In a recent interview J.K. Rowling’s advice to would be novelists was ‘don’t read the comments – that way madness lies.’ She was responding to a question about some of the less than positive reviews that have appeared for her first adult novel, The Casual Vacancy.
Her words set me wondering whether writers should ever read comments in whatever form they come – whether in fact they are dangerous to an author’s wellbeing. A bad review can hurt and destroy confidence and there are certainly a few people out there who seem motivated to destroy. But there’s also vast numbers of readers who want to share their opinion of your work in a constructive way. Of course, their views are subjective and as long as you keep in mind that as a writer you are never going to please all of the people of all of the time, you won’t come to much harm. Last week I experienced a brilliant example of this. My book, Walking Through Glass, is selling on the Amazon US site and attracted two new reviews on the same day. The first was headed ENGROSSING and gave the book five stars, the second was headed SLOW and gave it one star!
Reviews come at the very end of the publishing process, so what about comments that land in your lap earlier? A lot of writers use beta readers, usually friends or acquaintances who will read their draft manuscript and whose judgement they trust. But here again personal opinion plays its part and if as an author you’re convinced that you’ve got it right, you have to stick to your guns. If, on the other hand, three or four of your readers are pointing to the same problem, you’d probably be wise to listen.
When the draft becomes a manuscript proper, then it’s the editor’s turn to comment and from my small experience, their input is crucial. One of the difficulties with novels that are self-published can be the lack of an editor - not a copy editor who looks at grammar, spelling, punctuation etc – but an editorial editor who can be ruthlessly critical over pace, structure, coherence, the big things that make or break a novel. I doubt that any writer enjoys this kind of criticism. It was wonderful to see how a bestselling novelist such as Ian Rankin (‘Imagine’ last week) greeted his editor’s reservations with extreme grumpiness. Nevertheless he took them seriously and did something about them. Writers may fret and fume when the editor’s comments first come in but if they’ve got any sense, they’ll take notice and end up with a much better book.
Did J. K. Rowling get those kind of comments with The Casual Vacancy, or is she too big a beast these days? I have a feeling that if she had, she might be just that bit happier reading those reviews!