Surviving Criticism

In the play Lady Windermere’s Fan, Oscar Wilde’s Lord Darlington famously says, “A critic knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” This assessment may seem harsh to some, but I would wager that anyone who has ever created anything for public consumption might be nodding their heads just a little.

As a writer, reviews of the negative persuasion are more or less inevitable. And as I approach the one-year anniversary of my debut novel and the upcoming publication of its sequel, I’ve been reflecting a lot on the role of critics in the creation of art, and my relationship as a creator with that criticism.

I’ll be honest–when my book first hit shelves, I obsessively read every review I could find. Kirkus. SLJ. Booklist. Amazon. Goodreads. Book blogs. Bookstagram. If someone was writing about my book, I was going to read it. And honestly, most of the reviews skewed toward the favorable–not all bestowed glowing 5 stars, but most were decent. But every now and then I’d find a real stinker–you know the kind of review I’m talking about. The kind of review that says they would have cared more about the characters if they’d all died. The kind of review that implies the only good thing about the book was when it ended. The kind of review that obsessively lists everything the reader hated about it, in vicious detail.

And I started noticing something. Every negative review I read counted for more in my head than every positive review–it was like the bad completely outweighed the good. And every negative review I read made it that much harder for me to write.

So I put on my big girl pants and stopped reading reviews. I blocked Goodreads in my browser. I asked my editors to stop forwarding me trade reviews. I deleted the google alert for my book title. And I breathed a sigh of relief. But simply going out of my way to not find reviews doesn’t mean they don’t find me. In this age of social media and author-reader interaction, it’s really hard not to stumble across criticism. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been tagged on Twitter or Instagram for really scathing reviews. It can be almost day-ruining to click on a lovely bookstagram photo, only to scroll down to the caption and get slapped in the face with vitriol directed toward a novel you spent years of your life and buckets of love creating.

And I’d be lying if I said that hasn’t taken a toll on my writing. I’ll be in a flow and a really great metaphor will pop into my head. But now, that metaphor will be accompanied by all the critical junk I’ve read: the penchant for metaphor is distracting or ugh, I can’t stand purple prose or the writing was so flowery I DNF’ed 10 pages in. Dialogue, character development, action sequences–it’s gotten to a point where it’s a challenge not to second-guess every element of my own writing.

Okay. Deep breath. And…segue.

I listen to the local classical music radio station a lot when I’m in the car. Recently, the radio host shared an anecdote about the composer Rachmaninoff. Apparently, Rachmaninoff’s first symphony to be publicly performed was received so poorly by critics that he fled the concert hall amid catcalls. One critic compared the piece to the ten plagues of Egypt. “If there was a conservatory in hell, Rachmaninoff would get the first prize for his symphony, so devilish are the discords he places before us,” newspaper critic Cesar Cui sneered.

Rachmaninoff was crushed, and stopped composing completely.

“Something within me snapped,” the composer wrote. “All my self-confidence broke down….A paralyzing apathy possessed me. I did nothing at all and found no pleasure in anything.”

It was three years before he was able to compose again. It was ten years before he attempted another symphony. But the piece he composed after his depressed hiatus was his Piano Concerto no. 2, arguably his most famous piece and incidentally, my favorite. He would continue composing for another 45 years, right up until his death.

I’m not sure I’ll ever totally get over receiving negative reviews. But that’s okay. I just need to learn to pick myself up after getting knocked down. To turn the other cheek. To let the good outweigh the bad, instead of the other way around. And most importantly, I just have to keep writing. Because the only way to drown out the critics is to let my work speak for itself.

“Once in a golden hour 
I cast to earth a seed. 
Up there came a flower, 
The people said, a weed.” 
― Alfred Lord Tennyson

How I’ve Been Refilling the Well

My forthcoming novel DIAMOND & DAWN (AMBER & DUSK book two) was not only the first sequel I ever wrote, but it was also the first book I wrote under contract–meaning the manuscript wasn’t written at the time my publisher decided to acquire the novel. I’d written five complete, full length novels at the time I signed the contract, so I wasn’t really worried about the fast turn-around and bracing revision schedule my editors requested.

I maybe should have been.

I wrote D&D from scratch to relatively polished in the space of 4 months, over the holidays no less (and I am NOT a fast drafter). I completed the first revision in three weeks, which included cutting over 20k words and restructuring the entire manuscript. The final revision had to be finished in one week, earlier this month. And that’s when I realized I’d been on deadline for the better part of 6 months!

