What you can learn from a book review...

Monday, May 3, 2010 9:53 PM By crosswaysnet , In ,

Well, the Publishers Weekly review is finally up on my ABNA quarter-final entry "Avenhal-Return of the Taneen." I was (mildly) hoping for something quotable and useful for future jacket revisions. Since most authors don't choose to tout scathing reviews, Ill probably pass on quoting them.

But in the interest of full-disclosure, I'm posting it here, with a few comments of my own to follow. Don't worry - I won't flame them. They're doing their job, and they proved they read the entire manuscript.

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ABNA Publisher Weekly Reviewer:

In a time of war, three siblings are sent to relatives in the country, where they discover a mysterious gate between worlds.
In the other world, built on Christian allegory, these sons of Adam and daughters of Eve help a long-absent deity and various kings, giants, and dwarves defeat an ancient evil; the children get back to their world in time for breakfast the next day. If this sounds familiar, it should. Avenhal is very clearly Narnia fan-fiction. Dallas is a much younger Peter, Minda and Evie are Susan and Lucy; only Edmund is missing, represented instead by a nefarious king. The siblings are outright called sons of Adam and daughters of Eve, and the legendary Toracham is Aslan in human form. Avenhal even lifts entire settings from Narnia, like the garden of pools many will recognize from "The Magician's Nephew." The few aspects of the book that are not directly copied from or very derivative of Narnia have potential; there was some decent worldbuilding near the beginning, before it fell apart into tribes of what are clearly meant to be Viking, Russians, et cetera. The two aspects of the book, Earth and Avenhal, seem to be written for two different age groups--the siblings' story seems middle-grade, and the sailors of Avenhal are more YA. The disconnect there is jarring. If all of the American-Narnia bits were excised and more care was given to worldbuilding, this manuscript could become something interesting. But it needs its own story, not Lewis's.
*********************

So - what do I make of it?

The reviewer is absolutely correct on some crucial points.

Firstly - I was most CERTAINLY writing Narnia fan-fiction. I only hoped they might perceive it as fan-fiction of the highest order. The reviewer distinctly saw it as wholly derivative and unflattering to the original. Lesson? Don't even DARE come near the classics if you're trying to impress well-read (and probably jaded) reviewers. All the more so in a fiction contest like ABNA. As for Avenhal being 'built on Christian Allegory,' I'd simply say that Avenhal is NOT a 'figurative mode of representation' of the redemption story. It is quite clearly an alternative history to the book of Genesis. I guess that would make the book more like Bible fan fiction.

With this reviewer it would have been more proper to pay appropriate homage to Lewis throughout the narrative and better describe the distinctives between Narnia and Avenhal. THAT is helpful criticism, and something I'll put to use in working up a thorough revision.

Secondly, it's true that I did 'outright' use terms such as 'sons of adam' and 'daughters of eve.' The reviewer feels that Lewis owns the copyright on such phrases, and in the context of other apparent similarities, judges that to be unacceptable. I understand the criticism. No point in arguing that Lewis himself drew those terms from other classic sources, including numerous biblical and mythological passages.

The strongest similarity between The Chronicles of Narnia and Avenhal is VERY MUCH my 'garden of beginnings.’ My 'garden' was intended to be a workshop and artist studio rather than the bus stop that is 'the wood between the worlds.' They are certainly both dreamy and warm, but they definitely have distinctive histories and character, even as they overlap as plot devices. Again – lesson learned.

Thirdly, it was faint praise to hear my 'worldbuilding' was strong until it ‘fell apart’ into tribes of Vikings, Russians, etc. That was a disappointment, but the tenor of the review was set by that point. I knew exactly which cues from the ‘world of men’ I was using and why I chose them. It had to do with the ‘geography of culture.’ Meaning, cultures arise from the character of the land. Where Avenhalian topography and weather presented similarities to the Earth we know, it would yield cultures that are reminiscent of cultures that have arisen here. Especially when the human stock comes literally from the same root.

