as I am no longer at the Barnes & Noble where I encountered the piece) where the writer made a strong case that almost all great literature (even film) relies on telling, not showing, for heightened emotional impact and moral relevance. The author cites (amongst other examples):

    (a) The Maltese Falcon, which is almost all telling, not showing. For more than half the film the characters yammer away at each other—telling, telling , telling—details of plot, suspected character motivation, etc. The film’s climax is all TELL, no show: Sam Spade TELLS Miss Wonderly how he figured out that she was involved, and why he can’t simply turn his back on her wrongdoing because she got his partner killed, and he isn’t the kind of man who can ignore that, and blah-blah-blah . . .

    (b) The film Jaws. The scene where the boat captain recounts his tale of treading water while the men around him are being eaten by sharks. Spielberg could very easily have cut to a scene of frothing, bloody water and screaming men but he wisely let Robert Shaw’s haunted eyes and soft voice convey the horror of his memories.

    (c) Hamlet. As best I can recollect his (the author’s) roughly-paraphrased comment: “There isn’t a whole hell of a lot going on when Hamlet stands in front of an audience and intones ‘To be, or not to be . . .’ That is, speaking in terms of exterior action. Interiorly-speaking, of course, the audience is sledge-hammered by the raw existential emotions that are tearing Hamlet’s psyche apart.”

    Good conversation starter, Atthys! 😉

    Liked by 2 people

    • “I’m simply sayin’ that any writer who reads your words on this matter will do so with a knowing, rueful smile, because it all boils down to this: “She didn’t get it; she didn’t appreciate my art.” (We’ve all been there, those of us who have been doing this for awhile.)”

      Exactly on point. This was my reaction!

      Liked by 1 person

      • atthysgage says:

        I can’t, of course, deny it. Defending your own work is bad form in general, and I fully expected to get called on it. But it seemed like it might start some commentary going, so I let it fly.

        Liked by 3 people

    • atthysgage says:

      Indeed. Part of my own authorial arrogance is that I am usually convinced I’ve made good choices, and part of it is that I want the world to recognize that fact. I know they won’t certainly not everyone, certainly not always, but that hope is part of what fuels the desire to write.

      As far as the choice of first person, it seemed important in this case particularly because I wanted a lot of Marieke’s interiority in the story, but “a lot” by my standards isn’t much, I guess, by most people’s standards. It’s not the first time I’ve run into this complaint. By my standards, Marieke is borderline hysterical, so I was constantly in the act of dialing her back, walking away. Too much? I dunno. Ultimately, we write what WE like.

      By the way, if you’d like me to send you an advance reading copy of the eBook, I would gladly do so. Just tell me in an email.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Hell no; I’m buying that sucker!!! Loved your writing on Book Country; can’t wait to support one of the “good guys” I respect and admire. Same goes for GD. And Mimi? You’re f%#king brilliant in parts! Now if you can only get SLY whipped into presentable shape so that the world can acclaim a new star burst bright in the literary firmament of The Greats. . . .

        Liked by 3 people

          • mimispeike says:

            I made my mind up on it today. I’m going to do another read-through/final edit, and if I don’t have any trouble following who’s speaking (that’s been the major complaint) I’m going to put it out in one form or another. If I still get shit about the similar voices (my guys are all smart, and they’re all hustlers, even my archbishop, so of course they sound alike) I’ll take another stab at enhanced differentiation.

            FYI: Dr. Peabody may advise me to color code the speeches in one problem area. At least on my website. Who thinks that might fly?

            Liked by 1 person

  3. mimispeike says:

    Everyone, please explain to me how I’m wrong. I really want to know.

    I have enjoyed other works that don’t go deep, that are pure entertainment, some of yours, Carl. Old Spice, of course. This subject just seems to call for more. The lady is trying to sort it out, but she’s awfully laid back about it. I’m putting myself into her place, perhaps the wrong approach.

    Liked by 2 people

    • You’re not wrong, Mimi. How can you be wrong for expressing your opinion? I’m assuming here that your review was (a) honest and (b) constructive, which is what I look for in a review, and try to be in the reviews I give myself. By honest, I mean not letting one’s judgement be clouded by personal preferences which don’t allow for other, perfectly valid choices. We all have personal preferences, but other writers go for styles or genres which may be completely different, something I try to respect by focusing only on whether the story works within the terms chosen by the author. I’m no fan of paranormal, but to me Whisper Blue works, especially the metaphor bit. To me that gives it a depth which you don’t find in the average ghost story. The laid-back MC did bother me a tad at first, but in the end I felt the understated reaction was part of what lends credibility to a story which is, in itself, incredible. In my review, I said the book was both suspenseful and profound – was that over the top? I don’t think so. It’s not Demons, sure, but it made me think and it made me want to keep reading. So yes, for me it works. But what book has worked for everyone? None. There’s no wrong or right there. Just readers’ opinions and writers’ reactions to them.

      Liked by 3 people

    • atthysgage says:

      Just to clarity, Mimi, I never said you were wrong, only that I disagreed. It’s only opinion. My opinion is obviously laden with a lot of subtextual ideas and emotional baggage because I wrote the book, which is always a big, emotional undertaking, no matter how softly the emotional part of it is pedaled on the page. I appreciate the fact that you thought that I could’ve done more, gone deeper, because I think that means it had an effect on you, even if your reaction is ultimately one of frustration. I had hoped to spin a compelling and curious tale that would leave its residuals in the readers minds without necessarily stimulating an Aha! response.

      Anyway, enough of this, eh? Thanks for the email and the crit, and just for being there. I’m glad to have you folks around, otherwise I’d mostly be talking to myself.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. mimispeike says:

    I had a somewhat similar problem with Tom’s Agony of the Gods. The big-bang of his story, the foundational event(s), are what tripped me up there.

    Tom explained it to me thusly (more or less): Whether the original situation makes sense to you or not, that shouldn’t matter. The story is what developed out of it. But I couldn’t shake my doubts. They only grew.

    Most readers (on Bookkus) enjoyed it, and ultimately chose it to be published.

    I was the odd-man-out there, nearly always. It went the opposite way as well. Things I loved, few others did. Finally, I bailed.

    Liked by 2 people

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