Part of me wanted to jump right in with a new plot bunny I had simmering on the brain. Another part of me wanted to sit on the couch and do literally nothing for the foreseeable future. I confess, I opted for option number 2! For the past week or so, I’ve tried my best to refill the well, with good books, interesting TV, and a few high-profile movies. Here’s what I’ve been doing to refresh my creativity!

The Magicians, FX (available to stream on Netflix)

Okay, I am officially this show’s new #1 mega fan, and I can’t stop talking about it to anyone who’ll listen (and even those who won’t). I watched Season 1 when it came out a few years ago, but wasn’t blown away. I more or less forgot about it until I stumbled across Season 2 on Netflix, and then…I couldn’t stop watching. People, this show is weird AF, and I love it so much it’s hard to put into words. It’s like Harry Potter had an R-rated baby with Narnia, and then that baby got stuck in a time loop and maybe did some drugs. No, I’m not making any sense. Yes, you should watch it anyway.

Enchantée, by Gita Trelease

I heard of this novel sometime around the release of A&D, and automatically had an attitude towards it based on some superficial similarities to my own book. But I’m truly glad I wound up picking it up! Ms. Trelease has crafted a vibrant, romantic, brutal vision of peri-revolutionary France, complete with magic, love, idealism, glamor, and even hot-air balloonists! I devoured this book like candy, and would absolutely recommend it to fans of YA, history, and fantasy.

The Umbrella Academy, Netflix

Everyone on Twitter was talking about this show, so I decided to give it a whirl. I finished the season, but if I’m honest, it wasn’t my favorite thing in the world. I enjoyed the premise, some of the off-beat elements of the world, and a few of the characters (I’LL DIE FOR YOU KLAUS). But I anticipated nearly every twist in the plot, and had a hard time connecting with several of the character beats. I’d download the soundtrack, but I probably won’t watch Season 2.

Vanity Fair, Amazon Prime TV

I’m only a few episodes into this one, so I can’t speak to its entirety. Now, I love the 2004 Reese Witherspoon version of Vanity Fair as a guilty pleasure–it’s ridiculous and over the top, but the costumes are fantastic and Witherspoon is a delight as a truly wicked Becky Sharp. This adaptation takes a different tone. This Becky Sharp is still smart, ambitious, and cunning, but the creators of this show give us a much better sense of Becky’s milieu–the social stratification of her world that forces her to go to such lengths to take what she believes she deserves from people who loathes everything she represents. It paints her as, dare I say, a slightly sympathetic anti-heroine. I look forward to seeing how her character sharpens over the course of the series!

I think I’ve nearly reached the end of my self-enforced writing hiatus–today I had to fight the urge to open up a new document and start on that project (I stopped myself because I need to at least pretend to outline first). But I’m glad I took the time to refill the creative well–consuming new stories in every medium helps my brain look at my own work with fresh eyes!

What have you been watching, reading, or otherwise enjoying lately?

The Road So Far

This Tuesday marks just one week until my debut novel, AMBER & DUSK, hits shelves! I couldn’t be more terrified thrilled to share this book with the world, but with that release day on the horizon I’ve been thinking a lot about the road that got me here. When I first started on this crazy journey to traditional publication, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. But if there’s anything I’ve learned along the way, it’s that nothing happens over night, and the only real secret to success is perseverance. So–just in case it’s useful to any of you out there pursuing your own traditional pub deal–here’s how I got from scribbling story ideas in the margins of my college notes to seeing a real live book on shelves.

I’ve written my whole life, but it never really occurred to me that I could be a writer until near the end of undergrad. I started fiddling around with half-baked story ideas, and even wrote about 20k words on a very bad novel, but wasn’t super serious about it. The year after college, when I was living outside of D.C. and bartending 50+ hours a week while sending my resume to every non-profit in town, I bonded with my roommate at the time (erstwhile Scribe Emmie Mears) who was writing pretty seriously and beginning to send their work out to literary agents. I didn’t even know what a literary agent was, but a spark ignited inside me. What if this was something I could do, like for real? As a job? As a career?

