Guest post: Jay Asher – Book Review & Four Critics by Al Levenson

Tonight’s guest blog post, on the topic of Jay Asher is brought to you by blogger & RV traveller Al Levenson. I was particularly intrigued when Al offered me this article as I have Jay’s book ‘Thirteen Reasons Why’ and although I’ve not read it yet, did know how good it sounded…

Jay Asher – Book Review

Jay Asher is the author of the novel, Thirteen Reasons Why.  An American bestseller, now published in 31 other countries and soon to be released as a motion picture.

Prompted by a flyer in Starbucks in Joplin, MO. I decided to go to Carthage, the next town, for what I expected would be a typical author event.  It turned out to be anything but.  Jay’s talk had some nodding familiarity with bookstore appearances, but would never be remembered that way.  His audience was not the average midlife female book buyer who is keeping bookstores open.  The event was not even in a bookstore.

Jay spoke in a high school auditorium to a couple dozen 13-year-old girls, a half-dozen boys, a half-dozen parents, and one white-haired vagabond.

On the theater screen was an image of the cover of the book.  He opened with a 24-word elevator pitch that would turn the head of the most jaded literary agent.

“This book is about a 13-year-old girl who commits suicide and leaves 13 audiotapes, each one addressed to someone who contributed to her fatal choice.”

I was awed by the risk he was taking with this audience–and mesmerized in anticipation of where he would go from there.

In the voice of an adolescent writer, he proceeded to tell of his evolution as a writer, beginning with before he could read.  Yes, his first ideas of his craft were from the stories his mother read to him.  Then, on to his rejection as a high school journalist, where his articles were deemed so unworthy that his only assignments were music reviews.

He tells the story of reviewing a star performer whom no one liked but him.  The article drew one anonymous response saying that maybe Jay was right that there was some merit to the music.  The school paper had a policy of not publishing anonymous letters, but the editor called a staff meeting to make the point that writers and critics need to be open-minded and that there is a wide variety of reader tastes out there.

Jay felt vindicated at that meeting and never admitted he had written the anonymous note.

By now, his auditorium audience was chuckling at his light-hearted self-effacing talk.  We were his captives.

He continued his story to his college years, when he tried and was rejected as a writer of young adult books.  Of the following years, he told of the sort of rejections he received then and over the next ten years.  There were the letters that began, “Dear writer, we’re not interested, but good luck in your writer career, the editor.”

He was heartened when he finally received a two-page rejection detailing every single reason the book was hopeless, since it convinced him the book had been read.

Thirteen Reasons Why was conceived in 2006 after a young relative made an unsuccessful attempt on her own life.  Jay reached out, endeavoring to learn about the state of mind of a depressed teen.  Then spoke to other friends and family about their experience as teens.  He found a strong adolescent voice for Hannah Baker, his main character, and was compelled to write.

He spent three years writing the book. There were doubts, memories of rejection, and his day job getting in the way– and at least one six-month hiatus.  But he finished and did a critique process that is worthy of a separate blog.  He sent it off to his agent, who called one day with the news of an offer.  Hours later the agent called with the news of the second offer.  And then the third.

On the screen flashed pictures of the moment he told his wife the news, then of telling his mother, then of telling his baby.

Then there was the year of working with the publisher: take out one scene, add another, enlarge a third.  Change the title, do the cover, and all the other things the publisher talks with the authors about even though the publisher will have the last word.  And then the nine-month wait for a release date that suits the publisher, whose agenda has to do with everything except the author.

As Jay meandered through his writing and publishing process for us, he used the steps as parables for teen coping skills.

When he referred to the first sterile rejection letter, he said, aside, “Girls, if you dump a guy, give him some reason why—any reason.  But don’t let him go crazy places in his mind.”

So, too, when he discussed the email response he received, he allowed words of unknown others to confirm that his message was heard by the people who needed it–thereby reiterating the message for the people in the auditorium.

I don’t know any more about teen suicide this morning than I did last night.  But what I do know is that a couple of dozen kids in Carthage, MO. will pay a bit more attention to how they treat their peers, will be a bit more attentive to signs that something is amiss in others, and will be a bit more motivated to ask when someone is a bit off.

At the end of the night it was a consciousness-raising, gently motivational experience for the kids, the adults, and the white-haired vagabond.

