Reviews, Writer’s Block & the Author’s Integrity – A Problematic Trinity

I’ve been struggling recently with a situation that arose from the number of positive—yes, I just said positive—reviews I’ve received on my latest novel (which, by the way, was recently selected as a Finalist for the ForeWord Book of the Year – yay!) It took me a bit to sort through just what I was experiencing, and I thought I’d share these ideas now that I’ve got the problem resolved.

To begin, I want to talk about universes. Not the Stephen Hawking kind. The kind that come with us when we wander from place to place. The kind that offer a retreat in which to explore our own thoughts. The kind where we imagine and dream…where we envision the people and events that eventually fill the canvases of our artistic works. 

I have never spoken with my characters, yet they’re as real to me as anyone I’ve passed on the street. I carry my characters around with me in the universe of my head.

When a writer envisions a story, he creates it first in his own ‘universe’. Though intangible, these universes can feel very real to the person who owns them—as real as the physical universe we all live in. Of course, the clearer the writer sees things in his own imagined universe, the better he can bring his readers into it through narration and description, through the medium of fine storytelling.

Now, for every author who has created a world to be read about, there are countless readers who recreate that world in their own universe as they read. They take the author’s descriptions and mold and shape them into their own versions of the characters and events. No matter how complete the author may have been in his/her descriptions, readers still inject the characters with their own colorations—they still have to imagine them, you see. 

This concept of multiple subjective universes reminds me of Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber, where Amber is the one true world, casting infinite reflections of itself.

Every book casts infinite reflections into the universes of its readers; and in every reader’s universe there exists a slightly different—or largely different—reflection of the book.

So what does this have to do with reviews? The truth is—and whoever would’ve thought I’d be saying this—the plethora of glowing reviews for The Dagger of Adendigaeth actually mired my forward progress into the story.

For an agonizing span of days, I couldn’t understand why I was experiencing this writer’s block on Book 3. I had the story planned out to the ninth hand of chance. I had countless positive reviews rolling in for Dagger, extolling my ‘epic follow-up,’ and an abundance of dear readers expressing their excitement for the next book in the series. Even where someone voiced a criticism, their thoughts were usually insightful in some way.

Please don’t think I’m complaining (trust that I am working through this difficult situation of overwhelming admiration for my novels), but it took me some time to figure out why praise was miring my forward progress into the story.

We all love getting to experience our work through a reader’s eyes. I think this is the artist’s real pay. This form of reader contribution—i.e. their exchange with the author—is far more valuably some subjective feedback than the material dollars and cents provided. But when we look at reviews, what we have to keep in mind is that the story being reviewed has subtly changed from the author’s original. Our readers take our worlds and make them their own as they read along—and therein lies the trap in spending too much time “listening” to reviews. 

Here’s what I finally realized: Any time you take a review to heart, you run the risk of departing your true Amber world and getting caught instead in the reflections of your work. For instance, my readers commended Book 2, and I devoured their praise, gobbling up every morsel as reviews came pouring in. Yet in reading all their kind words, I began to feel the pressure of continuing to please them, of not disappointing them with my next novel, of continued success. I began to wonder how I would ever make Book 3 better, more exciting, even more valuable to my readers than Book 2 had proven to be.

Here’s the real problem in my taking on this viewpoint: I didn’t write Cephrael’s Hand or The Dagger of Adendigaeth for anyone’s benefit but my own. When I wrote those novels, I retreated to my universe entirely and asked no one’s permission, sought no one’s regard, and just wrote what I wanted to write because it pleased me to thrive in that creation. I wrote to entertain myself. (Now it happens that I’m a picky fantasy reader, so something that entertains me is likely to please others, but that’s really beside the point).  

You see, there I was, assuming the reader’s viewpoint suddenly, trying to determine how to keep my readers happy, worrying how to make my opening scenes as interesting and vital as those of book 2, fretting that I’d never be able to make book 3 as intriguing, as heart-wrenching…so many concerns. I was second-guessing all of my plot points and plans, because I wasn’t sure they would be interesting enough to others. I had abandoned my most successful action of just writing for my own entertainment. In trying to take the viewpoint of the reader and fit my story to their unknowable expectations, I lost my way, and the story went nowhere.

So this is the crux. Any time you as the author get tied up in trying to fix or alter or somehow match your world to a reader’s reflection—even the reflections of glowing praise—well…you’ve lost the integrity of the world. Because ultimately when you assume the reader’s viewpoint, you’re now sitting in the reflection, too. You’ve become one with the kaleidoscope of reader universes. You’ve lost your true path, your Amber. 

If you’ve experienced any shade of this phenomenon in your own artistic work, or even in life, here’s the most important thing to remember: those reflections are but shadows of the real world. Your world.

What do you think? Have you experienced this idea of universes, either in your reading or in devising your artistic work? How have reviews of your work impacted you? Share your thoughts. 

