The truest sentence that you know. And over the years, you will add to that first sentence, and eventually you will string together great reams of true sentences. And then you will write a true novel, and it will reach with invisible fingers off the page, sink through the skin of the reader, and touch nerves. It will stir memories and boil the blood. A true novel will not flatter a reader, but will force a reader to examine the world - and herself. A true novel will capture the essence of the human experience; it will not always be comfortable, and it will not always lead to bright places. But it will stay with you, as if you had lived it, because you saw the humanity in it. It gave you your reflection, and you either liked or loathed what you saw. But you are powerless to deny that it was, at its heart, true.
"I needed a reflection. To see if it would echo back..."
- Adam, Only Lovers Left Alive, 2014
I published my first original novel in 2012, but prior to that, I'd been sharing my work publicly for years, since middle school, really. And in that time, I've come to appreciate reader feedback of all varieties. Reviews come in all shapes and sizes - as do humans, not so ironically - and there is something to be learned from each and every one. Because each review is a snapshot, a captured reflection, of the way your novel has touched deep nerves inside a reader.
I love my positive reviews, because I love to know that someone loved the book, that it gave her hours of enjoyment and filled her with emotion. To know that the same things I love about reading I have then been able to give someone else - priceless.
I had a lovely, thoughtful review left for Fearless a while back, and I was quite appreciative of the reader's honesty because it reinforced my marketing message. "An Uncomfortable Love Story," the review was titled. "This is more of an epic love story than a quick romance...This is not a comfortable book in oh so many ways," the review states in part, and I couldn't agree with her more. My goal with Fearless was never to excuse anyone's behavior, nor to promote any particular lifestyle as "right." That would be propaganda, and not a novel. No, instead, the sheer exhilaration of writing Fearless came from the notion that I could present characters who live outside the mainstream, depict their truth, and challenge the audience to find the humanity and beauty woven through with the dark threads. The reader is forced to ask herself, "What would I have done in Mercy's position? My family has been slaughtered, what would I do?" And even if the reader would never follow in his footsteps, the truth of the novel means that she can understand why he did the things that he did. Mercy and Ava's relationship is grounded in real emotion, and therefore becomes uncomfortable to contemplate; but through empathy, the reader can understand their hearts and minds.
I also appreciate the refreshing shots of pure hatred I receive on occasion. A true novel, centered around delicate subject matter will invariably touch damaged nerves in a reader, and she will lash out, not with logic, but with unfiltered emotion. So overwrought, she will be unable to compose her thoughts intelligently and respectfully. Take this recent review of my novel Fix You.
I apologize for the language. This is difficult to read, because such hate-speech is unfathomable when you consider this is a novel about two sisters opening a bed and breakfast, and such vitriol would suggest the heroine was a serial killer in a horror novel.
But this is wonderful. It proves my point exactly. This sort of feedback tells me that I have put forth a novel that captures the human experience on paper. This was not a frivolous or silly story - no one would react with such hatred to something silly - but one that dredged up buried truth within this reader, and made her feel things she did not want to feel. She was forced to examine parts of her own life at which I can only guess, and she does seem deeply disturbed, for which I feel sorry. But such is the risk of reading literature: sometimes, it makes you feel real emotion. It isn't always comfortable, or sexy, or easy. Because guess what - being a human isn't always comfortable, sexy, or easy. Life is complex, and we are emotional creatures, and are not perfect. I can read about a character who is acting in a way that I would not, but can still find reasons to appreciate that character. I can still understand her motives, and follow her logic - however much it differs from my own.
Some readers want only to be flattered. They want every work of fiction they read to support their prejudices and preconceived notions. They do not want to stretch their minds, or feel empathy for others. They want only to be told that they are right, good, and special. And lucky for them, there are plenty of those sorts of novels around.
My novels are not meant to flatter, however. I enjoy reading many different genres, including romance, and I think the best romances are the ones that present a story that is grounded in truth and humanity. The love is made more special by the real and sometimes raw circumstances surrounding it. That's the kind of romance I strive to write. When I read a review such as the one above, I see that I have succeeded in doing so. My characters are not perfect, they are not even always good, but they are real. And I will not apologize if that makes some uncomfortable. They certainly won't ever apologize for calling me names, after all.
I want to end this post with a heartfelt thanks to my readers, all of them. It has been a hope since childhood that I might write compelling fiction, and I feel that I have done so. I also want to reiterate my constant caution: writing realistic characters who grow, change, and learn is my main focus as a writer. Just as in real life, characters can be stubborn, frustrating, and reluctant to such growth. My novels are at times very dark, real, raw, and uncomfortable, but that doesn't mean they can't also be romantic, sexy, or even funny. I want to give readers the full reading experience, telling stories about people in all their imperfect, messed-up, blue collar splendor. So I advise sensitive readers to seek flattery elsewhere. The truth is messy, emotional, and heart-wrenching...and so are my novels.
Thank you, and happy reading xoxo