As part of the celebration of The House on the Corner being one year old this week, I've decided to give my book the review treatment. As much as possible, I'm going to approach my book as if it was someone else's book. However, because that's not really possible, I'm going to give you tidbits of information about different aspects of it as I go. Sort of a "how someone else might see it vs. why I did it that way" kind of thing. Also, I hope to show that I can be harsh with my own work, too.
Not that I really think I'm that harsh, but any time you don't tell someone you absolutely love what they've written, you tend to come off as harsh. In fact, if you have a preference for some earlier piece of work someone did over whatever it is s/he's currently working on, you come off as harsh. Anyway... all of that to say that this review business is tricky, so I understand why people decide to (A) not do them at all (B) only give fabulous reviews and 5 stars no matter the quality of the work. However, and I've said this before, I strongly believe in the need for reviews, especially for new authors, so I feel I need to do my part in supporting that by giving them. [Hopefully, that will work its way back around to me some day (although, so far, no such luck (which is not to say that I haven't had any reviews, but... oh, never mind)).] I also don't feel like I can be dishonest (especially with myself) by proclaiming the greatness of something that I didn't think was great. And saying a book was good when you don't really believe it doesn't help anyone, but I've already talked about that (although, I don't remember which post that was), and I digress...
I'm going to start with the grade, this time, rather than working toward it as I normally do. The House on the Corner is in the B+ to A- range. And, yes, this grade is a struggle for me. House is not A+ work. I mean, just this morning while reading in one of the classes I read in, I found a typo (chapter 14), so I haven't worked all of the bugs out of it, yet. However, on the technical merits, House is at least an A. Overall, there are very few "bugs" that still need to be worked out. Although, on this read through, I have noticed a tendency to over use the word "though," which I'm finding annoying. [So much so that I've been trying to pay attention to my actual speech to see if I use it that much when I'm talking or if it's only a writing thing.] However, in comparison to most self-published books (and some (many) professionally edited and traditionally published works) I have far fewer "oopsies" than are generally floating around out there. I think I've done a really nice job on that even if I do tend to use more commas than are strictly necessary (they are still correct, even though most people wouldn't use them (I have a whole post on commas coming up at some point in the future, too, so, really, you don't want to miss that!)).
I don't think a lot of books deserve the A+, and I don't really expect that I will ever write one. Not that I won't try. House is not it, though. So what holds it back?
It's long. Not War and Peace long, but it's long for a "kids' book." I will say, though, that the kids don't seem to have an issue with this. But, aside from being long, it has a slow start. This is a huge barrier to a lot of people. I think people that love books like The Lord of the Rings won't have an issue with the slow start, but, as amazing as it may seem, most people don't love The Lord of the Rings (even if it is considered the most significant work of fiction of the 20th century). Most people have not and will not ever read it. Why? It's too long, and it starts too slowly. If you make it through childhood and haven't read it, it's unlikely that, as an adult, you will ever read it. I'm sure there's a study out there somewhere about that. [Of course, 50% of people never read another book in their life once they finish school (and I know there are studies about that, because I've talked about that before (sorry, I don't remember which post that was, either)).]
Really, though, it's not the length that's the issue, it's the slow start. Of course, there are reasons I have the slow start. One reason is that I hate how the new conventions of "how things should be" in literature include leaving out the exposition and as much of the rising action as you can. Basically, it's all about jumping into the story as close as you can get to the climax and still have it be understandable. I hate that. Jumping into the middle of the action may seem fun and exciting, but it's really just bad story telling. I decided to not take part in bad story telling. I start at the point of conflict, the move, but it's not the middle of the action.
Another reason for the slow start, and, really, the larger reason, is that I wanted all the pieces in place for what I'll call the meta-story. The story beyond the story that's just in this one book. This is going to get a separate post, but one of the things I really hate (despise) in series fiction (and this happens a lot on TV) is when the author(s) throws something new into a story (episode) to satisfy a plot point that, really, we should have known about all along. It's contrived, and I find it annoying (and I really want to use stronger language, but I'm biting my tongue). I get that your (and I'll call it) micro-story has needs, but you should have thought of those needs ahead of time. Don't throw in a secret healing ability because you suddenly "need" it. Think of something else. Basically, if it's something we should have already known about, don't use it. Figure out a way to introduce it and make it part of the story for later use. I mean, this isn't Batman's utility belt we're talking here, and you don't have any good reason to suddenly whip out shark repellent. Other than the old, 60s Batman television series, about the only place this idea works in is James Bond movies, and it only works because the idea is that James Bond can use whatever he happens to have available to get out of the messes he's in. [You might notice, though, that the new Bond doesn't use the whole Q-effect.]
At any rate, I wanted to include as many of the elements from the meta-story as I could in this first micro-story so that it wouldn't seem like some cheap trick when they show up later. I don't want anyone to think, "Wait, why didn't we ever know about that before this?" So, when there are issues with the little stairway going to the side door, that will be important in the meta-story. The books? The books that seem to be so casually thrown in to no purpose: important in the meta-story. Even Dr. Atkinson, who may seem like an unimportant side character that could be dropped, important in the meta-story. These things, which draw out the length of this first book, will already be there when they are needed. This seems to me a more natural way of doing things... well, it will be more natural to the reader when they encounter them..., so I'm willing to make the story a bit longer than is strictly necessary to accommodate that, even if it means that it will fail to hook some readers.
