Okay, folks, it’s time for what I feel is going to be a yearly tradition: the “I hated your book” blog. Last year I wrote a blog post listing my top ten favorite negative comments that had come in for my first book Mistress of Rome, and I had a blast doing it. Judging from the 500 views and 20+ comments, a lot of you had a blast reading it. So here we go for Round 2: I’ve written a second book, out for nearly five months now, and plenty of people had mean things to say about it (or me).
Which is fine, really. Mistress of Rome got panned a few times, and so did Daughters of Rome, and that’s okay. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, after all, and I knew going into this line of work that I wasn’t going to please 100% of my readers. Everyone gets negative reviews–you can go on Amazon, and the Bible has negative reviews. Even God does not get a break on this one. The last thing I will ever do is be unprofessional and argue with a reader about their opinion, whether in person or on the web. And I have learned valuable things from some negative reviews–a Latin scholar, for example, who tactfully pointed out that my hero’s made-up name was actually a common adverb in Latin. Believe me, that detail got carefully worked into my next book, and I’m grateful for the correction.
But I have gotten some negative reviews of Daughters of Rome that are so bizarre or so flat-out filled with loathing that I have been left scratching my head in wonder. Here are a few memorable gems from readers who have contacted me with negative feedback. I have rephrased some for anonymity but all are true in essence:
1. There is a depraved amount of sex in this book. From beginning to end, I was just appalled!!!
So appalled that you finished the book anyway?
2. Not enough sex in this book! I was so disappointed that there wasn’t an orgy!
Probably not as disappointed as Reader #1.
3. I hated your last book. I don’t know why I bought this one.
Well, don’t look at me; I certainly don’t know either.
4. It’s too confusing to have four heroines named Cornelia.
Okay, valid. Historically it’s true that Roman women in the same family got the same name . . . but judging from the number of readers who thought it was confusing in Daughters of Rome, the four-identical-names thing might not have been the best idea for a novel. At least my four girls are all immediately separated out with different nicknames, so it’s not too confusing after the first chapter.
5. It’s distressing to see an author’s racist prejudices make their way into mainstream fiction. (Condensed from 11-page 6-point-font email)
Not really sure what ethnic group I pissed off in Daughters of Rome. First-century Gauls, maybe? Far as I know, they’re all dead . . .
6. Palid bodiss ripper with dull heroin and unreelistic senario.
I believe that’s “
Palid Pallid bodiss ripper bodice-ripper with dull heroin heroine and unreelistic unrealistic senario scenario.” C-minus–I know you can do better. Please see me after class to discuss use of spell-checker.
7. Your first book was so much better than this one.
See next comment.
8. Your first book was so much worse than this one.
See previous comment.
9. This book is wrong and inaccurate–no Christians! Not a book a good modern-day Christian should ever read.
Oh dear, I think you’d better sit down. I know it’s a shock, but–deep breath, now–not everyone in the ancient world was Christian. There, there, don’t cry.
10. Yr buk sux. U suk 2.
Thank you for taking time off from your World of Warcraft schedule to get in touch with me. I think I hear your mother calling upstairs; she wants you to vacuum the basement.
As you can see, my approach with negative reviews is to keep my sense of humor. Plenty more bad reviews will come my way, so I might as well learn to laugh about it–nasty readers and all, this job is still far preferable to working in a cubicle with Excel spreadsheets and an “Office Space” coffee mug. For those readers who didn’t like my book but wrote thoughtful, well-reasoned reviews why–thank-you; constructive well-written criticism is always useful. And for those many people who liked Daughters of Rome and wrote such nice reviews about it (on Amazon, on Goodreads, in their blogs, or just in a nice email to me), thank you for the praise. All of you really made my day–and I hope I can make yours when I read, enjoy, and review your books too.
Here’s a question I get quite a lot from readers: will your books ever be made into movies?
The answer, I’m sorry to say, is no. So far, at least, and probably for the forseeable future. Historical movies or TV shows cost an arm and a leg to make: the costumes, the sets, the CGI, the on-site locations. My latest book Daughters of Rome has several chariot racing scenes a la Ben Hur; I shudder to think what the bill would be for all those chariots, horses, and thousands of screaming costumed extras. Unless I turn into George R.R. Martin, I don’t imagine HBO will be burning up my phone line anytime soon with offers to turn Daughters of Rome into a multi-season star-studded no-expenses-spared miniseries.
