This isn’t a post about wearing scarves in winter, though since turning forty my neck feels the cold more. Is this a thing? Finally, I get the purpose of scarves. But no, sorry scarf lovers, this is about how you keep writing when you feel vulnerable to criticism. What do you do to protect your fragile creative mojo, so you don’t let self-doubt stop you from writing. It is a little bit like a neck, this creative mojo. It’s scrawny and it’s naked and you have to stick it out to get published. But you have to protect it too.
Recently I was asked, for this YouTube author talk series by the Thomas Kenneally Centre Library at the Sydney Mechanics School of Arts, to give my advice to aspiring writers. Practice taking criticism without being devastated by it, I said. It’s inevitable that you will get some. But it’s easier said than done, and I have to admit that I protect my neck from the worst of it now, knowing the way it can affect me.
With my first novel, What Was Left, I immediately read everything that anyone wrote about it. I was lucky, at first, most of the reviews were positive, but then I went on Goodreads and read those reviews as well. Two stars, one guy wrote. His review included the words ‘made-for-TV dialogue’, which I didn’t have to retrieve for this blog post because I have remembered them to this day, five years on. Am I able to quote a phrase from a positive review I have received on Goodreads from the top of my head? No. Should I find this person and wreak revenge? Probably not.
Readers should be able to criticise books if they like, both in reviews and on forums like Goodreads, but it is important to remember the purpose of these reviews is for other readers to decide what they might like to read, not for authors seeking feedback. The problem occurs when authors become involved and read these reviews and crawl into bed repeating the words in their heads ad-nauseum. Unable to forget them. How do you work, then? How do you keep going?
My solution, which has taken me to book number three to discover, is not to read them in the first place. I have a one-year rule on books that I write. I will not read Goodreads reviews for the first year after the book is published – even the really glowing ones – because I am too vulnerable. It is all too fresh and raw and like that skinned knee that I’ve just picked all the dirt and gravel out of, it hurts to be out in the air. I stick a Band Aid on that sucker and wait until a nice little scab forms before I go typing my name into a web browser and clicking on every link. After a year, I can read them with some distance. The book and I have spent some time apart, and I can read the bad reviews without being devastated by them.
As for the newspaper, magazine and other reviews, I have someone vet them for me before I read them. If they have considered criticism, I’ll read them. If they are snarky, no. God, it’s tempting though, isn’t it? Because what we want more than anything is to know what people think of us. And I do think criticism is important to be able to take, but negativity and criticism are two different things. Pure snarkiness is a different beast than considered critique.
Sometimes things slip under my scarf though. For the very first time, with The Passengers, I got a piece of hate mail. It came through my website (hence anonymously), and from “Leesa”. I read it with no preparation, not expecting it to be what it was. Here it is:
I cannot believe I wasted my money on your book, The Passengers.
It is one of the worst, most poorly written books I have ever read.
A waste of time and money.
Nice cover that promises a top read and fails miserably from page one.
An insult to readers with brains.
And you TEACH?
Wow. But then again, I’m struggling to find anything too devastating here. Leesa’s crap writing might be someone else’s idea of top notch. I certainly know from my experience as a literary judge that people’s taste in writing is vastly different. Sorry Leesa, I didn’t lose any sleep over your letter. But I will hang on to it, because the fact that I GOT hate mail makes me feel a little proud. It means my book is out there, really being read, by lots of people. People with brains. Lots of brains. Even insulted brains. Brains that I TEACH.
How do you deal with the challenges of having your work criticised? How do you protect your neck?
One great resource for authors on how to survive your book being published is this series by Australian authors Jane Rawson and Annabel Smith What to Expect when You’re Expecting…a Book.
And if nothing else works, here’s my other therapy: Wu-Tang Clan on the stereo reminding me, Protect Ya Neck.