The next drawback is the perspective. I chose an unusual way of telling the story, but it was a conscious choice. Even knowing that it might be difficult for some people, I chose it anyway. As with most things I do, there are multiple reasons:
1. The obvious reason: I have three kids. I was writing this book for them (which is not to say that I was not also writing it for the larger audience, but my primary concern was writing a book they would like. In doing so, I hoped to write a book that all kids would enjoy (and my experience (so far) has shown that to be pretty close to truth)). Because I was writing it for them, I decided to write it about them to a certain extent, so I decided I would give each character (Tom, Sam, and Ruth) their own perspective. This was actually the thing I was most worried about going into the book, that changing the POV between three 1st person perspectives would be too confusing for kids. Ironically, the only people who have struggled with the perspective shifts have been adults.
2. The not-so-obvious reason: The Pigman by Paul Zindel. I'm not sure if this book is really as obscure as it seems to be to me. I had to read it in middle school, and, evidently, it is still widely used in schools, but I've never ever heard mention of it again since then, so I think it must be a book that not many people have heard of. In a lot of ways, it is... unspectacular; however, it's one of the books I've thought back on frequently over the years. It probably deserves a spot on my "Of Significance..." page, and it may get one once I get the copy I just ordered and re-read it. It tells a story from two different 1st person perspectives, and I've never seen that done again since (not saying it hasn't been done since; I just haven't seen it). Until my book. It was the direct influence of The Pigman that lead to my decision to use 1st person for my three characters. I thought it would be interesting to see the story from three different sets of eyes, especially since there is occasional overlap in the story telling.
Some people have struggled with the change in perspective even though it changes by chapter, but, again, it seems to be only adults that have had issues with this. None of the kids I've dealt with around House have had any issue adapting to the changes and have figured them out almost instantly. Still, it's a barrier to some readers and drags my grade down because of it.
To sum all of that up, the first half of the book drags. [Although, I do have to say, it didn't drag for me until I was on my 5th or so read through, but, then, I prefer a slow build.] Nothing big is happening. Yes, they keep discovering new little things, but, other than squabbling amongst themselves, there's no obvious conflict happening. Well, there is the thing with the old man across the street, but that doesn't sustain itself. At any rate, action junkies will grow bored long before they get to "the good stuff." Despite the slow burn, though, I think the payout at the end is worth it.
Also, the perspective changes can be confusing. Yes, I've thought about label the perspective changes with the chapter titles, but, for some reason, I don't like that idea.
So... there's the bad, but what's good about the book?
The most obvious good is that it's set in the 80s. See, although my kids (and kids in general) are my target audience, I didn't want to write a book that was just targeted at kids. I wanted to write a book that parents could also relate to and enjoy. Part of doing that was a desire to evoke images of their own childhoods. Part of that is done through 80s pop culture, so that's a pretty narrow audience, just adults that are my age. But, hey, the 80s were fun (except for the nuclear fears), and I wanted to give my kids (and others) a bit of a taste of 80s culture, so that's where I set it. Hopefully, I have enough parent/child interaction to give all parents something to relate to, not just those of us that grew up in the 80s.
The real positive about House is that I don't follow many of the normal conventions for this kind of story. At least, I see that as a positive. One of the things my wife is always complaining about with fantasy literature (and this extends to Star Wars) is the orphan boy syndrome. [You can see this most recently in Harry Potter (and Percy Jackson).] You know, orphan boy discovers he has a previously unknown heritage (being a wizard or, um, the son of Darth Vader) and, often, is part of some prophecy and only he can defeat the ultimate evil (the ultimate evil that is usually the one responsible for the death of his parents). After coming to grips with the loss of his parents which has haunted him his whole life. This is the formula for fantasy story telling. I didn't want to do that (mostly because, if I did, my wife would ridicule me forever and ever and probably would never have read my book).
The other part of that is that the motivation for doing the right thing becomes about getting revenge, and I wanted a story about someone choosing to do the right thing for the mere sake that it is the right thing. Not because the protagonist is trying to avenge his parents' deaths or anything like that. I wanted characters that choose the right because it's the right. No other motivation than that. I think it's important that kids (especially) see that doing the right thing can be its own motivation. No revenge. No guilt. No ulterior motive. Not that there aren't struggles and mistakes, I want it to be real, but I also want the normal, average kid that lives in some sort of family to be able to identify with the kids. In other words, I wanted something closer to the Pevensies but with the parents involved in the story. I think this approach has resonated with the readers.
The House on the Corner is well above average. It's not great, but it is quite good. I'm happy with quite good. It's good enough that, even though I wrote it, I'm still not tired of it or impatient with it while reading out loud in the classes I'm reading it in. I think I'm on something like my 7th time run through, too, not including my own readings of it, so it has some good staying power. I still come across things that make me laugh. Even though I wrote them. And even though I've repeated them over and over in these readings.
And there you have it. My (mostly) objective look at my own book. Sure, there are things that could be improved, but, overall, it's a lot better than the average book out there on the bookshelf. No, it's not Harry Potter. I'm not as clever or as witty as Rowling, but I do know how to tell a good story. And, honestly, I think any amount of slowness in this first one will be completely overlooked when I finish with Brother's Keeper. There's no set up involved in that one, and things are happening right from the start.