Bad Reviews Never Die

Ah, me. In the middle of trying to finish my manuscript, I come across a blog reminding me of the most astonishing review I’ve ever received, about THE SURGEON, which went on to win the RITA award for best romantic suspense, and has been a huge bestseller around the world. http://beiderbecke.typepad.com/tba/2006/02/the_crimefictio.html

The editor who ran the review blogs that he still “has mixed feeings” about whether or not he should have published it. Here’s his sum-up of what the review, written by Tory Haiss, said:

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“From the word go, Haiss pulled no punches: ‘Tess Gerritsen’s latest detective novel The Surgeon is abusive garbage. If Gerritsen weren’t a woman, she would be accused justifiably of misogyny, and the world would be a better place if she had stuck to her medical practice…’

“Haiss asserts that the characters are two-dimensional, that the narrative is formulaic, that the dialogue is incompetent, and that the violence is gratuitous and exploitative. Gerritsen is, according to Haiss, “the only author I have read in 40 years who makes me want to slap her.” “In the wake of the World Trade Center attacks, there has been some discussion about the entertainment industry reevaluating what is appropriate entertainment,” writes Haiss. “Let’s hope that the New York publishing industry takes part in that discussion. Meanwhile, Gerritsen lives in Camden. If you see her, tell her you’re not going to read this book, and tell her to donate her royalties to a rape crisis center.”

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I’d love to ask other authors: have you ever received a published review in which the reviewer says she wants to slap you, and then makes sure that everyone knows the name of the small town in which you live, and encourages everyone to approach you on the street and verbally assault you?

After 20 plus years working in publishing, I have never come across a published newspaper review — of ANY novel — that approaches the level of personal vitriol as this one. That the reviewer has emotional problems was obvious to me from the start.

But the fact that the editor who actually approved the review for publication still can’t admit it was inappropriate — and now chooses to snipe at me years later in his blog — makes me think that his dislike of me is somehow personal. To my knowledge, I’ve never met the man, and don’t know anything about him.

Except that he seems oddly fixated on me. I wonder why.

Where Is She? Why Isn’t She Blogging?

I’m still here — and am down to the wire trying to finish my book. Less than a month till deadline, so I’m not much fun as company at the moment. In the meantime, all these wonderful blogging topics keep popping into my head. I keep thinking how much more fun it would be to just blog all day instead of wrestling with the deformed creature who must somehow be transformed into a beautiful baby book within the next 30 days.Have. To. Resist. Blogging…

“How Dare You Not Read My Manuscript?”

On Valentine’s day, I guest-blogged over at that great website MurderSheWrites.com, about my experience with an unpublished writer who’d just finished his first manuscript. My blog wasn’t actually about manuscript critiquing, but about how writers have to pay attention to their emotions when they write. My blog received a number of comments from readers. Among them was this one:

“How nice. I wonder if you remember when YOU had just finished writing your very first novel. Who helped you along on the journey? Or did all of your published (and not) friends avoid meeting with you, assuming you’d written nothing “marginally publishable”?

I’m sorry new novelists offend you, Tess. I’m glad you weren’t on my “must call” list when I finally completed the monumental task of finishing my first book. I may never have completed the second.”

My response to that? Thank GOD I’m not on your “must call list.” Because not only will you EXPECT me to be thrilled to read your work, you’ll also probably be truly pissed off if I tell you I don’t like it.

When I was a first-time novelist, with my first manuscript, did I expect a published friend to to spend eight hours (or more) reading it and critiquing it?

Absolutely not. I wrote my book and I landed my own agent. By myself. That’s how I thought writers were supposed to do it.

I think it’s perfectly legitimate for unpublished authors to ask published authors for agent recommendations or about trends in the marketplace. And these questions should be asked in a way that minimizes the published author’s time commitment. If she’s a good friend, then you can do it over coffee. If you barely know her, then by email. But I would never have dreamed of asking a busy novelist to read my entire manuscript.

And now that I’m a published novelist, I avoid reading them. Here’s why:

First, there’s the time factor. I get several requests a week from unpublished, unsold writers wondering if I’ll read their manuscripts. (I am NOT talking about novelists who’ve already landed a publisher and are seeking blurbs for book covers. Those are legitimate requests. I can’t honor most of them due to time constraints, but I do try.) If I were to say yes to every unpublished author’s request, I wouldn’t have time to write my own books. And truly, I’m astounded that people whom I don’t know, or hardly know, would come up to me and essentially ask, “Say, will you spend eight hours reading my incredible literary work?” Because that’s what it works out to. Eight hours of work.

And if you don’t see my point, think about this. What if someone you barely know says to you: “Hey, wouldn’t you love to come over and spend eight hours cleaning my house?”

