What To Do With Bad Reviews

Unpublished authors imagine that once they are published, life will be glorious. That’s because they haven’t thought much about bad reviews. Every author gets them, and sometimes they’re agonizing.

As a published, working author, you learn to live with the reality of bad reviews in different ways. You can stop reading them. You can have someone you trust vet them for you and warn you so that nasty splinters of prose don’t lodge in your brain. You can leave town or stay off the grid when your book comes out.

Hell, you can be perverse and break open a bottle of champagne to celebrate a dreadful review. Why not? Or if you’re a mystery author, you can have fun with a bad review and kill the reviewer. Of course, you don’t have to go all the way to murder. Fictional defamation, degradation, and despoliation can be satisfying, too.  But getting captured by a review is not healthy.

I remember a Salon piece of close to 3,000 words (seriously!) by a novelist who complained that Janet Maslin killed his novel in the New York Times. Killed? No critic has that power. But Maslin did trash his book. It happens. She also made a gross mistake about his book in her review. That happens, too. One reviewer claimed that my second novel focused on a theme that it didn’t remotely touch, which meant she was probably confusing it with another book of mine.  Reviewers get sloppy all the time.  Sleepy too, I bet….

sleepingstudenty_LargeThe Salon piece was disturbing and at times painful — but not just because of Maslin’s error. It opened with the author describing how he moaned on his couch, face down, while his wife read and paraphrased the bad review, and her having to admit that Maslin dissed the book as “soggy.”

The author teaches creative writing and had published three previous books, so you’d think he would try to set a better example for his students. Instead, while he admitted he was lucky to have been in the Times at all, he focused on his misery and even shared that he’d previously thought of Maslin as a ghost friend because she gave his first book a great review. That was super creepy.

I’ve published twenty-five books and I read as few of my reviews as possible. Why? Because I’ve learned more about my work from other authors through their books, conversations, or lectures than I have from reviews. I don’t look to reviews for education, validation or approbation. I hope they’ll help with publicity, but I’ve seen people get raves in the New York Times without any impact on sales.

More importantly, we authors shouldn’t let our self-esteem be held hostage by the Janet Maslins of journalism, and we should try not to over-estimate their importance or expect them to stroke our egos. Bad reviews? Ignore them along with the good ones, and keep writing.

How do you deal with bad reviews?  Have you ever felt trapped like the writer who wrote the Salon piece?

Lev Raphael is the author of Writer’s Block is Bunk (Guide to the Writing Life) and 24 other books in genres from memoir to mystery.W

Apocalypse Wow

For no discernible reason, news reporting has taken on an exaggerated tone this summer–more exaggerated than usual, I mean.  The potential for earthquakes in the Pacific Northwest, one of the many Kardashian baby bumps, a Jenner’s transition from Bruce to Caitlyn, the Pluto fly-by, discovery of airplane wreckage in the sea off Reunion, volcanic eruptions here and there, and final filming of Downton Abbey are all discussed (and headlined) with a blare of trumpets and a rumble of kettle drums.  The Sky is Falling!  Obama is Invading Texas and the POWs will be Stashed at Walmart!!  Donald Trump is Running for President!!!

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Journalistic bombast affects not just the language used in reporting but the narrative structure of the story, and the choice of which stories to report and which to pass by.  I think the viewers or readers feed on it–certainly they internalize it, so that that they yearn for something spectacular in every story.  Nice isn’t enough.  Insanely nice is what we all want.  And if what we crave is negative, a single genteel murder is not magnetic enough, not awful in the sense of awesome.  What we want is serial killings, all of them lasciviously gruesome.

I suppose this craving for super-triumph and mega-disaster flows in both directions.  Post-holocaust science fiction and Vlad-the-Impaler-style fantasy can generate a desire for sensation in journalism and history.  Naive readers complain that news servers never tell pleasant tales about kindly innocent folks helping each other.  Actually, they do.  Sometimes they speak calmly of a medical breakthrough or a technological leap.  Occasionally they even report on change that is just change, neither breakthrough nor leap.  All too often, though, stories like that are swamped by others that supply boom and bang, and blood, lots of blood.

I’ve taken a bunch of history classes in my day and taught some.  Nothing is more depressing than to find students wanting yet another recap of the invasion of Normandy or the battle of Gettysburg.  As appalling as the First World War was, it was not one-sixteenth as important in human history as the domestication of corn.  We love to read about the fall of Rome.  The foundation of the first human village was a lot more noteworthy–but not spectacular.