But a girl can dream. I had a lot of fun last year casting Mistress of Rome as an imaginary movie with the cast of actors I’d have picked if I’d had unlimited control and budget (which no author ever gets). Now that I’m between deadlines, I think I’ll indulge myself and do the same for my second book. Coming soon to a theatre near you: Daughters of Rome, the Oscar-winning blockbuster directed by Ridley Scott!
Marcella: The trickiest part to cast, and also the meatiest. My heroine is a voluptuous frustrated schemer who writes histories, and eventually discovers that making history is even more fun than writing about it. For an actress who can play both charming and amoral, I’ll go with Hayley Atwell. She did a lovely job in “Pillars of the Earth,” a pretty brunette with an unexpectedly flinty side.
Cornelia: Marcella’s gentle older sister who goes from ambitious snob to grieving widow to passionate woman. There’s no shortage of actresses who could play her. Natalie Portman? Rose Byrne? Shannyn Sossamon? I settled on Sophia Myles, a gentler sort of beauty with an unexpected quirk of humor.
Lollia: Cousin Lollia is the richest heiress in Rome, a red-haired party girl with a penchant for good gossip and good sex. After seeing “Easy A,” Emma Stone was a no-brainer. She has Lollia’s husky voice and adorable giggle, and an underlying sweetness to give Lollia dignity as she matures into something more than just a party girl.
Diana: strangely, the only actress I can think of to play a seventeen-year-old blond beauty mad for horses and chariot racing is Summer Glau. The former Terminator from “The Sarah Connor Chronicles” is definitely neither seventeen or blond, but she has the beauty, and even more important, she has the quirky absent-minded charm necessary to make Diana’s one-track obsessiveness and utter lack of tact charming instead of irritating.
Piso: Cornelia’s husband is Imperial heir for just five days before a mob hacks him to pieces. Sean Maher would make the most out of this brief part; as Simon in “Firefly” he had the same straitlaced-but-sweet charm.
Drusus: the stalwart bodyguard who saves Cornelia’s life was cast the moment I saw Rome Season 2, and laid eyes on Allen Leech. His Agrippa could be a clone of Drusus–stocky, brave, loyal, and passionate.
Domitian: Marcella’s nineteen-year-old suitor gets another actor from HBO’s “Rome”–Max Pirkis, whose hair-raising depiction of the young Augustus makes him a natural choice for the eerie intelligence and nascent creepiness of this young emperor-to-be.
Thrax: the handsome golden body slave who consoles Lollia between bad marriages. We need at least one tribute to “Spartacus: Blood and Sand,” so let’s go with handsome golden gladiator Jai Courtney.
Llyn: the attractive and taciturn ex-rebel from Britain who scorns Romans and teaches Diana how to drive a chariot. This one was a no-brainer: David Wenham with the same haircut he had in “Lord of the Rings.”
Galba: in a book about the Year of Four Emperors, you can bet Emperor #1 won’t last too long. Michael Hogan will chew the scenery for his fifteen minutes of screen time before the mob gets him, playing grumpy old cheapskate Emperor Galba.
Otho: Galba’s successor couldn’t have been more different; a metrosexual playboy with a witty tongue. Who better than Rupert Everett, the guy who stars in pretty much every Oscar Wilde movie ever made?
Vitellius: Another polar opposite for Emperor #3–a fat sports fan who lived for chariot racing and obscenely huge banquets. Brad Leland played a loudmouth football fanatic in “Friday Night Lights,” and could do it perfectly here. And he’s got the chops to bring out Vitellius’s pathos and dignity as well as the bombast.
No need to cast the fourth emperor in the series, since he doesn’t make a cameo in the book. But previous ruler Nero does in a creepy flashback, and in my mind he’s Philip Seymour Hoffman. He’ll nail Nero’s fussy artistic pretensions and innate craziness in just five minutes of screentime.
Irritating Jessalyn Gilsig from “Glee” for the irritating sister-in-law who gets on everybody’s nerves . . . wrinkled John Noble to play one of Lollia’s more crochety and elderly husbands . . . and one final cameo, the star charioteer who drives for Diana’s arch-rival racing team. Since I’m a Yankee-hating Red Sox fan, and Diana adores the Reds team and hates the Blues team, let’s have the obnoxious-but-talented Blues charioteer be played by the obnoxious-but-talented Derek Jeter.
