Tuesday, August 26, 2014

11 Rejection, the Author's Job Description, and the Changing Purpose of Critiques and Book Reviews

Confession time. I'm petrified of failing, so rejection--any kind of rejection--kills me. That being the case, you'd think I'd have picked different line of work, right? Surviving rejection is pretty much the author's job description.

Photo by Quinn Dombrowski on Flickr

Author Job, Purpose: Provide entertainment and illumination to individuals, both as they read your work and as they discuss it with others based on their subjective opinion, taste, and prior life experience.

Author Job, Duties:
  • Spend months, years, or possibly decades improving our tricycle manuscripts, until we have developed the perspective to see that no matter how many training wheels we slap on it, it will never grow up to be a bicycle we can ride through to publication.
  • Work with critique partners and beta readers on one or more manuscripts, learning to analyze criticism and extract the useful, actionable portions to improve our work.
  • Send manuscripts out to agents, and editors who are too busy to offer feedback until the manuscript is good enough, and until they have reason to believe that we can apply constructive feedback quickly and professionally--within the time allotted by the tightly-structured publishing schedule.
  • Accept that agents, editors, and copyeditors are seeing beyond the words on our pages to the vast number of books that have already been published and put in the hands of readers and reviewers.
  • Throw away our hard-won ability to analyze criticism once reviews start coming in, because we can no longer make any changes. 
  • Understand that every reader is bringing something different to our work and that no matter how personal that feels, no critique, edit, review, or opinion is ever entirely about what is written on the page.
So why on earth would anyone do this job?

Because we love it. Because we get to create worlds, universes, mythologies, families, and lovers from nothing but our endlessly hungry imaginations. Because there's no better job in the world.


“To avoid criticism say nothing, do nothing, be nothing.” ― Aristotle

If we write, we are going to get people who love our work. That's the BEST feeling in the world. (Critique partners, beta readers, Kent Wolf, Annette Pollert, Sara Sargent, Patrick Price, Mara Anastas, the whole wonderful crew at Simon Pulse, my street team and early reviewers, I'm looking at you and sending you the biggest tackle hugs!) Sometimes we get great reviews in the School Library Journal or from bloggers, and sometimes, people don't "get" the book. 

But criticism, even after the book is "done," is useful.

For any author, published or pre-published, criticism:
  • Opens our minds to new perspectives and forces us to try new directions. 
  • Teaches us to improve our analytical skills. 
  • Helps us improve as writers and people. 
  • Keeps us humble. : ) 
But criticism does more than that. Post-publication criticism, aka reviews, help us to differentiate and find books.

I love the glimpse into people's minds I get from reading reviews of Compulsion. I love seeing what they take away and how they engage with the characters.

This morning, I saw a thought-provoking YouTube video about how people should rate books according on different scales according to the writer's goals for the book.

What do you think? Agree? Disagree?

I also think that book reviews serve a different purpose than they did even a few years back. There used to be fewer books, and more bookstores who could hand-sell the books they carried. Book reviews, then, used to help formulate opinions. But now? Opinions are all over the place. Expert, inexpert, entertaining, brief, exhaustive--the list goes on. But those reviews, good or bad, are an author's friend because they get the book in front of readers, and most importantly, the best reviews expand the way that readers read the books.

Lev Grossman, author of The Magicians, used to be a book reviewer at Publisher's Weekly. He talked about it in a piece in Time Magazine a couple of years ago. One of my favorite things he said is this:

"I think of the reviewer’s role now as being more about providing context for a book, tracing its lineage in the tradition and locating it in the literary topography of the present, and all that touchy-feely sort of thing. The critics I love these days do something slightly different from what they used to: they don’t just judge, they open up that weird, intense, private dyad that forms between book and reader and let other people inside. They tell the story, the meta-story, of what happened when they opened the book and began to read the story."
Critics and reviewers open the doors to the book they see. That's both wonderful and terrifying.

So how do we authors survive the process?