I think I’m burning out on what makes the world dramatic.  If I do, I’ll have one heck of a time writing appealing fiction.

All the World’s a Stage

All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players;

They have their exits and their entrances,

And one man in his time plays many parts . . .

William Shakespeare, As You Like It, Act II, Scene VII

I love the theatre. I love to watch performances.The performers I’ve seen range from local people who love theatre as much as I do, to Sir Ian McKellen.

We have lots of theatre in the Bay Area, everything from the American Conservatory Theatre to Berkeley Rep to TheatreWorks to Broadway road shows.

There are also many local little theatre groups. Here in Alameda, we have the Altarena Playhouse, performing since 1938. I have subscribed for years and find the offerings and the performances consistently good..

I also like to act. The smell of the greasepaint, the roar of the crowd. There’s nothing like a standing ovation, a showstopper, or making the audience laugh at the point where they’re supposed to laugh.

Way back when I was in elementary school, I wrote a play based on a book I’d read. My teacher was so impressed that my class then performed the play for the younger grades.

When I went off to college, I declared an English major with a minor in Theatre. Then I switched gears, to a Theatre major and English minor.

That was back in the days when I thought I was going to be a teacher, a plan that lasted until I took my first education class and realized that wasn’t my career path. Let’s face it, in my high school days, the counselors assumed that female students were going to be teacher or nurses, and I blanch at the sight of needles.

My sojourn as a Theatre major lasted through my sophomore year in college. Then I switched schools and went on to another major, Journalism. But I retained my love of theatre.

Before joining the Navy, I did some stage work in a local little theatre, playing the mother in Neil Simon’s Come Blow Your Horn. The role involves a lengthy monologue when the mother is looking for a pad and paper to take a phone message, and can’t find the items and gets the message all wrong.

The first night we performed, I pulled out the drawer in a coffee table and couldn’t get it shut. I was heart-poundingly distracted as I performed my lines. The next night I was more careful with the drawer and able to focus on giving my performance. I was rewarded with a showstopper, which means the audience applauded when I finished my bit. And yes, it felt wonderful.

On to the Navy, and my duty station in Guam. I got involved with a group called the Million Dollar Players, which was made up of Navy enlisted personnel as well as military wives and kids. Their previous productions had been melodrama, performed at various enlisted and officers’ clubs all over the island.

Let’s do something different, I suggested. I had just the play, Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit. And I was delighted to be cast in one of the best roles of all time, the eccentric medium Madame Arcati, who manages to call forth a ghost.

I haven’t done any acting on stage since those Navy days on Guam, though every now and then I think about auditioning for something. Sure, as though I could fit that into my already busy schedule.

But I have performed. I’ve put those acting skills to good use as an author, every time I read from one of my books. More importantly, I’ve used those skills as I plot my novels and create characters to populate them.

So all the world is a stage, even if it’s the podium at a local library, or my keyboard and my imagination. I have indeed played many parts.

THE JULY 4TH OUTHOUSE PARADE AND BERNIE SANDERS

My part of the world has had an unusual amount of press lately with the mind-boggling, stranger-than-fiction escape and re-capture of two murderers from an upper New York state prison, and with our independent Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who is running for president and attracting huge crowds. The Fourth of July celebrations have only added fuel to the flames with their patriotic parades that have grown ever more crazy and creative.

For the past two decades our family has converged on the Fourth in the small town of Bristol, Vermont, on Pleasant Street where my daughter and husband lived and where the parade traditionally marched through with its bands, floats, clowns, fire engines, and politicians. My daughter would throw together an abundance of brown rice and lentils, greens, and strawberry shortcake, and we’d line up our lawn chairs on the edge of the street for a close-hand view. The kids, too excited to sit, would leap up and down, water pistols in hand to squirt back at the clowns or at the redneck kids on their dairy farm floats for whom the Fourth meant battle. My daughter always had dry shirts ready to throw on her overexcited adolescents.

This year my daughter and family have moved to a small farm in Leicester, Vt and rented out the Pleasant Street house—but the family tradition goes on, and most of us make the trip back to Bristol for one of the oldest and most colorful July Fourth parades in the country.

