Good ways to think about Bad Reviews

Being a writer who puts their work out in the world requires courage. Real courage because you are laying your soul bare to be picked at and ridiculed. No matter how thick a skin you’ve developed, no matter how humble, and no matter how much you believe in your work, you will be hurt when you let your baby go out into the world. And no matter how good your work is, you will get bad reviews. There are people out there that hate Stephen King’s work, that can’t stand Toni Morrison’s masterpieces, that groan at the name Bronte. I know of no author or book that is universally adored.

But on a much smaller scale, when you are new, obscure, starting out, even before you’ve been published and you don’t  bestseller list to back you up, you are a much bigger target. People will tear your work apart to help you improve it but they will also tear your work apart to be mean. The bad thing about this is you don’t always know which one it is.

So, whether its an amazon review on a self published work, a forum review, a peer review or a review from he NY times, before you let that review convince you that your work is crap and you should give up, try thinking about it from a few different angles instead.

1. What do they say that is helpful to me?

Is any of the criticism constructive? At all? “The pace is so slow that I fell asleep during the second chapter, while drinking my third espresso” Ouch. But okay. So less talkm more action. We can work with this.
“This sucked so hard that I used it to vacuum my floor” Hmm, not so helpful. Maybe this person is just a douche.

2. Who is the reviewer?

An award winning editor and book reviewer? At this stage, not likely, but if that’s the case, their words hold a little stock. A target reader? Consider it a case study. You’re sister? Meh, maybe not so much. A troll on amazon? Yeah, just ignore that dude. Another writer? Well, here’s where it gets a little tricky.

I have found so much support and so much help working with other writers as crit partners. I have also found a few who seem to think there is only so much success to go around. They will either latch onto how they think your book should go and continually poke holes in everything that doesn’t go their way, they will attack your professionalism by pointing out every minor flaw and misspelling like it’s a testament to your entire work that your spell checker missed the right format of “its”. They will insist your plot is flawed, your dialogue is unrealistic, but they won’t have any suggestions to fix it.

When you get a review, any review you should read the comments with consideration of who that person is. Are you in constant competition with your sister? Is the reviewer on amazon a reader or a troll? Does the person on the forum generally enjoy genre? Is the other writer someone who want you to succeed?

3. Haters gonna Hate

Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah.

4. Art is subjective

And writing is art. I’m not a fan of dada but I love impressionism. I don’t love Lovecraft but I really enjoy Deveraux from time to time. Lovecraft is the master of my preferred genre and Deveraux is about as far as you can get from my reading bucket list but their styles make all the difference.

5. Do you have room for improvement?

The answer here is always yes. No matter how good you are, you can be better. It can feel discouraging, but if you really think about it, it’s kind of liberating. You’re best work is likely not written yet unless you let those bad reviews steal your courage.

So whether is is constructive or just mean, whether its true or false, don’t take it as a sign that you should give up. Take it as a sign that you should keep going, striving, and improving.

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It’s Darling Hunting Season

Fall is always a great time to go back and revisit old projects or get back to editing a project that summer forced you to put on hold. Kids are back in school. Vacations have been taken. You are recharged and ready to get out your editing machete and do some damage in the name of good writing.

And the best place to start making a dry manuscript come back to life is with darling hunting.

Note I’m not saying killing. Like a responsible hunter you should be discerning who is not strong enough to last the winter and who’s death would be detrimental of the story. So stalk your characters. Observe their actions. Are they dragging down the herd or are they driving the action? Will thinning them out make the story stronger (drive action, bring more emotion, up the ante, force the change in your dynamic characters) or will is destroy it (leave other characters grasping and wanting with no where to go)?

In my current project, I tried everything I could not to kill a main character. She was wonderful; funny, dynamic and heroic. And she had to die. I was surprised she ended up taking a few minor (and equally likable) characters with her, but it was how the story went. Resisting it, as I have in the past, would have left me with a stale mate or at least a stale ending.

Consider your targets and go over the options in your mind. Be calculating. Prepare to be sad that you snuffed out a character you loved. Deal with it. Take the shot. See how the circle of life recharges your story.

And have fun writing!

Interesting, Realistic Conflict

Two things that shouldn’t be in a riveting story? Too many wild loose ends and tight pretty bows.

Now the loose ends, they can flap around through out the story, being tethered down one by one, but at the end, unless you are writing a series, they should be pretty much accounted for, if not entirely cleared away.

Consider the following story synopsis:

Chad loves Wendy. Wendy is an alien from Trompo IV who may explode if she has sex. Chad and Wendy battle an evil space lord who has destroyed a planet of peaceful people who create the fuel that allows intergalactic space travel. They win. The get married. The end.

