Context is important so let me paint you a picture…I don’t keep a copy of my book by my bedside, in fact it’s in a cupboard. I don’t generally tell people I’ve written Hummingbird’s Tear (sorry Calumet marketers), am writing the second, have drafted the 3rd, or that I wrote a short story that was selected for the Boundaries Without anthology. I don’t go to writer meet-ups, I don’t bring it up in conversation, and I certainly never go out of my way to see what people think of my book. Why? I don’t know, lot’s of reasons, every reason and no reason I suppose, I don’t tend to dwell. So…
About two months ago I was roaming around Amazon looking at nothing in particular – virtual window shopping, we’ve all done it. I was bored, running out of things to search for and so unusually for me – I never do this – I decided to go see if anyone had left a review of Hummingbird’s Tear. There were a handful, mostly nice. Which makes me feel nice. And we all want to feel nice, right. And then, staring at me, was one that was not like the others.
The reality of creating any form of art – and writing most certainly is just that – is that on that spectrum of personal experience and opinion, it’s either going to be liked, or disliked and no one who creates anything is should be foolish enough to think their work will be universally liked. Also, that people voice their opinion and have every right to do so, and that as an author, you have to be prepared for it. And that is what this review was. I read it and immediately blew it out of proportion so much that I never digested what was actually written. All I took away from it was a feeling of being punched in the gut because someone voiced an opinion disliking something I had spent literally years creating. So I did what I usually do when I’m feeling anything negative about my work or my books or writing in general, I told one of my best friends about it. She immediately went and read it and came back pointing out a few bits I had missed in my emotional read of it all.
That the reviewer pointed out the use of a wrong word – and that yes, that’s a mistake but I missed it, so did editorial and that’s easily fixed with a revised edition and it’s ONE word so ‘move on’. I mentioned it to the publisher and it’ll be fixed. Thanks reviewer, you helped make my book better, by a tiny amount, but it’s still an improvement. I’ll get to why this hurt so much, why one word is important to me.
Secondly she pointed out the reviewer mentioned they hadn’t actually read the book, just the free first few pages, so what they referenced, actually wasn’t true, because they didn’t read the book and didn’t follow through how the story actually twists and changes. And immediately I was thinking, that’s sloppy reviewing. I’m not sure I’d be brazen or self-opinionated enough to make assumptions about how a book plays out,
without actually reading the book. But that’s just me.
The rest of the points she made are irrelevant because by this stage I’m feeling better. But much more important than the plaster for my bruised star-flower ego, is the fact that by this stage, I’m actually making notes about what the reviewer said. I’m taking notes and I’m making them into the prompts I go through when I’m reviewing my work. And that’s when it hit me. I felt bad because the reviewer wasn’t pleased with what I had produced. I let out a moan, OH GOD! I’m a people pleaser… And I’m okay with that. Because I think that’s what drives the effort I put into the books.
Let’s ‘talk’ for a second about choosing words – believe me picking the right word for the effect a writer is building is not easy. It isn’t finished yet but I’m going to use book 2, Giant’s Echo as an example. I want to build up a picture of a character in the reader’s mind without ever saying ‘he’s like a snake’ because it’s a cliche (although the snake image works so well for me in book 2), and because that’s lazy and readers deserve more.
First things first, there are three things to do.
1 – make actual notes because you’ll forget otherwise, of what your character is like and then be very sure you can be consistent with the personality because if you want to show a change you have to have a strong base. I have all my characters mapped, literally drawn, mannerisms written down, and charts showing how they compare to the primary characters they mostly interact with.
2 – be prepared for the long haul, you don’t build up subliminal imagery and atmosphere in a paragraph and it does take skill so prepare to challenge yourself and have your editor and publisher come back with some critique.
3 – think of all the senses. When I’m writing dialogue I try to choose words that have a cadence – I don’t just mean picking lots of words that start with the same letter, that’s crap. I have people react to the character in a way that mimics how they would react to an actual snake, you want people to feel something, so give those feelings to other people. Create environments for your character to be in that feel like where you’d find the change you’re implying. My guy doesn’t walk straight, he meanders and constantly moves his head looking at everything around him. A lot of his scenes take place in dark rooms, in cool conditions he’s a lot calmer and steadier, when it’s hot he acts sluggish and lashes out in anger when confronted. I write about what he can smell, how he reacts to foods, what he notices.
This is a very specific example of effort I suppose, the personal effort of producing something that very well may be disliked by more people than liked – although I sincerely hope not. And why I was so annoyed when one word was wrong. What I am really trying to illustrate is that writing isn’t just someone sitting down writing a stream of consciousness that becomes a finished manuscript. It’s actual work that becomes months and sometimes years of concerted creative focus and attention. I’ve produced hundreds of pages of backstory for my characters over the years. A whole creation mythology body of work. One does not simply ‘write a book’.
Can you imagine maintaining concentration on the same thing for years?
So take the bad reviews and the negative opinions people offer at you, use what you think is a useful insight that can improve your craft, and just get back to it. Shrug it off, grow a thicker skin -whatever cliche works for you – and get back to writing.