I Pity New Writers

I think we can all agree that the current technological revolution is Changing Everything. Traditional business models are broken. No one listens to the Establishment any more because these days people take their guidance from their far-flung, self-selected tribe (something politicians and newspapers advising people who to vote for have clearly failed to grasp). Critics in old media dishing out their views from on-high are now redundant.

The landscape has also changed significantly for writers. I regularly get messages from aspiring authors asking for advice, so here are a few blunt words. I was also prompted by Mark Charan Newton’s recent bloggage about writers suffering in the current net environment.

I started my writing career in the pre-mass-internet days…with the dinosaurs, net kids!, or about 16 or so years back for everyone else. I know what it used to be like. And before anyone thinks this is a grumbling diatribe about the good old days, things are much better now from the business/research/connectivity perspective. So let’s not go there.

The net now is like a city centre pub. You’ve got the group getting drunk and having a laugh. The intense couples ruminating over a glass of claret. And you’ve got the swivel-eyed, shaven-headed men in brown leather jackets at the end of the bar who bellow at anyone who will listen. And they’ve all got an opinion, and they all want to tell you.

This analogy isn’t just about bloggers. It’s about anyone who chimes in with their take on a book – on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Waterstones, Good Reads, wherever. If you’re a writer, it’s nigh on impossible not to hear what people think about your book.

It didn’t use to be like that. You’d get a flurry of print reviews when the book came out, and then silence for months while you worked on the next one. Now they come in a torrent, every week, every day.

Back then, reviews were carefully considered. Today some are still carefully considered. But as in that city centre pub, some are rants, abusive, vitriolic, opinions filtered through prejudices. And that’s how it should be – the net has given people a voice, and it’s up to them what they want to say.

Here’s the thing: you can’t write unless you’re sensitive – the two go hand-in-hand. Writing is about empathy. It’s about digging into yourself and saying “This is me”. Non-writers think a book is a book is a product, a can of beans, but from a writer’s perspective it’s not. Any criticism stings as sharply as if someone said, you’ve got a big nose, a fat butt and you smell like pee.

It takes a while to build up the thick skin you need. I’ve been pretty fortunate on the review front, but I was also lucky to grow up in an environment – a working class mining community – where you needed a thick skin just to get through the day. Even so, in the pre-mass-web days, you got the chance to grow a hide. You got time to breathe and learn and make your mistakes in public. New writers don’t have that opportunity. They’re flung into the torrent of opinions from day one. And I know many suffer badly. Some have been laid low by depression. Some have given up. Most don’t realise they’re walking from their quiet room into a war zone, and when the bombs start falling they run back and forth until shell-shock sets in.

Judgments are harsher now. Online, many don’t have time for niceties. If a book doesn’t hit all the marks for them, THEY WILL DESTROY IT! (Their caps…) Poor new writer. You’ve slaved night and day for the big chance you’ve always dreamed about, and the minute your book comes out, YOU ARE DESTROYED!

But it’s not just the effect of opinions on a poor new writer’s brittle ego. They find it harder to build a career. In the Dinosaur Age, a writer’s career had that chance to breathe and grow. Now, as with the 24-hour news cycle of modern politics, careers can move from beginning to end in the blink of an eye. Authors are praised to the heavens, but one less than successful book and the meme spreads in a keystroke, bringing it all crashing down.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying stop being hard on writers. I’m simply stating that this is the way it is. Everything has changed. It’s tough to get a book published. It’s tough when it is published. And it gets tougher.

The modern writer has been increasingly immersing themselves in the online world and the reader communities. Now I’m wondering if new writers ought to go in the opposite direction. Retreat, or at least hold it all at arm’s length, simply to keep writing and to grow as a writer. Get inside the bubble where the words are all.

It reminds me of how Alan Moore used to go to conventions until, at the height of Watchmen, he experienced all of this face-to-face. And then he retreated to his house in Northampton for the sake of his writing. Few public appearances. No internet (which admittedly is taking it a bit far…) But he did it to survive as a creator.

