The other day, I was working out at the YMCA when I ran into a successful fiction writer who lives in town. This fellow is a legit author, having published a shelf-full of books, won prestigious awards, and earned a substantial Wikipedia entry. We got to chatting, and he very politely asked how my writing was going. When I told him I’d recently completed my first novel, he congratulated me and asked if I’d secured an agent.
No, I confessed. I had sent the manuscript to about 40 agents and heard mostly crickets. I did receive a handful of polite rejection letters, however, which strangely heartened me.
“Yeah,” he said, “it’s tough out there.”
Now, this fellow is both incredibly modest about his accomplishments and extraordinarily generous about others’. So he set about commiserating with me—right there next to the leg-press machine—as if our writerly experiences were even remotely comparable. As our conversation wound down, he laughed and said, “Well, it’s all for the love of the work, right?”
“Absolutely,” I agreed. “For the love of the work.”
And in that moment, I felt the truth of his assertion deep down in my neophyte bones. I love to write. In fact, my absence from this blog is a consequence of my being obsessed with book-length projects. When I’ve got a good project underway, I can’t wait to head downstairs in the morning, brew some coffee, and settle down with my laptop. Once I step into my fictional world, I can lose myself for hours, eventually emerging from my study at lunch time, like a hibernating bear looking for spring berries. Nothing gives me greater satisfaction than nailing a good paragraph, finding that perfect transition, or replacing an anemic verb with a really strong one.
So, yeah, it’s all for the love of the work. If I never get my novel published, so be it. At least I can say I completed a book-length work of fiction. Plus it was a great way to keep myself occupied during the pandemic.
Of course, life has a way of testing assertions such as my friend made at the Y. This particular test arrived in the form of an email from BookLife, Publishers Weekly’s platform for independent authors. For a few bucks, aspiring authors like me can have a manuscript evaluated for prose, plot, character development, and originality. In addition to brief commentaries on each category, the reviewer provides a numerical score of 1 (awful) to 10 (damned near perfect). A couple years ago, I submitted my memoir Midpoint and received such glowing comments I shared them with my entire family. More recently, I submitted an early draft of my novel and received solid, but not glowing remarks. So, like any devotee of the craft, I went back and edited the most remediable weaknesses in my manuscript and submitted again, crossing my fingers for more encouraging feedback. The verdict landed in my In Box a couple days ago.
It was brutal.
This second reviewer found very little to like about my novel. As much as the assessment hurt my feelings, I had to agree with several of the critic’s observations—about the protagonist and my tendency toward plot summary in certain sections. What really stung, however, was the assessment of my prose as “functionally average” and “not stylistically unique.”
In fact, my prose received the worst score of the four categories.
So, as any mature adult would do, I sulked for the rest of the day. At one point, I consoled myself by reading negative reviews of James Joyce’s Ulysses—as a reminder that even my literary heroes took their lumps. This rather dark rumination recalled my conversation at the YMCA. If we write for the sheer pleasure of creating, as my friend claimed, shouldn’t that joy fortify us against criticism like I received from BookLife? I mean, if I love writing that much, why were my feelings so battered by this one negative review? This question occupied me for most of the day, followed me to bed last night, and nags me even as I write this post.
Every writer will have a different answer to this inquiry. Writing is an intensely personal enterprise, after all. Plus, the more negative reviews a writer receives, I imagine, the more he or she becomes inured to criticism. For my part, I openly admit that, while I love writing, I also long to be read. I love hearing that my work registered with someone—that it occupied their thoughts, generated a good conversation, or made them laugh. So, yes, I love to write, and I’ll never stop just because a critic called my prose “functionally average.” But let me also confess right here, naked on the wind-swept plains of the Internet, that I really, really want people to read my work and like it. The more the merrier, in fact, which explains why I check my Amazon ranking way too often to admit here.
There, I said it. I am a craven, approval-seeking, would-be author with onion-paper skin and ridiculously high hopes. I haven’t published enough to shrug off bad reviews, nor have I earned enough royalties to laugh, as Stephen King must do, all the way to the bank. Like so many thousands of writers out there, grinding away day after day, I am in love with the English language and what talented people can create with its 172,000 words. My job, I suppose, is to improve my skills, achieve maximum results with whatever talent I possess, and grow some goddamned thicker skin.
At least now I have a chip on my shoulder.