Since February 9, When It Rained at Hembry Castle has sold over 1000 copies. Thank you! I’m sure there are other authors who can sell that many in a day, but I think those are pretty snazzy numbers.
After the release of my new book, I had an interesting conversation with a fellow author about what happens when you put a book out into the world. As writers, we spend hours, weeks, years living with a story, and then one day we have to set the story free. But what happens when other people (also known as readers) begin to read that story?
I have a friend who is struggling with this issue while she’s getting ready to release her first novel, a venture into Steampunk complete with Victorianisms and fancy-pants machinery. The fear that nearly paralyzes her is the worry over bad reviews. I’ve tried to explain to her that it’s all part of the game. Every book gets bad reviews. I want you to check your favorite book’s Amazon page. I’ll wait. While you’re looking, you’re likely to see some bad reviews there.
I had a few things to say about negative reviews here. Focus on the people who like what you do, I say. They’re the ones who will look forward to your new releases. And if you really can’t handle book reviews, you can always do what I do—not read them. I kid you not. I don’t read negative reviews of my own books. My mother tried to catch me out once when I was talking about a movie review I had read. “I thought you said you don’t read reviews,” she said. What I said, I explained, is I don’t read my own reviews. I read other people’s reviews all the time.
The discussion with my friend about book reviews led into another conversation about the book writers think they’re writing versus the book the readers read. Think of it this way—when we’re writing a story, we know what we intend to do, why the pieces of the puzzle are set out the way they are, why this character says one thing when she means another. But when readers read, they’re not in our heads, they’re in their heads. Which is just as well. My head is crowded enough with only me in there. Readers have their own experiences, their own likes and dislikes, their own tastes. In the end, it doesn’t matter what I intended when I was crafting the story. To the readers, it only matters what happens when they engage with the story.
Next, my friend asked how to write a novel that will appeal to everyone. The answer is you can’t. I mean, really, you can’t. I see articles all over Pinterest and Twitter with headlines like “10 Steps to an International Bestseller” or “How to Make Everyone Love Your Book” or “I Don’t Suck at Writing Anymore, and Now You Won’t Either” (for a fee, of course). Here’s the secret that’s not really a secret: you have to write something that could only come from you. I love this quote from Barbara Kingsolver because it explains the point far better than I ever could (yes, I found it on Pinterest): “Close the door. Write with no one looking over your shoulder. Don’t try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It’s the only thing you have to offer.” How true.
When we write, we figure out what we have to say and we say it the very best way we know how. And if what people read is different than what we thought we were writing? As Toni Morrison once said to Oprah Winfrey, “That is called reading.” Readers are going to bring their own perspectives to the page. They’re going to see the characters and the events through their lens, not yours. And you know what? It’s all good. Many times readers see our stories in a completely different light than we intended, and often they see possibilities the writers never considered.
Here’s a case in point, and one close to my heart because it involves Hembry Castle. When I began writing Hembry in 2014, I had just come off the success of the Loving Husband Trilogy and I thought Hembry would be a great way to go back to writing a love story that readers would cheer for. Edward Ellis and Daphne Meriwether were always the focus for me as I was writing the novel. Yes, Daphne has to figure out how to live in this Downton Abbey-like world, but all along I saw When It Rained at Hembry Castle as a great love story. And here’s what happened…
Before I continue I should say that, while I don’t read reviews of my own books, I do read every email that comes my way. Readers who emailed me about Hembry weren’t gushing over Edward and Daphne. They were asking about Richard, Daphne’s uncle, the 9th Earl of Staton. In the reader’s mind (at least those who contacted me), Richard was the center of attention. He is the Earl of Staton, after all. But I was intrigued by their questions about Richard when to me Edward and Daphne are the stars of the show. Is it wrong for readers to focus on Richard? Of course not. But realizing that readers were not necessarily reading the book I thought I had written was a huge revelation to me and a continuing source of fascination.
Over the years, I’ve learned to keep my focus on writing the best stories I know how before sending those stories off into the world with my blessings. Everything else is beyond my control—even how readers respond to the books I’ve written. If, as writers, we can learn to make peace with that, then there will be much more smooth sailing ahead.