When my first novel, This Girl is Different, came out last year, I avoided reading reviews. Avoided like the plague. The very thought of their existence filled me with Walking Dead dread.
My publicists, editor, and agent are very careful not to send me reviews, per my request; reviews get sent to my manager (aka my husband) who reads them, but keeps their contents in the vault. He tells me excerpts for my website and Facebook and stuff.
You’re probably all, “Time out! I call WUSS! Authors need thick skin. You gotta listen to criticism. Otherwise you won’t grow as a writer.”
I am a wuss.
And agreed: critique is paramountally important.*
[Yes, I just wrote paramountally. Whatevs. I’m writing this in the thick of a bunch of 7 and 8 year olds constructing scrap-material cars, and they’re all screaming and running around, and I forgot my earbuds. ARGH.]
Anyhoo. Where was I. Right. Critique. Critique is one of the top three necessities of successful authors -- the other two necessary components being (1) writing, and (2) reading a ton. I am open to critique, but here’s the thing: source matters. I am wide open to critique FROM PEOPLE I TRUST.
Are most professional reviewers smart, thoughtful readers who care about books and their place in literature and libraries? Almost certainly. But what about the few bad apples? What if my reviewer is a Bitter Betty who gave up on her own novels (or never even got started) and is now on a mission to spread misery wherever she goes? That’s not a review I need to invite into my psyche.
So now you’re all, “Why not just read the good reviews?” Well, because. If I take to heart the good reviews from people I don’t know, it’s only fair I take the bad. I suppose I could do like the Olympics, and discard the top and bottom scores, but that’s getting a bit complicated. Besides, I’d have to read them all to keep track.
So. Here’s what I do: I listen to people I trust.
My critique group (Stephen Messer, Jennifer Harrod, John Claude Bemis – Adverb Fight Club, holla!) are my first readers, and we meet and drink coffee or beer and they tear my work to shreds. Shreds. AND THEN THEY HELP ME BUILD IT BACK UP into something better. Because they are my friends, and they are super smart, and they are working on their own books, and THEY HAVE MY BEST INTEREST AT HEART. They have my back; I have theirs. End of story. Well, actually start of story ....
After Adverb Fight Club does their worst/best, I rewrite. And then hand it to my husband to read and critique, and I fix more stuff. Then it goes to my agent, who is super thoughtful, professional, and honest; based on her feedback, I make more changes. If you’re keeping track, that’s at least five critics – and probably twenty re-writes – before a manuscript hits the desk of my editor at Peachtree, Kathy Landwehr. Who then rips it to shreds … again. And so I rewrite it again. And I give it back to my critique group. And then my husband. And then back to Kathy. (Ginger gets spared that round.) Then it goes to my parents and mother-in-law, and Peachtree’s several copy editors. THEN it goes to print.
So. Yeah. I can take criticism. But I don’t read reviews.
Except when I do read reviews. I’ve read a few more of them with the publication of my second novel, The Theory of Everything. And I’ll be honest, I was stoked to get a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly. Because it was complimentary, yes, but mostly because maybe the little red star in front of my book gets it on more school and public library shelves, and into the hands of more readers.
*Thick skin is not necessary; persistence is. But that’s another blog post for another time.
_Who doesn't love a good "Best of" list to ring out the old and ring in the new?
Especially this teen blogger's "Best Books of 2011" list, which includes, and I quote: "This Girl is Different by J. J. Johnson. This book is different. In a good way. No, scratch that, in an amazing, incredible way."
**Happy sigh.** Feeling the love.
And it gets me thinking ... what are MY Favorite Books of 2011? Well, well -- I'm so glad I asked myself!
First, FICTION. Man, I read some hella good books this year. So here goes:
The White City by John Claude Bemis (Random House, 2011). Totally satisfying, Ferris Wheel-centric conclusion to The Clockwork Dark Trilogy. Super love.
The Death of York Mortwell by Stephen Messer (Random House, 2011). Creepy and touching and just plain fantastic.
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett (HarperCollins, 2011). This novel just stuck to my ribs.
Tamar: A Novel of Espionage, Passion, and Betrayal by Mal Peet (Candlewick, 2007). What it might have been like to be in the resistance in the Netherlands, WWII.
Veil of Roses by Laura Fitzgerald (Bantam Dell, 2006). Caught my eye at Goodwill, and I loved it, because it's hard to find a "real" novel about straddling two cultures.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie (Little, Brown, 2007). Because I heart Sherman Alexie.
For more, including my non-fiction picks, click right over there --------------------------->
_ Writing novels is a team sport. I am super lucky to be part of a critique group with three fantastic writers: John Claude Bemis, Jennifer Harrod, and Stephen Messer. We have a great respect and love for each other, and we agree on just about everything, except plot points, spoilers, use of -ly adverbs, characterization, book recommendations, or a name for our group. Anyhoo... did I mention how close we are? We've been meeting regularly since before any of us were published. Now, six years later, our group has more than 9 books published or under contract.
But don't take my word for it. Get the scoop from John on Smack Dab in the Middle.
j.j. johnson, author