I was oddly relieved when I received a harsh review of my first book.
I think every writer has a deep insecurity about being “good enough,” or any good at all. Certainly I get nervous every time I send a new piece to my mom, and she has loved everything I’ve ever written (because that is her job as my mom). Yet no matter how good I think my newest manuscript is, no matter how much I have enjoyed my story after typing “the end” and reading it back, once I send it to someone else I begin to fret.
I question my own taste level. Maybe I really don’t know what good writing is! I question my central conflict. Maybe I missed the most obvious logical flaw in the world, and the whole story will become too implausible to finish! I question whether my friends and family have ever been right when they’ve told me something I wrote was good. Was it really? Or do they just love me so much they’re blinded by personal bias? (I trust them to tell me if they hated something, but apparently not enough to think they can’t find my work awesome solely because I wrote it.)
Receiving a couple positive reviews of my first book was nice, even if I wasn’t quite sure I trusted small-time bloggers not to grade inflate or write only on the positives so as not to hurt any feelings.
But receiving a bad, if professional, review from a site known for tough breakdowns was, while not pleasant, at least reassuring.
Yes. What a negative review does is this: it confirms the fears you harbor deep inside about what you’re doing and whether you can do it well, whether you should keep trying to improve or just quit while you’re behind.
Then, when you come back and read it again after the shock has worn off, it tells you exactly what is wrong…and, if you’re lucky, what’s wrong turns out to be not as bad as you secretly feared.
Part of this phenomenon might be simple psychology, that our greatest fear is the unknown, or fear itself, and once we are faced with an actualized fear then we can qualify it, quantify it, and cut it down to size. To me the boggart was one of Rowling’s most profound statements on humanity in the course of the Harry Potter series. A nebulous, amorphous Fear is terrifying; a tangible, definable fear—even our greatest—can be conquered because it can actually be fought against. By its very engagability it becomes less frightening.
This truth of the human psyche is why I found my D+ reassuring. I’m not going to lie; receiving it stung. Being told that my writing didn’t live up to my heroine felt like a kick in the teeth to everything I believe about myself.
But the worst review I will likely ever receive was also not as bad as it could have been. Not by a long shot. I mean, damn, if a few clunky descriptions and too many semi-colons were my biggest prose problems in the whole novella, I think I’m doing okay. That means all the rest of it—my dialogue, the other 90% of my descriptions, my basic narrative voice—was fine. Adequate to good. And if only one of my characters was likeable, well, hell, in a romance that’s 50% of the characters. What are the odds that you will truly like any given stranger? Probably less than that, so, again, not that bad.
The listing of my first book’s flaws told me that much of it was good…and it gave me a clear path toward improvement.
Knowing what problems, specifically, need to be conquered in order to take my writing up another level is better than knowing in a general sense that it’s not perfect (because how can it be, ever?) but not having a clear idea of why not. How can I address something that I can’t define? How can I correct what is wrong if I do not know what is wrong?
That is why the boggart in Harry Potter can only be conquered once it stands in front of you. When it does, it manifests as your fear—and when you can see it, define it, and comprehend it, then you can destroy it.
Writers are probably more prone to boggarts than anyone else in the world. Every time we start (or finish, for those writers like me) a new story, a new boggart moves into our office to terrorize us with taunts of inadequacy and nightmares of being laughed at by a scorning public. And that’s healthy. I, for one, hope never to be so arrogant that I truly believe I can’t get better, or that just because I wrote something it therefore must be good.
So boggarts are welcome to take up residence in my escritoire. I have the secret of banishing them, now that I’ve stared my first boggart in the face and Ridiculoed it into oblivion. I can hold my head high and take pride in the fact that one bad critique does not make me less of a writer or less proud of what I have created.
Until the next story comes out, and another boggart invades my desk.