So the main conflict is the space lord battle, but what about Wendy’s potential exploding? And how is anyone going to travel in space now that the fuel makers are gone?

The bows, if they are going to come in at all, should exist only at the end of the story. Introducing a serious conflict and then clearing it up mid story, never to affect the protagonist again is a great way to give your reader a chance to put down your book and never pick it back up again.

An example:

Brad love Mindy. Mindy is an alien from Trompo VI who may implode if she falls in love. Brad meets another alien who offers him the cure. He gives if to her. She is now safe. They fall in love. Then an evil space lord destroys a planet where they make the teleports that allow for space travel. Brad and Mindy battle him. They win because they find a special weapon that destroys his destructible ship. Then they discover the secret to making the teleports for space travel. Then they get married but it rains. Then it stops raining. The end.

Oh. How nice that everything worked out so well for them. What was the point of this story?

Now it can be argued that in real life, all we have are loose ends when we really want pretty bows on our conflicts, so we can use the term realistic with a grain of salt but I also say you can leave a few frayed threads and unanswered questions at the end of a story. Where are Chad and Wendy going to live? Earth or Trompo IV? Will Mindy ever get over the side effects of compulsive hiccups that accompanied the cure to her condition? Who is Brad’s real father?

In real life our big conflicts do get wrapped up, one way or another, but it rarely with a tidy bow. Now I have said I like hopeful endings, but happy endings are another matter. If that is your thing, go for it with the prettiest bow you got, but realistic resolutions are usually tied together with spit and tape and blood.

Try this one:

Vlad is in love with Bendy, who is from Trompo III. She avoids him because she carried a dark family curse and could destroy worlds if she falls in love. Meanwhile an evil space lord is trying to manipulate the two into getting together so that he can harness Bendy’s world destroying power. Vlad and Bendy discover the plot too late as an innocent kiss blows away a planet of peaceful psychics who bend space to allow for galactic travel. The soul survivor grudgingly assists Vlad and Bendy in defeating the evil space lord but it cost Bendy her life. Vlad takes to the stars with the surviving psychic in hopes of repairing the damage he’s done.

The problems are wrapped up, but there are no pretty bows. Everyone is feeling lots of feelings at the end, but there is a little hope that Vlad has grown as a person, can learn to respect a woman’s boundaries, and will be driven by his guilt to fix the problems he caused.

When your outline or finishing your first draft, always ask yourself: Is this too easy for my characters? Are all the major problems dealt with at the end? Is there a primary conflict that carried through out the whole story and is “resolved” in the climax?

After all, what is a story but a problem and solution?

How lucky I am

When I was a freshman I had to write a paper about my future career. When we presented them in front of the class I was slightly embarrassed sharing my colorful construction of my future acting career and engagement to Leonardo DiCaprio, but when I was writing it… well when i was writing it I was having a blast. Having a great time writing a school paper.

Other students were a bit more practical in their ambitions. Scientists. Engineers. Dancers (okay, maybe that’s not as practical but it seemed so to me at the time). But Lindsey was going to be a leading Hollywood actress, and she wrote about it in a first person account that read like an early life memoir.

By the time I graduated, I had expanded my ambitions a bit. I was going to write, direct, star in and write the soundtracks for my own films. I had a band at the time. I had just begun to write some music that wasn’t super bad, just as I had finally started writing some short stories,poetry and lyrics that wouldn’t make readers want to gouge their eyes out.

I was encouraged to choose a practical major in college within my interests but I held out for a while, refusing to narrow it down from English and Communications. Meanwhile, during long lonely nights in my dorm while my roommate was out and I was supposed to be studying or sleeping, I was writing stories. I was experimenting. My hard drive went from fifteen to a hundred non school related doc files in a year. I filled notebooks with lyrics and even songs.

I started a band.

Eventually we even played shows and weren’t half bad. We had a great time but the push was never there. I never wanted to sacrifice college, the potential of a family to go out on the road and pursue that passion. And that’s when I knew.

I declared a Journalism major in the weak attempt of being practical but even as I finished my degree I knew I wanted to write novels. That was what I wanted to do with my life. My journalism degree didn’t get me a journalism job because I had no heart for the field. Instead I became a graphic designer and I liked the work a lot.

At that point in my life, my career passions took a backseat to life goals. I met my husband. I wanted to build a life with him, have a family. Dreams of Leonardo were long gone and I was excited to be making a home in the suburbs and focusing on building a great one.

But I didn’t stop writing and something funny happened. I lost my job. And I couldn’t’ find a new one right away. So I wrote, between job searches and applications I wrote. I finished a novel that I consider to be my first adult work, although far from ready to publish to this day. When I finally got another job, life moved fast. I got pregnant, had a baby and the suffered from a serious heath ailment that forced me to resign and become a stay at home mother.