The 2015 excitement began, as always, with an outhouse race where teams of ingenious pairs, in four suspenseful heats, maneuvered a fabricated, boxy outhouse on castors: one guy pulling in front, one pushing from behind, and one waving at the crowds from his or her triumphant seat on a shiny white toilet. The two inch castors rotated 360 degrees, so that keeping the unit rolling forward was a challenge. One outhouse veered to the right early on, barely missing a photographer–then its cardboard roof and sides blew off. Nonetheless, like the presidential race, the betting was high, the competition keen, and the cheering loud and wild.

Next came the parade of horse-drawn carriages, fire engines, colonial militiamen in tricorn hats, exploding their ancient muskets; the Bristol Band tooting away on a red and white be-ribboned flatbed; a fat, straggly-haired clown equipped with drum, horns, bells, whistle and sticks to smack the dinger on his head; the Monster buggies from the Freemason Shriners zooming in and out of the road, their drivers tossing candy to our kids; and Bristol’s own horse-drawn trash disposal cart, with its driver stopping every few feet to scoop up the poop into a plastic bag.

Then a shout: “Here comes Bernie!” But no–it’s not Senator Sanders but old Harold Allen from up in Lincoln, with a white wig, red striped tie, one arm gesticulating wildly as the real Bernie would do to make a point. And behind the impersonator a band of buzzing membranophone kazoos blasted through, with a happy-go-lucky dancing gaggle of folks shouting “Bernie! Bernie!”

Then to my amazement: my two young granddaughters appeared among the Kazooers, bearing a huge placard touting BERNIE FOR PRESIDENT! The girls were obviously thrilled to be part of the spectacle, forgetting no doubt, that Bernie himself was not with them. For Bernie, someone called out, was marching in Iowa that day, with even louder crowds trumpeting in his ears. “Bernie tells the truth,” these fans allege: this middle class fellow whose immigrant dad came to Brooklyn from Poland, penniless at age 17. Plain-speaking, “democrat-socialist” Bernie Sanders who wants only to reverse “the obscene levels” of income and wealth inequality, and who thrives not on the Super Pac like most presidential candidates, but on small, grassroots donations.

Finally the parade wound down, the last fireman drove his big truck back to the starting point, and my dancing granddaughters settled down with family to devour the strawberry shortcake my daughter had brought. The ice cream had pretty much melted, but spirits were soaring and even the youngest of kin were released by their parents to run into town and enjoy a day of freedom—the two syllable word that pretty much summed up the whole day.

Of Signs and Symbols

My family reunion was held a bit early this year, so I arrived in South Carolina on July 10, the day the infamous Confederate flag was removed from the state house grounds in the aftermath of the horrible shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. Because of the significance of the flag and of its removal, I’ve found myself thinking a lot the last couple of weeks about signs and symbols.

That flag was first flown atop the state house itself in 1961, ostensibly to mark the centennial of the beginning of the Civil War. The subtext, of course, was that the flag was a poke in the eye for the burgeoning civil rights movement. Emotions surrounding that issue were running high across the South. At that moment, the spring of 1961, I lived in Chattanooga and was attending a brand new high school, Brainerd High, whose teams were called the Rebels. Our anthem was sung to the tune of “Tara’s Theme,” from Gone with the Wind. (In the 1970s, amid growing racial unrest, the school teams were renamed the Panthers. On Facebook, though, alumni from the ’60s still call themselves Rebels.)

In the fall of 1961 I enrolled at a new high school in Greenville, SC—Wade Hampton High, named after a Confederate general (and slave owner) and governor of the state in the 1870s. We were the Generals. In spite of the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), my senior yearbook (1963) is devoid of black faces. Several pictures show Confederate flags waving at pep rallies and ball games.

In 2015 the flag is being touted as a symbol of state pride, a reminder of the “Southern heritage.” I am a native South Carolinian, but I’ve never understood that argument. I see no reason to take pride in a place just because my mother was there when she went into labor. I was conceived in California, where my father was in the Marine Corps, but I take no pride in that fact either. What I take pride in are some of my accomplishments—the successful marriage my wife and I have enjoyed for nearly fifty years, our four children who are caring, responsible adults, our wonderful grandson, the degrees I’ve earned, the books I’ve had published.

nazibannerBut symbols have power. My father-in-law was in the Army in Europe at the end of WWII. He brought back, among other things, a Nazi banner. Not a flag, mind you, but one of those huge banners that you see in film footage hanging from buildings and balconies. It’s blood red, with a white circle and a black swastika in the center.
Just once, I showed it to a class. The students who held it, stretched across the entire room, seemed reluctant to touch it. The others tended to draw back in their seats, repulsed by the thing. Considering that the swastika was for centuries a good-luck emblem, it’s amazing how completely its symbolism has been reversed.

