Taking It Personally

One of the hardest things to learn in this business is not to take its assorted slings and arrows personally. What makes it almost impossible is the very personal nature of a novel. You're myopically focused on that baby for months and often years before it comes to fruition, and although there's generally a critique partner or partners, an agent, and an editor involved, the finished product has your name on the cover, your characters on its pages, and your central vision competing in the crassly-commercial marketplace.

Worse yet, your literary "off-spring" is competing for the hearts and minds of readers, most of whom come armed with strong opinions. Some of whom will not mind telling you in the form of "helpful" letters or (more often) e-mails. And more and more of whom will feel inclined to share their thoughts with the world in the form of blog posts, Amazon reviews, or drive-by postings on electronic bulletin boards. Some of these readers will be paid or volunteer reviewers, who will (in some cases) more professionally make their esteemed thoughts known.

This is all well and good when readers' opinions underscore your "genius." I totally cop to having warm-and-fuzzy feelings when that happens. But since no book has ever been written that will please every reader, you're bound to run into some of those who Just Don't Get It.

Maybe this person hates the kind of book you love and write. Maybe s/he has nasty preconceptions regarding the genre or subgenre or people with your first or last name. Maybe this "reviewer's" whole persona is wrapped so tightly around cynicism that her greatest joy is publicly eviscerating everything she sees or hears or reads. (For more on this, read Joni Rodger's post on the Rise of the Cleverati.)

Or maybe (and this is the scariest maybe of all) this person noticed some flaw that managed to slip past your (and your editor's and critique partners') notice. Because painful as the lessons are, you can occasionally learn some things about reader expectations from a disappointed consumer.

In the ten years I've been selling fiction, here are a few of the lessons I have learned.

1. Everyone has the right to choose his/her own reading material. Friends and family members don't have to read everything I write in order to prove their devotion. (They probably will with the first book or two, and then all bets are off.)
2. Keep copies of positive notes and reviews to remind yourself of their existence on the days when you get clobbered. Because you will tend to dismiss or forget the good and forever remember each syllable of badness heaped on your work. Even when good outnumbers bad a hundred to one.
3. Never confuse your work with your self. Remember that writing is one thing you do and not the sum total of who you are.
4. Politely thank people who write you a nice note or e-mail you a positive review.
5. Ignore nut jobs who send you mentally-unbalanced messages. Resist the temptation to write back and defend yourself or your work. You'll never convince them, you may incite much worse nastiness, and in some cases, make restraining orders a prominent feature of your life.
6. Ignore lousy reviews. Pretend you haven't seen them because few of your readers will have. By publicly griping or worse yet, launching into teary-wounded girl mode, you'll ensure that everybody reads the darned things... and forms negative opinions regarding your professionalism.
7. Don't read bulletin board, blog posts, or Amazon reviews of your work, if possible. If you read something unpleasant, pretend you haven't... and tell yourself this one person's opinion is beneath your notice (even when it isn't).

I'm not saying criticism doesn't hurt. It can leave you raw and bleeding and send you whining (privately, I hope) to your best buds for support. All I'm saying is you have to put on your big-girl panties and keep writing...

Because you're working to please the fans of your work, not the naysayers.


Suzan Harden said…
Thanks for the reminder, Colleen. Your advice applies just as much to a newbie like me when I have people who want to "help" me at the expense of my voice and vision.

(And I'm finally back to producing pages! Yea!!)
So glad you're back to writing again, Suzan.

One danger of "helpful advice" is losing your own vision to those who want to put their own stamp on everything they touch. It's a mature writer who can recognize this and resist the temptation to think that everybody else knows better. :)

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