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Wednesday, August 27, 2014

With a Bucket of Salt...with Reviews, That Is...

The important thing to me is that I'm not driven by people's praise and I'm not slowed down by people's criticism. I'm just trying to work at the highest level I can. --  Russell Crowe

Upon their first new release, a friend and fellow author flew high on the sparkly waves of first-book-itis. The knew, for the first time, the experience that is incomparable to anything imaginable. The exhilaration of having written a book. The book being accepted by the publisher. The whole kit and caboodle that is writing. And the Grand Finale. The Release

And then...and then...

That pin prick in the balloon of giddy glee---the first negative review. Ay. 

My friend immediately fell into a slump. Their confidence was deflated. They were never going to write again, they cried. They sucked at it, they claimed. Why, oh, why, did they ever think they could write? Low, low, low. Only to be soon lifted up on the breeze of the next good review. 

Reviews. Riding on the high winds of them from ecstatic glee and then spiraling down, crashing to earth then back again. A cycle. 

My friend is not the only one. It is, unfortunately, the way for many of us. We base our confidence on them. We gauge whether or not we're truly talented on them.

The scariest part of it all? We use reviews to validate the very heart of our souls---our writing. I don't know why we do. But we do. 

It gets complicated, too. I mean, here's one reader who praises our book to high heaven and another who condemns it to literary hell. If we're going to validate what we do based on such diverse opinions, how the hell do we ever just settle down and know what we're supposed to write and how we're supposed to write it? 

Once, in a department store, I was trying on a beautiful cobalt blue sweater. The friend who accompanied me shook her head. No. Not you. Not your color. Nah. Not your style. But...but....I loved that damn sweater! I truly, truly, truly felt it looked good. I felt beautiful in it. So disappointed, I started to head back to the dressing room, to return that gorgeous sweater to the rack.


A gentleman who'd been sitting just outside the dressing room, waiting for his wife, stopped me. I think it looks very nice. It looks good on you, he said quietly. I think you'll be sorry if you don't buy it, he added. 

Do you see where I'm going with this? Yes, you do. Opinions.

I bought the sweater. Not because the man advised it. But because I loved it and I knew, deep in my heart---and the mirror, too, mind you---that it was a good choice for me. The man? Oh, he agreed. I used his opinion to add weight to what I'd already felt inside. 

But, more importantly,  I have loved that sweater. It was me. 

My near-mistake was allowing the friend's opinion to alter what I felt in my heart. She said it didn't look good, I believed her. I based my opinion on hers.

Reviews are just like the shopping incident. The varying opinions. Liking a book vs. not liking it. There, on one side of the scale, is a good review. On the other side sits a bad one. 

It's your call, darling. Which one are you going to grab up to base your confidence on? The good one or the bad one? 

Neither one, you silly goose! Neither one! 

I can only speak for myself on this, as we're all different. I personally take heed to almost all reviews. Good and bad. Sometimes the bad ones can be valuable learning tools if---I repeat if---they are honestly presented with tactful feedback. Still, it is opinion. Only opinion. But even opinion sometimes can be helpful. I've learned more than I care to count from kind, honest criticism. 

What do I not listen to? Mean-spirited feedback. There's never, never, never any cause to be hateful in a review. Never. Well, not if a reviewer wants to be taken seriously, that is. For me, spiteful snarls and hisses in reviews negate anything the reader intended to say. 

For instance, I've read so many reviews that began with such things as I hate to spoil the good rating party, but... And I actually read one that said Although I don't like to leave negative reviews in this instance I felt I had to provide a little bit of balance to all the positive reviews.

And that, my dears, said it all. It was offered in order to hurt. It was dished up to purposely bring---or attempt to bring---the author down to a crash. To pierce the bubble. 

I hesitate to even approach the subject of dealing with meanness when our work is burned at a stake. I think it's call authors behaving badly or something like that, and it is taboo to go to that forbidden land.

But, no. I'm not an author behaving badly because I want to be respected by persons whom I've never done anything to. 

I'm an author behaving humanly.

Oh, honey, I'm a big girl. I can handle a person not liking my book. Hell, some of the bad reviews have been so on-target that even I agree with them. I am my own worst critic. I have writing faults and I know it. I don't get my feathers ruffled by a bad review. Like I said, I even learn from them. Often. I've even written to some who've given bad but thoughtful reviews and thanked them because from some of them have come some awfully priceless suggestions. I'm no dummy. I listen. And so should you. 

The proverbial grain of salt. Yes, use it. Do not base your worth on a review. Not even a good one. You heard me. Not even a good one. Enjoy good ones. Just please, please don't let the goodness mellow your fervor enough that you bask in it and don't try any harder. Don't grab your good reviews to your chest like a winning poker player with his chips and walk away with your winnings, feeling that the game is as good as it gets. Don't. Enjoy it, savor it, and get out there and  throw it all back in to gamble again. 

Oh, trust me. For some reviews, you don't need the grain of salty stuff. You need buckets of it. 

And you know what? Reviews, bad or good, prove your work has been read. It proves your work brought someone to the point that they felt they needed to speak of it. Believe it or not, even the negative feedback---considering the time involved to share it---is still sign of your work having a life out there.

Robert Fanney says, Writers shouldn't fear criticism. Instead, they should fear silence. Criticism is healthy. It gets people thinking about your work and, even better, it gets them talking and arguing. But as for silence -- it is the greatest killer of writers. So if you hate a book and want to hurt it -- don't talk about it. And if you hate my books -- please, for God's sake, shout it from the hills! 

