The last great book I read left me with a deep sigh of happiness and a smile on my face. But what happened next grabbed my heart more than any book.
I’d stayed up till the wee hours to finish this book, because I simply HAD to reach the exquisite ending before letting it out of my hands. It was the kind of book that made my little writer heart long for such beautiful talent. The research brought the biblical-era world to life in a masterful way. Sweet characters that squeezed my heart and beautifully penned sentences stayed with me after I dropped the finished book on my coffee table with a tired sigh. “I must write to this author. Her talent is beyond amazing, and she should hear it from at least one more fan.” Of course, with a book like that, she’d heard it countless times. She’d even won awards, according to the book cover. So, like any fan girl, I plopped over to her website and clicked “contact me.”
But her return email just about knocked me out of my chair. “I was sipping coffee this morning, praying about whether or not I should even keep writing, when I got your email. After a very, very bad review that left me doubting my ability to write, you can’t imagine the effect your email had on my heart.”
Really?? This amazing author thought she should quit??!
But here’s the awful truth about writing—nearly every writer, multi-published or newbie, struggles with doubt. Massive doubt. Will I ever get published? Will anyone like it? Even a best-selling author sometimes wonders, what if it was a fluke the last time? Will I ever be able to do it again?
Writers often receive gushing praise with a “really?” floating in the back of their mind, like the person must have been duped. And when they reach that one nasty, harsh review that points out the book’s every flaw, real or imagined, the author believes this person has found them out. It’s impossible to write it off as simply a “you can’t please everyone” incident, because this person has just put into words the fear that’s constantly in the back of our minds—our writing doesn’t measure up.
After this odd email, I visited the author’s Amazon page to check out her book’s reviews, and to see this terrible review that had caused such doubt. Hundreds of reviews called the book “amazing” or “powerful” or “a work of art.” In that huge pile, I found one single review offering the book one star, with an entire essay–an essay–on why this book was horrible. Was this common? A few clicks told me that every single author—even the best sellers that seemed to be faultless and loved by every reader everywhere—had those one-star scathing reviews. Since this incident, I’ve heard of such reviews sending authors into a downward spiral of depression, of propelling gifted men and women into counseling offices to deal with the impact of these words.
Are writers just super sensitive?
But if they weren’t, you sure wouldn’t enjoy reading anything that pours from their heart onto the page. And I’m the last person to tell you to give a dishonest review for any reason, but let me say this—honest, critical reviews, even negative ones, do not have to be devoid of love. “If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal” (I Corinthians 13:1, NIV). And believe me, to the author who is reading your condemning words, you are like a cymbal crashing two inches from their ears. It’s the kind of gong that rattles their brain, vibrates the eardrums, and shatters their creativity.
Let me explain. Yes, writers are sensitive creatures (usually), but we have good reason to be. Here’s a very quick explanation of the work of novel writing. Pull up a chair, because you’re about to read a long process. But it’s not even remotely as long as living through it.
- You walk through the world with your head “in the clouds”—those clouds being a pleasant fog of subconscious thoughts about people who don’t exist, possible scenarios to make them squirm, and happy endings to make them sigh. Your radar is always powered on, ready to take in ideas, characters, or story points.
- An idea strikes, and excitement tingles through every part of your brain. It nestles in the back of your mind where it is readily pulled out and added to as needed. You prayerfully talk the idea over with God, asking for His guidance as you begin.
- Everything you experience for the next several months is funneled through “how would this fit into my book?”—sermons, TV shows, arguments between strangers, etc. If you fall and break your arm, your first thought is, “Oh awesome! Now I can write about this happening to my character with real-life accuracy!”
- You spend weeks making notes, pouring out every piece of creativity, emotion and past hurt, and first and second hand experiences in your mind, praying through everything you choose to include or omit.
- Everything you do—from the honeymoon to the family vacation—is somehow research for a book. You’re always picking up details and facts.
- More note taking and praying.
- Slowly, characters form, taking on voices and lives of their own. They have stories to tell you.
- Bits of dialogue and story turns come to you—always in the shower, in the car, or at night, it’s a rule—and you whip out your smart phone to jot them down.
- Finally, you begin your draft. Leaving your own world behind, you step into your character’s world, into his thoughts and emotions, acting out your very own deepest struggles and greatest joys, laying it all out there on the page for everyone to read. You remain in this step for months, pouring yourself into a blank document on the computer, wrestling your characters and scenes into the right shape. Throughout this stage, you tell your husband or best friend how excited you are about the book, how it’s coming together, and you feel so great about it—at least 3 to 4 times. Interspersed with that is telling him at least 59 times that it stinks, it’s garbage, you’re never going to finish it, and you hate writing.
- You type THE END. Celebratory Facebook post and ice cream trip commence. Now you’re roughly a quarter of the way done with the process.
- You do a major overhaul on your book. You move scenes around, strengthen characters, change a few major points.
- Time to send to beta readers. They will then tear apart the plot and reconstruct it into a story that makes sense and is believable. More major surgery from the writer. This may happen several times.
- Editing starts now. After several rounds of beta reading and major edits, you go to the smaller details like word choice and sentence structure to make sure everything is worded clearly, is tight, and conveys the right emotion. This can go on forever—years, even—as you make the story as polished as it can be. Then you have a final draft—one you always feel can be improved.
I’ll stop there. Hopefully you get the idea. I won’t even launch into the months—sometimes years—of submitting to agents and editors, being rejected, crying, praying, standing back up, revising, resubmitting, waiting waiting waiting…. Getting a hopeful reply, then getting those hopes dashed, etc. Novels are basically our newborn baby, creative expression, and raw emotion squeezed onto publicly-visible pages, all rolled into one neatly bound stack of pages.
So when you go to leave a review for a book you flipped through for a few days, consider two things: 1. Someone, somewhere, has likely put their heart and soul and all their free time and creativity into this creation. 2. You have the choice of the aura you will leave wherever you go—let it be one of love.