I used to think that authors were solitary creatures and that writing is a solitary line of work.
How wrong we are! Writing is one of the most collaborative jobs in the world. Successful writers could end up collaborating with millions of people – even in dozens of different languages.
How? Through that lovely relationship called You And Your Readers.
One of my very favorite aspects of my series The Tales of Ambia is my Pinterest fan board. Sometimes I will get on the board and scroll through it, looking at each pin and the name of the person who pinned it. I’m captivated. For an instant, I get to step into someone else’s minds and see their perception of my book.
If that isn’t a magical power – I don’t know what is!
What a compliment; someone used a corner of their imagination for my books! They allowed my ideas into their head and made it a part of theirs.
Our imaginations have come together – people from all over the world – to dream, learn and play. Together.
But let me throw an anchor of practicality over the side to secure this lovely image before it sails beyond the borders of logic.
My book – ANY book – is essentially comparable to a can of baked beans.
Stories are a commodity, just like a can of beans.
That’s one of the reasons I encourage people to wait before they publish – we need maturity to accept this outlook. I cannot begin to stress how impersonal being a published author really is. Or at least, how impersonal it ought to be.
Because an author works with their mind and heart and (for the most part) not with their hands, they can get the idea that their product is on a slightly higher plane than any other product.
But in many ways, it’s not. We are making a product for consumers, filling the laws of supply and demand with a craft that is just as nourishing and necessary as a bag of potatoes.
But we can get so cerebral, so enamored with the mysterious and mystical process of writing and status of being an author, that we forget that it’s a job like any other.
We are not magicians for people to bow down to. We are simply artisans, crafting an excellent product for the marketplace.
Your book is a commodity, just like a box of cheerios or a car. Authors are manufacturers and reviewers are distributors. It’s my job to produce it and sell it – after that it belongs to you, the reader.
It’s not my job to tell you whether you should put the cheerios I manufactured in milk before you eat them. It’s not my job to tell you where to drive your car. Once my product is in the hands of the distributor, it’s now your cheerios and your car.
An author’s purpose is to share their words – their product – with other people. To share, we have to let go of that idea, that product, and acknowledge that it now belongs to someone else.
When you look at your bookshelf don’t you see YOUR books? Yes, that book is technically Tolkien’s because he wrote it, or Louisa May Alcott’s or whomever – but they are now your books too.
You bought them, for one thing . . . but you have also read it. Those books now hold a piece of your heart, your soul, your imagination. You have enriched that book and become a collaborator by reading it. That book has become more powerful because you devoted your time, love, and thoughts to it and perhaps even changed your life because of it. And thus, you now own a part of that book.
Isn’t it astounding to take Little Women off the shelve and think of how many millions of people now own a part of that book? People who are no longer living and who have not even been born will contribute to the wonder of Little Women. Once Louisa published, it was not just her book anymore – it belonged to the world.
She wrote it to give it away.
Imagine, if you will, that I have built a car and I want you to take it for a joyride. In fact, you will get partial ownership in the car. I manufactured the car, but I will get into the passenger seat while you slip behind the wheel. I reach over, stick the key in the ignition, and start the engine.
After that, it’s all yours.
I don’t control the steering or the breaks. I don’t tell you where to go. I don’t control your perception of the scenary that flies past. Your destination is often a complete surprise to me. I simply provided the vehicle and the spark.
This is the job of an author – nothing more, and nothing less.
Naturally, not all those car rides I talked about are going to be fun. Not everyone will love our books. Some people will dislike it intensely. That’s their prerogative.
Readers can start a book and end up being disappointed by any number of reasons. They can be bored and try a book for grins that they normally wouldn’t try and probably won’t like. Readers can be convinced to try something different by their friends. Sometimes, they’ll read it because it’s popular and they want to prove they don’t like it.
If you have reviewers like that, don’t worry. Haven’t we all done those very things ourselves?
The very purpose of being an author is to create a piece of writing to be shared and critiqued – that’s what being an author is about.
If you don’t want to be critiqued – then write for yourself, but don’t publish. If we get upset about a negative review, that’s OUR problem. The inability to be critiqued or to accept criticism is OUR character flaw, it has nothing to do with the reviewer. I’m not saying you have to like being critiqued, but we do need to grow up about it. If we can’t look criticism in the eye and take it like a man/woman, than we have no business publishing.
If the dress doesn’t fit we put it back on the rack. My books and your books will not be a perfect fit for everyone. That is the readers right, and they are not less of a person for not enjoying it. Is somebody an idiot for not liking cheerios? No. In the same way, a reader is not an idiot for disliking a book. Remember, it’s a product.
One time years ago, when I was a young author, a reader misunderstood something in my book and I commented on their review to try to clear up the misunderstanding.
*DIES A THOUSAND DEATHS*
If I could go back and do that over – I would have never commented. Even though I was friendly and politely in the comment, it was still intrinsically rude to comment, no matter what my intentions, because by commenting I was telling them that their perception of the book was wrong. Who are we to tell readers that their perception of the book is wrong?