The same way we survive rejections from agents, or editors, or any other setback in life:

  • Hug it out. Contact, or even just looking at, someone or someone or something you love, releases endorphins that will make you feel better. Or at the very least remind you that lots of people love you because they know you. You are not your book.
  • Take a brisk walk and a hot bath. Ditto with the endorphins.
  • Fake it 'til you make it.  Smiling and laughing can make us happier.
  • Pull a few compliments from your keeper jar. For most of us, it takes many compliments to cancel out a single bit of criticism, so put together a folder, jar, or bulletin board with every refrigerator rejection, lovely compliment, and positive review. Read them until you internalize them.
  • Keep going. Often, writers become "overnight successes" simply by being pig-headed enough not to quit when their books keep getting rejected. Or their sales aren't as good as they hoped. Or (insert 1001 other options here.) Quitting is easy. Not quitting is HARD. 
Am I good at dealign with criticism and rejection? Nope. Not yet. But I'm working on it.

I keep reminding myself:

“To avoid criticism say nothing, do nothing, be nothing.” ― Aristotle

We all become writers because we have something to say. 

That doesn't happen when we quit because we listen to the voices whispering in our ears or the voices in our heads that tell us we're not good enough.

I thought about quitting almost every day while I was writing Compulsion. I thought about quitting EVERY day while I was querying. The first review where the reviewer got facts wrong and said stuff that showed she couldn't have actually read the book? I wanted to curl up and die.

But I was working on book two, and in my heart I wanted to write my story more than I wanted to quit. How much we want to tell our story is all that matters.

So keep writing. Keep believing. Never quit.

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  1. I absolutely agree. It's tough to put ourselves out there, opening our tender psyche to criticism and rejection, but we must. And the best way to handle the negativity is to write the next book :)

  2. Sometimes I ask myself why I started on this writing journey. I've been rejected enough to almost take it personal. But I guess I've learned to learn from the rejection so that I can improve and getter closer to that Yes.

    1. That's EXACTLY the way you have to take it, Angela--because honestly, the rejections are only sometimes about the manuscript. Take what you can from them, learn from them, and move on to the next thing. I read a great post the other day about Jen Armentrout's rejections with Wait For You--which she self-published before getting the traditional book deal for it because no one would take it. And then it hit #1 on the NYT. Of course, that was a special case because it was the brand-new genre (NA) that kept getting her rejected and she got stellar notes on her writing and the book itself, but still. When the craft is solid and the story is great, you will eventually break through. I truly believe that! Key is eventually.

  3. Great video! What a darling girl, too, love her braids and her glasses. :-) She makes a MOST excellent point and one that all reviewers should keep in mind; that every book is so different from every other book that it has to be reviewed or rated on what story it's trying to tell and what the book's purpose and aim is. What is the author trying to accomplish and does the author achieve that? I dislike reading a review from a reviewer that had strong feelings about a story; that the book made them FEEL AGONY and ECSTASY, but rates it 2 or 3 stars because it wasn't the book they were *expecting* when they began reading it. Obviously that book wrenched their heart into pieces and made them FEEL something - which takes some dang good characters and writing. That deserves acknowledgment.

    P.S. The girl in the video reminds me of John Greene; her voice and mannerisms. Isn't that funny? She did a great job.

    1. Right? Lol. But I agree--I feel in love with this girl, and she's SMART.

  4. Totally agree. I ask myself all the time why I continue to write. I still love it so I write when I can even if it is just for me. But I am thinking also about the other ways I can use my time that could make an impact on my world without all the rejection. That's one reason I'm glad to still have a full-time non writing job.

    1. I think there's rejection in everything--and that was the point of this post. It's OKAY. Consider it a badge of honor, Natalie! Use it to spur you onward and know that you are being brave and doing something that other people don't have the courage or the fortitude to do. The fact that you are a lawyer and helping people rocks. The fact that you are a great mom to Anna also rocks. But you're a talented writer--so keep writing. And don't let rejection get you down. Seriously. Keep going! XO

  5. Hmmm, lots of food for thought here, Martina. I don't know about you, but one of the biggest things I am learning along the way is not to take myself too seriously. After all, this is just a book (or books) and I am still me no matter what anyone says about me or my book(s). And when those bad reviews roll in, I say thank God it is just a book, and no one I love is sick or dying. Just a book encountering a little bit of turbulence.

    1. Exactly, Linda. It's a book, and it's one book in what will hopefully be a long career. People are (mostly) being great about it, but no matter what, it doesn't change the fact that there will be people who love it or hate it. I love what the girl in the video said about reviewers considering the goal of the author in their reviews. It's important for us as authors to do that too. And to remember that writing, as you pointed out, is one small portion of our lives. We have to live to write. : )

  6. Wow, so many great points in this post. I really like how you pointed to the shifting purpose of book reviews. I hadn't thought of it like that, but you're exactly right.


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