So, that’s my fantasy cast for my mythical movie of Daughters of Rome. Of course, even if it did end up being made into a movie, I would not have any say in the casting or even the script. J.K. Rowling was able to put her foot down when some producer wanted to re-set Harry Potter in the United States, and George R.R. Martin was invited to help write the screenplay for HBO’s “Game of Thrones”–but most of us writers have no power over what happens to our novels once they’re sold for film. So if Daughters of Rome gets made into a soft-core porn direct-to-video flick about four sisters in nipple caps who practice incest, bondage, and threesomes, don’t blame me.
In the meantime, if you’ve read Daughters of Rome and have your own casting ideas, I’m all ears.
I used to think there was nothing better than finding a terrific new book that I’ve never read before. Wrong. Even better than that is finding a terrific new book that I’ve never read before, then discovering that it is the first of a series and two more books in the series are already out and another is being released in four months with more books to follow. That is pure heaven. And one way or another, it has been a great year for fiction series. Here are a few books I’m looking forward to in 2011, after being left on tenterhooks by the last installment in the series . . .
1. Bernard Cornwell’s “Saxon Series.”
Cornwell is just about my favorite historical fiction author out there, and the Saxon Series is his latest smash hit. Revolving around the reign of Alfred the Great in the days when Vikings were still rampaging all over England, Cornwell focuses not on the devout and humorless Alfred as he tries to put a nation together but on Alfred’s most heroic (and reluctant) ally: Uhtred of Bebbanburg, a Viking-raised warlord with an unstoppable talent for killing on the battlefield, and an equally unstoppable bent for trouble off it. Cornwell’s last installment The Burning Land left Uhtred bereft of the woman he loves but burying his troubles in his favorite hobby–killing enemies. The next Uhtred book should be out sometime this fall.
2. Jim Butcher’s “Dresden Files.”
I’m usually a lukewarm fan when it comes to urban fantasy, but Jim Butcher got me hook line and sinker. His Dresden Files are expansive, complex, and always funny, a rare quality in fantasy. Harry Dresden is a professional wizard in modern-day Chicago with a gift for pissing off various forces of darkness, and a complete disability to back down from a fight. His “Have staff, will smite” attitude and steady stream of snarky one-liners has carried him through twelve books to date, and the last, Changes, was the most harrowing yet. Harry has lost everything, including his life . . . or has he? The last page of Changes is one long maddening cliffhanger, thankfully to be solved on April 5, 2011 by the next volume in the Dresden Files, titled Ghost Story.
3. Sara Poole’s “Poison” series.
Sara Poole is a new author I found this year with her novel Poison, a lush and unflinching look at the Italian Renaissance and the always fascinating Borgia family through the eyes of a very unusual heroine. Francesca is the Borgia family’s professional in-house poisoner, a young and deceptively demure-faced girl whose day job is to keep the Borgias alive and their enemies dead. Francesca had me riveted from the first page when she got her job by poisoning her predecessor and then calmly explaining how she did it; a heroine so amoral and yet so centered is a delight. I will be first in line on June 7, 2011 when The Borgia Betrayal is released–the second installment of Francesca’s adventures now that her Borgia master has become Pope.
4. Michael Grant’s “Gone” series.
Cross Stephen King’s Under The Dome with Lord of the Flies, add a dash of X-Men, and you get Gone: the disturbing tale of what happens to a small California beach town when an impenetrable barrier slams down–but traps only the fourteen-and-under crowd inside. Kids begin to mutate alarming powers and a mysterious darkness is growing, but the most interesting part of the story for me is seeing a shy teenager named Sam grow into hero and leader as his brainy girlfriend tries to re-invent a Constitution that will govern fairly and effectively over the increasingly desperate and violent band of children. The fourth book in the series, Plague, will be release April 5, 2011.
5. George R.R. Martin’s “Song of Ice and Fire” series.
Is there even the smallest chance that we will see Dance of Dragons this year, given that it is now at least two years overdue? One character has been left hanging from a tree by a noose, another rots in jail, a third is stricken suddenly blind, and others have been MIA since the previous book. Oh well, this massive fantasy series remains my favorite in the fantasy genre, about which I am usually fairly unenthusiastic. Martin keeps his work close to history, and I always have fun finding the War of the Roses in-jokes or the Stuart Kings parallels. Let’s hope we finally see the fifth installment this year.
