Writing scared

I had another post ready for today, on Writer’s Wednesday, but then I received the first review for Pirate King, and I decided to talk about reviews instead.

I’ve been lucky with reviews. I’m sure there are any number of loud and pointed complaints on my various books’ Amazon pages, but I take care not to be the obsessive author who reads and agonizes over every iota of negativity. Yes, I have had bad reviews—the Kirkus phrase, “a long, keen disappointment” will be found branded across my frontal lobe when I die—but more often, I have had reviews that make me want to ring up the reviewer and just, well, explain.
Which impulse, thank heavens, I have never been in a position to carry out, because that way lies both madness and the death of a career.

On the one hand, reviews need to be taken with grains—nay, spoonsful—of salt: the reviewer is a single person, who may (or very occasionally, may not) be well read, but who remains a single person, with individual tastes, a tendency to be irritated by continued disappointments (be they long and keen or brief and dull), and a niggling resentment that even the most thoughtful and laboriously crafted review pays a pittance. Journals and newspapers try to avoid assigning books to unsympathetic reviewers, since there are limits to the amusement of having a guy who adores hard-edged thrillers ripping apart chicklits and cozies, but still, we all have our taste in books, and sometimes a novel isn’t it.

I do read my reviews. I even ask my editor to send me the bad ones, because I can learn from them, and not just learning how to bleed and smile at the same time.

With every book, I try to balance story line and character, amusement value and serious issues (well, not too many of those in Pirate King…) I review the dialogue a dozen times, I hammer away at illogical plot turns, I fiddle endlessly with the balance between too much and too little setting, I try to make all the characters realistic enough to be believable, yet surprising enough to be interesting.

And it doesn’t always work. If I get one review that pans my attention to plot where six others have praised just that, I’ll figure it was probably a bad day for that reviewer. But if I get six criticisms of the same point, or—since reviewers in general are friendly and helpful people—six comments that damn by faint praise, I take that as a clear sign that I got it wrong. That I failed to differentiate the characters sufficiently, or to trim down the descriptions and integrate them into the flow of plot, or to make sure the plot devices didn’t creak as they turned and that the plot as a whole held water.

Of course, there is nothing to be done for that book—only rarely is a writer permitted a complete rewrite of a published story. (Which explains why I almost never re-read one of my books once it’s between hard covers.) However, a series of questionable reviews makes me very, very alert to the area being pointed out, the next time around.

Because every writer needs to write scared.

I said earlier that I’ve been lucky with reviews. That doesn’t mean I don’t write scared. Laurels are for polishing, and breathing in the smell of, not for resting upon. Praise is a thing to be accepted with grace while a voice of disbelief whispers in the other ear, “A part of this is luck. And luck can run out.”

I am grateful that people like my stories. Every day I am grateful. And I never forget to write scared.
However, if you think this means I’m not going to sing aloud the great Booklist review I just got, you’re very wrong. I figure, if you got it, sing it.  You can’t be scared all the time.

Booklist (a starred review) Pirate King:
Brilliant and beautifully complex, the chronicles of Mary Russell Holmes are told in the voice of their subject, the much younger, highly educated, half-American Jewish wife of Sherlock Holmes. This one’s tangled web includes some very high comedy from Gilbert and Sullivan, pirates, and early moviemaking, Russell finds herself, possibly at the behest of Mycroft Holmes, working for Fflyte Films and on a Mediterranean voyage (in a brigantine!). Her assignment: shepherding a bevy of blonde actresses, their mothers, young British constables, and a handful of men whose dark eyes and darker scars may reflect an unsavory history. Mr. Fflyte, we learn, is making a film about the making a film version of The Pirates of Penzance and wants real pirates, a real ship, and real locales. King rings merry changes on identity, filmmaking, metafiction, and the tendency of each and all to underestimate blondes. Her descriptions of locale are voluptuous, and her continued delineation of the relationship of Russell and Holmes exquisitely portrays the eroticism of intellectual give-and-take. Quotations from Gilbert and Sullivan and the language of sailing ships (take that, Patrick O’Brian!) add to the general, luscious hilarity.

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  1. Lenore on May 25, 2011 at 1:27 pm

    Ooh! Can’t wait, can’t wait!

  2. Erin on May 25, 2011 at 2:04 pm

    Excellent! Totally excited for the new book!. And the adolescent in me can’t help snickering over “the eroticism of intellectual give-and-take.” 😉

  3. strawberry curls on May 25, 2011 at 4:42 pm

    You keep writing scared, Laurie. It obviously works, as your books are read and re-read over and over. Not many authors have that sort of fan base fanaticism.


  4. Pat Floyd on May 25, 2011 at 5:31 pm

    Laurie, congratulations on a great review. What I especially appreciate about this reviewer is that he or she was aware of the kind of book you were writing and didn’t bemoan the fact that it wasn’t another Justice Hall or God of the Hive. I hate it when reviewers try to make writers fit into one mold.

  5. Mom of 6 on May 25, 2011 at 8:59 pm

    What an excellent review, and congratulations to you! On its last line, I uttered an involuntary, “Oh!” Just moments before, when reading your previous post, “Search, and Re-search,” my mind wandered off to my home library shelf containing every single book written by Patrick O’Brian, including his biography and a couple other handy-dandy reference books. (They’re right next to my Russell/Holmes collection, by the way, smelling deliciously of ink and paper.) Both sets are books I enjoy reading and re-reading. Absolutely, the details fascinate me, and I so appreciate it when they are accurate.

    The reviewer mentions metafiction in Pirate. You come with some experience in that area, since a book about a movie about a movie version of a play is not that much different than writing a blog (Mutterings) about the creative and laborious process of writing fiction. Then there are we King appreciators who write about what you write about. A tangled web, indeed! I can’t wait.