You’d tell them thanks, but no thanks.

Which will then earn you the resentful comment: “But you OWE it to me because your house is so clean! Your clean house makes you OBLIGATED to help me!”

If the person asking me to clean their house is my mother or an elderly friend, you betcha I’ll go over and help clean the house.

Same with reading manuscripts. Mothers and close friends get special dispensation.

But when I hear unpublished authors whine that published authors are OBLIGATED to help them get published, that’s when my blood goes from simmer to boil.

Then, there’s the other reason I don’t read unsold manuscripts: It can lead to legal nightmares.

This is not just an excuse that we authors give to avoid reading unpubbed manuscripts — this is a real and serious concern for us. My literary agent has a bestselling client who, to be nice, once agreed to read an acquaintance’s unpublished manuscript. Then she got sued. By this very acquaintance. “You stole my story idea!” was the charge.

Needless to say, my literary agent now warns all her clients not to read unpublished manuscripts written by people they don’t know well.

I myself had a similar experience. I teach a writing course once a year down in Cape Cod, for doctors who want to become writers. Soon after my book BODY DOUBLE came out, I got a threatening email from one of the course attendees who said she was taking action to sue me for “stealing her idea.” The idea that I supposedly stole was about pregnant women getting murdered for their unborn babies.

I didn’t remember this woman. I never read her manuscript (it was read by someone else on the course faculty). And the idea I “stole” is hardly steal-able, as the murder of pregnant women for their babies is a crime that pops up in the news just about every year. But what if I HAD read this woman’s manuscript? What if (as often happens in literature) there WERE similarities in our plots? I could have ended up in court. I could have suffered through months of stress and attorney’s fees.

All because I read an unpublished manuscript.

Maybe I’m coming across as a hard ass about this. Yes, I know there are heart-warming stories out there, about New Author John Smith who got published because Bestselling Author Jane Doe read his manuscript, loved it, and sent it to her agent. But I can guarantee that John Smith didn’t just send it to Jane Doe out of the blue, and tell her that she was OBLIGATED to help him out. Maybe Jane was teaching a writing course, and he was her student. Maybe they were already friends. Maybe Jane judged a writers’ contest, and his story stood out. (While teaching writing courses, I myself have discovered terrific unsold manuscripts, and have always been happy to help shepherd them to a literary agent, because I LOVE it when a new author lands her first book sale.)

But approach an author you hardly know and ask her to read your unsold manuscript?

No.

Think of it as a reverse Nike ad.

Just Don’t Do It.

Cover Contest Winners On Display!

It was a fascinating experiment.

I came up with the idea of a cover design contest after wondering just what it is that makes a cover successful — and why so many publishers choose such awful covers. Then it occurred to me that there’s a whole multitude of people out there who have artistic talents and graphic design experience. So why not throw the challenge out to the public and see what sorts of ideas they come up with?

I gave them a plot synopsis (actually, it’s taken pretty much from my upcoming flap copy) and told them to give it a try.

We ended up with 27 entries. One of them, alas, inadvertently got left off the page, so only 26 were displayed. (Don’t worry; she got a consolation prize!) I was impressed with the professionalism of some of the designs. Several used original photographs; several were wonderfully imaginative.

I didn’t choose the winners. I left that up to my website visitors to vote on their top three choices. You can see the winning entry and the two runners-up by linking to the contest from my home page.

I’ll be showing the winning entries, as well as a number of other entries that I liked, to my publisher. In the end, though, the publisher chooses the cover.

My final lesson from this? Cover design isn’t easy. It takes more than imagination; it takes the vision and the skills to pull it off.

Thanks to everyone who entered! This has been so much fun, we may try it again next year!

Too Darn Funny Not to Post

This is just too darn funny not to post the link:40 Things That Only Happen In Movies

My favorites:

#7. All bombs are fitted with electronic timing devices with large red digital displays so you know exactly when they are going to explode.

#11. Any police officer about to retire from the force will more often than not die on their last day (especially if their family have planned a party). (Caveat: Detectives can only solve a case after they have been suspended from duty).

#13. If staying in a haunted house, women should investigate any strange noises wearing their most revealing underwear.

#25. You will survive any battle in any war UNLESS you show someone a picture of your sweetheart back home.

#29. One man shooting at 20 men has a better chance of killing them all than 20 men firing at once (it’s called Stallone’s Law).

http://www.nostalgiacentral.com/features/20moviethings.htm

When Authors Hate Their Own Books

Over at Sandra Scoppetone’s blogsite (http://sandrascoppettone.blogspot.com/), she has this entry from a few days ago:

“I hate it. I don’t want to write it anymore. It stinks.”

That gave me such a laugh because I know exactly why she said it.