These are only my top five series. I’ve got a lot of reading to do this year, and I look forward to it. Special thanks to the publishers of Michael Grant and Jim Butcher, who were kind enough to schedule Ghost Story and Plague to be released the same day as my second book, Daughters of Rome. It’s always a bit of a head-scratcher figuring out what to do on the day of your novel’s release. It’s not a movie, so there’s no premiere to attend in a fabulous gown. You can’t start checking your online reviews yet, since most people (even assuming they buy the book on the first day) still need to time to read it. You can’t even go down to your local bookstore just to gaze at your book on the shelf, since most bookstores don’t stock your book the minute it is released unless you are JK Rowling or at least Richelle Mead. Last year when Mistress of Rome was released I wandered around my apartment and bit my nails a lot. This year when Daughters of Rome is released, on Tuesday April 5, 2011, I will be nose deep in the adventures of either Harry Dresden or the scrappy mutant kids of the FAYZ. Thank God for distractions.
And for those of you who were kind enough to tell me you were happily anticipating Daughters of Rome as one of your 2011 reads–well, it’s still three months till publication, but I did get permission to post the first chapter. Read here if you would like a sneak peek!
So I have been up to my neck, these past two weeks, in reviewing the copy-edits for Daughters of Rome. Copy-editing belongs somewhere around the fourth level of hell: not as bad as doing a headstand in a Portapotty, worse than having thumb-tacks pressed under your fingernails. It takes OCD to a whole new level: a good copy-editor (and mine is superb) is essentially a paid nit-picker. All those times during the writing process when I thought to myself, “Oh, don’t bother changing that tiny detail, no one will notice if it’s wrong.” Well, the copy-editor always notices.
Daughters of Rome is the second book I’ve put through copy-editing, so at least I know the drill by now. I know that 214 comment bubbles is par for the course, not an indication of my book’s deep innate lousiness. I have more or less mastered the Track Changes program on Microsoft Word. I didn’t have to call my editor cross-country to ask what a penciled STET in the margin meant (a Latin term for “let it stand,” or put less politely, “no, damn it, don’t change that sentence, I wrote it that way for a reason!”) And I know that the tendency to come flying out of a sound sleep with a shriek of “Was velvet invented in ancient Rome?!” will wear off in about a week. (And no, it wasn’t.)
Writers, I have to say, are not much fun to be around during copy-editing. They will spend more time fact-checking on Wikipedia than talking to their long-suffering spouses. They will answer questions of “How are you?” with “Do you think anyone will notice if I move the Battle of Actium up a year?” They will slam their foreheads into tables, moaning, “How did I not realize that the Baths of Diocletian weren’t built for another 150 years?” Writers are not even terribly visible during the copy-editing process: the most you will see for a few weeks is the top of a head peeking over “Encyclopedia of the Roman Empire: A to Z,” which has been thumbed so thoroughly that the spine is now broken and the library is dunning for payment.
Another inescapable part of copy-editing is the notes. Writers are prone to these anyway–my husband is forever taking Post-Its off the fridge with such reminders as Research trident wounds or Google headless Romans York. But the notes I take during copy-editing reach a truly memorable level of lunacy thanks to a method of short-hand nobody but me can understand. Here are a few examples, verbatim, from Daughters of Rome.
Chapter 13: L’s wedding to FV; grade-B orgy. C goes to races; Reds lose; D adopted as Vit’s pet. C learns of DD’s disgrace.
Chapter 19: C and DD to Tarracina; idyll. M blue-balls Dom; meets D. L @ AP’s
house; finds out Thrax poisoned FV.
Chapter 22: M brings news of army; C is busted for fling. L helps AP move
out. D meets LL after watching Vit abdicate.
Chapter 24: Rome invaded.
So what did you do today? I invaded Rome.
Fortunately, copyediting is like childbirth: it may be painful, but it has to end sooner or later. Daughters of Rome has been poked, prodded, and patched, and is off to my editor. I have returned Tacitus: The Histories and 69 A.D: The Year of Four Emperors to the library, along with a large check to cover my late fees. The last Post-It note (Review routine torture scenes) has been retrieved from the refrigerator door. My husband’s favorite brand of ale is waiting for him with a card: Thanks for researching for me whether the Romans had platinum or mirrors. (No, and yes.) My work is done, and now comes my favorite part of the copy-editing process.
The bottle of champagne when it’s all over.
My second novel: copy-edited within an inch of its life.
*I adapted the title for this post from Florence King’s collection of essays: “STET, Damn It!” She had one of the better quotes on copy-editors, going something like this: “A good copy-editor is a pearl beyond price, but I got stuck with a web-footed brachycephalic cretin who should have been confined to an institution to make brooms.” Copy-editing makes us all testy.