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Okay, world, I am poking my head out of The Cave of I Don’t Blog for this entry. It’s rare for me to find a topic I’m willing to blog about, but this is the culmination of several conversations I’ve had with fellow writers lately, both published and aspiring, and one particular string of emails with a fabulous YA author who shall remain nameless.
So, here it comes. Are you ready? I am going to tell you what I think about negative reviews. Keep in mind this is just MY perspective and individual results may vary, so consult your physician if you experience rage-induced rashes or buckets of tears upon reading your own reviews. A slight unwillingness to remove the bedcovers from your face is normal unless it persists for more than four hours.
If you are published, chances are that you will get a negative review. There are different types of negative reviews, ranging from the milder “This wasn’t for me” to the heavyweights, which include, but are not limited to, “How the ampersand-exclamation-pound-asterisk did this get published?” “I would recommend this book to people in need of a doorstop” and “I have no proof but suspect this saccharine prose is responsible for the war in Iraq and the traffic jam on I-95.”
If you have someone in your life like my mom, you’ll get a reassuring phone call and, “Well, they’ll be kicking themselves when they see how successful this book will be” or “They just don’t get it.” Thank you so much, Mom, I appreciate that, but I disagree. It isn’t that positive reviewers understand your brilliance and negative reviewers don’t. There is no such thing as a wrong opinion or, by association, a wrong review. The simple fact is that you wrote a book, and some people will hate it as much as other people love it. And both sides are entitled to their feelings.
Here is what your book is not: A thing that will be universally enjoyed by all. You know this. You have read books you didn’t like, books you hated, books at which you have perhaps yelled aloud while reading (sorry, sleeping cat, but WHY DID SHE OPEN THE DOOR WHEN SHE KNEW THERE WERE ZOMBIES!? GAHHH!) You’ve had opinions, and sometimes you were left breathless and astonished, but other times you were angry, dissatisfied, or just indifferent. The book you have written will be no exception. Shakespeare and Nabokov have negative reviews too.
Here is what your book is: Your book is a story, and that story is being put out into the world. It will be tossed in people’s backseats, and will have soda spilled on it, and be on coffee tables and stuffed in backpacks until the cover gets bent, and it will be read, and loved, and hated. It’ll be in hundreds of places, and there will be hundreds of opinions on it, and that’s pretty cool. How many people get the opportunity to say they created something that could do that?
In my opinion, all reviews (and yes, I do mean ALL reviews) are an accomplishment. They are a ripple caused by something you labored over—something you and your publishing team worked hard to set off into the world. To become a published author, you’ve probably failed a few times (me, I wrote three novels the world will never see, and had over 140 agent rejections to show for them).
But now that you’ve succeeded and taken your first step on that sparkling road of published books and fairies and gumdrop trees, you should be proud of yourself. When you get an especially painful review, take a deep breath, look at what you’ve done. Shuffle your rejection letters; look at that Shiny Awesome Thing that you bought with your advance; remember how it felt to tell your loved ones. And then, maybe, think back to a book you had negative feelings about. Then think back to a book that sent warmth through your blood and stayed with you for days after you’d finished.
And then, remember that you’ve written something with that same kind of power.
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It’s been a while since I’ve really updated my blog. And, unless there’s some big news to report regarding the chain of perpetual awesomeness that is my profession, there won’t be many updates in the future, either. So I thought I’d take a little time to write a blog about why I don’t blog.
I have always been a writer. And when I say “always” I mean pretty much since I was old enough to identify myself as a sentient being. It’s my identity. Because of this, people have formed the misconception that I am good with all words. Words that fill birthday cards. Words that weave a eulogy. Words of comfort or wit or sadness.
Let me tell you, this is not true. Many times, my pen has hovered over a blank card, my mind spinning dizzily, only for the end result to be “happy birthday” or “sorry for your loss” or “congrats on the twins!”
Words are not magical sparkling moths that flock to me when I open my mouth or a word document or a card. They aren’t delivered to me by storks. I’ve been rendered speechless many times. I’ve been at a loss for words. I’ve said something weak and unhelpful when someone I loved was in pain. And not for lack of trying to be poetic, believe me.
But here is the only thing I know about myself for certain. Though my hair color and my mood and my taste in fashionable women’s converse are a revolving door of change, I know this one thing: I write fiction.
And it does not always come easily. A semicolon can become such a conundrum that I seek the advice of five or six objective parties. I email my agent fourteen times a day about whether or not that passage was too beat-the-reader-in-the-nose sad. I get out of bed at 4 in the morning, pad to the living room, open my laptop and reread that death scene. I rearrange the commas. I remove the modifiers. I go back to bed. I stare at the ceiling, wondering if that character should have died in the first place.
