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?

Top 5 Self-Editing Tips: Character

This month, let’s concentrate on an aspect of self-editing that writers spend little or no time examining as they go through each successive draft of their novel: character. The people who populate a novel should seem real to the author, and yet, readers often notice that characters are stereotypes—cardboard cutouts.

To explain the importance of knowing your characters well, let me use an example from the relationship between the famous editor Maxwell Perkins and the well-known author F. Scott Fitzgerald, who wrote The Great Gatsby.

After reading the manuscript for The Great Gatsby, Perkins wrote a note to Fitzgerald about one of his characters, which read:

 “Among a set of characters marvelously palpable and vital—I would know Tom Buchanan if I met him on the street and would avoid him—Gatsby is somewhat vague. The reader’s eyes can never quite focus upon him, his outlines are dim. Now everything about Gatsby is more or less a mystery, i.e., more or less vague, and this may be somewhat of an artistic intention, but I think it is mistaken.”

Last month we talked about how every scene should have intention, but so should every character. Characters need motive. They must seem credible in all they do, as though they truly exist—as if they live down the street.

Fitzgerald, no slacker when it came to building characters, reexamined Gatsby through the eyes of his famous editor and wrote a note back to Perkins:

“I myself didn’t know what Gatsby looked like or was engaged in & you felt it. If I’d known & kept it from you you’d have been too impressed with my knowledge to protest. This is a complicated idea but I’m sure you’ll understand. But I know now—and as a penalty for not having known first, in other words to make sure, I’m going to tell more.”

To fulfill Gatsby’s intention, Fitzgerald needed to make him an enigmatic figure, but to accomplish his purpose, the author also needed to know Gatsby’s history to make him real.

A reader doesn’t need to know who Gatsby’s grandmother was, but Fitzgerald as the author should know if and how she shaped his character. Do you know your character’s history, or did you begin your novel with a vague sense of what kind of character needed to occupy a certain place in your plot?

My suggestion is to keep a notebook on every character, making notes throughout your writing on character development. As you self-edit, you can then look back at your record of their motives, history, and tone of voice to make their dialogue and actions consistent, intentional, and credible.

To make your characters come alive, remember they are more than the sum of their physical traits. Characters possess social, psychological, and spiritual uniqueness as well.

 

What method do you use to develop your characters?