  6. Chris on May 26, 2011 at 1:25 am

    Wonderful 😉 .. and just 3 months (ish) away, now!


  7. farmwifetwo on May 26, 2011 at 4:13 am

    If you wish to discuss your book after I comment on it… you are welcome to do so. But, I do know of many an instance that a writer thought they’d get into a discussion (a polite way of calling it) with the reviewer and found their behaviour all over the internet.

    I don’t write reviews for authors, I comment on those things I enjoyed and disliked about a book. You may or may not agree, another reader may or may not agree, and I’m fine with that.

    Many times I have recommended a book that I did not prefer to someone else that put it on their keeper’s shelves. Recognizing that other people enjoy different styles of writing, is paramount, always.

    Congrats on your review.

  8. Aaron Lazar on May 26, 2011 at 9:07 am

    Hi, Laurie.

    Now that’s a LOVELY review! I hope some of those blurbs end up on your back cover – priceless!

    I loved reading this today because I SO relate to it. While my books are wildly popular among a smallish group of people (a nice way to put it, right?), I have had hundreds of reviews over the past ten years and remember oh-so-distinctly the first time I read a glorious “he really GETS me!!” review. I was in bed on a crisp, dark winter morning, checking email. I opened literary critic Thomas Fortenberry’s email and practically wept for joy when I read his words about my words. Since then, I feel almost as good as that when the glowing reviews come in.

    But what about the other side? I still remember those nasty two sentence reviews, word for word. And I’m trying not to LOOK at my Amazon reviews these days for Tremolo: cry of the loon. The book is aimed at folks my age, with nostalgia in their hearts and a love for a simpler time. It’s a mystery set in the Maine Lakes and it celebrates childhood. A ton of folks loved it, raved about it, and gave awards for it. YET, when we offered it on Kindle for free for a few weeks, 24,000 people downloaded it. Of those 24,000, a dozen or so reviewed it. Some raved… others panned! I tell myself these folks wouldn’t have been attracted to it in the first place if it hadn’t been free, and it just wasn’t a match. But it still hurts to read the wide variety of comments. Sigh. So now I’m writing scared, too. I need to stop that and just plain write like the wind, my usual mode.

    Hope you have a superb Memorial Day, and congrats again on the great review!


  9. Michael Sorvik on May 26, 2011 at 12:49 pm

    Looks like I should have a new book to take along with me on my 2 week vacation in September! WEEEEEEEEEEE! Thanks Laurie and congrats!

  10. TheMadLibrarian on May 26, 2011 at 12:51 pm

    DH and I just got off a decade-long fascination with Napoleonic-era naval warfare, including Hornblower, O’Brien, Parkinson, and oodles of reference books thereon. Despite the “Been there, done that” feeling, I am looking forward with lip-smacking anticipation to Pirate King! Moreso, because I may have some of the background to properly appreciate the nuances.

  11. Mom of 6 on May 27, 2011 at 10:39 am

    @TheMadLibrarian – Oh, the jealousy! Maybe one day for me, when 3 of my 6 aren’t so little, and wouldn’t terrorize the joints.

  12. Quilterwoman on May 30, 2011 at 8:36 pm

    I really can’t say much without gushing like a fool, so I’ll just say that your books are among the few I always buy in hard cover (they hold up so much better for multiple readings, which is what your books are perfect for), and I eagerly await the Pirate King. Congrats on the review!

  13. Betsy in NH on May 31, 2011 at 8:55 am

    Hi! In December a friend gave me Grave Talent, said it was pretty good…. since then I have purchased & read ‘nearly’ everything by Laurie King. I’m 56 years old and reading these books, I suddenly remembered what it was like when I was 12 or so, reading quantities of great books by Ngaio Marsh etc and being excited to open the cover of the next one. I wanted to thank Laurie for giving me that feeling back…. and to thank her for her wonderful books, each one has something in it to learn from (who of us doesn’t love bees now??) ………each & every one has made the hours fly by, has made smile and made me think. I dread when I get to the final one but am happy to hear she is writing more. My friend came to me the other day and said “I can’t get that Grave Talent book out of my mind, who was the author??” Lucky girl, she now has a giant bag of Laurie King, I envy her. I wish I could start reading them all again for the first time…………………….Betsy in NH

  14. Sara on June 1, 2011 at 4:07 pm

    Is it September yet?!? Only increases the anticipation to read a review like that…….NOW is it September?!?

    *taps foot anxiously*

  15. La Donna on June 2, 2011 at 12:03 pm

    Not a blonde (even before the current silvery threads) but I did enjoy “and the tendency of each and all to underestimate blondes” remembering that Russell is blonde. And thank you for waiting until September to publish (trying to find something positive about WAITING SO LONG!!). By then I should have the moving house part of life accomplished and kids back in school and can reward myself with a couple of days (hours) of reading Laurie Arrrrrrrrrrr King … now I just have to decide where to order it. Our nearest independent bookstore has gone the way of all flesh and next nearest bookstore is a Barnes and Noble. Hmmm.

  16. Wimberly on June 10, 2011 at 7:20 am

    Congrats on your great review! I can’t wait till it comes out! You know that The Beekeeper’s Apprentice series is what started my obsessive love for Sherlock Holmes? And out of all the stories that I picked up about him, yours are by far the best! I hope the series will continue for a long time!

  17. RussellHolmes on June 16, 2011 at 12:35 pm

    Oh goodness! I cannot wait! I have PK pre-ordered and I conting down as the day grows nearer.

  18. RussellHolmes on June 16, 2011 at 12:35 pm

    Or rather I am counting gown the days… forgive me, I type too fast.

  19. RussellHolmes on June 16, 2011 at 12:36 pm

    Or rather again… down the days… oh dear I should be more careful…

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