Recently, I was interviewed for the Simon's Groove podcast and he asked about negative reviews. I gave an answer about how one-star reviews, etc., don't bother me as much as they should. I wished I had more time to elaborate. Simon likely would have been okay with that, but in truth, when the mic is on, I tend to get ahead of myself and not say everything I'd like.
The truth is that bad reviews do sting. I try not to read them, of course, but they're unavoidable. I'll always get them as long as I'm sharing work with the public. I said it to Simon and it's true: some readers hate what I do.
But after the Simon's Groove podcast, I got to thinking about where the bad reviews come from. I believe they stem from readers who have a genuine misunderstanding about what it is that I'm writing about. Their expectations don't line up with mine. I don't have an interest in writing stories in the same fashion as other writers. And, when a reader doesn't see that, I think they feel cheated, surprised, or confused. Then, they either don't finish the story before them, or feel the need to take to the web and express that in some way. How is it socially acceptable to express frustration over a consumable form of art? Give it a bad review on some website and stick it with as few stars as possible.
Well, I went looking and discovered that I had written about my particular niche-style of writing about two years ago. The ironic thing (among a few) is that I mention how I will never have a #1 Amazon book. Since then, I've actually had a #1 Amazon book. Things change I guess.
Have a gander at how I saw things two years ago. My thanks to authors Rima Jean and Neil Crabtree way back when for contributing to the discussion. If you have a point of view, I'd love to hear it in the comment area below.
NOTE: This post is originally from November 2010.
I'm A Dweller on the Threshold
Stephen King. John Grisham. The Joy Luck Club. Twilight. The Catcher in the Rye.
These authors and these book titles are what people call household names. Even people who don't write, who don't read a lot, or haven't in a very long time, have probably heard of or read one of the above. For the purposes of this essay, and as it relates to fiction only, I will term this as mainstream: something that nearly everyone has heard of, and a great many have actually read.
I was working with an author who's first book was published in the more traditional way: she had gone to school to learn the craft, or, at least discuss the craft, for a number of years, then wrote a book, and found an agent to represent her interests. She was lucky because the agent sold her book to a large paper-based publisher that supported her work and then the agent continued to get the book listed in newspapers, on websites and in literary publications until the writer found a grant and started writing another book.
When I was meeting with this writer, she was fairly confident in her ability to sell books. She was very nice to me, very helpful with her support and comments and, in her own right, a very good writer.
What she took issue with in my storytelling ability was my penchant to disregard the rules. By that I mean that I didn't write in a straight line. I tended, she said, to borrow from different kinds of writing and bend things to suit my story and my style. She said I probably wouldn't find a home with a big publisher because my writing scope was narrow. I didn't have all the elements of candy-coated genre books and I didn't have all the heartache of a genuine literary book. I can't just jump around like this because I don't have an established voice. I'm not established in the mainstream so I don't yet have the right. I asked her if she meant my writing voice and she said, no, your publishing voice. She probably didn't use that word, but we got to talking about what she exactly meant, and that's how I think of it now: my publishing voice.
She said, You want people to read your books, right? I said, yes, of course. She said, Well then, you need to follow norms and standards. You have to write something like everyone else is writing. It needs to be mainstream. You can't write anything too complicated because no one will want to read it. You can't be too creative with elements of your style. And she reiterated. You need to write like everyone else does. But. You still need to say something meaningful through the course of your plot. You can't be too niche.
That's right. You need to tailor your writing to speak to the highest number of people you can. And that means writing the same way everyone else does. Look at popular authors, emulate them, then you put your stamp on things with a unique premise and a compelling character.
Well, that last part was fine. That was definitely a good attack strategy. But, seriously. I can't write what I write? The way I write it?
No. Of course not.
Now, I knew when I began writing that my material was not going to be the next set of Harry Potter books. I don't write like everyone else. That's just the plain truth of it. And I don't want to. I knew that I wouldn't sell a million copies of anything I penned. But what I also knew is that I had some interesting stories, compelling characters and some tough issues to talk about through the course of it all. I never in a hundred and five years thought I'd be told to "tailor" anything in order to reach an audience. Maybe I was naive, maybe I still am, but I never considered writing to a mass audience. I know that it happens every day. I do. I get that. I just don't want to do it that way.
To strike out with the intent of writing The Next Harry Potter. Or to try and be The Next Stephen King, that just doesn't jibe with me. Who wants to read something that's trying to hit the highest number of nails with one swing?
I asked this talented, published author, Have you ever heard of a band called Sigur Ros? She was into music, a great deal more than most and was even into a lot of indie bands, some I'd never heard of. But she said, No, I've never heard of Sigur Ros.
I told her that they were a group from Iceland. They write really experimental pop in their native language, not English or Spanish or Mandarin, some of the most popular and well-recorded languages in current pop music. Some of their songs are sung in an entirely made up language and are sometimes twenty minutes long. Their albums have unusual titles and artwork on the cover and they had one album filled entirely with untitled songs. They probably have a big label behind them now, but when they started, they were outsiders, touring little clubs in a country you and I will probably never visit because of its foreboding name. She laughed.
I also told her that Sigur Ros had a huge cult following now, because of the Internet and because of word of mouth and publications like Rolling Stone Magazine that mentioned them once upon a time, before that mag lost a lot of its cred.
And look at them, I said to her. You'll never hear them on top 40 radio in my home town. Most people have never even heard of them. They won't win Grammys like U2 or Lady GaGa or Van Morrison. But they're selling records, or as is now the case, tracks on the web. They have listeners. They have a half dozen albums of material plus some solo albums and soundtracks. One song was featured in the big Tom Cruise movie, Vanilla Sky. They might not be getting rich, but they're making a bit of dough. Sigur Ros is selling out big arenas, making concert DVDs and touring the world now.
Even if you've never heard of them.
* * *
I don't imagine I'll tour the world with my books as the means. I also don't think I'll ever be what I consider mainstream, either in my level of popularity or in the style of writing I choose to do. But I don't think writing for a niche is such a bad thing, either.