My youngest child was born butt-ugly.
It was a difficult pregnancy. I hadn’t managed to gain more than fifteen pounds. (Don’t hate me — I may be the only woman in the history of motherhood to gain weight while breastfeeding). And so, upon entry into the world, my daughter looked rather like a plucked hen. In fact, “Chicken” remains her nickname to this day, some eleven years later.
In addition to being extremely skinny, Chicken was born jaundiced, which meant most of her was a lovely shade of Big Bird yellow. But only MOST of her, because to cap it all off (please pardon the pun) she also made her entrance into the world with a large hematoma on the top of her skull. In other words, her trip through the play-dough fun factory of life blessed her with a cone-head.
A purple cone-head. A BRIGHT purple cone-head, which did nothing to offset the rubber-ducky tones of her complexion.
(It ain’t easy being green? Try clashing with YOURSELF. Thank goodness she couldn’t focus well enough to see her own reflection.)
What do I remember about Chicken’s birth? Pain, more pain, smiling through gritted teeth as the obstetrics nurse assured me I wasn’t really in labor, going through end-stage transition with no drugs (against my most fervent wishes), pushing while the same (very embarrassed and apologetic) nurse assured me the doctor was on his way, and then…Voila! Beautiful baby girl with my hands, her father’s feet, her aunt’s eyes, and her paternal great-grandmother’s nose.
It was only later, when I looked at the pictures — or better yet, when I saw the video of my daughter’s homecoming and caught the horrified expression on my mother-in-law’s face — that I came to realize I’d given birth to…yes. A butt-ugly baby.
No one was cruel enough to mention her imperfections, which is probably why I remained blissfully unaware till long after her cone-head and jaundice had faded and she’d put on a little weight. Not that I would’ve cared. Chicken was (and still is) everything I’ve ever wanted in a daughter.
What does this have to do with romance fiction? Bear with me.
We’ve all heard writers refer to their stories as their “babies.” But a mother has little control over what her baby looks like when it’s born. That’s up to fate, the circumstances of the birth, and a roll of the genetic dice.
A book is not, in fact, nothing like a baby in this regard. Barring a truly horrible editing experience, the author has significant control over the finished product. Furthermore, once a book has finished its gestation period — gone through early drafts, revisions, a final polish, and then the publisher’s editorial process — and is published, it’s reached its potential. Unlike a baby, the book is all it will ever be and has no opportunity to improve.
My point? While it would have been unkind and fairly pointless to tell me my daughter was an unattractive newborn, an honest and even highly critical review of an author’s book can be a beneficial thing. Why? Because while the author can’t change what’s already on the page, she can use the criticism to create a better product next time.
Imagine if, in my post-birth, highly hormonal state, someone had said to me, “Your kid is skinny, yellow, and has an ugly purple cone-head. Try harder next time, will ya?”
I likely would’ve left them limping.
But if a reviewer or a reader says to me, “Your last book failed to move me. I didn’t understand the characters’ motivations, and the ending felt rushed,” I feel the sting of the rejection…and then I take the golden nugget of constructive criticism and make it work for me next time.
This is why honest, well-intentioned reviews are so important to the romance fiction industry. Authors need carefully considered criticism to improve their work. Readers need reliable reviews to direct their buying habits. Publishers need feedback to set acquisition standards. And none of that has anything to do with anybody’s cooing newborn. This is a business, after all — a point that sometimes gets lost when authors fail to differentiate between themselves and their work.
I am not my writing. When someone doesn’t like my books, it’s not a slur against my intelligence or character. (And in the case of those reviewers who launch personal, spiteful attacks against authors for laughs and blog hits…well, that ultimately says more about their characters than those of the authors they bash, doesn’t it?) Yet who can help but take a bad review just a little bit personally? But if you can swallow that hurt and read a negative review with something approaching objectivity, that’s what could make the difference between feeling insulted and rejected or learning something valuable about your own work.
I wish I could say everything I ever needed to know about publishing I learned on Sesame Street, but here is where the analogy ends. It’s a tough business. We’ve all heard how authors must grow thick skins because Oscar the Grouch and Bert in a bad mood over his lost bottle-cap collection ain’t got nuthin’ on a few of the characters we’ve all run across in the Romancelandia blogosphere.
I think the best an author can do is to cultivate a positive attitude, count her blessings along with her good reviews (One! One four-and-a-half Blue Ribbon reviews!) and remember that when it comes to books and babies, one of these things is NOT like the other.
This message has been brought to you by the letter ‘M’ and the number ’17.’