What do we do when our work is denigrated in some way?
Do we believe enough in our own skill, in our own stories, to keep writing despite our detractors?
Recently, someone asked an editor I know to review his book which is slated for publication by the end of this year. Here’s their e-mail exchange, edited for brevity and to keep the conversation on-point:
Editor: “Gotta be honest: I’m having a hard time coming up with diplomatic feedback at this point, so I’m just going to be straight-up. As much as I was intrigued by the premise of the book, I don’t believe the novel itself is living up to its potential…Sorry to be so negative. I really want to like this book, but I can’t finish it. The reader side of me is disappointed, but the editor side is in agony.”
Author: “I apreciate your honesty. That is what I wanted…You are the first to give a completely negative or even mostly negative review. I asked for brutal honesty and that is what I am getting…I believe what you have said, yet it does not surprise me that Im still getting positive reviews. There are plenty of best selling authors who speaking from a literary point of view should not have passed 10th grade English. If my novel sells well I will likely fall into that category…
“The script writer for the TV show Grimm is one of the 12 reviewing the novel…I sent the novel off to alot of people before the publisher ever saw it including the guy who wrote all of the dialogue for the games: Middle Earth1, Middle Earth 2, and Shadows of Mordor. He loved it and so did the other people. I would not have let it get this far if I had been told anything like this by any of the dozens of people who have already read it. I am sorry that you did not enjoy it.”
Editor: “I have no illusions about you being happy with my response…and I understand that it’s late in the process for any revisions to be made. I’m glad that you’ve received so many positive reviews. That’s always encouraging…
“Like you, I have no formal training. All mine is the result of simply being a writer for over thirty years. Despite other reviewers’ doctorates, television experience, video game expertise, etcetera, I have nearly two decades as an editor in this field, and can only speak as I find.
“I wish you well in your endeavors.”
What would you do if you were the author in this situation? Would you harbor resentment to the editor? Blow him off and listen only to the positive reviews? Or would you halt the presses and look once more at the manuscript?
Until last year, I belonged for several years to a small, productive writers group. We met more regularly than some of us wrote, but we were all pretty prolific, considering life intrusions and such.
A fellow writer almost physically flinched whenever it was my turn for the group to read/critique my pages. While praising me afterward, or outside of the critique session, this person squirmed in her chair, sighed loudly, and repeatedly declared, “But I don’t understand.”
It’s as if a mental roadblock was instantly constructed, and nothing I wrote would ever be clear enough for this particular reader.
Of course, in the interest of clarity and of doing my job as a storyteller, I would go back and check my sentence structure, setting, character details, dialogue, etcetera.
Turns out, it wasn’t the writing, but the genre, to which she objected.
Nothing fantasy or science fiction-y would ever penetrate her roadblock. This person was not interested and therefore refused to open the mind wide enough to allow for a story set anywhere but in the solid present. No other worlds. Just this one.
I could not trust that writer with my work. It would not receive proper criticism.
A friend has very nicely told me on a few occasions that many of my ideas have already been done. That’s almost more deflating than all the “I don’t understand” writer’s wincing and fidgeting! After all, when one’s imagination seems no more creative or original than coming up with stuff that’s already been done, what is left to the writer but the underlying, unspoken understanding that perhaps it’s best if he just stops writing, especially if he can’t contribute something new.
Another writer once told me this:
“I read somewhere that there only like 32 stories in the world and that all stories are simply the individual author’s spin on those 32 stories…I also read that Shakespeare never wrote an original story, that all his plays were based on pre-existing tales.
Truth is, it’s all been done. But the way you do it will be different than anyone else. And better than most.”
What would you do? Would you keep writing?
Would you loudly defend your work? Or would you quietly close your notebook and put away your pen, and look around for some other outlet for your creativity?
My newest endeavors have yet to be seen by eyes other than mine; I learned long ago that a story shown too soon may succumb to exposure and die before being truly born. I may talk about it a little, but it will not be trotted out before the world until the story is able to stand on its own feet and face the critics with me.