Today’s guest blogger, Michael Vance Gurley, has a new book out through Bold Strokes. He was born in a Chicago hospital that was quickly condemned and torn down. He grew up and worked in the shadow of Capone’s house in a union hall, where he first discovered a love of gangsters and the Roaring Twenties. Being an avid hockey fan led him to kissing the Stanley Cup, and as an ardent traveller, he kissed the Blarney Stone, both of which are unsanitary and from which he’s lucky to only have received the gift of gab. Michael has many literary interests and aspirations. He self-published One Angry Koala, a well received comic book. His poetry has been printed in the Southern Illinois University newspaper, which was a real big deal back then.
Michael has worked with special needs children for nearly twenty years. His work with young adults led to a love of YA books, but he was raised with classic horror, beat poetry, and comics. As winner of a “Pitchapalooza” author event, Michael received some helpful guidance for his first novel, The Long Season, by literary agent/authors Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry, and editor Jerry Wheeler. Michael still lives in the Chicagoland area, and despite it being cliché, gets asked about gangsters whenever travelling abroad.
Today he cleverly talks about searching the web for reviews, a topic I blogged about several weeks ago and an addiction all authors share.
Filtering feedback for growth and the obsession with reviews, or…the dummy’s guide to being a new writer and the pitfalls of needing accolades.
Michael opens his laptop before work. He’s trying to make it as a new author even though his other career is a full time commitment, as well as time consuming because of the electronic leash. He promises himself it’ll only take a minute. The steam from the shower hasn’t fully dispersed yet and his fingers click and clack their way to the review sites. His editor told him not to do it. His publisher told him not to do it. Hell, even the Internet itself has hundreds of notes on not looking at one’s own reviews. Self-worth comes from the doing, not the receiving of praise from the doing. But it’ll only take a minute, so he types in the name of his release, hoping in the infinitesimal refresh time that there is a new 5 star rating, or a review from someone that says amazing things about his amazing book. What awaits him there, next to his pretty cover image, is a new number for rating and a new total for reviews and it’s…
Does that sound familiar to the writers out there? There is a constant struggle in the writing process itself to not be distracted with worries of audience expectations. My debut novel, The Long Season, is out on ebook and in paperback everywhere, and the above story bares more truth than I want to admit. It’s my first novel, so what do I know about writing or dealing with reactions to writing? In my day job, I train and provide feedback for a large staff, and have for almost twenty years. There is an art to connecting with and reaching people in a way they will hear, evaluate, and incorporate. There is a level of relationship required to make lasting change. There is also an amount of experience needed from the feedback giver that lends weight to the words. Someone I know says to “accept all feedback, right or wrong, weak or strong.” I add that accepting does not mean agreeing. As I write this, I hope these experiences translate to being an author.
Thinking about marketing or fan reactions during writing can be terribly damaging. We know that but still often fall in the muck of worrying what people will think. Then we reach this impossible goal of getting published. Boom. The fear of negative feedback starts anew. What do writers do with feedback from these review sites? Who are these reviewers, and which ones have the chops to break it down and bring good advice? This is a problem, but how does a new writer evaluate their work in order to make the next masterpiece, well, a masterpiece? That’s the burden of writers in general, but for a burgeoning new artist, how does one know what they are doing is truly good? The Buddha teaches to take the middle path, neither be interested in praise or hate, success or failure. How simplistic does that sound? How impossible in practice is that for a new writer?
I followed some advice of a fellow author, who suggested I let a book critique group evaluate my manuscript. When we met at the ordained time and location, I had a pen and trepidation in hand. They started with praise, and I have my mother for that, so I pressed for the meat. The next three hours flew by in a blink of an eye, them analysing characters and choices, plot and holes. I was uplifted by their love of the material and challenged to get out of my own head. An interesting aspect was how each reviewer had differing views on some points, and each expected me to side with them. That is how individualised art can be. The novel is infinitely better because of this process. Now, these were a group of avid readers, and they were not a faceless crowd on the interwebs.
My amazing editor, Jerry Wheeler, pulled out the virtual red pen and went to town. It should be uncomfortable and frustrating when getting feedback from a trusted source like an in person book group or your editor, but your buy in is higher. What do you do with notes from agents who’ve turned you down? There is always this filtering process going on parallel to introspection when the reviewer is unknown. One must wonder what the feedback giver is thinking behind the words, and what reasons lay behind them. A good reviewer with experience will point out the flaws that you’ve already wrestled with, giving your thought validation.
Published authors, indy or big press, want ‘Likes’ of their material on social media to drive readers and sales. Early bad press can sink a project, or at least it feels that way. Imagine things are going well, the early reviews are positive, and you are feeling confident. Then you refresh a site like goodreads, and there it is-The First Negative Review. Are they right? Is it really that bad? Shouldn’t someone have said something by now? Will I ever sell another book?
It isn’t just in book publishing. A friend of mine sold his game, Dragon Farkle, to a publisher and was astonished at the hateful reviewing that happened, until enough people rated so that he could get a more statistically accurate read. Now it ranks as high as the most popular games and is featured on Wil Wheaton’s gaming show. His advice was to make a conscious choice to move your perusal of reviews from pathological to rhythmic. If you must read reviews, go in once a day, allot a small time frame to respond to questions and post a few things. Never, ever reply to anything other than direct questions, and only to those posed outside of reviews. The goal is to be reachable for fans, but not to get into arguments. Then, you close the computer. Ten minutes or so ought to do it. This is better than what I did with my first one. I spent hours going down the rabbit hole of what ifs. Time wasted.
Sometimes, people will genuinely not like your work. There, I said it. Do I have to say that Harry Potter was rejected before it blew up the world? I am new to this, and who can say if I will even stick to my own plan, but strategically seeking and utilising feedback to improve your writing is smart. Blindly trusting a stranger with an unknown background, knowledge base, and education in literature to shape your future seems as foolish as using Wikipedia for your dissertation. Fact check and diversify.
I hope my ramblings on feedback will be somewhat helpful to someone. My novel, The Long Season is out now. You can also follow me on facebook.
Thanks for being a guest here at my site, Michael. Make sure you check out the trailer for his début novel below.