I create worlds. I make people up. And then I do what I can to make those things believable. It’s fun, but rarely easy. I think in glimpses of fiction. I stare off, seeing the way a strip of sunlight looks on someone’s ankle, blood circling down a drain, hands on a steering wheel. Then I write these things down, and I see what they turn into. Sometimes they become books. And sometimes they crumple in on themselves and turn to nothing. I never really know which it will be.
But that is my process. It’s totally random. Or maybe it makes sense in some way I am incapable of figuring out.
And I can see that this post has turned into a tirade, which only proves my point: I cannot routinely blog with finesse. I have opinions and thoughts and some comical experiences in Connecticut traffic, but these things get mashed and muddled like insects in a pool filter. Rarely can I weave the True Tales of My Life into a coherent memoirette (I am so coining that term). But check back, because on occasion, if something is important enough to me, I will blog it.
And if you choose to read my books, or my stories, know that I really worked on them. I revisited those words. Added. Revised. Deleted scenes and brought them back. When I lacked paper, I wrote on lampshades, my steering wheel, my skirt (which came out in the wash, surprisingly). I do everything in my power to make sure that the words I write, the words that will reach you, are worth your time. Because, really, reading is an intimate thing. Who wants to believe it was for nothing? Who wants to believe that the person writing those words didn’t care about them?
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My grandfather’s wake was this afternoon.
Admittedly, it had been a few years since I’d seen my maternal grandparents, and my happiest memories of them are clouded by that gaussian blur of early childhood. Still, when I saw his charming smile in black and white, atop the paragraphed summary of his life, he was just as I remembered him. His paragraph read like a list of accomplishments: his children, grandchildren, military time served; loved his country; loved God. He was 89 years old.
In the end, a paragraph is all most of us will get.
Still, 89 years is a long time. The best parts of my grandfather’s life happened before I was born. I’d always had the romantic notion that my grandfather and grandmother had one of those impenetrable loves. That one could not exist without the other. That when they were young, when my grandmother had her bangs rolled and clipped on her head like a pinup model, and when my grandfather posed shirtless on the beach, as they smiled at the camera they knew what their old age would look like. They knew that they would wear bucket hats and sun visors and he would have to hold her hands as they ascended their porch steps. They knew they would have wood paneling and drinking glasses with chipped citrus fruits painted on.
On the wall of the funeral home, I watched the photos of my grandfather change within the digital frame. But the time in between the black-and-whites and my gaussian memories can only be left to the imagination. I will never know the man who lived in that space. My grandmother will carry some of it with her, and the rest will stay suspended in that place where escaped thoughts and accidentally deleted emails go.
My own father said something, when I was very young, that has stuck with me. He said that when someone close to us dies, it’s best to remember them as they were, not as the body they left behind. (He was actually referring to our dog, and I was crying hysterically at the time, but the message has held true–In fact, I said something to that effect in my father’s eulogy years later). And so, when I knelt at my grandfather’s casket today, I started tallying up the things that made him who he was to me. I will remember my grandfather taking me to the ocean on an overcast afternoon. I will remember his garden, which had a stone staircase that took me into its depths. I’ll remember how that garden felt like the biggest place in the world. I’ll remember that he saved plastic containers, and cardboard boxes with can imprints at the bottoms. I’ll remember garden dirt on his hands, and the way unripened tomatoes fit in his palm two or three at a time.
As for the things I won’t remember, the things I wasn’t there for, I can only say that they mattered. They belonged to him, just like each of our moments belong to us. In the time between the photographs and that final black and white in the newspaper, my grandfather’s life was bright with color, harmonious with sound. I know that he didn’t take a second for granted–Not a day in his garden. Not a single breeze through his hair.
This time of year has become an issue for me. In mid-June, right along with garden supplies and beachwear come the father’s day sales. And ads. And store signs. And television marathons.
My father died four years ago, quite unexpectedly. The anniversary of that date slips quietly by on the calendar, and though I might draw the odd sharp breath or two, I do little to acknowledge it. Many of my closest friends see me on the anniversary and never know it. And in this blog entry it’s likely I’ve already used the word “father” more than I have since 2006.
Since my father’s death, I’ve graduated from college; I’ve trudged through countless office jobs and killed as many plants; my first book will be out in less than a year; I have cats and a great apartment and have learned how to take care of a tomato plant without killing it. And if you want the truth, I am terrified by how much has changed, how much I’ve evolved as a person, without the presence of the man who supported and encouraged me for twenty-one years.
I don’t talk about it, think about it, or even write about it very often. And when father’s day approaches every year, I avert my gaze. I change the channel. On the topic of fathers, I am an ellipsis. An empty space.
And this father’s day, though I won’t be buying a card or making that phone call, I will put this out there: I did have a father. A great one. One who taught me how to drive, who hid Mario figurines in my room when I was little, wrote me silly postcards for no reason other than to say he was proud of me. I had a father who, during the premiere of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, turned to me for no reason at all and said, “One day, kid, you’ll do great things.”