Consider the Source: How Reviews Reflect Our Experience

I recently read an account of a celebrity and her young daughter which captured the concept of feedback from a unique perspective. Having completed a Google search, the daughter was troubled to find that strangers were saying all kinds of things about her famous mother, both positive and negative. The mother told her daughter that when people make those kind of comments, the feedback is based on their own individual experiences. Therefore, when people provide comments, they are typically talking about themselves, whether they realize it or not.

What an epiphany, and what a great way to see feedback (like reviews) in a completely different light. People are a product of their own experiences, strung together like pearls over the course of a lifetime. If art imitates life, then reviews of art imitate the reviewer‘s life. Reviewers respond to reading material based on their own individual experiences. When people read books, they view them through their own filters which have been carefully created over their entire lives. These filters can be likened to stained glass windows. The color of the light shining through a stained glass window is contingent upon the color of the glass.  The light is reflected through the filter of their own experience.

Reviews heart book

If you are a writer, reviews are vital to your career. Although positive, warm, glowing reviews are wonderful and make us feel good, constructive feedback is helpful. Of course, no one is thrilled to get a bad review, but most people are actually quite gracious. They are typically honest, genuine and simply expressing the opinion of their own experience. The good news is that people who write scathing reviews are few and far between. However, even bad reviews can yield good things. Having a disparate personality review your material gives you a 360 degree glance that you may never have considered. If a review says that a book skims over the best parts; that means the parts they found most interesting. Do they have a point? Are they right? Is there a way to take that feedback, take it to heart and learn for the next time? Probably.

Let’s say you have a book available on Amazon and Goodreads. You may find that you have very different reviews on those websites. The Goodreads reviewers may have higher expectations as a literary community. If you feel a bit down about a review, check out some of the feedback for many of the classics (The Sun Also Rises, Catcher In the Rye, To Kill A Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby, to name a few). These works that have been part of the literary canon for years are still subject to scrutiny – and that’s okay. There are books out there that some will say are too controversial, and that others will say are not controversial enough. You can’t win over all of them, but you can still learn from all of them.

Pay attention to the words in the reviews: “I found this book to be a bit slow.” “I thought this book was going to be funny, but it’s not my kind of humor.” “I prefer stories that take place in present day as opposed to historical fiction.” This is why finding the appropriate audience for your work is so important. The audience will automatically be more open and enthusiastic to the material if their filter resonates with your own. 

In conclusion, when a person writes a review, they are often writing about themselves and their own life experiences. Keeping that in mind may make all the difference for your own development, as well as remind you to maintain some perspective about your next constructive review.

What are your thoughts on book reviews and reviewers?

Would You Write A Book Without an Outline?

You probably wouldn’t drive across the country without a map.

You probably wouldn’t cook Thanksgiving dinner without recipes.

Would you write a book without an outline?

The practice of outlining a book in detail takes an enormous amount of discipline. Focusing on the infrastructure of the story is a whole different ball game than writing in free form and letting things evolve as they may. My first book was a result of rambling writing sessions, often resulting in superfluous content which ended up being taken out of the story. Although it was fun to just write and see what happened, it seemed there had to be a more effective method out there, one that would result in a greater yield with less exertion. Most writers have other jobs, and when it comes to writing time, every moment is precious.

Some writing coaches suggest that creating a detailed outline is the most important part of book writing, and the part where most authors struggle. Writers may spend weeks or even months on the outline alone, to provide some frame of reference for how detailed the outline can be. Writing a book is a project, not unlike building a house. There is the foundation, there are the walls, the flooring, the roof, etc. Only when the skeleton of the house is in place can homeowners enjoy working on some of the more aesthetic features of the home – picking out colors, the yard, creating curb appeal, you name it.

A project manager friend who has been intrigued by the writing process asked how my latest book was coming along. Our casual conversation at a wedding evolved into something else when I mentioned being stuck halfway through the book. The project manager asked if she could help me in going back to the drawing board and getting serious about planning it all the way to the end. I started sending her samples of my content and images of people that remind me of my characters. She would go through what I had written so far against our burgeoning outline and provide feedback: “I don’t think the character would say that on page 73,” or “When are the characters ever going to make it to Barcelona? You said that they have been saving up their mileage points for the trip,” etc.

At first I wondered if it had been a little premature to share my work with someone else. She had questions that were not always easy to answer, such as why I chose one title over another. Each time I had to explain an aspect of the story, it helped me figure out how to convey metaphors and messages with much greater clarity. After a few short weeks of this exchange, we finalized the outline. It’s all been downhill from there. Writing to an outline hasn’t seemed restrictive at all. It’s been like driving with a navigational system in the car, so you can better focus on the traffic, the scenery and the passengers.

