The Art of Mirriam Neal

the difficult bit

I was talking with a friend a couple of weeks ago, and she told me she had read through all my manuscripts and would be sending me reviews soon. “I loved some of them,” she said. “And I didn’t like some of them.” I felt a pang of icy fear settle in my stomach. She doesn’t like them? Does that mean I’m going to get harsh, tearing reviews? I’ll never want to write again! I’ll feel worthless, and I’ll doubt myself every time I settle down to write anything.

I’m not exaggerating. Maybe it’s because I’m used to positive reviews, but I think it’s because my books are my life’s work. Each of them is a piece of my soul, and there’s something indescribably terrifying in the knowledge that someone, somewhere, didn’t like it. It scares me. Not because I write to please everyone – I write the stories I think I should and I love doing it. It scares me because I’m afraid of how I’ll react. I can roll with almost any punch I get, but negative critique about my books is always the most painful. You can tell me you don’t like what I’m wearing – okay, but I do. You can tell me I need to watch my tone of voice – yikes, okay, I probably do. But if you tell me you thought my writing was bad, or my characters were shallow, I will crumple. I’ll lose my motivation to write for days, sometimes weeks. It’s pathetic, but it’s what happens. Kind critique – “I loved this, but this could use work” – is fine. However, harsh critique – “So-and-so was a lame character, and you were too _______ throughout the whole book” is hard for me to combat. It gets past all my walls and defenses and stabs me right where I live.

It took years for me to build up the courage to let my family read my writing. I’ve only regretted it a few times – I’ve found the most nitpicky, but the most loving and caring, reviewers in my parents and my siblings. I’ve found the most encouragement in the pack of girlfriends who beta my novels chapter by chapter.

But the threat of a negative review hangs over my head like a Sword of Damoclese, and it’s a risk I take whenever I put my writing into someone else’s hands. WORKSPACE

I want to tell them, “That’s my soul. Please be gentle,” but instead I say, “Hope you like it!” because there’s really no way to stress how important my novels are to me. Even as I write this post, my stomach is twisting into knots at the thought of those reviews heading my way.

I know a lot of others feel the same way. While there’s nothing we can do about negative reviews, there’s a lot we can do about the way we handle them. We can accept the counsel and use it to fix our mistakes. We can learn what some readers dislike about our novels, rather than having people say, “Oh, I love it” and assuming everyone will. We can change and we can grow, and we can realize that, in the end, it’s our novel. It’s our soul and our heart, and one person’s opinion doesn’t take away from that value. It doesn’t lessen the worth. If anything, it should strengthen our resolve to write a better tale next time. Will I do all of this when I get a harsh critique? Not at first; but eventually, I hope to be able to take all the critique that comes my way and separate the wheat from the chaff, to take what I can without letting it hurt me.

You must be thick-skinned when you’re a writer, but don’t let it frighten away your sensitivity. Hopefully, one day in the future, I’ll be able to balance them both perfectly but until then, I’ll take a deep breath and brace myself for whatever comes my way.

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