A hundred and fifty years ago, the Confederate flag stood for a way of life, but a way of life based on slavery. An African American colleague of mine keeps a Confederate flag draped over the chair at his desk. He says he likes to plant his butt on it every time he sits down. I can understand that sentiment. I do think, though, it is excessive to portray the Confederate flag alongside a Nazi swastika or an ISIS flag. Southerners did not (and do not) behead infidels or gas millions of Jews. Yes, some of them held Africans (who were usually captured and sold into slavery by their own people) in a reprehensible bondage. But at that time slavery was, in the opinion of many people, not the abhorrent thing we now deem it to be but a necessary fact of life. And yet the Confederate flag is still such a powerful symbol for some people that stores which still sell it—such as the “Dixie Republic” north of Greenville—can’t keep up with the demand.

Dixie Republic, SCIncidentally, today there are more slaves in the world than there ever were in the American South. The United Nations estimates that 27,000,000-30,000,000 people are enslaved today. India, China, and Pakistan account for about half of them. The British Home Office estimates that there are 10,000-13,000 people enslaved in various ways in Great Britain. Mauritania, in 2007, was the last country on earth to abolish slavery, but over 4% of its population are still enslaved.

I’m all in favor of removing the Confederate flag from public buildings or property. It should not be there, any more than a Nazi banner should be. But it has a place, just as a Nazi banner does, in a museum. We have to remember the history. An American history textbook now in use in Texas does not mention slavery as a cause of the Civil War. This is the worst sort of revisionism, on a par with the Soviets rewriting their encyclopedias whenever a leader like Stalin or Khrushchev fell out of power and favor.

We do continually reinterpret history, but, if we hope to learn anything from the past, we have to look at it realistically, to see humanity’s mistakes as well as our accomplishments. We cannot reinvent history. The symbols of various eras of the past serve to remind us of that fact. We cannot pack them away and pretend they never existed.

The Joys of Small Town Living

Wendy Hornsby

I grew up in a small town. Any trip to the grocery, the post office, or the bank was a social occasion because one knew most of the people working there and the other customers. It seemed to me that my parents knew everybody, and everybody seemed to know which family I belonged to, even if they didn’t know which of Bob and Fern’s kids I happened to be. Because of that, I also knew that my friends and I would never get away with a damn thing.

Over time, the orange and avocado groves that had been the economic core of the community were yanked out and replaced by new tract house developments filled with new families. A supermarket came in, then second and third branch of the bank.  New church congregations split off from the old. Two new freeways pushed through, and two more high schools were built. By the time I was in middle school, that little agricultural town had merged with the general earth-tone-stucco suburban sprawl that characterizes Greater Los Angeles. We still ran into people we knew, and my parents still heard about any my mischief I got into before I got home, but the easy, familiar conviviality of the place seemed to have been lost.

Two years ago, when I retired, my husband and I moved out of the LA Megalopolis to a small town. It took us a little while to adjust, or re-adjust, to the pace of ordinary daily transactions. Bank tellers and market clerks think nothing of finishing a conversation with a customer after a transaction is finished, even when there are people waiting in line. As often as not, the people in line will join the discussion. Rarely does anyone get huffy about how long all this chit-chat takes because it is an important element in the quality of life here.

Case in Point: Recently, we went to the post office to mail a copy of the manuscript for my next mystery, Disturbing the Dark, to a blurber. There were maybe four people in line and several others filling out address labels or selecting shipping boxes. The general conversation among the group was about the freak rain we’d had the day before, and speculation about El Niño mounting to anything. A man walked in, leaned against the end of the counter and, addressing the room, asked, “What’s the best way to get rats out of the garage?” He didn’t stand in line or have any postal business to transact, he just seemed to come in for a consultation among the locals. So, D-Con, though effective, was ruled out as too stinky and too dangerous for buzzards and cats who might find the corpse. Instead, “Put peanut butter in a trap and put the trap next to the wall where you saw the rat.” “Go over to Scott’s hardware and get on of those sticky traps, and put that next to the wall. They always go to the wall.” That one brought a comment, “Then close the garage door, because after they get stuck it still takes a while for them to die.” The man with a problem nodded a sort of thanks to the assembled, and left.

