Upon further review


Book burning at Wartburgfest 1817; illustration of 1883 (artist unknown)

So: reviews are coming in for Night Shift. This is, by and large, a good thing; It shows that copies are getting out to people – well, book-bloggers – and that, through them, the novel is getting a little attention.

Possibly the only thing I’ve remembered from my A-Level General Studies course is that you need to have heard of something (a band, a book, any sort of brand) at least five times before you think of checking it out for yourself. I’ve never been quite sure it’s true but if it’s not it’s still a good-enough lie.

So any mention of my work is welcomed. It doesn’t mean much if the only voice is my own constant nagging monologue; but multiple sources recommending a book makes a real difference.

Of course, not all mentions will be positive. The greater your fame spreads the more likely you are to hear dissenting voices. You’re going to have to learn how to take a negative review.

Last time I looked – I’m not going on too often – Goodreads reviews had been mostly positive. But one person had given me 2-star rating and another a fairly unimpressed 3. So here’s my ‘I’ll probably end up being a hypocrite over this’ guide to dealing with less-than-stellar reviews:

  • Remember that they’re not criticising you as a person. Yes, we all put a lot of ourselves into our work but saying that someone doesn’t like your work is not saying that they think any less of you as a person. Yes, there may be exceptions – if, say, your book is about something very important to you (transgender rights, for example) and someone disagrees fundamentally then it’s hard not to take it personally. Try and keep that distance, though: you are not your work.
  • They are not reviewing your best work. Your best hasn’t been written yet. And on that subject…
  • Publishing takes time. I’m not going to say ‘you should have been writing something else whilst the process was ongoing’ because life isn’t always straightforward. But you’re not the same person you were when you wrote that first draft. What you do now will be better because you’ve grown. (This might be less true of self-publishers, though the idea stands)
  • Try and take lessons. If your critics are consistent about over-simple plots, say, or wooden dialogue, try and take it on the chin. Learn.
  • Allow yourself time to recover. Words hurt. Allow yourself to feel that – cry if you need to, deny it if it helps – and don’t rush to a change until you’re ready…
  • …And for the love of all that’s holy, don’t respond to bad reviews. It’s okay to thank reviewers for a good one (via social media; don’t add to their blogs, it’s terribly gauche. And be careful about emailing as it might look a bit like stalking) but DO NOT complain about their poor taste, their personalities, or anything similar. It never ends well.
  • Write something else. Write better.

I’m sure you can find more ideas. Check this article for starters (and for another classic example of what not to do).

People will disagree with you. People will be unfair – they’ll review it as if you were trying to write a Mills & Book and not the star-killer grimdark space opera you were aiming for.  They’ll miss the point. And, of course, what one person sees as fussy, fiddly, over-perfumed prose will be another’s superlative imagery.

You can’t control this. Just remember that you’re in fine company. Every writer you’ve ever heard of has been shaken down at least once. Here’s the classic on Terry Pratchett:

…a complete amateur – doesn’t even write in chapters – hasn’t a clue.

–Tom Paulin on BBC2’s Late Review

And on Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye:

The book as a whole is disappointing, and not merely because it is a reworking of a theme that one begins to suspect must obsess the author. Holden Caulfield, the main character who tells his own story, is an extraordinary portrait, but there is too much of him. …

In the course of 277 pages, the reader wearies of [his] explicitness, repetition and adolescence, exactly as one would weary of Holden himself. And this reader at least suffered from an irritated feeling that Holden was not quite so sensitive and perceptive as he, and his creator, thought he was.

–Anne L. Goodwin, The New Republic, 1951

Reviews matter, and bad ones hurt. But they’re not the be-all and end-all. You will be okay. And even a bad review is better than no review.

At least one person has read your book.



Fear and loathing

I wrote this at the end of May, just before my computer died and trapped my files within its Manichean folds. I’m resurrecting it here because I’ve finally finished Australis and am just about to start on the Big Task of rewriting Night Shift. And although the delay has left me feeling a little ‘readier’ for the job that awaits, all I wrote then still applies: the pain of criticism will surely stab most cruelly at my unprotected goolies.

* * *

I’m afraid. That’s what it is.

To make it as a traditionally published writer you have to be able to take criticism, but no matter how accustomed to it you are, it still hurts. You prepare yourself; whenever you show your work to anyone you know you’ll be in for a few tactful pointers – but still those words hurt. Writing is an intensely personal thing, maybe more so than it should logically be. Criticism of one’s work is like criticism of the person.

That’s why I’ve been putting off going back to Night Shift, the work I should really be doing. I’m afraid. I’ve got an annotated manuscript waiting for me; a barrage of mistakes, errors and misjudgements that I need to fix. And no matter how much I tell myself that it’s not personal, it’s just another way of making my work better, it’s still gonna make me wince and squirm.

It helps that I have good, justifiable reasons for not going back to that just yet. I’m in the middle (more of towards the end, now) of something else which demands much of my writing energy, and I’m taking time to track down a few more Night Shift-like novels to better understand the genre I work in, so I’m not exactly wasting time. But the real reason – the reason that makes me feel so guilty – is that I need a little space to rebuild my defences. I need time to take the proverbial deep breath, to re-forge my armour before heading back into battle.

That’s why I’m prevaricating at the moment. And I think – still – that it’s a sensible thing to do. I also hope that writing this blog will help shift the subconscious anxieties into the conscious mind. And I’m sure that the proof-reader’s comments won’t be that bad; after all, she wants the novel to work too.

I also know I’m got a hell of a lot of work still ahead of me. I have to go back to the very beginnings, redefine elements of theme, character and plot. I can’t say I’m looking forwards to that, but it doesn’t scare me in the way criticism does. Is it true of all writers that they have this almost split personality? Sharp arrogance – after all, you’ve got to believe that you’re doing something others will like – tempered with an almost crippling lack of self-esteem?

Or is it just me?

* * *

UPDATE: Been working my way through the preliminaries. It is indeed a painful and angstifying experience, with work I thought was decent simply ripped to shreds. But this is writing. It can hurt and it can be slow and difficult. And I’ve not written a single word in anger yet, not on this phase of the project.

More literary adventures next week!