There is this joke…
So on the seventh day God went golfing with some friends and the conversation of the new world He had created came up.
Zeus said that he liked the way God had let that Adam fellow name everything, he thought that was a nice touch making the experience more interactive, that’s the way to get the younger demographics in. Odin said he was particularly impressed by the whole Angel system He had set up, it was a much needed improvement on the two crow system he had installed. Zeus’ brother Jupiter thought the variety of life that He had created was incredible, even that silly platypus thing He let slip by was cool. Buddha went on about how perfect the soul these tiny human beings possessed were and the workmanship on them was really something….
“Hold on a second,” God said, interrupting the praise. “What was wrong with the platypus?”
No one likes to be criticized. I mean, there is an implication about it that says the person giving their opinion is somehow more informed than the person who is receiving it; therefore, already there is an inherent power struggle right out of the gate. Ask anyone who has ever created anything and ask them to list what is wrong with it and you will get a laundry list of things wrong. But the same moment those things are listed by someone else, it becomes something hostile.
Don’t believe me? If you’re a parent think about what your kids do wrong on a daily basis. Got it? Now imagine a stranger telling you the same things about them. See how the worst kid can suddenly become angel?
This is to be expected, of course. I mean, they are your kids and you have the right to say anything you want about them, but that bitch from across the way better keep her mouth shut or she could find herself on the wrong end of an attitude. We protect our young, it is instinct. You made that kid, so you protect, simple as that.
And then there are writers.
Writing takes a certain talent that is impossible to convey unless you’ve actually struggled to make words go together to make sense, but I will try in case you haven’t. Those of you that have, try not to have a flashback while you read. There is an arrogance that comes when creating fiction that a lot of people don’t realize. When you sit down to describe late nineteenth century England, since you have never been there nor has anyone reading your book, you need to MAKE that world real. And you need to make it so real that the reader believes it with you. Now, my nineteenth century England has a lot to do with Doctor Who, so I am sure it is neither historically correct since there weren’t that many aliens running around, nor is it always that foggy but that’s the way I see it.
As writers, we have to have faith in our creations so much that you, as a reader, will purposely stop believing what you think nineteenth century England is and believe mine instead. Same thing with vampires, ghosts and teenage boys, all mythical creatures that terrorize the pages of books. It is like the late, great Douglas Adams said about flying: the trick is throwing yourself at the ground and missing. In fiction it is throwing yourself into a made up world and missing the fact it is made up. From the outside those worlds may seem solid as a wrong inhabited by walking, talking, breathing people that are very real to them.
To the writer, though, they are just words until someone believes in them.
The voices in my head are not real until I acknowledge them, the same way the words on a page aren’t real until someone reads them. So there is a contract taken between writer and reader: I’ll lie to you to the best of my ability, you try not to call me on my bullshit to the best of yours. To the writer those worlds are like soap bubbles until someone says they are real and that they had an effect on them. It is a two way street and even more dependent on each other in this day of digital presence. I can’t imagine Charles Dickens had a ton of feedback on his stuff as soon as it was published. All he had was his friends’ and colleagues’ assurance that the words worked on them and that the story is worth reading. I wonder how Charlie would have fared if there had been message boards back in the day?
As a writer I can know if someone likes my stuff THE day they read it. I can read their thoughts and reviews as they post, and I can get instant gratification that those soap bubbles are sturdier than I thought, and that is incredible. Conversely, though, I can also find out if my words failed to hit the mark faster than any writer previously could have. Therein lies the problem.
I mean, as a writer I am a vampire, seeking out attention and assurance that my words are good. I feed on positive feedback and use it to nourish me the next time I doubt if the next book I write is good or not. And like any vampire, I flee at the first sign of garlicky goodness that may be hidden in a bad review. I can’t not look, after all I need my fix, but when I do look and it stings, I can’t look away.
After awhile it gets weird because no matter how much praise you can get about a book, it is always that ONE negative comment that sticks with you. Like a sore on the top of your mouth, you cannot stop messing with it no matter how much it hurts. Which comes to the topic at hand.
If I take the good reviews and store them in my mental hope chest as proof that I can write and people do like my stuff, then don’t I have to take the bad reviews as proof there are still places I need to improve? If I believe the good reviews are given honestly and not because the people are just being nice to me, don’t I also have to assume the ones who didn’t like my work didn’t like it for the same honest reasons? If I can’t take a positive review and go,Oh well, that doesn’t count ’cause that guy likes me, how can I take a negative one and say, Oh, that doesn’t count cause that chicks hates me? If you start doubting one, you kind of have to doubt all of them.
But here is my point.
Let’s go back to your kid. You love your kids, you raised your kids, you nurtured them and protected them until they were fully grown and ready to head out into the world. Now of course YOU love them, I mean look at all the work you put into them. To you they will always be your little baby and you will feel that way until you die.
On the other hand, your kid, who is fully grown and out there in the world, might be a raging asshole and you know it. You can love your child with all your heart, but at the end of the day, once they are out there and interacting on their own, they need to be judged for themselves and not have their mommy or daddy come rushing in to defend them.
Just like books.
If you can’t write something and then be content to let it loose on the world and let it rise or fall on its own merits, then you don’t want to be a writer. If you think there is a vast conspiracy out there to malign your work without ever once considering that maybe, just maybe, they have a point, you need to stop writing now. Your kid, like my story, is no longer mine once it is out there. It belongs to whoever meets it, and it needs to be able to speak for itself. If you raised the kid right, taught them how to be polite and treat people right, don’t worry. If you wrote the book to the best of your ability and people say they like it, take that and move on. But if you obsess over the one lady across the way who just never liked your son, then you are giving WAY too much attention to someone you shouldn’t. People don’t like things all the time, doesn’t mean they are saying it sucked or that it should have never been written. They are simply saying they didn’t like it.
And if the person makes a personal crack about your book, let them. They paid their money, they bought the book, they have the right to bitch about it. Same way Mrs. Kravitz across the street might dislike your kid for no reason, let her. Not everyone is going to like your kid. How many kids do YOU like?
That’s what I thought.
Just because someone doesn’t like your book doesn’t mean it is bad, it just means they didn’t like it. As writers we spend so much time shoring up our soap bubbles against reality that I think we take any criticism as an attack when, in fact, it is just an opinion. And opinions are as valuable or as damning as you let them be.
And also, one last thing before I go.
You may have raised your kid to the best of your ability, tried to teach them everything they should know and generally tried to make them the best person they could be and in the end, they might still be an asshole. You may not think so, but it might be the truth. Just because you like your book doesn’t mean it’s good. And if enough people tell you it isn’t good, you might have to fess up to the fact that your book isn’t good.
Doesn’t mean you should stop writing, but it does mean you should start writing better.
John Goode is a regular contributor to The Novel Approach.