Compass and Bible
Writing can be a very solitary profession, but creating an outline is a great opportunity to collaborate with others, should you desire to do so. It’s a lot easier to get someone to read an outline than to read a manuscript of 120,000 words or so. If you can have the feedback given to you in a postive way by someone who can deliver it in a manner that makes you comfortable, then your writing will become that much better for having another pair of eyes review it. Having to discuss and explain your work, your ideas, and your story line can be pretty awkward in the beginning. However, writers have to do it eventually anyway, so why not start from the get go?

Writers, do you sit down and just write, or do you use a more formal approach?

“Have I Arrived?” Defining Your Expectations as a Writer

I recently went to a fabulous wedding. It was held at a vineyard in California wine country and everyone was dressed to the nines. I was able to interact with many acquaintances I rarely see.

“You’ve published a book!” A friend’s mother cried, hugging me with enthusiasm.

“Self-published,” I felt obligated to mention.

“Yes, but you always wanted to be a writer, and now your dream has come true! You have arrived!”

As she ran off to be photographed next to the bride, I let her gracious words marinate in my head for a while. Have I arrived? Not by my system of measurement. In many instances, a writing career is something that can take a lifetime to establish. So, how do authors know when they have ‘arrived?’

On the outset of any undertaking, it is important to determine what success looks like. Writers can only benefit from defining their own expectations of success. Does success mean self-publishing a book on Amazon for friends and family to enjoy? Does it mean filling a need or service in the community? Does it mean a lucrative career and multiple bestsellers that are optioned for film?

Plane red carpet

If you aspire to have your work read by as many people as possible, that’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be a popular writer. However, if you only recognize success as a big time book deal and an over-sized cardboard novelty check, you may never reach your ultimate goal. The writing journey is a long one, with many milestones on the path to success. Reaching a milestone goal might be cause for celebration. How about celebrating the first time a stranger approaches you and asks about your writing? Why not celebrate your first book review that goes online? Maybe one of your milestone goals is selling three hundred books and you celebrate by going out for sushi. There are people who have sold three million books and it doesn’t feel like enough to them. That’s the difference between people who walk the earth happy and those who are vaguely dissatisfied and unfulfilled. They never established the finish line, so all they can see is what they have yet to accomplish, not what they have already accomplished.

If your goal is to be the best writer in America, that’s not possible to quantify, and trying to measure your success will only frustrate you. Whatever your endgame, the point is to determine the location of the finish line and create goals and expectations for building your writing career. It’s important to be honest with yourself about where you want to end up. If you can clearly define and articulate where you want to go, you have a much better chance of getting the help you need to reach your destination.

Emily Bronte only wrote one book in her life, but it was Wuthering Heights. She did not live to see the widespread acclaim for her book, but we can all agree that she was an exceptionally successful writer. Many writers wait for their audience to decide if they have arrived. They are waiting for a stamp of approval from the world, a bestseller list placement, their parents, friends, or maybe their high school creative writing teacher. At the end of the day, though, only the writers themselves can determine if their goals have been met and they have finally arrived.

Do you think that success as a writer is about the destination or the journey?

Pitch Your Book Like it’s a Movie (The One Sentence Synopsis)

I recently attended a screenplay writing seminar with Publishers and Writers of San Diego. It was taught by writing coach Marni Freedman and focused on taking an existing book and developing it into a screenplay.  Screenplays are extremely concise – they average around one hundred pages. Being concise means really having to know the infrastructure and outline of a story. There are several aspects of screenwriting that are helpful in book writing, and one of those aspects is the creation of a logline.

A logline is a one sentence synopsis of your story. It is like the cover of a book. A good one makes you want to open it immediately to see what is inside. Before you can create a logline, you will need to understand where your book is going. When you try and select a movie on cable, you see loglines all the time. They are very brief descriptions of the show’s content.

For example, let’s look at a logline for The Godfather by Mario Puzo: A 1940′s New York mafia family struggles to protect their empire from rival families as the leadership switches from the father to his youngest son. Although The Godfather is an epic, the plot can still be boiled down into a one-sentence pitch. Audiences have short attention spans and you only get one chance to make a first impression. Effective loglines are compelling: they draw people in and make them want to know more.