And after the adjustment to being a stay at home mother, I started to write more and learn more, through trial and error and research about what it took to become a writer. I started to focus in.

Now I’m standing at the precipice and I realize my whole life has pushed me here again and again. I have always had a passion for the creative arts. I have always been a writer. I have accomplished my first dream of having a family. I have one and it is beautiful. Now is the time for my next dream. Any attempts I have made to be practical with my career have derailed, one way or another so there is only one path left for me to choose. The path of my life long passion.

How lucky am I that I know where my passion lies? I have seen friends and loved ones struggle trying to find a path that compels them. I have watched people pursue interest after interest only to watch them fizzle out and leave them wanting. I have stood side by side with other on the edge of their dream and afraid to jump down the slippery slope that could lead to their failure.

I am no so afraid any more. I know what I want and I will accomplish it eventually.

Because this is where I always end up.

An Apology

If you have read my blog, you have probably noticed some glaring typos. Some sloppy writing. If you’ve checked my bio, you may have noticed I was planning on launching my debut indie novel this summer (I have just edited this). I started this blog in the spring during a big rush of creativity and motivation. I had big plans. I still have them but reality makes them a bit harder to implement.

A writer writes and writes often. Unfortunately, if they are not in the extremely coveted situation of being able to write for a living, their passion must contest with full time jobs, school, housework, family obligations, schedules, and, in my case currently, raising little children. And even if a writer does have the time to write full time, life still gets in the way. Creative writing can be like find four leaf clovers. Some days you can find entire fields of them. Other times you can spend all day picking through patches and coming up short.

So first I want to thank my few readers. It is so encouraging to see a like or a comment on a blog.

And I want to apologize. Sometimes I glance over a blog and wince at some of my typos. I preach editing but I obviously do not do a great job editing my own blog. I determined a while ago it was better to just get it written, get it posted and rely on spellcheck to do my bare minimum editing, than to try and make it perfect. With a four year old chattering my ear off non-stop and a crawling baby trying to seek out every random crumb on the floor to eat, I do not always give the writing for this blog my full attention.

When I do have the energy and the time (after the kids are in bed) that attention goes to my novels, and currently, even they are not getting the love they need. “The Fate of a Princess” is waiting patiently for me to work out a plot problem and some health problems my family has dealt with this summer has blocked up my creativity. Most nights I would rather read than write while I recharge.

I’m sorry. I have 100 suggestions for jump starting your creativity, but all of them require you to have the energy and want to write. I believe I am getting back to that place, but the present situation is that my wonderful children are pretty much taking all the creativity I have right now. I hope to have the book finished soon, then I can share some the joys of formatting for kindle and formalize the cover. We can talk about promotions and sales and all that fun stuff.

But for now, I’m trucking along and I’m glad to have this blog to share my thoughts and experiences. I hope you enjoy in spite of the typos and awkward phrasing and I welcome your feedback and questions.

Thank you!

Indie Book covers: how to do it right

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photo by Juskteez Vu

Before I was the illustrious author I am today (haha), I worked many years as a graphic designer, and studied fine art a majority of my life as the daughter of an art teacher. So as far as judging a book by it’s cover, I am the worst offender, but it is a very sad and true fact of publishing that a book cover can and will attract or deter potential readers.

If you go the traditional route, you will likely have little to no say in your book cover. Your publisher will send it to their marketing department, who will hire a designer who’s work has sold to their target audience before. They might hope you like it, but they probably don’t care much if you don’t.

One of the perks of being an indie writer is that you have complete control (if you like that sorta thing) and you can pick or design your cover yourself. You can hire it out to a friend. You can use your favorite artists work (with their consent of course, lets avoid lawsuits here). You can make that cover exactly what you dreamed your book cover would look like someday!

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Oh no.

Not even a graphic designer starts out knowing good flow so if your not hiring a professional book cover designer for your book cover, you need to familiarize yourself with some basics that will allow you to save money on expensive art that will not work well as a cover and still look professional and attractive.

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photo by Marta Pawlik

Keep it Simple!

This is the first and most important piece of advice I can give you. Do not try to incorporate every exciting aspect of your novel into your cover. Do not fill up the space with images. Do not use fancy fonts. Do not blast your potential readers with psychedelic colors. Just don’t.