A woman walked in and took her place in line. Seeing her, the counter agent called over her shoulder, “Sue, Marva’s here.” A second postal clerk walked up from the back room and set a box with ventilation holes on the counter. She said, “Marva, your peepers came in this morning. They’re making so much noise they probably need water.” The woman at the end of the line, obviously Marva, stepped forward to claim her shipment of baby chickens, and no one in line complained that she was cutting in. Some transactions take priority.

In the meantime, the customer at the counter wanted to know how she could rent a postal box without using her legal name or home address. The USPS requires both, she was told. My husband suggested that she rent a box from the private mailbox place across the road. She said that was too expensive. Hell, she was a self-published author and earned little enough as it was.  She’d held an online give-away contest and now she needed to send copies of the book to the winners, but the last thing she wanted was for any of her readers to find out her legal name and where she could be found. Clutching my manuscript to my chest, I asked her what she wrote. Erotica was the answer.

Though there was a general silence as people gave this fresh-faced young woman a new looking over, Paul laughed. And then he explained why. One of my books had a scene involving handcuffs. I thought the bit was funnier than it was sexy, but it seemed to touch a particular chord with some readers. I started getting handcuffs in the mail: fuzzy leopard-print covered toys, miniatures dangling from earrings, and so on. Fortunately, all of it was sent originally to my publisher, who forwarded it to me, so no one knocked on my door.  But we understood why the woman wanted a buffer between herself and her readers. The postal clerk suggested that she could just leave off the return address altogether. Risking that a book might go astray was better than having some drooling horndog come climbing over the back fence in the middle of the night.  The assembled agreed.

All problems thus addressed, we went on to the diner down the road for lunch.

Sharing My Life

Lea Wait, here.

One of the occupational hazards of being a writer is that readers assume you are your character(s.) In my case, it’s easy to see why they think Maggie Summer, the protagonist of my Shadows Antique Print mystery series, is me. After all, Maggie lives in New Jersey (I used to,)  she  has a doctorate (check), she’s an antique print dealer (yup,) she loves Maine (well, yes) and she’s trying to adopt as a single parent. (Been there; done that.) Of course — Maggie is also younger and braver than I am. She’s a college professor, which I have never been. She drinks diet soda; I drink tea.  But, yes; there are similarities between us. (I’ve had readers write to Maggie to ask about the value of their prints …)

The first Shadows book (Shadows at the Fair) was the first book I wrote (not the first published) and I followed the “write what you know” rule. You’d have to look pretty far to find traces of me in my historical novels or my new Mainely Needlepoint series, although they do all share my love of Maine, and my strong sense of place. But Maggie and I? We share a lot.

But admitting that isn’t enough for some readers. Perhaps starting with the “confessional” poets in the 1950s (e.g. Anne Sexton; Sylvia Plath), and continuing today, readers expected — sometimes demanded — to know more about their favorite authors. Those authors who chose to keep their private lives private (J.D. Salinger; Harper Lee) became the subject of all sorts of speculation. What were they hiding?Lea_Wait.jpg

Today authors are expected to be on social media. Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Goodreads  … the list goes on. And, as I’m doing today, they blog, often not about their writing, but about their lives, their backgrounds, and their personal beliefs. Perhaps not every reader wants to see a picture of their favorite author’s cat on Facebook, or know what he or she had for dinner — but, yes, some do.

4_1I’ve been blogging regularly – on this site, on Mainecrimewriters.com, and as a guest on other blogs – for about five years. That’s a lot of blogs.

Recently, a number of my readers have suggested that I publish a book based on those blogs. My basic story, they tell me, is one they want to hear. I raised four daughters (adopted as older children from Asia) as a single parent; after 30 years laboring in corporate management  I moved to an historic Maine house in the fall of 1998, where I started writing full time, and cared for my mother. After her death I married a man I’d loved since 1968. Our goals hadn’t been aligned then. They are now. So I’m living my dream: married to the man I love, living in the state I love, and writing fiction, which I’d always dreamed of doing. My 15th book will be published late this summer.

I thought about it, and decided maybe those readers were right. So I read through all those blogs, and selected those that reflected the topics most people were interested in: my decades long love story, what it is like to live (all year round) in Maine, and what the life of an author is really like. Earlier this month those collected (and edited) blogs, or essays, were published. If I haven’t revealed any X-rated secrets, I have shared a lot of my backstory and journey.

I’m pleased with the result. I hope my readers will be, too. Living and Writing on the Coast of Maine is available as either a paperback or e-book.

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