So, yes, I pity the new writer. If your first book is coming out, you’ve got it harder than I ever had. You’re going to be judged. You might be torn apart. You might be built up so fast your head is spinning, and then torn apart. It might just be the death of a million tiny pinpricks. Or you might ride that upward trajectory for the rest of your life. But it’s going to be out of your hands, and it’s going to be very hard to ignore it. So a few words of advice:

Do not get Google Alerts. You might initially be excited that people are talking about you. Eventually it will destroy you.

Find a few reviewers you trust. That doesn’t mean ones who praise your work, but ones who can offer some constructive criticism which will benefit your writing. (See blog post below). Ignore the rest.

Don’t read Amazon reviews. It’s a bear pit. Or any of the other book review sites, for that matter. As I mentioned in a post below (“The Amazon One-Star Review”), there’s barely a book on the site that doesn’t have at least one one-star review, and that includes the classics. And they’re often delivered in a manner that would earn a punch on the nose if delivered in real-life.

And finally, don’t be needy. Who cares what people think? You don’t have to seek it out. You wouldn’t go round that city centre pub asking people what they thought of you or your work. Why do it on the net?

The rest of it – the pace of career change, the chance to build a writing life when you’re immediately centre-stage and in the spotlight… Sadly, that’s something you have to live with. The advantages of this life far outweigh any other job, from my perspective. It’s a great prize. But if you’re just delivering your first MS to your agent, know that it’s getting harder by the moment.

16 thoughts on “I Pity New Writers”

  1. Words of wisdom.
    As you rightly say, it is so very easy for these people to give bad reviews from the safety of a keyboard, knowing full well they will never have to look the author in the eye as ‘working’ reviewers must.

  2. I struggle with the idea of writing negative reviews. It’s a matter which has been bugging me for several months now to the point where I have embarked on a lengthy article with contributions from both authors and reviewers discussing the pros & cons of it all.

    I’m still very much of the opinion that each writer puts his heart and soul into his work, so who am I to slate that novel or short story? I refrain from writing a review at all if I believe I can’t say something decent about a book. This view may change in time, it’s certainly something I’m having to consider in relation to the volume of books I receive for reviewing. For now though, my opinion remains the same – if you can’t think of anything nice to say, then say nothing at all.

  3. I am pretty scared what you will say about the writers, who are yet to try and break into the scene. I think that you may lament our fate. :)

    I admit, it’s hard. I have not yet produced a novel worth submitting yet and I am cringing here and there, a bit everywhere how people can go ballistic over a book. I am on the giving end as well as a reviewer and as cuh I know that I discuss and evaluate the work according to my tastes, but as a writer I know that your work is you and bow, does a YOU SUCK [captioned of course] is a shot to the heart.

  4. What a thoroughly interesting and very readable blog ( the critic within me raises his head in the first sentence …agh , to be human .) If I were to imagine myself in that cyber city centre pub, then I would be the old man , out of place , quietly drinking alone in a corner that`s bereft of people . The fool ,come in from his hill , watching from the dim dusty corner the young , and alien world, brimming with faceless avatars that dance endlessly by .
    Writers are consciousness creators , visionaries that bare their souls to strangers . They teach and learn ; the really good ones open more than just our eyes .
    They risk all for their art ……some lose all they have or ever will have , working through the stockpiles of their years until more are behind them than ahead .
    My own addiction , my drug , is now assuaged in reading .
    Every day I read chronically . I am a dam good reader born of a mediocre writer .
    This cyber city of the net is built as a mirror to the ” real ” world , warts and all . This old man , takes another sip from his forgotten drink , still musing in his corner . Wishing he were seeing real, feeling , people . The great days of the book are now lost in the endless chatter of disembodied personalities all grabbing for a piece of the action . I know my tastes and wants . I only reveal them to the authors I am challenged by , provoked to think by , and emotionally moved by .All the rest ,for me , are as tinsel and glitter, mere window dressing on the alters of conceit and hubris .
    Nothing it as it seems . Good writers are a rare breed : honest critics are almost extinct .