In 2011, I moved to London where my fiancé was finishing grad school. My visa meant I wasn’t going to be able to work for at least 6 months, so I made a challenge to myself–treat writing like a job, and see if I could really do this. And so, 7 years and change from today, I started writing seriously. Buoyed by delusions of grandeur, I gleefully penned my first few short stories, and then I wrote my first novel, a deeply derivative YA fantasy set in a mythical Ireland. But it was my first novel! I had arrived! Visions of sugarplums (or more accurately, six-figure book deals) danced in my head. I sent out a deluge of query letters full of vague stakes and rhetorical questions (for a primer in how not to write a query letter, see below). I got back a corresponding torrent of form rejection letters. 

I am seeking representation for my young adult fantasy, DARKLING, complete at 88,000 words. DARKLING is Lloyd Alexander meets Holly Black, rooted at the crossroads between the contemporary world and ancient Celtic mythology.
Kyla didn’t ask for uncontrollable dark power for her 16th birthday. She got it anyway.
Orphan Kyla Quinn has built a happy, ordinary life–her biggest worry is whether the track star will ask her to prom. But when she ignores a headache in favor of a night of dancing, Kyla unwittingly awakens her hidden powers and blasts her carefully constructed normalcy to pieces. Guilt-ridden and haunted by memories of that night, Kyla spirals into a self-destructive depression.
In a last-ditch effort to save Kyla’s sanity and soul, her guardian moves them both to an Irish country retreat. In the land of her ancestors Kyla discovers that her destructive power is mysteriously linked to a fallen race of long-forgotten immortals known as the sidhe. Her very life hangs in the balance as she seeks the truth of her identity hidden deep within the myths. Will fickle warrior-prince Tam help her find the answers she needs? Or will he betray her to the shadowy figures stalking ever closer?

I had such unwarranted high expectations, and received only rejection in return. Little did I know, that would be the name of the game for the foreseeable future. I sometimes wonder–if I had known how hard the road to traditional publication would be, would I have stuck with it as I did? I like to think so, but sometimes I don’t know.

I’m still not sure what made me jump back in the saddle. But I did. I participated in my first #NaNoWriMo, and wrote the precursor for what would be my second novel, BLOOD KING, a YA urban fantasy set in London. I queried it through 2013 and early 2014, with no better results. After nearly two years of querying two different books, I hadn’t gotten so much as a partial manuscript request from an agent.

I then wrote my third novel, REVERIE, a YA genre-bender set in a futuristic world where dreams were banned. After several months of unsuccessful querying, I was fortunate enough to be accepted as an alternate in #PitchWars 2014 (the following year, they nixed alternates, so this still seems incredibly lucky to me). My pitch received positive attention, and I received my first partial and full manuscript requests. After an R&R (otherwise known as a Revise and Resubmit) that took me nearly 6 months, I finally got an offer of representation from an agent. In May 2015, I signed with my amazing agent Ginger Clark. 

It felt like such a big step forward. And it was. But despite all the times I’d told myself, “If I can just get an agent I’ll be happy,” it turned out signing with an agent was just the beginning of a new road, and not its end. After more revisions, we went on submission with REVERIE. While the feedback was positive, no one wanted to take a chance on it. We went on a second round of submission early 2016, with similar results. 

Autumn 2016, we went on submission with my fourth full length polished manuscript, AMBER & DUSK. No dice. I’ll be honest–this was the first (and hopefully last) time I seriously considered quitting writing for good. After 5+ years, four novels, countless short stories, and about a million bad words, I just didn’t think I could handle the soul-bruising stream of rejection anymore. I felt like I was pouring my heart into these books, and industry professionals either couldn’t tell or didn’t care. It was starting to hurt,and I didn’t think I could take it.

In early 2017, we got the news that Scholastic Press wanted to acquire AMBER & DUSK. I remember missing a call from my agent, then seeing a text from her that read, “GO CHECK YOUR EMAIL.” I broke out in full body shakes and had to sit on the floor for a while. But it was finally happening–my book baby was going to be on shelves! I was over the moon.

And I still am. But just like signing with an agent, publishing a book wasn’t the end of the road. In fact, I’m quickly beginning to realize it’s the very beginning of a whole different road, one that will hopefully be much longer than 7 years (albeit with a little less rejection along the way). 

I know a few authors who published the first novel they ever wrote. I even know a few who got there with their second. But nearly every other author I know with a traditional pub deal has a story very similar to mine–3, 5, 7 or even 10 trunked manuscripts and years’ and years’ worth of rejection. And on the flip side of that, the only writers I know who didn’t someday fulfill that dream are the ones who gave up. 

So carry on, my wayward sons and daughters.

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Questions? Comments? Condolences for my wasted youth? The comment section is always open!