When Jay Asher wrote ‘Thirteen Reasons Why’, he had a support / critique group who brought chapters for review to their regular meetings.  Every writer I know who is serious about his work has a group of trusted writers who make you open wide and take your medicine.  The writer does not get to explain or defend the work.  After all, the reader tanning on Luquillo beach doesn’t get to ask the writer what he meant.

Once the book was completed, Asher took another step somewhat different from what I’ve heard before.  He chose four readers to read the book through and give their recommendations.  The difference was that he did not ask them to read simultaneously, and he did not ask them to reread after he considered and executed their suggestions.

He believes in Fresh Eyes.  Yes, of course.  He understands peer editors don’t read the second version with the same diligence as the first.

So his final readers are consecutive.

Jay chose his first reader to find errors.  When you write a book over three years and do four or five major rewrites in that time, errors will creep in.   The author forgets the hero had a Corvette in chapter 2 when he gave him a Mustang convertible in Chapter 17.  His boyhood pet is a collie in chapter 7 but a cocker in chapter 9.  He learned his burger-flipping skills at his after-school job in a fast-food joint but not if he played intra-mural sports all through school.

The second reader was chosen to examine pacing.  The narrative arc of each scene and chapter build the wave of the entire book.  Does the book keep the pages turning from the start, through the long swamp of the middle and the wrap-up?

The third reader is for grammar.  Jay’s wife is his Grammar Queen.  Anne Fox keeps me honest.  If she ever decides to retire, my backup plan is to take up bowling or bawling.

By the time Jay has licked the wounds and finished the surgery necessary after his first three readers, he is ready for Unconditional Love.

His fourth reader is his mother.

Morgen: Thank you, Al. I definitely want to go and read the book now. 🙂

AL travels full time in his 28’ motorhome seeking interesting people, especially those who make a difference, and out of the way places no guidebook would dare publish.  He blogs his brains out at Watch for the book, the movie, and the signature line of men’s hair styling products.

If you would like to write a writing-related guest post for my blog then feel free to email me with an outline of what you would like to write about. If it’s writing-related then it’s highly likely I’d email back and say “yes please”.

The blog interviews return as normal tomorrow morning with novelist and non-fiction author Roy A Higgins – the three hundred and ninety-ninth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, bloggers, autobiographers and more. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further. And I enjoy hearing from readers of my blog; do either leave a comment on the relevant interview (the interviewees love to hear from you too!) and / or email me.

You can sign up to receive these blog posts daily or weekly so you don’t miss anything… and follow me on Twitter where each new posting is automatically announced. You can also read / download my eBooks and free eShorts at SmashwordsSony Reader StoreBarnes & NobleiTunes BookstoreKobo and Amazon, with more to follow. I have a new forum, friend me on Facebook, like me on Facebook, connect with me on LinkedIn, find me on Tumblr, complete my website’s Contact me page or plain and simple, email me.  I also now have a new blog creation service especially for, but not limited to, writers.

Unfortunately, as I post an interview a day (amongst other things) I can’t review books but I have a feature called ‘Short Story Saturdays’ where I review stories of up to 2,500 words. Alternatively if you have a short story or self-contained novel extract / short chapter (ideally up to 1000 words) that you’d like critiqued and don’t mind me reading it / talking about and critiquing it (I send you the transcription afterwards so you can use the comments or ignore them) 🙂 on my ‘Bailey’s Writing Tips’ podcast, then do email me. They are weekly episodes, usually released Monday mornings UK time, interweaving the recordings between the red pen sessions with the hints & tips episodes. I am now also looking for flash fiction (<1000 words) for Flash Fiction Fridays and poetry for Post-weekend Poetry.

4 thoughts on “Guest post: Jay Asher – Book Review & Four Critics by Al Levenson

  1. David L says:

    I like my book reviews shorter than the book itself. Of course Al is a good writer, has a lot of excellent words and believes in their exercise. I can forgive that and in fact am a frequenter of his blog where I find his outstanding commentary.

    But his is more about writing the book than the book, and that’s fine, but then “Book Review,” as its title, is a misnomer.


  2. christinaow says:

    i liked how he related the story to his own writing journey. his experience will help many writers to keep pushing on and hopefully the book will help a lot of teens contemplating suicide


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