Yes, there are awesome book covers that do all those things but they were designed by professionals who have an established record of great, inspired work. You are a writer. Your inspired work is behind the book cover. If your doing the cover yourself, choose a simple image with alot of blank space. Use a simple font. (Baskerville, Bell Gothic Trajan Pro, Impact, just please don’t use Comic Sans), Make it bold and easy to read. Keep everything relatively centered. Keep colors to a minimum pallet

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photo by Mikael Kristenson

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Use professional Art and Photography

This can cost as much or as little as you want. There are sights out there like unsplash that offer beautiful professional photographs with no attributions or costs required (although I would suggest you attribute it to the talented artist anyway because, well, karma). You can also scroll deviant art and ask if there is an artist who would be willing to sell you the rights to their work or you can contact your favorite artist and talk to them about using their art for your cover. Keep in mind, however, that they are working artists too. If their prices are too high, do not get angry or frustrated and DO NOT try to use their work without their written consent. Artist, just like writers, are trying to make a living with their art. We’re all in this community together.

Paying for beautiful work will pay off for you, if you use it correctly. A poorly illustrated cover will immediately deter a reader. Cheesy and amateur character drawing that look like Sims Screenshots are a surefire way to shout to your readers “HEY! DON’T READ THIS BOOK!”

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painting by Patricia Allingham Carlson

Make your Dream Image work for you

If the photo, painting or illustration you love for your cover is too busy, Do not try to cram your title and name into tight corners, or slap them over top of the art in garish red letters. Work with a designer or mess with it on your own to make it work. Crop, fade, adjust.

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Get Honest Feedback

Not your sister or your besties. Put it out on Twitter. Put it somewhere where people will be brutal. Much better to hear it now than to find out after you haven’t sold a single book for over a year.

If the idea of DIYing your cover is intimidating to you, don’t fret. There are hundreds of websites that offer blank covers just waiting for your title and name. Prices range from $15-500 for professional, ready made book covers that you can scroll through to match to your book.

You have options. Do not let your book cover prevent you from getting your work to your audience.

Rejections: the other half of pursuing a writing career

Once upon a time I had a great story concept. I was so excited about it I queried before I’d even finished the first draft (cue cringes from all writers reading this). It was, in fact, so good that I got two agent responses. One that said “I’d love to get your query when this is finished”. The other that asked for a sample chapter.

Holy crap.

For any writer seeking representation, this is a big deal. Round Two! I made it to Round Two!

I sent it off and started feverishly working on my outline and manuscript (during work hours) and obsessively checking my email. The rejection didn’t take too long to come. “Thanks but no thanks. This is a subjective business. Please don’t give up, this just isn’t right for us right now.”

Really one of the nicer rejection letters I’ve received. But it was crushing. What was even more crushing was the agent’s blog, which I had been reading daily. In it she mentioned she’d received some sample work and one of the pieces was absolutely wonderful.

“The rest were just not there yet. The writers could benefit from some workshops and refining their craft.”

I knew she was talking about me. About my work. My unfinished, unedited sample chapter.

It felt like a blow to the solar plexus. All work on my manuscript stopped. All writing stopped. During work hours, I went back to doing my work and playing games on facebook. I decided I didn’t have what it took to be a writer. I was not good enough.

Now obviously I made more than a few mistakes here. I tried to cut corners. I thought just because I had a great concept my work would fall in place. I took the rejection to mean much more than it did.

But artists are a sensitive bunch. When we write we are typing out our souls and when we share what we’ve written, it often times feels as if we’re pulling open our rib cage and allowing someone to examine our beating hearts. So rejection of that beating heart is pretty tough to suck up.

My mistakes here were prevalent and obvious. And necessary to make in order to learn. I did return to writing, although that story still waits in limbo, partially finished, and I went on to query and be rejected many more times. I’ve gotten discouraged and even shelved a finished manuscript because it became obvious to me that it was a hard sell and it still needed something I didn’t know how to give just yet.

Last year, a writer friend of mine was thrilled to announce he’d made it Round Two with an agent. He was new to the querying game and I was more than a little jealous that his work might find representation so soon, but I wished him the best.

A month later he gave up writing. My heart broke for him a little bit but I knew something he didn’t.

Rejection of our beating hearts is the other half of this business. It is absolutely necessary. It makes us grit our teeth and say “I’ll show you.” We release our egos and distance our hearts from our work when we go into editing mode. We let people tear our stories to shreds and say “Thank you for your help.” And at some point, it really is help. We mature. We hone our craft. We persevere.

If we self publish we steel ourselves against bad reviews or no sales. In traditional publishing, we endure constant form rejections or no response at all.

Learning to accept the rejection and keep going is as important a part of being a working writer as the writing part is. Maybe even more so.

There are numerous articles and blog posts about it but until you have your soul crushed, you will not learn. Every writer, working and otherwise will tell you their stories of failure and rejection, but you will not hear them until you have experienced it yourself.

So where is the good news here?

Last night I was rejected for a great writing opportunity. And it was completely okay. My manuscript isn’t ready yet. It needs more work. It could benefit from some workshops. And I’m ready to put in the work to make it great, because I believe in my novel and it deserves to be it’s very best.