May 23, 2018

Writing Advice: How to Protect your Neck

Portrait of a woman and her dog, 1900-1910. Image courtesy State Library of Queensland.
This woman knows how to protect her neck. Portrait of unnamed woman and her dog, 1900-1910, image courtesy State Library of Queensland.

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.
Crap writing.
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.

 

15 Comments

Hayley Lawrence

Oh Eleanor,
Do you remember when we were at Varuna together last year, this was one of the questions I asked you? I am so glad you have written an article on this as I also believe that my creativity would be greatly stifled by criticism. Nice words flow over, but bitter ones burrow beneath your skin and never leave. So when my novel comes out in September, I’ve decided not to seek out reviews. People who care about me will forward on positive reviews and I can do without the self-doubt the negative ones would engender. I think sales figures are likely the better measure of success anyway. As you say, you want your book to be read. Let the sales figures do the talking!

May 23, 2018 at 12:57 pm

    Eleanor

    I’m so glad you’ve found this helpful Hayley as it’s definitely been a case of trial and error for me. I imagine your novel will garner wonderful reviews, but it’s smart to stay safe in case there are those burrowing mean ones. I, for one, am looking forward to reading it!

    May 23, 2018 at 1:50 pm

Robyn Cadwallader

All very wise, Eleanor. It’s so true that it’s the negative reviews we remember — they catch us in a vulnerable spot (though I can quote, almost verbatim, a sentence from your wonderful review of The Anchoress).
My husband scrolls through Goodreads for me, and reads out the good reviews only. I did find a review on Amazon that simply said of The Anchoress: ‘A cut and paste of her PhD.’ What a line — she managed to offend the novelist and the academic in me! But so clearly not true, and some kind of sour grapes, that I can laugh it off.

May 23, 2018 at 12:57 pm

    Eleanor

    Oh thanks Robyn, and it helps me to know that sour grapes come to most authors at times! I can’t believe that about the cut and paste of a PhD because it SO wasn’t – but you know I loved The Anchoress. And that’s very sweet of your husband to read you the good reviews off Goodreads. I remember my husband reading a not very nice review I had asked him to vet for me and he came upstairs looking like he was going to cry. So then I did cry, but at least those words aren’t in my head and I’ve never read the bloody thing!

    May 23, 2018 at 1:54 pm

Tara

The one year rule is a fantastic idea! Because I would like to know… just not yet.

May 23, 2018 at 2:43 pm

Rowena Sierant

Great advice Eleanor. If I get my book published I want to be like the unknown woman in the portrait – she looks pretty strong!

May 23, 2018 at 9:16 pm

    Eleanor

    Thanks Rowena. And I want to be like her too – she’s fierce! I don’t know who would do more damage, her or her chair-sitting dog. You wouldn’t want to mess with either of them.

    May 23, 2018 at 9:50 pm

Louise Allan

This is a timely post for me, having just seen a 1-star rating of my book on GR by a member of my writing group. I rarely venture near that site these days, and only on days I have enough mental fortitude to survive what I might read there. I don’t know why I return—moth to flame comes to mind. I’d be better off in blissful ignorance. I think your one year rule is very wise.
As for the Leesa’s of the world, they’re angry, unhappy people who want to make others feel as unhappy as they do. I very much believe the truth of that. I know the history of my 1-star writing group member—she’s sad and lonely, and I don’t think she can stand watching on as I’m published and she’s not. It’s jealousy, but also an attempt to make me feel as bad as she does. She probably enjoyed pressing ‘Enter’ on her rating, but then had to return to her sad and lonely life. While her 1-star stung me momentarily, I then returned to writing my second book and sharing my day with my family.
Thank you for writing and sharing all of this. It helps to know others experience similar.

May 23, 2018 at 9:54 pm

    Eleanor

    That’s a shocker, Louise, I’m sorry you’ve experienced that. I know how it feels to be jealous of other authors but I can’t imagine being so vindictive like that. And that anger and jealousy just becomes a vicious cycle. It feels so much better to celebrate the successes of others.
    I became addicted to reading GR which is why I banned myself, the good ones just give me a momentary high (like a sugar rush) and the bad ones stick in my head just to return when I’m feeling down or doubting myself. Interested to hear how you go, though, interacting with this writing group member in the future. I hope she tactfully disappears from the group. And glad you’re busy writing your second book!

    May 23, 2018 at 10:11 pm

Tonya R Moore

This is really good advice that I hope I’ll be able to heed when the time comes. It’s funny. You mentioned remembering the bad reviews but not the good ones. I’m like that too, the negative will stick with me but no the positive. I wonder why that it. Are we, as humans, engineered to wallow in our failings?

May 24, 2018 at 3:36 am

Teeza

Well, I just read it, finished tonight. I found it to be an easy read, I mean that in the good sense. A sweet story that made me reflect on some key life stuff. What you call hate mail is really trolling. I get it occasionally on my online store feedback (I sell vintage art). Some peopl must get a great (temporary probably) sense of power writing angry attacks. That “reader” didn’t waste her money, she wasted her opportunity to learn from your book,from the characters. She’d probably had a bad day and attacking you was letting off steam, not caring you’re a real person.
Keep writing. Loved it.

June 23, 2019 at 11:16 pm

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