Wednesday, January 16, 2013

3 WOW Wednesday: Sophie Littlefield on Rejecting Negativity


by Sophie Littlefield 

I’ve been writing for many years, but it wasn’t until very recently that I learned to judge my work by the only standard that matters. Instead of letting negative criticism crush my spirit, I silence those voices and get back to the words.

We’re Just Going to be Ugly 
When I was six or seven, my best friend, who lived across the street, invited me to look into her bathroom mirror. We were a couple of rawboned, rough and tumble Midwestern girls who went barefoot whenever we were allowed and wore our long hair in ponytails to keep it out of our way. Susan studied our reflection for a long time and finally said, “Well, I guess we’re just going to be ugly all our lives.”

To her credit, it didn’t seem to bother her much; she forgot the incident in no time and we were off on some new adventure, playing Davy Crockett in her rec room, with ottomans for horses. But it bothered me a lot. Ugly! I had kind of hoped to be pretty, and was crushed to know that that door was closed to me.

Twenty years passed before I realized that Susan might not have had the last word on the subject.

 “Nobody Should Waste There [sic] Money on This Trash”
Meanwhile, I found a hobby that even ugly girls could take part in. I wrote…and wrote and wrote and wrote and finally, after several decades, got published. My first book was nicely received, for the most part. But I received a number of one-star reviews. Some of them were even written by people who could spell, people who sounded downright erudite. People, I assumed, who’d know a bad book when they saw one.

 I was tempted to quit, but I had an agent who not only persisted in believing in me but kept submitting my work even after bruising rounds of rejections. I wondered if she’d missed the bad reviews, or if she’d somehow skipped the awful pages, or if she was just being kind. She doesn’t know this, but sometimes the only thing that kept me going was the fact that she seemed convinced my writing was worthy.

During those years, I became very close to several other new authors. We talked a lot about bad reviews; sharing took some of the sting out. We reassured each other that they were the work of jealous peers or people who just didn’t get what we were doing. But in the dark hours when I was alone at my computer, it was the voices from those reviews that were like spurs in my flanks, driving me on not with the joy of creation, which I sometimes felt like I’d forgotten entirely, but with the fear that I wasn’t good enough.

One Day I Wrote a Thing of Beauty
Things were changing, however, even if I didn’t realize it. I was getting stronger with each book. I was also getting busier, with steady deadlines and a rapid release schedule. I had little time to fret about what reviewers were saying about me.

A number of years ago, I was about to turn in a manuscript when I realized I had forgotten to write a little bridge scene. The book was due in my editor’s inbox the following morning, and I wrote the scene around midnight while drinking a glass of wine. I did not edit it. I don’t think I even spell checked it.

The next morning, after the file was sent, I reread the scene and discovered it was the finest few paragraphs I ever wrote. I waited for someone to notice, to mention it in a review or to send me a note, as sometimes happens when a passage catches a reader’s attention.

No one ever remarked on that scene, though the book received plenty of criticism, some of it harsh. But what was different this time was that I knew in my heart I’d done well. No one could have convinced me otherwise, then or now. That scene is a treasure that will always be mine, even if I’m the only person ever to cherish it.

This new feeling of confidence grew. I gradually learned to identify my best work, and be pleased with it. Not pleased and hopeful others would like it too - simply pleased.

The critical voices started to fade. I continued to receive my share of bad reviews, but they mattered so much less now that my own opinion mattered more than anyone else’s.

One day I received a negative review from a major trade publication. I read it through a couple times and picked up the phone to call my brother to whine - and got distracted by an ad for a pair of boots. I spent the next hour shopping online…because the review didn’t matter enough to keep my attention. All it took to flush that critic’s assessment of my work was a wedge heel and a sassy grommet detail along the zipper.

Reject Negativity
That’s when I realized that reviews have exactly as much power over me as I decide to give them.

The same year Susan delivered her bathroom edict on my homeliness, I received a compliment from a friend of my mother’s, who said I would be beautiful when I’d had a chance to grow into my features. I rejected this notion immediately - it came from an old person with questionable aesthetics.

But why couldn’t I have done the reverse? Why couldn’t I have dismissed Susan’s unintentionally cruel words and clung to the notion that I might be something special? Because I was young, I suppose; and because I had a lot of growing up to do before I could develop the confidence I now possess. Because, unfortunately, girls often look into the mirror and see a distorted view of themselves looking back.

But so often we writers look at our reviews and accept the distorted reflection. We allow others to tell us when we’ve done well - and worse, far worse, we allow them to tell us when we’ve failed.

But just as no one gets to tell you you’re ugly, no one’s judgment of your work matters. Reject negativity with as much confidence as you can muster. (I often make do with rude gestures and expletive-laced sentiments.) Dismiss it and move on, because you know pretty when you see it, and that’s more than enough.

About the Author
Sophie's first novel, A BAD DAY FOR SORRY (Minotaur, 2009) has been nominated for the Edgar, Macavity, Barry, and Crimespree awards, and won the Anthony Award and the RTBookReviews Reviewers Choice Award for Best First Mystery. Her novel AFTERTIME was a finalist for the Goodreads Choice Horror award.

Sophie is also the author of:
A BAD DAY FOR PRETTY (Minotaur, 2010)
A BAD DAY FOR SCANDAL (Minotaur, 2011)
A BAD DAY FOR MERCY (Minotaur, June 2012)
BANISHED (Delacorte, 2010)
UNFORSAKEN (Delacorte, 2011)
HANGING BY A THREAD (Delacorte, October, 2012)
AFTERTIME (Harlequin Luna, 2011)
REBIRTH (Harlequin Luna, 2011)
HORIZON (Harlequin Luna, 2012)
BLOOD BOND (Pocket, November 2012)

Upcoming titles include:
GARDEN OF STONES (Harlequin MIRA, March 2013)
A BAD DAY FOR ROMANCE (Pocket, September 2013)

Sophie grew up in Missouri, attended Indiana University, and worked in technology before becoming a stay-at-home mom. She lives in Northern California.

Visit Sophie's Website
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  1. This is great advice (and those author photos are gorgeous, by the way!). I've always thought to myself, if I get to the point where I have a book in the world, then I've broken the barrier I want to. SOMEBODY--more likely, a lot of somebodies--liked it enough to invest in publishing it. And those bad reviews? That means that a random person took the time to actually read your book, which is pretty cool in itself. Plus, even if they say negative things, they're kind of too late--the dream will have already come true and you can bask in that. If I ever get to the point where I get a bad review, hopefully I can take away any info that might be helpful in improving my next project and just say, "Well, I'm glad this reviewer wasn't at the acquisitions meeting!"

  2. I'm going against the grain but this is poor advice. There's always something positive in a negative review. This post disappoints me. Some negative reviews could hold legit constructive criticism and, by flat-out ignoring negative reviews to protect ego, critique could be used to improve ones writing and story telling skills.

  3. I absolutely LOVED this post! So inspiring. I'm going back to copy my favorite line...wait a minute...*elevator music*

    "I continued to receive my share of bad reviews, but they mattered so much less now that my own opinion mattered more than anyone else’s."

    I need to write that in Sharpie above my thick eyebrows. Thanks for the inspiration!


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