It’s my job to paint a picture for you – that’s it. But what someone sees is subjective.
Some authors use very thick paints and tiny brushes to capture their words as they create a highly detailed work of art. Others use a light watercolor wash and capture just an impression – leaving the reader to fill in the details.
There’s no right or wrong way. The only wrong thing is to tell the viewer that they are viewing the art incorrectly.
Can you imagine if every author you have ever reviewed suddenly commented on your review to tell you how you got it all wrong? What if your favorite old authors came back from the dead to publicly inform you: “You’ve completely missed the point and misconstrued my book, you fool! I shall now get on social media and me and Austen and Twain and Stevenson shall all mock you.”
It would kill your affection for the author. You’d feel stupid. You’d be afraid to review anything in the future. You would start to doubt your opinion. You would feel guilty for expressing an opinion. You would start to resent the authors for embarrassing you. And ultimately, your love for the story would be killed, all your enjoyment dampened and damaged, because every time you look at the book, all you can think about is how that author stole that story from you by correcting your perception of it.
I don’t want to be a thief. I don’t want to steal a reviewers dignity or confidence. I don’t want to infringe on something so private as their personal perception. It’s a privilege just to peek at that reader’s mind through their review – and we need to remember that at all times. Peek, don’t speak.
When I sit at my laptop in frustration, trying to pull words out of my mind, it is my readers that keep me going. Because they need stories.
Yes, I want to be a successful author and it’s my dream to make a living at writing. Yes, accolades are wonderful. Yes, writing is what I was meant to do. But what is that other, stronger, incentive?
We live in a culture that is starving for good stories. I feel the urgent need to feed people. Especially when I think of my younger readers—as I see or imagine them traversing through another year—it’s important to me to give them something. I want to give them stories that arm them with something good and truthful. I have a responsibility to give what I produce – and so I attempt to give them the best story I can.
So many times I have been so overwhelmed with stress or even grief . . . and the only place to retreat and to rest was in the pages of a favorite book.
So many times I’ve been in pain and the only place to find relief was in the pages of an old friend.
So many times I bonded with a family member, a friend, or someone else – over a book.
So many times a character in a book inspired me to do something or to make a change.
So many times a story and theme planted a seed of truth or taught me a lesson that has served me throughout my life.
My books have the power and ability to do that for someone– and so do yours.
But once you bake this bread and sell it, don’t tell them they must put honey on it. Don’t tell them they can’t make little dough balls out of it. Let them do their thing while you do yours.
Writers and reviewers. This is a partnership, a familial relationship – and we mustn’t forget it.
Our part of this collaboration is done once we publish. Can we control the thousands that could potentially read our book? Control their perceptions, monitor their convictions, produce their joys? We can’t. Let’s get back to writing and praying – and let our readers digest our books in their own way.
And lastly, what about those other reviewers – the ones that really are nasty? I don’t mean picky reviewers or critiquing reviewers but the Nasty type who just want to destroy things?
Remember the can of beans analogy? There will always be some toddler in the store who is going to rip product off the shelf and destroy it. It wasn’t anything personal – they simply haven’t been trained.
There’s nothing you can do about it and we shouldn’t be upset by it.
So make the best story you can. Bake the bread.
It’s none of my concern how you eat my bread, or how fast or how slow, or how you digest it, or what you do with the nourishment. It’s my job to hand out the bread and keep baking.
If someone is hungry, you feed them. Write the best story you can and when it’s done and when it’s ready – give it away. It’s no longer yours. After a reader receives the bread, it’s inside them. Our stories are fuel – and how it fuels readers or where that fuel takes them is none of our concern.
Continue the cycle. Bake another good story – and give that one away too.
Let’s remember to respect our reviewers, since we are very likely reviewers ourselves. Reviewers can have good ideas and great insight. The very essence of being an author is to feel the pulse of your public and then provide them with what they want. Long ago, the definition of an artisan was someone who could produce a piece on commission – to make what someone else wanted on demand. Not a misunderstood and overemotional Byronic artist – but a smart and professional creator.
My fellow authors, what an interesting collection of people walking by the windows of your creative minds to have a peek! Appreciate them for stopping by, whoever they are and whatever they say. They gave you one of the most expensive gifts in the world – their time.
To all my reviewers – thank you so much. You are special to me. Whatever your opinion of my work might be, it’s been a privilege to be allowed into your imagination.
Solitary writers – meet your collaborators! Reviewers are – or will be – your bread and butter. Treat them well.
You have a message – but your readers will be the telegraph that sends it traveling throughout the world. Don’t break the telegraph. Don’t mock it, don’t be offended by it, don’t be puzzled by it. Rejoice in it – it’s an amazing instrument. The telegraph changed the world – and you and your reviewers can change things too.