You see, while writing my books, I’ve hated every single one of them. Felt they were doomed, that they’d reveal I was a no-talent fraud. That there was no way I’d be able to save the sucker from certain disaster.

That my career was over.

So when I went through that with my current project, I knew it was a perfectly normal part of the creative process, even though it didn’t make the crisis any easier for me (or my husband) to deal with. I know that with every book, I’ll spend nights lying awake, unable to sleep, consumed by self doubt. Thinking: “I’ll never save this one. Never.”

While my husband, darn him, sleeps blissfully through the night.

Those of you who think we writers just crank out these novels haven’t seen me stumble out of bed in the morning with bloodshot eyes and a churning stomach, dreading the work day ahead. Knowing that it will involve sitting at my desk consumed by anxiety. Even after — oh, eighteen published novels (dear god, has it really been that many?), with every new manuscript, I still feel as if this whole writing thing is new to me, and I don’t know what the heck I’m doing.

I suspect that this is actually a problem that experienced novelists have. First-time novelists don’t have these worries. They attack their first book with the confidence of the uninitiated, never questioning their talent, thinking that of COURSE they can do it.

But when you’re onto your second or tenth or twentieth published novel, you have other worries. You wonder if you’ll be able to please your editor, your readers, and the critics. You question every word you write. You actually become LESS confident, because you grow more exacting and more critical of your own work.

So yes, Sandra, I know exactly what you’re going through.

Books are like children. There are days when you are frustrated with them, tired of them, maybe even hate them a little. Then they give you a little smile, or reach for your hand, and suddenly you love them with all your being.

I’m just waiting for my book to start smiling.

Cover Contest Voting About to End!

Hope everyone’s voted!

Just to clear up some confusion, the winning entry gets:

— The chance to name a character in one of my upcoming books. — An autographed hardcover copy of the book of their choice. — $100 cash

and

— I’ll send the winning design to my publisher’s cover art department for possible consideration as a book cover. No guarantee they’ll actually use it — it’s really up to Ballantine. But you will get seen by Ballantine’s art department!

Don’t Write About Chihuahuas

I know I’m going to get into trouble with this blogpost. There’s going to be a whole posse of fanatical Chihauhua lovers who’ll declare war on me. I’m just using the breed as a writing metaphor, okay folks?

But I have to confess that I really don’t care much for Chihuahuas. My dad had one. The dog’s name was Chico, and he was a neurotic pest, more rat than dog. I know it’s not fair to judge the whole breed on one nasty little runt, but there was little love lost between Chico and me.

Golden retrievers, on the other hand, I like. They’re fluffy (although dumb), they’re affectionate, and they’re good-natured. They make lousy guard dogs because they’d just wag their tail at a burglar. Still, it seems all of America loves a golden. The last time I checked the polls, goldens were the country’s number one most popular breed.

Now, say your dog just had puppies. Which breed do you suppose will be easier to give away? The ratty little chihuahuas or the fluffy little goldens?

Books are like puppies. You have to give people what they want.

(Man, is this turning into a weird metaphor. And I don’t even own a dog.)

Writers may grouse about how their literary novel about Chihuahuas just doesn’t sell, and they’re disgusted that Ms. Bestselling Author sells tons of books about goldens. I understand their frustration. They labored just as long and hard over their rat-dog novel. They got wonderful reviews. Maybe they’ve won awards. But they just can’t find an audience.

The reason has nothing to do with the quality of their writing. The real reason is that they simply aren’t in touch with WHAT PEOPLE WANT.

I read a lot of different books, thanks to all the free galleys that show up in my mailbox. I read books that have won awards, books that are marvelously crafted, by writers who clearly have talent. But no matter how well-written these books are, my own personal tastes will steer me away from certain novels when I choose my own leisure time reading. I’m not crazy about noir, for instance — too dark, too stark, too depressing. Too male. I don’t know any real people who talk the way they do in noir, and this makes the books feel unreal to me. (But what do I know? I’m just a woman.) I’m also not crazy about books in which children or animals (well, except maybe for Chihuahuas) meet untimely ends. I don’t read sports, or books about the exploitation of kids. I don’t care for books with a lot of explosions and guns and invincible he-man types. I don’t know any invincible men. I’ve raised two sons (one of whom might SEEM like a he-man) so I know that when you scratch the surface of Mr. Macho, what you get is a little boy who once needed his diapers changed.

What I love are books with women characters who aren’t just bosomy walk-ons. Books with a sense of history, books in which I learn something (except sports), books which have complex emotional themes.

I’ve discovered that I have what appears to be the same reading tastes as most American women. Who buy most of the novels in this country. It’s women who determine what will end up on the bestseller lists.