Lastly, when I was chided for the ‘jarring disconnect’ between writing style, character sketch and intended audience of the earthen/avenhalian worlds – the reviewer is wrong, and it’s MY fault. The power of the ‘namestones’ transforms the heroes into more sage and mature versions of their own selves. I did not NEARLY enough to describe the transformation, and the awareness of the characters to the inward change. The criticism that the worlds appeal to two different sets of READERS is more problematic. I certainly don’t want to disappoint younger readers by losing them in a more pubescent world. And I don’t want to make older readers groan through a ‘childish’ beginning. I’m not sure I really agree with this criticism, but I have been appropriately challenged to think about my audience. I’ll probably have to ‘age up’ the early chapters a bit.

What the reviewer got flat-out wrong:

1) The Bridgers are no Pevensies. None of my characters carry the responsibilities, birth order, personalities or destinies of the ‘kings and queens of Narnia.’ In fact, Avenhal is a devolution of the concept of established royalty.
2) Toracham is a biblical judge and leader – not yet a savior. He has a completely different dispensation for Avenhal than for the world of Adam. He’s written as a far more concrete figure than an allegorical Aslan. Where Aslan begins with propitiation for the sins of one and saves the many, Toracham is the philosopher king who’s agenda for the men of Avenhal doesn’t follow the same track at all.
3) Even if Avenhal was completely fan fiction, that doesn’t make it ‘Lewis’s story.’ I’ve tried to figure out which of the seven Chronicles of Narnia stories I’ve apparently lifted. Since Avenhal goes a 180 from “The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe” it’s not the first of the series. The Avenhal motto would be more like “Once a king or queen in Avenhal, won’t be one in book two.”

"Prince Caspian" is about Aslan’s power of adoption triumphing over right of birth or power of arms.

"Voyage of the Dawn Treader" is the unfettered and joyous pursuit of Aslan’s far country – the book of Joshua, for the biblically knowledgeable.

"The Silver Chair" is about the seduction of resurgent evil and the bondage of addiction.

"The Horse and His Boy" is about the search for identity and friendship. Now we’re getting closer. But is Avenhal REALLY a retelling of this tale?

"The Magician’s Nephew" concerns the root of evil and the fallout of foolish pride. So is Avenhal a retelling of THAT tale? Well, the whole plot concerns putting a cap on a runaway evil, not unleashing one. Oh, but there are those similar gardens…

So, it must be "The Last Battle" which is the final showdown between good and evil, and an end to worlds.

This is probably the closest, but my heroes certainly don’t end up on the ‘far side of the veil,’ nor do worlds ‘roll up like a scroll.’

My plot has as much in common with “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” as it does with any of the seven Chronicles.

Frankly, the final dagger “…it needs its own story, not Lewis's” reads simply like a convenient way to get the heck outta this review and on to the next. Yet it IS the final word, and that makes it the Final Word for this contest. Now to learn from the lessons, improve the book and move on - ‘further up and further in!’ Oh, sorry Clive.

(Original FB comments posted here for posterity...)


Sandi Sturdivant Floria
Sandi Sturdivant Floria
why would you want to change what you know was written from your heart? If God is really in it, then why does this reviewer have the "Final Word". Don't change the book just because of this reviewers opinion...if you change things, change them because YOU know it's the right thing to do. You've said you felt God lead you to write this book, now ... See Morestick to your guns and trust God to do with it what He wants.

Do I think you can learn from this reviewer? Sure, but maybe for future adventures of the Bridger kids..."Return of the Taneen" is a great book the way it is. (and that's MY review)
Yesterday at 6:08pm ·
Rhonda Pace Selby
Rhonda Pace Selby
Bram,
First, let me just say how completely amazed I am that you have written a book! What a huge and difficult undertaking! You are one of the most brilliant and creative people that I know, and I am SO impressed that you were tenacious enough to see through such a long, difficult process!!!
I can't imagine how hard and hurtful it must be to ... See Morethen read words of criticism about something that came from your heart and your creative soul. On top of that, you have had the strength of character to share this review with us! I can see from your words that you have such a teachable spirit, to learn and grow however and wherever God may take you from here as a writer. I know this will make you even better than you already are!
Please know that we love you so much and we are so very thrilled with you at your amazing success with this first endeavor!!!

God Bless!