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23 Responses to “Reviews, Writer’s Block & the Author’s Integrity – A Problematic Trinity”

  1. EW Greenlee says:

    I too have created my own mythical universe and I invite the reader to experience the universe with me. As the creator I call the shots. I am the god of the story. I allow a handful of respectful readers to view the beta version. My only goal is to catch unanswered questions or apparent conflicts for the final release. In the end, it is over. I take the reviews merely as a means to improve future stories. No story, including mine, are perfect. There are too many viewpoints and beliefs and so the story must stand on the purpose of my creation, which is to entertain the mind and the heart. From there the readers are free to day-dream their own stories.

    • Melissa McPhail says:

      Thank you, EW. You make a great point about using Beta readers for catching those loose story threads. I agree with you ~ there are as many potential viewpoints as people on this planet. I know that as authors we can’t please them all. It’s been an interesting process finding myself swinging from a “don’t care, do my own thing” viewpoint to a “but I don’t want to disappoint them” mentality, and now heading back to the other side again. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  2. Maggie says:

    As in life, you can’t please everyone — but that doesn’t make me want to NOT participate. I read books because I enjoy vesting with the characters, and I enjoy where the story takes me. Reading is the only place where I enjoy someone else being in the driver’s seat (don’t judge). Whether you say the leaves are forest green, and I say the leaves are more of a mossy green, shouldn’t matter. What should matter is THAT I was along for the ride in the first place and didn’t get off on the first stop.

    Stay your course – its a winning formula, feel no guilt. We read your books because we enjoy what you write. We enjoy the path. We enjoy the escape!

    • Melissa McPhail says:

      Thank you so much, Maggie. As ever, your thoughts are so encouraging. It’s important to be reminded that what you as readers enjoy most is my viewpoint of the story, as the story’s creator. I would be letting you down far more by changing that than anything else I could do.

  3. Suzan ott says:

    Mel, Well said. This important concept carries over into so many (if not all) aspects of life. Education is one example. To the degree children are learning for praise or approval, or change course due to criticism or another’s focus….we have less create and fewer universes to admire, for fun of admiring. I love how you expressed this and now hope to see book 3 soon! I miss reading your stories. And my husband, not a fantasy reader, is now hooked in the universe you have so beautifully shared with us. Thank you!

  4. ApocaBjorn says:

    Brilliant take on the existence multiple, concurrent universes. I hadn’t read Chronicles of Amber, that’s an interesting theory.

    Obviously our own universes aren’t the only ones in existence, and the reader’s universe is important, but trouble is found when we place the reader’s or the parent’s or the teacher’s, as mentioned above, universe above our own.

    Your article above reminded me of the importance of integrity. I’ve run into similar situations in the past, having just run into one. Where I struggled to separate my own universe from those belonging to others, I usually made non-optimum decisions. Your beautiful writing, as always, is eye-opening.

    Thank you.

    • Melissa McPhail says:

      You’re quite right ~ it’s a fundamental issue of integrity and one that every artist faces to a greater or lesser degree when putting their art out there for others to experience. As artists (writers), we don’t really have a product until it’s exchanged with another. That exchange ever opens us to the potential for amazing new perspectives and viewpoints, but if you can’t maintain your own viewpoint in the face of new ones, then something important has been lost.

  5. Mike Goad says:

    Hi Melissa,

    Interesting perspective and the comparison to Amber makes sense to me. I just finished the second book and now — something rare for me — I’m “working” my way back through the first. I only reread my very favorite books and seldom do I reread books or series immediately upon completing them. The most recent was The Hunger Games books. I can only hope your next book is nearly as good as the first two.

    The universe of my perception of Cephrael’s Hand has evolved since my first reading. I understand the events better and know who the characters are.

    Oh, and Zelazny’s series was one that I reread over and over and, after all these years, I still have my well-read copies. Stay true to your Amber, not ours.

    • Melissa McPhail says:

      Hi Mike, and thank you. I appreciate hearing from you and receiving your well wishes for staying true to “my” Amber. It’s exciting to know you’re on a second read – I tried to include some interesting hints that only a second sweep through would uncover. Drop me a line if you find any of them!

  6. Heidi Kemp says:

    Well said! It completely makes sense how a desire to be pleasing for and from a universe other than one’s own, would cripple creativity. Tough to reconcile that with commercial concerns, where one has to answer to a publisher or critic. I think maybe a lot of writers have lost their soul this way – the poet from the Hyperion story being a good example, yes? I guess one has to be able to move back and forth easily, always an excellent ability… as long as integrity is maintained. Hmm. In the case of an epic saga that’s unfolding in your own universe, to hell with what anyone thinks! Live it and love it and your faithful beta readers will have your back in terms of telling you if anything is entirely confusing. Aah, the idea of baring my heart and laying out my universe – a piece of my soul! – for the examination of others is terrifying! Kudos to artists who do it every day!

