Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Brutal Nature of Reviews.

I'm not going to wax poetical about spring today. Truth be told, I'm not feeling very poetical. Mostly, I'm feeling slightly angry, horribly frustrated and rather sad.

The Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest has reared its head again. As you probably remember, I made it through to the quarter-finals. I didn't make it to the semi-finals but I was ok with that. All quarter-finalists were promised a professional review of our entire manuscript by Publishers Weekly, regardless of whether we advanced in the contest or not. The 400 of us who didn't make it forward got our reviews last night, supposedly our 'consolation prize.'

I would like to say on record that if this is supposed to be a prize or a reward, I'd very much like to not make it to the quarter-finals next year, please.

When I say that, I can hear the imaginary voices of the thousands of other writers who didn't make it to the quarter-finals saying "INGRATE!" and "At least you got that far."

Except, to be frankly honest, I'm wondering how I got to the quarter-finals, based on my professional review.

I confess, I am a little sensitive to criticism and I know I need to thicken my skin to it. I still don't handle rejection as well as I like and the more specific it is, the harder I find it. No writer likes to have his or her work attacked, criticized and placed under a microscope. However, it is a part of writing. Criticism, when constructive, does make us better writers, even though it feels like a slap in the face when you first hear it.

So what, then, of non-constructive criticism? What, then, of criticism so brutal that it gives you no bright spot, nothing to cling to in order to say, 'at least they liked X in my book', whatever X might be?

That's my review from Publishers Weekly. They called my book "repetitive" and "plodding", my characters "one-note" and "dull". It was written as though it would be posted on for all to see. I really, really hope it never is. Thus, most of the review was a recap of my novel which meant they read it. Which meant they hated it. In the entire review, there was not a single positive word, not one.

Naturally, when I read it, I was devastated. As I mentioned in that last wallowing post I wrote a few months ago, aside from the pep squad of friends and family, I haven't had much affirmation from anyone that my writing is actually good, that I am good enough to become a published author. I shouldn't need that.

I do need that. I thought I had finally got some affirmation by advancing in the ABNA contest. Yet the readers who put me there read the first 20 or so pages of the work. Publishers Weekly read the whole thing. Aside from my lovely mother, I've let 3 people read the entire novel. Not one of them has given me any feedback, though I asked, which only leads me to believe that they didn't like it and can't bring themselves to tell me that. Yet, you know, I think I might even be ok with that as long as they could tell me why they didn't like it. It would give me something to fix instead of nothing.

With my Publishers Weekly review, I have nothing to work with aside from burning the entire thing and pretending it never existed. This poses a problem with the novel I'm currently working on because it features one of my "one-note" characters from my previous novel. Do I keep working on it? Is it worth writing?

I think the answer is yes. It's worth writing because I want to write it. Whether or not it turns into another "repetitive" and "plodding" novel, doesn't really matter. Not yet, anyway. Maybe this is a sign that I'm not supposed to be a writer. Maybe it's supposed to be a sign that I'm not. I think I'm going to do what I often unintentionally do with speed limit signs, I'm going to ignore it. If I don't, I'll sit here and doubt myself, doubt my writing and wonder if my writing will ever go anywhere.

Instead, I'm going to remember what I said last week, it's about the roadtrip, not the destination. I just hit a massive bump in my road, a dead-end in which I'm going to have to go around. I've done that on real roadtrips and sometimes that dead-end leads to a detour that adds a couple of hours onto the trip which is frustrating and makes you want to turn around and go home. Yet, on those detours, you do get to see things you wouldn't have seen otherwise, landmarks, nature, interesting-looking people.

I wallowed last night when I read my review. A lot. Then I talked to a couple of members of my 'pep squad' who, as always, came through for me. My parents are wonderful because they believe in me, no matter what. They pooh-poohed the review and said in their British accents that it was "rubbish" and that I shouldn't listen to it. My friend who was smart enough to realize I was having a meltdown on my Blackberry Instant Messenger when I told her my news called me and, in her normal frank and wonderful style, that any review that has absolutely no constructive criticism cannot be taken seriously. She reminded me that even when I'm ranting about, say, Stephanie Meyer or Dan Brown, I do, at least, recognize that it's just my opinion and I usually do say positive things too. I might not like the Twilight series and think much to Ms. Meyer's writing but I do recognize that there is an audience out there for it and I give her kudos for writing something that reaches them so deeply.

When I do reviews for others, be it stories, books, screenplays or even web-sites, I always start with a positive. Even if I hate the thing I'm reviewing, nothing is ever so bad that good things can't be found in it. With Stephanie Meyer and Dan Brown, there are enough people out there to disagree with me that I don't feel quite so inclined to do that but I do try to make that the exception, not the rule.

I know our reviews were supposed to simulate the review we would get on our novel if it was published. However, my sensitive soul wants to know why and Publishers Weekly couldn't be...a little gentler, why they couldn't take into consideration that even if we've been writing for years, we're all mostly still newbies who are trying to get published and a little more helpful and a little less cruel.

I don't know if I'll be entering ABNA again next year. What positivity I felt by getting to the Top 500 is now threatened to be quashed by the fact that my book, apparently sucked. It's too uneven; even the Top 100 semi-finalists didn't get very nice reviews leading us all to wonder, exactly, how bad the other 400 reviews for of us who didn't advance would be.

Now I know. I was upset last night. This morning, I'm better. I'm angry that this is my 'prize' for doing so well in a contest. To me, it feels like I was made to feel comfortable, felt good about my writing and then BAM! someone comes and hits me with a two-by-four and say, 'by the way, you're NOT a good writer and your book blows.'

Thanks for that, Amazon. Thanks for that, Publishers Weekly. Right now, I hate you both. I'll get over that. The anger feels way better than the depression that threatened to loom last night. Shockingly, although if I think about it too much, the pangs of feeling sorry for myself begin, I'm feeling much better this morning. I even forgot about it long enough on my commute to work that I began to think about tonight's dinner.

I recently watched a movie called "Happy-Go-Lucky" about a lovely woman named Poppy who is always cheerful and always sees the bright side of life. I loved her. No matter what happened, she took it in stride, accepted it and moved on. Poppy came into my mind this morning on my commute. In the film, Poppy has to take driving lessons from a man who is her polar opposite, he hates life and is miserable. His way of making her remember to check her three mirrors is to constantly say 'En-Ra-ha", the names of fallen angels. I got stuck behind a student driver this morning and found myself chanting, "En-RA-HA!, EN-RA-HA!" It made me laugh, a lot and I realized when I was laughing that there are few shadows in life that can't be chased away by a good laugh. I want to be more like Poppy and so today, I will.

Shut up, Publishers Weekly. I'm sure you've said many bad things to a lot of good writers. I hope that you enjoy the view from your Ivory Tower because one day, I'm coming up there and I'm going to throw you out the window.

Ok, so the positivity probably should be a little less...violent, huh? I'll work on that.

Sorry, it's such a long blog today. Thanks for reading as I work through my psychological issues.

Happy Wednesday.

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