And he's right. Just remember the salt. Please carry your salt with you. 

The bottom line is this: good reviews, bad reviews, no reviews. Never let them, as the quote says, drive you one way or another. Do your best because...well...your work should just be your best anyway.




Lena Grey said...

Excellent post Vastine. Especially as a reviewer, I appreciate your insight. I always put a lot of thought in to my reviews and only give positive feedback. Reviews are weird thing to deal with because of all the different opinions. Sometimes, when I read reviews of a book I've reviewed, I wonder if I read the same book as they did, considering the disparity of opinion. That's what authors need to remember...it's just an opinion coming from their likes and dislikes, not from fact. Their books are a gift to us; they are bearing their soul, sharing their innermost thoughts. I, for one, respect them for that and think if you like a book or not, there's a person behind those words. Be considerate!

Vastine Bondurant said...

Lena, thank you for stopping by and I truly enjoyed your thoughts.

I always love hearing from the reviewer's perspective!

And I like the wondering sometimes if we're reading the same book as the next person. But, then, that is the beauty of it all. Different tastes and lots of books out there for them all.

Again, thank you!

SA Collins said...

Due to limitations of the comments it's in two parts:

I agree with this. Having worked in the performing arts for years, I've taken up the same position that Crowe has in your opening quote. F'em if they don't like it. I'm gonna do what I'm gonna do 'cause it's the only way I know how to do it. I write because it they are the stories I want to read. I write because, as a gay author, I remember being starved for anything (this was back in the barely non-existent world of gay fic of the 70's/80's) that might give me a clue as to what I was feeling was normal. Gordon Merrick and John Rechy were my beacons. They gave me the solid understanding that I was okay. I was going to be alright. It may get rocky, it may be fraught with angst, tears and a whole lot of grit and determination, but damn it, it was gonna be my own journey. Those men gave me the literary rudder I needed to find my own way. They were my bibles in my backpack every damn day while I struggled through high school. Bullied? I pulled the book out at lunch and disappeared and licked my wounds.

So I write because one day, long ago, some other writer had the courage to put it out there at a time when it wasn't the thing to do. But it saved me. It saved me in so many ways I couldn't begin to describe. It is to those brave men that I write what I write. My first novel has one helluva romance in it. It is based on an event in my past - an improbable pairing of a varsity jock and a geeky out(ed) gay kid trying to stay tucked in the shadows. But it's dark, it's not all roses and sunshine (unlike many of the genre) because that's how it truly is for gay boys/men.

This is what I find lacking in the genre. The angst is often one dimensional with regards to how we, as gay men, live our lives. I don't begrudge non-gays from taking up the gay MC baton. I thank them for it. But only insofar as they understand that for them it is something they pretend to absorb. They get to put it away. I don't. When I hit save and exit my writing app, I am still in it - every damned day of my life. So that is in my work. There is no 'off' switch. There is no - okay I get to do something else now - that isn't colored by the fact that I have no way to do that. It is ingrained deeply into who I am. That's reflected in my work.

(In two parts - sorry)

SA Collins said...

Part 2:

So how does all of that rambling tie into what you wrote? I made a decision from the time my main character blossomed on the page, that he would be unapologetic about who he was. I know it won't gain me admirers in the M/M romance genre. It is a trilogy of books - book one ends very dark. But that's how our lives go sometimes (more often than not). That's not to say all hope is lost, either. My boys do get their HEA but it is a very long tunnel to get there. My work doesn't fit the mold. So I had to go with what I had left: it had to ring true for how I, as a gay boy who didn't have a choice to be out because everyone else had already taken care of that for me, would have responded to the situation I put my boys through. I know it won't win me "awards" and "adulation" from the M/M masses. But it's a romance nonetheless. A very strong and deeply drawn romance. Just not all roses and sunshine.

So I get your whole - write because it's what you do, write because is what you do best. I get it, I do. I write because maybe, just maybe, in some small rural part of the country (or hell, the world even) some young boy might find his way to my book. He might pick it up and read about the improbable love between the high profile and godly jock and the shy but out geek. He might have a crush on his own high school quarterback - who knows? But maybe, just maybe, while he won't have the romance he longs for, he'll read my work and inwardly allow himself to sink into one or both of my boys. Maybe, just maybe, he'll revel in their heady and very saucy sexual escapades (my boys pull NO punches - it's a very ingrained part of my work); he might even allow himself to think - like I did with Rechy and Merrick's work, I'll be okay somehow.

It's that boy I write for. If I get ONE of him - then I'm a success. It would be worth 8 million 5 star ratings to have ONE of him. Because that's the boy I get. That boy was me. That boy is the one I want to hold close and whisper - yeah, kid, you're gonna be okay... somehow.

-SA Collins

Vastine Bondurant said...

SA...first of all....Thank you for visiting!

I've read and re-read your words and LOVE them!

Thank you for sharing not only your thoughts but your experiences because the experience added with the feelings brings it all home in such reality. We all need to see that, and I sure appreciate your sharing that.

And I very much agree with YOU!! Yes, keep doing what you are doing! I much rather think there's more satisfaction in hitting home with a small handful of readers---to their hearts---than to have hoards read me who are only reading something that makes them not have to think.