Before You Weep Over that Review…

I made a mistake when I took this photo. Apparently I moved the camera at precisely the right moment to create a shadow image. I had no idea I’d done it at the time. Only when I looked through the backlog of images on my camera this morning did I see it. I kind of like it.

It’s a good reminder.

The hoopla over “bad” reviews and various author reactions seems to be growing worse, not better. I put this down to several factors. Mainly, there are a lot of people who eat up this drama and love it when a new fight breaks out. These are the people who run around yelling “Fight! Fight!” while rounding up everyone they can find to scream from the sidelines. This is the reality TV of the interwebs. And, to follow up that analogy, the book reviewers and authors have discovered that this kind of fame is still fame. It’s all, as I’ve mentioned before, the chocolate-covered heroin of attention. A hit is a hit, after all. It might be the poisonous grade, but it’s better than jonesing.

At any rate, I don’t read all of my reviews. I read some, here and there. Especially if the reviewer calls my attention to it. But I’m fragile enough that I often skip the low-star reviews. I know, I know. Toughen up, sweetheart.

Eh, I’m not much for pain, outside certain contexts.

Then, the other day, I saw a book blogger on Twitter mentioning my name along with several other authors, saying she was doing a giveaway of some of her new favorite authors. I tweeted her back with a thank you and she replied that she was happy to, that she’d loved Sapphire. Surprised I’d missed a “loved” mention on a book blog – and, ok, maybe ready for a little hit of heroin – I looked at the review. Now I remembered seeing it. I hadn’t read it before, because she only gave it three stars.

Turns out, she uses a scale of zero to four stars. And she rated it low because she thought it was too short. (It’s amazing how many reviewers will do this. Feeding the Vampire gets low stars all the time for being too short. It’s one of the great drawbacks of digital presentation, I think. Had Feeding the Vampire been in a short story collection, for instance, no one would have felt betrayed by its brevity. But, because readers don’t necessarily pay attention to length when they buy and download, they settle in to read a novella or novel, only to have it end when they expect the story to be ramping up. I don’t blame them a bit – I’d likely feel the same way.)

Still, the point is, you never really know what you’re going to get and who will turn out to be a supporter. She didn’t have to include me in this special giveaway with these well-established authors. I didn’t expect such enthusiasm from that quarter.

Sometimes you look again, and see something you didn’t before.

Writers’ Heroin

These little bushtits are such happy birds. They swarm the bark butter, singing a whispery tune and vanish again.

I’m going to take a bit of a departure today from my series on How My Day Job Has Made Me a Better Writer, but I’ll be back with it tomorrow.

I was talking with a Twitter friend who’s looking at having her first book published. She’s all agog with excitement, of course. And the online community has been great to her, with congratulations and support. Now, however, it’s hitting her that by the time the book comes out, people’s attention may have drifted and maybe no one will notice at all then.

She’s actually pretty insightful to recognize this pitfall.

See, for writers, attention is our most addictive drug.

We’re like affection-starved children who’ve grown up without human contact. It sounds dramatic, but so much of being a writer, especially in the early years, involves being alone with only your words for company. Nobody else sees your work, largely because no one cares, even if you dare tell anyone about it. You begin to feel like the mad scientist hermit, muttering to yourself, chasing some ever-mutating dream of creation. You become very accustomed to not being noticed. Even if you have a regular life, with people who love you, the crazy-writer side is usually locked away where she can’t frighten people.

Then, when she’s cleaned up enough to be trotted out into polite society and people pay attention to that side of you – and bettter, PRAISE you for it – well, it’s overwhelming. It’s like getting chocolate after a lifetime of rice. It’s rich and lovely and can totally screw you up.

Because, you see, the attention is almost instantly addictive. You find yourself craving just a little more. You start doing and saying things just to elicit a little more attention. You search for reviews and mentions. You reread old praise, reliving the glory days.

Before you know it, you’re the crack-whore on the corner of Twitter offering anything if people will just throw a crumb of attention your way.

I can’t tell you not to taste the attention. After all, it’s arguably one of the few rewards writers receive, until they’re really making the money. And besides, unless you’re a total recluse, you’re gonna get it. But know that it’s addictive. That it’s chocolate-covered heroin with no nutritious value.

In the end, the only thing that really matters is the writing.

The Treadmill

Long a symbol of going nowhere, the treadmill seems a creature of tedium rather than agent of chaos that can unseat you. This is the treadmill’s secret weapon. It camoflages itself as the slow and steady, the reliable pace at a given incline. It lulls you with its consistency. Waits for that moment, the brief break of inattention to attack.

This morning, David was running next to me on the treadmill at a steady pace, when he snagged his hand in the cord running from his MP3 player to his headphones. The MP3 fell, hit the belt, which zinged the little box like a bullet. I heard the SNAP crack through my own music and looked over to meet the equally startled gaze of the guy on the elliptical on the other side of David. Between us, David also looked around for his player, and promptly zinged off the back of the treadmill himself.

I’d done it once, too. One of the first times I went to the rec center, back when my lack of fitness and excess body fat confined me to walking the treadmill. I walked slowly, steadily. It was pretty dull, really. When I decided to pull off my sweatshirt, I didn’t give it a second thought. Of course I can keep walking at a normal pace, especially one regulated for me, while pulling off a shirt.

But as soon as my eyes were muffled — I zinged off the end of the treadmill. Nearly into the laps of some innocent people walking around the track. I flailed a bit, still caught in my sweatshirt. A bit confused about what happened, but still pretty much on my feet. Behind me, the treadmill softly chuckled to itself.

I suppose it’s a lesson in attention. That even the most dull and reliable features of our lives can suddenly throw us to the side in a heap. Perhaps it’s the most dull and reliable that bear the most watching. Those things that become so familiar we cease to pay attention to them. We get comfortable, trust them to pace along at exactly the settings we’ve previously designated and turn our attention to other things.

One of these days, we’ll know better.