That Sinking Feeling
Everybody knows the bad ones stick. That’s not conventional wisdom, it’s inescapable. It doesn’t matter how many good reviews you get as a writer (or for all I know as an artist, a journalist or a PPI compensation salesman), it’s the lines of loathing you know off by heart.
I know writers who won’t read their Amazon reviews, not even the good ones (at least, they say they don’t), and I do wonder if I should join them. (I know I won’t. Reviews are like cigarettes; they can kick-start your morning; they can make you as content as a chilled-out cat; but you never know which one is going to kill you. It doesn’t stop you going back to them.)
Of course the twisty-gut feeling when you read a bad review isn’t nice, but it isn’t that part of it that’s got me thinking. Reviews are a Good Thing, even when they aren’t good, if you see what I mean. There are bad reviews that are well-deserved, and ones that are downright entertaining (I’m thinking of a recent film review of Les Mis which I thoroughly enjoyed for the sheer snarkiness, though I have no views on the film because I haven’t seen it yet). Of course books should be honestly reviewed, and potential readers should be warned off the bad ones as much as they’re encouraged to try the good ones. It isn’t that.
What’s got me thinking is the stickiness-factor - not because of the hurt to one’s delicate feelings about one’s precious book-baby, but because of the potential damage to its future siblings. The democratisation of reviewing is wonderful, giving exposure both to fresh opinions and to authors who might not get the newspaper space, but the flipside of it is that anything you write is going to offend somebody, somewhere. Subjective opinion, personal taste, all that.
And it isn’t nice making people unhappy, so you tend not to want to do it again. It’s a little like having an editor-after-the-event. Editing, too, is a Good Thing. Like a sharp review, it points out what you hadn’t noticed, highlights your weak spots, encourages you to do better and go further. You have to listen and learn, but here’s the thing: you also have to know when to stop and say no.
Somebody didn’t like my portrayal of women in Firebrand. That took me aback when I first read the review, because most people thought my women were strong and individual - except for one, who starts out weak and ineffectual. She’s a victim, and for a while my hero holds her in contempt, largely because he’s an arrogant son of a bitch who’s used to strong women. That contrast was too much for this particular reviewer.
Now, on an intellectual level, I disagree with the review although I respect the reviewer’s opinion (it wasn’t abusive or rude). On a visceral level, I’ve never stopped agonising about it. Should I have written my character that way? More importantly, would I ever write her that way again?
Before the self-flagellation gets out of hand, I want to defend the way I wrote my character. She’s a young sixteenth century girl who’s been raised in a strict religious environment. She’s not used to the concept of standing up for herself, but she does anyway, and as a result terrible things happen to her. And they happen because they would have, in real life. She wouldn’t have got away with her defiance, had she been a real girl in the real sixteenth century, and to write her otherwise would have felt like a betrayal. And had my hero been warm, understanding and mature about it, he wouldn’t have been himself. Any writer will tell you that describing their characters’ actions, dialogue and attitudes doesn’t mean you’re condoning them or suggesting them as a healthy way of life.
That’s the theory. But when a reader takes exception to the way your story and characters develop, it does bring you up short. It should. We should all take responsibility for what and who we write.
When I read the third book in the Hunger Games trilogy, I was shocked by the change in Katniss. She didn’t seem like the character I’d grown to know and love, and I didn’t like it. I’ve visited the Amazon reviews since, and I know I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. But she was for real. Suzanne Collins knows Katniss better than anyone, and she knew how she’d change after all that had happened to her. It wasn’t nice, I didn’t like it, but it felt true and I’m sure that even with a time machine and a second chance, Suzanne Collins would write her the same way.
And I just don’t know if I’d be that strong. I can’t write Firebrand again, but would I write another weak female character to go with the strong ones? I hope I would. There are women who are weak, and I don’t want to write a book full of role models. This girl changes, but I must have lost that reader before she did. I don’t like that. I hate that I lost my reader before any of my characters had a chance to change and grow, before the reader’s mind was made up. In my head I know the characters needed the time they took; in my heart I want to grab the reader and shout, ‘Stop! Wait! Give them a bit longer! Look at their world!’
And next time, I’m afraid I might hurry it. Next time, I might ensure that a female character is not-raped, when most likely she would be, because of a post I read recently bemoaning the use of rape as a plot device. Maybe there’s a writer out there now, tearing up their manuscript about a kid with cancer because there’s been a recent article regretting the preponderance of ‘sick-lit’.
And there should be those articles! There should be those opinions! Debate is good! Because this is where I should come to some kind of rousing and decisive conclusion, but as I don’t have one, I only have questions. It’s a problem with me, not reviewers (every time I say ‘you’ or ‘one’, I of course mean ‘I’). I would seriously love to know how much agonising other writers do. None? Lots? Would you change your story because of a review or a tweet or a searing blog post?
Can you, should you, crowd-source your characters? It’s a serious question. And now I’m off to torment myself on Amazon...
Rebel Angels 1
Tor Books, February 19, 2013
Hardcover and eBook, 368 pages
US Adult Debut
It is the last decade of the sixteenth century: a time of religious wars in the mortal world. But the Sithe are at peace, hidden behind the Veil that protects their world until their queen, Kate NicNiven, determines to destroy it.
Seth MacGregor is the half-feral son of a Sithe nobleman. When his father is assassinated and Seth is exiled with his brother Conal to the full-mortal world, they vow not only to survive, but to return to reclaim their fortress and save the Veil.
But even the Veil's power cannot protect the brothers when the brutal witch-hunts begin….
Brimming with intrigue and rebellion, Firebrand is the first book in the Rebel Angels series by Gillian Philip, the Carnegie Medal–nominated author of Crossing the Line and multi-award-nominated Bad Faith.
Gillian was born in Glasgow, lived in Barbados for twelve years and now lives in the north-east Highlands of Scotland with her husband, twins Jamie and Lucy, three dogs, two cats, a fluctuating population of chickens and many nervous fish.
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