Friday, November 25, 2011

Ever Talk to Three-hundred Sixteen-year-olds?

A few weeks ago I was asked if I would speak to seven classes of sophomores at a local high school about writing. I agreed and two weeks ago Friday was the day. For the weeks leading up to it, I spent most of my free time putting together what I had hoped was an interesting presentation. I felt pretty prepared. I used a mix of writing tips, stories about why I write, and a fire department tale or two in hopes of having something that everyone in the class could enjoy.

I'm not going to lie to you--I was pretty nervous about the whole situation. OK, so I wasn't as bad as the kid in the video, but you get my point. After all, I'm a firefighter/paramedic/author and nowhere does that say public speaker. Not to mention, I wasn't given any direction as to what the teachers wanted me to cover. All I knew was I had 45 minutes to fill.

The first class was for about 60 kids. In hindsight, I think I prefer the bigger classes because there seems to be more participation. That first class went pretty smooth and I thought, This is going to go better than I thought.

And then the second class of about 25 students entered. One kid put his head on his desk before I even started and slept through my entire presentation. None of the other kids participated and I was stuck on an island. About half way through my spiel, I was ready to quit. I was stammering my way through while they could care less. At the end I asked for questions and heard crickets instead. I was ready to run screaming for the door. With five more classes I was a wreck. But I stuck with it and started building confidence with each class.

By the last few classes, I was joking and interacting with the kids and felt a lot better, if not slightly fatigued. The teachers repeatedly complemented my presentation and thanked me for discussing topics that they struggle to get through to their students. You know, show, don't tell and revise, revise, revise--those kinds of things.

So, the question becomes, would I do this again? My short answer is yes. (It has to be, since I am scheduled to give my presentation to one-hundred and fifty thirteen-year-olds next month.) I guess you'd like to know if it was worth my time and effort. I suppose I'd have to say yes. First of all, anytime you do something out of your comfort zone, I think you grow as a person. And second, there are now 300+ teen-agers who have met me and have been exposed to my work.

Financially, I only sold six books, but my Amazons sales spiked a bit in the days after, so who knows if that was the reason. Overall, six books after speaking to 300 kids was a bit of a disappointment, but it quickly became obvious that my presentation wasn't the problem. If I had to put my finger on why I did poorly in sales, I'd point to three reasons. For one, they are teen-agers. Money is a rare commodity and at 16 years old, I doubt their parents were shelling out much cash for their teen-agers' entertainment. At sixteen if my parents gave me fifteen bucks for a book, I'd probably put it into my gas tank or something else. My second guess is that fantasy has a very particular and specific fanbase and doesn't appeal to everyone. In fact, a lot of kids showed more interest in my coming werewolf story than the fantasy I was there promoting. And the third reason for poor sales would be peer pressure. If several kids lined up, I think it would have been contagious.

I have heard that children's book authors do extremely well with school presentations, but it didn't seem to translate to the older kids. I'm hoping my presentation next month to the thirteen-year-olds produce better results since those kids might be more likely to be excited about meeting an author.

We shall see. I've got my fingers crossed.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving

Today is Thanksgiving. Try to enjoy your families and leave all of your stresses behind for this one day. (Unless you're a turkey, of course. In that case I say, "Ruuuuunn.) To all of my firefighter friends working today, stay safe and enjoy Turkey Day with your second family.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Reacting to Negative Reviews

(Yeah, I know. The video is more about editing than it is about reviews, but I'm invoking creative licensing here. You get the point, right?)

If you write or paint or do anything creative, and you put your work out for people to see, you are bound to get a poor review or two. My first book has received many good reviews but it has also received bad ones here and there. Let's talk about the bad ones today and how you handle them.

Let me start by giving you the advice my publisher and my friends Michelle Davidson Argyle and J.S. Chancellor gave me. DON'T READ REVIEWS. That's great advice. And if you are one of those people who can take that advice, you can stop reading now. But if you are like me and just can't go on not knowing what people think of your work, continue reading.

I used to read every review I could find. Now that my book has been out for awhile and my next book is coming soon, I don't seek them out as much anymore. I'll still read them if I see them, but they're not on my mind as much anymore. That's because I have learned what other more experienced writers have learned already. Two different people like two very different things. Simple as that. For example, some people complain about how I jump from one character to another throughout my book while others remark at how much they like that very element. Some people complain about my style while others say they love it. I have found that when it comes to books, if an author's voice doesn't jive with the voice in the reader's head, it doesn't matter how good the book is, it'll be hard for that reader to enjoy. There is nothing I can do as an author to change that.

But, back to why I started this blog. I really want to know how you handle negative reviews. Before you answer, here are a couple potential reactions and why such a reaction is or isn't a good idea.

The first is anger. "That person just doesn't get it. How dare they?" That's a natural reaction and I'm not going to say you are wrong in feeling this way. Where this reaction causes irreversible consequences is if you express it in any public way, especially on the web. You might remember not too long ago when a blog review site went viral because an author lashed out at the blogger's negative review of her work. I felt bad for the author and her subsequent verbal beating on that site, but I also knew she brought it on herself. You should never argue with someone about why they don't like what you've created or why they don't get it. It is simply unprofessional.

Another reaction, which I'm sure everyone who has been criticized has had at some point is sadness. Again, that is a normal reaction, but one I don't think should be expressed to the reviewer. If you feel you must say something, I guess you could tell them you are sorry they didn't like your work, but even that probably isn't a very good idea.

Now, I'm going to say something that creative people might not like at first. Bear with me for a moment and I'll explain myself. Those negative reviews, the ones that tear out your soul and stomp on it, for the most part, are right. OK, OK, don't come down on me yet and just hear me out. What I mean is it is right for that person. If a reviewer doesn't have a personal vendetta against you and their review is that they didn't like what you've created for one reason or another, it is their feelings therefore they can't be wrong. I hated the movie "300." Some people think I'm crazy, but I'm not wrong because they it is my opinion. If the reviewer didn't get my book or your art, then they didn't get it. So, take it with a grain of salt and move on.

This brings me to my next reaction and the one I think you, the artist, should consider. If you insist on reading the reviews, like I do on occasion, you should try to put equal weight in the bad ones as you do in the good ones. I know it is easier said than done, but you have to try. Read the negative reviews, set them aside and mope around for a bit if you must, and then forget them and move on. You shouldn't contact the reviewer or trash them on your blog or god-forbid allow their words to steer you away from your own vision in the future. Just take their words, tell yourself that they have their own opinions, and get back to creating. That's what I've learned.

Everyone gets bad reviews. It's what happens when you open yourself up to strangers in the form of art. My most brutal review was given to my book on its actual launch day. Talk about letting the air out of someone's sails. But I got past it and have went on to create more work that I am proud to have created. I can guarantee the person who gave me such a negative review will hate my next book, because I haven't changed my style in any way. There are no hard feelings and I'm actually sorry the reviewer didn't like my story. After all, I create to give enjoyment.

So, what do you all think? How do you respond when your hard work is decimated by a critic? And what is the harshest comment you have received? I'll start. The harshest comment I've received is when a reviewer said that my two years of hard work could have been thrown together in a weekend by any other author. Yikes.

(Quick note. If you have tried to comment in the past and have been unable, I think I have fixed that problem. I've heard from a lot of people who wanted to comment and couldn't so I've changed a setting. I hope that helps. Send me an email if you are still having trouble commenting and I will try again to fix the issue again. I want to hear from you. )