Ready to create your own logline? It can be comprised more easily if you are able to supply the following story formula that Marni will be publishing in an upcoming book – 7 Steps to a First Draft:

Story idea: Who – Unique Problem – Goal – Ending (Marni Freedman 2010)

  • Who do you want to write about? Why are they interesting? Why should we care about them and want to follow them?
  • What unique problem does this person face?
  • What is this person’s goal? How will the person solve it? Who or what will try to stop them?
  • How does their journey end?

Writing coach Marni Freedman (www.thewriterinyou.com) encouraged our group to create loglines, as they are not just for the authors to be able to quickly explain the heart of their story, but also serve as a pitch that can be used when interacting with agents, entering contests, meeting with producers, or anyone with whom you want to engage. If you would like to practice this exercise, think about one of your favorite stories (which can be the form of a book or movie) and create a one sentence synopsis of the plot and action.

The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe: Four children travel to the magical land of Narnia where they must battle an evil queen with the direction of the Lion, Aslan.

Citizen Kane: Following the death of a publishing tycoon, news reporters scramble to discover the meaning of his final utterance.

Toy Story: A cowboy doll is profoundly threatened and jealous when a new spaceman figure supplants him as top toy in a boy’s room. 
Clapper Board
The creation of a logline takes time and effort. It’s hard to boil down your story to a one sentence synopsis. It may take you several attempts, so don’t beat yourself up if you find it a harder process than you originally anticipated. You will know that you have stumbled on your perfect logline because it is fun to pitch and rolls off your tongue. Try it out on your friends and watch their reactions. If their eyes light up and they say, “yeah!” then you know you are on the right track. Just start giving it a shot, and you may find that you understand your story with surprising clarity.

Can you see how creating a logline might add value to your writing?

Ever-Increasing Returns

Publishing a book is an adventure. Part of that adventure is engaging with the people you meet along the journey. Some of those people will serve in a capacity of enlightenment and support. They provide assistance for you at different turns. It could be marketing assistance, subject matter expertise, best practices, or networking to find the sensei you seek. Lest we forget, the best adventures usually require planning behind the scenes. The book writing adventure entails hours of constant editing and agonizing over the right words.  There is nothing glamorous about this part of the journey – it’s the grunt work that makes everything else possible.

Adventures are often taken solely for adventure’s sake.  Sometimes you return with treasure, but not always. Upon attending my first literary workshop, I found it a bit daunting to learn that only 5% of writers actually make a living from their writing. Anyone who has ever penned a book knows how challenging it can be. If there is no monetary value in the experiment of publishing a book, why should the author continue up the mountain? The author goes on because it’s a labor of love. There are other ways to get compensated from writing a book. The total compensation package is comprised of much more than money. Opportunities to help others appear continuously and if you find such experiences rewarding, your pockets will be continuously lined with gold.

One of my favorite movies is Rex Pickett’s Sideways. Through Twitter marketing I stumbled upon Rex’s profile and discovered Sideways has been adapted for the stage. I saw Sideways the Play in Santa Monica and was able to meet Rex, who has been an inspiration ever since. Tweeting has been valuable in other ways, too. By building relationships with authors, readers and bloggers, writers gain a greater scope of influence and increased credibility. Nothing is more valuable than that.

There are countless ways to spread the wealth of knowledge acquired on the writing journey. By researching the process of formatting a novel into an audiobook, I became acquainted with www.acx.com. This fluid website is a hub for authors to connect with actors that do voice-over work. Authors can connect with actors in a number of ways. One is to upload some material so that any interested actor can audition for the ‘role’ of narrating the content. One actress auditioned to be my book narrator within twenty-four hours of uploading sample pages. Hearing her try out for the voice of my protagonist was an incredible experience. Authors can also take the more active approach of searching for a specific kind of voice. If there is a need for a young woman with a French accent, you can search your ideal parameters to find actors and make them offers. You have options of payment, one being a 50/50 royalty share. Going through this exercise made me think of a friend who is always looking for voice-over work. I was able to inform him of ACX, and he is probably getting his account set up with them as we speak. Some of the actors are listed to make $200.00-$400.00 per completed hour of work. For those with golden pipes, it appears to be a very good opportunity. My friend’s enthusiasm and delight over engaging with ACX was better than selling fifty books. My ability to help him was a direct result of being on the journey.

Many opportunities in the form of people will appear on the path during your publishing adventure. The lifetime value of these helpers, guardians, luminaries, and assistants will not always be evident at first. Some may help you indirectly with constructive feedback you don’t want to hear but know you need. In turn, you will be able to help others as well. You will encourage them to believe that they can do what you have done. Some will even thank you for your contribution to the written word. For those who are able to take a creative mindset in terms of total compensation, there will always be a deep blue ocean of  ever- increasing rewards.

