Working on a novel while another has recently been released is a particular kind of hell reserved for authors. As much as the desire exists to bury yourself inside the new story, it is impossible not to feed the urge of checking in to see what people are saying. This is the best/worst move ever.
If your book is selling crazily, there will be lots of great reviews, but there will also be some one-stars, because people like to be contrarian, or more commonly, Haters gon’ hate. If your book is selling, but not at a blockbuster pace, there will also be reviews. Less, much less, and the percentage of those negative ones is higher.
Clearly I am no blockbuster or you would have read here how unreal the feeling is of seeing my work on the New York Times Bestseller List. Yeah, that Instagram post has yet to present itself.
And so I’m living in that latter part of review world, where yes, Kirkus and Booklist have been kind, which is nice, as are the other bloggers who have also said nice things, including the fact that Look Past should be nominated for an Edgar. Very cool.
But authors, by and large, might read 100 awesome reviews and only remember the one terrible one. We live on self-doubt and coffee. Some of the reviews I have read for Look Past are as bitter as the coffee I’m drinking now. And that’s fine. Truly, it is. People should voice their opinions, with one caveat: the question that should always be asked when you, as a reader, arrive at a point of contention: Does this serve the story?
This is a device I use with my students to think critically about the author’s intent and not only their personal reactions. Because there is a machine beneath the words, and it’s important to see what it is doing.
This concept is really no different than Vonnegut’s Rules for writing. I have always approached my work as entities unto themselves. Microcosms, yes, but ones that operate to deliver a particular end. That end is often to paint a stark image of the world around us.
I believe my characters should be unrestrained. I want them to do and say the things that I see and hear daily. I want my stories to look, unwaveringly, at the way our society treats one another and how, in turn, that gets reflected and morphed through the experiences of teens. In short, realistic fiction.
And so when faced with difficult decisions about what to do with plot or character I always ask myself the above question: Will this serve the story? If it does, I execute. If not, I tweak until it does.
I will be presenting to students next week on getting words on paper, on getting their stories out, and to a degree, NaNoWriMo. There is no doubt that I will touch on this issue, so that when they are in their own stories, creating worlds and events with purpose, they remember what they are serving, not the masses, but the story. Because, if not, they may end up with the figurative pneumonia that Vonnegut discusses.
My hope is that they will not only write their own work with this critical gaze but will turn it on the stories they read, including my own, and come away with an appreciation for the process, however they feel about the story.