Writer Unplugged

This morning I came to the conclusion that the only way I’m going to get through the next few weeks is to stop looking for trouble. That means staying off Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, googling for book reviews, and otherwise going after information that’s not going to do me the slightest bit of good right now. It’s not just a question of negative reviews; the positive ones are just as bad, and more insidious.

I started off reading the reviews because after so many years writing in isolation, I was eager for the feedback; but another reason is that I grew up with theater people, and theater people love to pull things apart. After a show, whether you were in front of the footlights or behind, you went out to the bar and broke it down: what worked, what didn’t, what could have been better, what was a surprise. We drank beer, threw our opinions into the mix and collectively tried to learn something that we could take out on stage when it was our turn. Discussions were passionate, smart, contentious and a hell of a lot of fun. I miss them like crazy.

Book reviews can’t be like that. They’re one-sided. (I agree with the writers who say commenting on your own reviews is a spectacularly bad idea, and that sock puppets get their own circle in hell.) So to me, it’s like throwing down a conversation starter and then walking away. I want to ask questions, lots of questions. If someone’s really had a button pressed and has gone off on a rant, I want to understand where they’re coming from – it’s most likely a perspective I don’t have, and could learn a thing or two about. If someone’s interpretation of the text doesn’t make sense to me, I want to know their line of thinking. And if someone has just made stuff up or is behaving like a troll, I want to call them out for it. We probably wouldn’t end up agreeing, but that’s not really the goal: I’d have learned something, or made a case for my side. I’d have closure. What I end up doing now is constructing a dialogue in my own head with someone I don’t know and whose motivation I cannot possibly understand. It’s stressful, pointless, and with no hope of closure, these things rattle around in my mind as endless distractions.

As I said above, positive reviews are no less troublesome. They might put me in a happy bubble for little bit, but bubbles burst. If I gave in to the temptation to tie my self-worth to positive reviews, I’d be doomed. First of all, I’d need a constant supply, like an addict. Second, I’d be imbuing the reviews with a power they should not have. Either reviews have power over you, or they don’t. If a positive one can bump you up, then a negative one can push you down. You can’t have one without the other, unless your ego allows you to dismiss anyone who doesn’t like your work as a moron, but I’m afraid (or glad, really) that’s not me.

Another problem for me – now that I’m in the middle of a series – is when a positive review singles out a particular element for praise. Consciously or unconsciously, that raises the idea that the next book is going to disappoint if it doesn’t also have that element, and to the same degree. Again, that’s fatal. I need to be true to the characters above all – always, always, always the goal – and that means there is no way to shoe-horn elements in to the story to please imaginary critics without serious detriment to the work.

Until quite recently, I believed that I had the necessary detachment to sail through this. Discovering that I do not – at least, not right now – has been a major disappointment. I hope my skin will toughen over time, so that I can glean the grain and leave the chaff. In the meantime, it’s time for me to unplug, log off, and get the hell off Goodreads.

2 thoughts on “Writer Unplugged

  1. I find the bit about deconstructing what works and what doesn’t interesting.

    When I started putting posts on my blog about the books I read, my intent was to help me process what I like and don’t like for my own writing. I try to go about it in a way that provides a useful points like I would want to receive. Both the positive and the negative. It kind of ends up like talking shop with myself. Which sounds kind of sad when I phrase it that way. =/

    But I completely get how hard and crazy it must be to pick out what useful gems might be in all the chaff.

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