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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