In what non-monetary ways have you found the writing journey rewarding?

When Good Writers Go Bad

Recently I listened to a thought provoking sermon about how to tell when good leaders have gone bad. The lesson was universally applicable because we all have leadership opportunities at some point in our lives. Whether it is leading a major corporation, mentoring a student or babysitting, we are providing guidance. As writers, we have an incredible opportunity to lead others. Here is my spin on that lesson, exploring several traits that indicate a writer may have gone to the Dark Side:

A Big Ego

Being an author means creating a platform, and selling yourself and your product. At some point, you may begin to believe your own press. The praise feels great and after a while, you get used to it. Then, when it does not come readily, we wonder why. Although some of the most acclaimed writers of all time had healthy egos (Steinbeck, anyone?), focusing on how the writing might benefit others is much more inspiring to readers. Someone asked me this week, “Do you write to feel powerful and  make the characters do whatever you want?” I told her my writing stems from a desire to entertain. She looked baffled and said she would probably become addicted to the control over the story and other readers. It’s easy to see how authors could get wrapped up in the ‘power’ aspect of writing, if they were so inclined–but that’s not what inspires people.

Isolation

Alone time is a necessity for many writers who can’t focus with others anywhere in their vicinity. However, the more time we spend alone, the more we rely on our own judgement. The feedback from trusted advisors is invaluable, but if one is operating in a silo, that may not seem necessary. Excessive isolation can be dangerous, it keeps writers from being in touch with their audience, as well as with other writers with whom they might partner. Actor Jonah Hill has commented on how much easier it is to write with other comedians. Woody Allen has expressed that people are willing to help a writer in the creative process, as long as the author has put in the time to get a project close to being fully baked. Although there is nothing wrong with self-reliance, no person is an island. If you have it available to you, why not seek wise counsel?

Us/Them Mentality

When fellow authors enjoy success, we can either be happy for them or turn pea green with envy. We may console ourselves with the sentiments that so-and-so is only popular because they write scandalous material, or because they are friends with ‘the guy behind the guy’ at Google. Writing is a tough business to break into, and it’s understandable to feel jealous of our successful colleagues–but why not leverage them instead, and even adopt their principles for success? Author communities (i.e. WordServe Water Cooler) are committed to the prosperity of all. In this and similar organizations, writers help each other with social media support, comments on postings and general assistance in spreading the word around. It’s a huge relief when others help take up our causes. Disinterest in helping others only results in hurting oneself.

If you see yourself in any of these traits, don’t despair.  We’ve all been there at one point or another to some extent. The idea is to identify our symptoms and course correct to ensure we are keeping ourselves honest. As writers, we need to lead our followers somewhere worthwhile.

Have you ever experienced any of the above? How do you think the writing journey might change an author over time?

The Invisible Writer

Great fiction writers create new worlds.  Going to another world requires a cultural assimilation program, at the very least. To live in another world, even temporarily, requires isolation from the here and the now.

Having a personal creative space is a dream come true for most writers. On days when everyone else is attending a baseball game or what have you, the solitude of being an author sets in. It sometimes entails turning down a few invitations, because creating a new world takes focus, time and energy.

Writers’ needs and preferences run the gamut. Conrad Aiken wrote in his dining room. D.H. Lawrence liked to write outdoors, under the trees. Some authors like to write in hotel rooms, as Toni Morrison did when her children were young. A hotel affords privacy and the opportunity to limit interruptions for days at a time.

Some writers don’t seem to need privacy. They can retreat into the recesses of their own minds and vanish in plain sight. A legendary Parisian café, Les Deux Magots, has hosted great writers such as Jean-Paul Satre and Albert Camus. They generated content right in the restaurant.  French author Nathalie Sarraute once said that a café “is a neutral place, and no one disturbs me – there is no telephone.” A café allows a writer to feel less isolated. They can be alone while in a crowd, blending into the background. They are physically present, but their minds are busily creating all the while.

Writers also may tell you that they can’t disappear into their writing without the use of props. Only a specific pen, type of music and particular shirt will do. Therefore, the idea of a writing place is psychological in nature. That equates to whatever the writer needs to feel comfortable.  In his 1951 essay “Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena,” British psychologist D. W. Winnicott wrote, “It is in the space between inner and outer worlds, which is also the space between people—the transitional space—that intimate relationships and creativity occur.” With that in mind, perhaps the best answer about finding a writing haven is from a quote by Ernest Hemingway: “The best place to write is in your head.”

Where do you go when you disappear? Do you have a writing haven or can you write in plain sight?