  5. After getting an agent and almost having my first two books published, I fell into a deep, dark funk. But then the modern scenario that frightens most writers and wannabe-published writers made me feel empowered. That’s what actually got me moving again. The entire playing field seemed open. Maybe I’m seeing it from the other side of the tunnel.

    Now that I’m revising my early work (while writing new), I can see that there was a time when one of those interested editors would likely have helped me get my first novel in shape. (Much potential but rough in execution.) Those days are long gone, though. It’s all bootstraps and networking now.

  6. I disagree with Jan that bloggers or online reviewers aren’t “working reviewers” and never have to look the author in the eye. While it may be the case with many of the ridiculous outpourings on Amazon most book bloggers who are at it for any length of time will at some point attend events and find themselves face to face with people they have reviewed. Many of us take it as seriously as we do our paid jobs and are always working to improve the quality of our reviews.

    Like Sharon I struggle with with negative reviews and although I have on occasion posted them it’s with acute awareness that the author may read it and that they have put a lot of effort into producing the best book they can. I try not to be unkind and I also look for links to positive reviews to accompany mine in a “well it wasn’t fo rme but some people loved it” kind of way. Obviously I have the luxery of picking books I think I will enjoy, even amongst the review copies.

  7. David – Bootstraps and networking, indeed. It really is like that, and that system is much better than the one we had before.

    Adele, Sharon, Jan – The best reviews aren’t negative, or positive, I think. Certainly, from my perspective, I learn more from analysis, which often doesn’t need to come down on one side or the other. When I was an editor on a national newspaper, overseeing music reviews, as well as film and TV, the aim was always to step back and consider, rather than wave a flag or wield a scythe.

    The difficulty for new writers is more about being swamped with views and opinions for all sides. They need to keep a clear vision of their work, and it’s hard to do that when everyone is shouting in their face.

    Geoff – that’s the great advantage of the cyber pub. It brings together people from all walks of life, particularly those who would never meet in the “real” world.

  8. Another thing about the internet is that it tends to take the romance out of any artistic endeavour. There was a time when you could believe that the world was actually waiting for whatever fantastic bit of work you were currently working on. However, the internet will show you that there are actually millions of you hammering away at it. Who’d be a publisher with every other person in the world working on something and needing someone to handle it for them? I’m content with my songs and my poems being mine all mine! But then I’m not a young person with dreams. As it happens, I wrote a book. 54,000 words and that was it. I shall never attempt it again. I don’t know how authors do it and make it appear as if they just sat down and wrote it in the same time as we take to read it. Fantastic! I doff my hat to you all.

  9. I’m pretty sure I agree with just about everything you said. The only thing I would point out is that a lot of new writers will have been brought up in the net culture, and should be used to its slings and arrows by the time they publish something. We’re kind of in a weird time where a large chunk of the online community remember what it was like before the internet, that won’t always be so. I was a a young teen when I first started getting online. I was a computer geek then, and so it eventually became an key part of my life…and still is today. I’m confident I could parse through the opinions online and gleam useful information with being affected by the negativity. There will be negativity, someone will hate my book…noway to avoid it. I won’t let it bother me. I only hope that if they do hate it, they can give me a good reason why, and maybe I’ll use it to improve my craft.