You may call me utterly ordinary and disgustingly bourgeois. I admit, I couldn’t sit through “Babette’s Feast” and “Clara’s Knee,” supposedly two of the BEST FOREIGN FILMS OF ALL TIME! according to some highbrow film critic I’ve read. I guess I just don’t have that “high culture” gene. I’d much rather watch a re-run of THE MUMMY. The one with Brendan Fraser. I call myself fortunate that I just happen to have such popular tastes. When I write, I choose subjects based on my own taste and preferences, subjects that, it just so happens, resonate with a large number of readers. I don’t do market surveys; I trust my own gut.

(And I thought The Da Vinci Code was a fun read, by the way.)

I’ve always been smack dab in the mainstream when it comes to popular culture. Yes, it’s disgusting to my many literary friends, but I loved Star Wars and X-Files and — dare I admit it? — Gilligan’s Island. I know what America wants because I myself AM America! And I think that has been a good thing for my career. I write what I love to read.

I write about golden retrievers.

That doesn’t mean that books about golden retrievers can’t be just as challenging and literary and rewarding. One of my favorite books is THE POISONWOOD BIBLE by Barbara Kingsolver. It had everything I crave: family conflicts, history, and the rich canvas of Africa as a backdrop. It was an incredibly moving and beautiful book. It was a bestseller because it was loved by women, and I was one of them. It was a golden retriever book — and it was Art with a capital A.

I know there are many frustrated novelists out there who can’t understand why they’re not selling well. It may have nothing at all to do with their talent; instead, it may be simply that the rest of America doesn’t share their particular taste. Which is a good thing — how terrible it would be if we all liked the same thing.

I mean, SOMEBODY has to love a Chihuahua.

But sometimes you have to stop blaming your publisher and the cover design and the distribution. Sometimes you have to ask yourself: “Did I choose a subject matter or a theme that readers just don’t want to read about?”

It may not change what you write about. But this may explain why your latest novel didn’t hit the bestseller lists. It’s not the writing that failed; it’s that America didn’t share your passion for the subject matter.

It’s what happened with my book GRAVITY. I felt compelled to write that book. I’m immensely proud of that book. But few other people in America, it seems, give a hoot about the space program, and GRAVITY sold poorly.

It just about torpedoed my career.

Still, to this day, I do not regret having written GRAVITY. Writers should write what their heart tells them to. But they should understand that sometimes, you just can’t get past the fact that dog is a Chihuahua.

You Can’t Be A Wimp

This writing business can break your heart.

I say this now, despite the recent rash of good news I’ve had, despite my recent Edgar nomination and VANISH hitting the UK bestseller lists. The recent dust-up over my Edgar nomination, reflected in the less-than enthusiastic comments about VANISH over at Sarah Weinman’s excellent blog (www.sarahweinman.com) reminded me that writing is like walking out in public without wearing any clothes. We reveal our assets (or lack of them) for all to see. And critics feel free to laugh at us, or throw rocks.

While the whole time, THEY get to keep their clothes on.

But that’s just how the business goes. It comes with the territory. We have to develop a thick skin. We have to get used to criticism.

I have to confess, though, I’m still a wuss. No matter how long I’m in this business (and after 18 published books, folks, you know I’m no longer wet behind the ears) I still feel the painful pricks as acutely as I did when I was starting out. When I’d tear open an envelope from a publisher and feel devastated by a rejection letter. Despite all my successes, I’m still the timid little girl in the elementary school class whose greatest fear was that I’d …

disappoint someone.

It’s amazing, isn’t it? I’ve worked as a doctor. I’ve raised two handsome, strapping sons. I’ve hit bestseller lists. And I’m still terrified of hearing someone tell me: “Your last book disappointed me.”

That’s why you won’t catch me criticizing another writer in public. You’ll never catch me saying anything bad about Cornwell or Dan Brown because I know that, despite their successes, they’re also human beings who probably feel the stings as acutely as I do. Or maybe not. Maybe I’m just a weenie, but I suspect not. I suspect that even those at the top of the bestseller lists — Patterson and Crichton and King — still die a little when a reviewer says “their latest book stinks.”

Still, that’s the territory. We accept it and keep writing because that’s what we do, and we can’t think of anything else we’d rather be doing.

If you want to be a writer, get ready for editors telling you your manuscript isn’t good enough, critics telling you that your book is lousy, readers whining that they wasted twenty five bucks on your opus, the bloggers saying they’re appalled you got nominated for that award. There’s no way to avoid it. You’ll get rocks thrown at you, and you might as well prepare for it now by hitting your head against the wall a hundred times, just so you get used to the feeling.

But if you’re a writer, you’ll keep writing anyway, even if you disappoint your readers or your editor or your agent. You won’t give up, because then you’ll disappoint the one person you can’t afford to disappoint.

Yourself.