I received a pretty nasty email last night.
It was from a reader, a regular one by the sound of it. She was taking me to task, in no uncertain terms, for using a certain line 'too often' in my books. The line is fairly benign, can't quite understand why it's caused her such angst, and how that angst has forced her to not only seek out my email address but to pen a very demoralising and outright nasty letter.
She's entitled to her opinion. I should be grateful, I know, that she has even bothered. I'm sure she thinks she's 'helping'. But it got me thinking ... what kind of a person does that?
And have they any idea what kind of a person I am?
If you're a creative type, like me, you will know the answer to that question, without ever having met me. I am a writer. Sometimes I wish I wasn't. Gee my life would be easier, and downright more lucrative, if I had a strong drive to be, say, a banker. Or a clerk. Or even a waitress. I'm sure I'd earn more, and probably feel a lot better about myself.
Most writers, by their very nature, are sensitive souls with non-existent egos and endless vulnerabilities. It seems a contradiction considering how we throw our words about, but many of us are one really dreadful review away from chucking it all in.
We feel life differently to many others. That's why we write. We see the nuances in every upturned eyebrow and casual throw-away line. We pick and plot our way through the world. We feel things so intensely we have to get it down, we have to share it with the world lest we implode. If we didn't, we'd just get on with our lives and be happy with our lot.
Instead we question and quiz and plot and play — all with words, which we hope will delight and explain and go some way to making sense of this crazy world.
Even the greatsEvery writer is full of neuroses, even the greats. Read any interview, witness any author/poet talk and this is abundantly clear—from Sylvia Plath to Agatha Christie. At some stage we all read our work and think, 'Oh my God that's a load of drivel, why do I even bother?'
Maybe it's fleeting—Harlan Coben once said, "At some point in every novel, I fear that I will never be able to pull it together"—or maybe it's a constant battle. The great Tennessee Williams is quoted as saying: "I don't believe anyone ever suspects how completely unsure I am of my work and myself and what tortures of self-doubting the doubt of others has always given me.”
Whatever it is, however strong our self-doubt, to slam that ability to finally "pull it together" (and produce a work you can actually sink your teeth into) with a bitchy comment, while totally justified perhaps, can wither something so easily inside us all. You need to know that.
Speak out, by all meansI'm not saying you have no right to criticise. If authors want the praise—which we do, and often!—we must also accept the criticism right along with it. I know that, Harlan and Ian know that. I'm just saying, be careful how you criticise.
I have received plenty of wonderful gushing emails, I'm not short on praise, and I respond to each one like they've sent me a glass of water in a parched desert. They inspire me, they keep me thriving. I have also received the occasional critical one, but I have been equally as appreciative. I'm often told I use too many profanities in my books, but I stand by them. My stories are largely set in Australia and Aussies swear like bloody troopers. I thank the critic and get on with my life.
A few books back, a fan wrote to tell me how much she loved my work but had found some spelling errors and wondered if I was keen to know? I was! She has since edited several of my books and I can not thank her enough. That kind of criticism is valuable, it's imporant, it's appreciated. What's more, she did it with a kind heart and a helpful soul. She wasn't out to hurt me, she was out to help.
A sting in the tailThe email last night only had one intention. This person was clearly frustrated and wanted me to feel her pain. Well done, Mean Girl, you achieved just that. (You probably had a point, you know, but you did it so viciously, your point got lost amidst the pain.)
Please be aware, as you press 'Send' and get on with your life (one that probably doesn't involve writing novels and putting them out there for others to judge), that a nasty tone and a mean rant actually demoralises us. It doesn't help. It may even stop us from writing all together. And if, like Ms Mean Girl, you profess to reading all our books, why risk killing them off? Luckily, I'm made of sturdier stuff.
(Still, for every 10 positive reviews I get on Amazon and the like, I get just one slightly nasty, slightly tetchy one. And it's that one review I remember. Sad but true. It's the reason I have largely stopped reading my reviews, despite the fact that most are so wonderfully supportive. Almost every writer I know does not read their reviews for that very reason. It's usually the negative ones that stay with you, whether you like it or not.)
So tread gently, folks. We're human, you know? That's why you have a book to read in the first place.
Be a kind reader this month.