    Just want to add that the glowing praise you are garnering indicates clearly that you are able to communicate your universe so others are able to not only see in, but immerse themselves – our enthusiasm is a testament to the fact you’ve overcome that enormous challenge. Having reached this point, we KNOW and are invested in that universe and its players (and pieces!) So unless they all die horrible (or worse: lame) deaths and evil triumphs (in an uninteresting way) none of us are going to be devastated and seek you out for tar-and-feathering. And even that wouldn’t be THAT bad! :-)

  7. Mirren Jones says:

    Great article! Yes, we can resonate with this. When writing our first novel, Eight of Cups, five years ago, we asked six reader friends to review the first 30,000 words and give us written feedback. We didn’t like it and became very defensive! . .. ‘Can’t follow the thread’, ‘Too many characters’, ‘Too much chopping and changing in the dialogue’ and so on. We agonized at length re what to do next. Stick to our guns? A rewrite? We felt that maybe the series of flashbacks we’d used wasn’t working as a literary device. So we agreed on an introductory chapter, then a broadly chronological format – only to throw it all out again 60,000 words in when it became very clear that our original framework was much better now that the story had evolved!

    Lesson: Write the best story you can, but according to your own rules. Reviews are useful, but must be kept in perspective, and the writer’s perspective is paramount. ~MJ

    • Melissa McPhail says:

      Mirren, thank you so much. I was sure others had experienced this to some degree, but it’s encouraging to hear your experience and how you ended up going with your first instinct after all. “Write the best story you can, but according to your own rules.” That sums it up quite well.

  8. Jason Knickerbocker says:

    Incredible assessment of one of the big problems that many writers face, Melissa! I know that I ran into this more than once, and it’s probably one of the reasons I don’t do much “pleasure writing” anymore (aside from just plain laziness, of course).

    Staying true to one’s own universe is a big point, as ApocaBjorn mentioned above. It’s important to do so, and yet the overlapping effect of these universes necessitates interaction with and consideration of the universes of others. This really provides some insight into the effects we have on those around us, and how we can better work together!

    Thanks for the enlightening words, Melissa. :) You’re a beacon, as always!

  9. I’m glad you shared this. I’ve just released my debut novel and am currently editing book 2 in The Twisted Trilogy. I now feel the pressure from a couple of reviews that are erking me and find myself second guessing my original work. After reading this I’ve decided that I have to stay true to my story. Like you, I had it all laid out before reading reviews. I’m glad, otherwise who knows how it would’ve changed my universe. Thanks for your post. :)

    • Melissa McPhail says:

      I appreciate you sharing your experience, Christa, and congratulations on the release of your new novel! Even though this post touches on the darker side of reviews, I don’t think all reviews or bad or that they should be summarily ignored (not that you’re doing either). But it definitely is one of the more challenging aspects of this profession to receive reviews that don’t mesh with original intent for the story. I think the challenge lies in deciding what we do about those alternate viewpoints – if anything – and as you said, staying true to our original goals and dreams for the story.

  10. Rachel Karl says:

    Melissa, I love your take on Universes and the dangers of allowing others perceptions of your universe to cloud how you create your own universe. This is so true – especially with how globally connected we all are today – it becomes difficult, to say the least, to sift through the noise and stay true to your own internal guidance system.

    As a devoted reader who’s anxiously awaiting your next book in the series, I am so thrilled that you have written these books primarily for your own pleasure and have stayed true to your vision because they wouldn’t be what they are without that. So, I’m happy to hear you are staying true to the integrity of the story and have worked your way back into your own Amber (or at least that you are working on doing that as you move forward!).

  11. Admiral Adama says:

    Beautifully presented. Like both of your books, reading your insights is a rich delight!

    All softness aside, for anyone – doing anything – do not let others’ ideas, thoughts, praise or critique alloy your own certainty – ever.

    If the simpliciy of this truth is lost – then imagine such forces are Cylons – Toasters! They will get into your head and kill you. Don’t let that happen. Ever.

  12. Ken Davis says:

    Excellent article, Melissa, but them why shouldn’t it be? I’ve read your books.

    Interesting that you went a bit OCD with our, the readers, reviews, to the point of almost inaction.

    One reader’s opinion: Yes, you own the world, you own your very real characters, and you write it for you.

    You are incredibly lucky, most certainly gifted, that you can create Amber, your world, your truth. Your ability is very uncommon.

    And yes, it is your world.

    I, on the other hand, are not well blessed with your gifts. I cannot envision and build a short story, let alone a fantasy world. And I love fantasy worlds.

    So, you write your world your way. I read your story, I enter your world.

    But I do not possess your (unwritten) knowledge of it all. I enter your world and through reading, I transform it, use it to build my Amber, my understanding of your world; and in that, my world, I engross myself, reading, savoring, visioning, and briefly I had possession of a small part of the gift you have and I do not.

    To Paraphrase John Donne ” so ask not for whom you write, you write for me”

    Ken

  13. Debra Young says:

    Hi Melissa! Congratulations on your success! As a longtime lover of fantasy, I’m always happy to find a new author in my favorite genre. Excellent post! I’m already worrying about my fantasy novel in progress, A Lamentation of Swans–wondering if readers will like it or enjoy it, and then if they do, will I be able to do it again in the next book? I know–borrowing trouble, right? I know we can’t please everybody; but pleasing some is a fine reflection on our work. By the way, thank you for the follow! d:)

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