    I started reviewing because I wanted to be involved in the business. I wanted a chance to be a part of it all while still learning to write better. I also read a ton of books, so I felt that sometimes I might be able to help a consumer decide what to buy, or the holy grail for me, influence a writer in a way that makes their writing even better. I really don’t write negative reviews, I don’t even use “stars” when I’m not reviewing on Fanlit. I will point out things I personally felt we were weak in the book, but that is always coupled with its strengths. Honestly, it’s very rare for a truly awful book to actually make it to press. That’s the main reason why I won’t review a self published book, but that’s a whole other topic. The most negative review I’ve written was for Sonya Bateman’s new book, and I still told people they should read it. She’s a good writer, and the series has massive potential…just book 1 didn’t do it for me. I really hope the author reads my criticism and either completely ignores it, or understands it and uses it to improve the writing. The last thing I’d ever want is for someone to be discouraged by my review. I’ll give you an excellent example of how a negative review can be done. This review was done by Amanda over at FanLit http://www.fantasyliterature.com/broaddusmaurice.html She gave it two stars, but it still made me want to read it.

  10. Good points, Justin, particularly that if the current situation is all you know, you simply deal with it.

    I agree that you don’t write negative reviews, and you are one of the reviewers I turn to for interesting analysis. Indeed, some of your comments on The Silver Skull have been factored in to this book. There is a real value to writers in that kind of considered approach.

  11. Thanks, it means a lot when someone you respect considers your ideas worth looking at. Though I wouldn’t take my review of The Silver Skull as the shining example of objective criticism…lol. I absolutely adored that book so much that pointing out any faults seemed vulgar at the time. I think Pyr had an e-mail filter up for a time that sorted “Blazier and Albion” to their spam folder.

  12. Right now i could list 200 books that I want to read from this year alone. And without breaking a sweat I could give you 500 books that I’d happily read. I am a genre reader and I focus on genre books (SFF & Crime). So these are books that fit in that broad church.

    And your chances of getting a ‘considered review’ if you’re an author for your new book is anything from zero to a trickle to being covered by every blog going.

    This disparity is the problem. The are enough ‘quality’ bloggers, who could, if they consciously wanted to, could cover a wider range of books between them.

    So why don’t they?

    Because bloggers have egos too. We aren’t doing this to be altruistic. Each of us is doing it for our own reasons. Some want to chat about books, some are want to be writers who see it as a good ‘in’ into the industry, some just want to massage their own ego, and some like me are a mix and who is want an outlet for their own mad hobby.

    And they don’t have anyone nudging them to cover those books that are outside the current spotlight.

    We don’t see any bigger picture.

    And neither do those people that leave ‘this is shite’ reviews.

    I really don’t know what to say to writers that don’t get the right kind of support from bloggers – there are too many of you is probably the honest answer and we probably don’t do writers enough justice with blogging.

    And i’m not sure how you can fix that…

  13. Gav, the piece wasn’t really pointing at bloggers. If anything, it was pointing away from them. It’s aimed at writers, simply saying, this is the way things are and you need to deal with it.

    I would never dream of offering any advice to bloggers. We both have different agendas and it’s as pointless for me to say bloggers should do this or that as it is for bloggers to tell me what kind of story to write. (When it comes to the way that story is crafted, that’s a different matter).

    Shortly, I’ll try to leave a comment on your “Bloggers Manifesto” piece.

  14. @Gav: People write what they know. People are also genre readers, much like yourself. People tend to feel they know the genre that they read. I have a 20 year history with fantasy. That’s hundreds of books to draw upon for comparison. I’ve read maybe one crime novel. Would you really value my opinion on a genre I’ve had one or two samples of?

    I’m picky even about which fantasy I will read. I wouldn’t touch “Princess Pony in Happy Unicorn Rainbow Land” with a ten foot pole. Unless Mark decides to write a princess pony story, then I might have to give it a look….just out of morbid curiosity. I’m quite sure the publisher would rather I not review their princess book either. They will send it to somebody who is more likely to appreciate the book.

    If there is any disparity between what genre is being reviewed or blogged about, then it’s simply due to which genre is more popular among people who would blog about it. I’ll also say that it’s well with in a publisher’s publicity department to get a book talked about.

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