Rhonda
Yesterday at 7:24pm ·
Cindy Keller- Smith
Cindy Keller- Smith
Very humbling Bram. I think it's very courageous of you to post the review, although I realize it's public. I admire that you have read and analyzed the review. I also think it's wonderful that you are considering changes to the revision if that's what your heart tell you to do. You're a good man, Mr. Bram, and a darn good author, too. =)
Yesterday at 7:25pm ·
Tamiko Richey
Tamiko Richey
Bram, what drew me into the story was that it did have a Narnia like quality- but the comparison ends there, what I loved about it was, as you pointed out, these children were not returning to a world where they were royalty, they were normal kids who were given a task and trusted Toracham's leadership. My bedtime discussions with my children ... See Moreare always about how we follow God's heart and the Spirit's guidance, your book helped to illustrate this in a creative and fun way for them and prompted discussions. I loved the namestones, the quiet personal voice/understanding/ maturity/calling that comes to us through our Holy Spirit. Take the reviewer's word for what it is. One person's word. I don't believe you wrote this story for the reviews, but for your children and you were generous to share it with us and our families. For that, I thank you for giving me a fun story to share with my kids and a creative tool for some deeper discussion within our home.
Yesterday at 8:01pm ·
Cher Floria Nelson
Cher Floria Nelson
Hooray for you for "listening" and considering. May you glean some important guidelines for the future. But NOW -- on to completion of TRANSLATION!!!!!!!
Yesterday at 10:32pm ·
Bill Rehm
Bill Rehm
You did a good job, Bram. Use this review to make the next book even better.
Yesterday at 11:09pm ·
Bram Floria
Bram Floria
kind words, all! it was actually a relief to read that i had been dispatched with alacrity. well, maybe the reviewer was less than 'cheerful.' i didn't want to read "gee, i really wanted to recommend this book on to the semis, but i don't know..."

swift and brutal is more interesting and less infuriating. i would, however, have enjoyed just ONE ... See Morequotable quote, but it was all vinegar, no sugar.

it's deeply gratifying to learn how tamiko has utilized the book. have you and the kids finished it? would love to read THEIR reviews.

would love bill's full review when he's up to it. can't imagine you'll be busy with anything ELSE in the next few weeks...

i will take time somewhere down the road, to revise avenhal a bit - want to make it as marketable as possible.

but yes - time to get busy with other projects.
11 hours ago ·
Racheal Murry
Racheal Murry
I'd be happy to read it for you!!
10 hours ago ·
Bram Floria
Bram Floria
I'd be glad to have another motivated reader, and i've got copies in stock. send me an address...
9 hours ago ·
Stephanie Cherry
Stephanie Cherry
I am proud of you, Bram.
9 hours ago ·
Roger Gienger
Roger Gienger
Bram... I think the way you have received the review is fantastic... You have listened and can see the positive and negative remarks the reviewer made, but at the same time see areas for making better for the next project... I can see your iron getting sharper... ooooo, did I kind of take that from something else? hmmmm 8>)
5 hours ago ·
Cindy McCustion Woodward
Cindy McCustion Woodward
I'm very proud of you, Bram, for your dedication and obedience in writing the book in the first place! And that you would share the review with us says alot about your character. I love you like a brother, and am proud to be counted here!
4 hours ago ·
Bram Floria
Bram Floria
Rog - I think I missed the 'positive' part, but I DID try to listen, anyway...

I've read a lot of other author's reviews from the group of non-advancing 1/4 finalists. There were two distinct groups. Those who got savaged, and those who received actual constructive crticism. What was funny to read was how prickly the recipients were and how ... See Moredevasted by even the most careful criticisms. The rest of us had a feast o the damned laughing together at the hyperbole and creative destruction. Kinda fun to pull arrows outta each others' hearts.

But, I gotta say, EVERY other review I read had at least ONE usable quote.
56 minutes ago ·
Roger Gienger
Roger Gienger
well, the way you split up the reviewers comments... Correct vs. Flat-out Wrong... I guess I should've not used positive as a descriptive. that's what happens when it's 6 AM
40 minutes ago ·

2 comments :

crosswaysnet said...

Mentioned by some other authors that also got thoroughly slammed was the following sentiment:
"And they told us that a Publishers Weekly review was the PRIZE for being a quarter-finalist?"

Good point!...

May 4, 2010 at 12:25 PM
crosswaysnet said...

Mentioned by some other authors that also got thoroughly slammed was the following sentiment:
"And they told us that a Publishers Weekly review was the PRIZE for being a quarter-finalist?"

Good point!...

May 20, 2011 at 10:34 AM

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