09 October 2013

It's Not You, It's Me: On Reading and Subjectivity

When you're a writer, the one thing you hear more often than any other is: "This is a subjective business." And I'll admit, sometimes it gets really hard to hear. When the rejections are pouring in, one after another, and you think you'll never find anyone to love the manuscript you've worked so hard to write, it's easier to think "There must be something wrong with me" than "I simply haven't found the right agent/editor for this manuscript." 

That fear and negativity is what caused me to give up far too soon on my first manuscript. After more than two years of fearful, timid querying, I let the rejections bring me down. I had a pile of no's, many of which were very encouraging (the rest were form rejections). But I convinced myself that all of the agents and editors who took the time to write encouraging, personalized rejections were just being nice. Because obviously, if there was so much to like in my manuscript, it would have been snatched up on the first round of queries, right? (Just so you know, agents and editors don't take the time to write encouraging letters of rejection to praise your writing if they don't mean it. Not because they don't want to be nice, but because they simply don't have time to do so with hundreds of queries filling their inboxes every day.)

Of course, we all know that giving up on my first manuscript led to the writing of my soon-to-be-published debut novel, TWELVE STEPS (coming 25 March 2014), so there's a happy ending to my story. But I recently finished reading a book that got me thinking about the subjective nature of reading all over again.

There's a book (no, I won't name titles, so don't ask) that all of my friends and acquaintances are reading and gushing over right now, all over the Internet. And the concept sounded intriguing to me, so even though I personally didn't care for the first title by this author, I picked up this new book and started reading. And it was okay. The idea behind the book was truly fascinating, and I liked most of the characters. There were even a few lines that made me smile all day long after reading them. There was enough to like about this book that, usually, I'd be recommending it to everyone, even though I wasn't 100% in love with it. (There were a couple of characters I didn't care for at all and some plot points that felt a little thin to me, but not enough to draw an "I hate this book!" out of me.) I enjoyed the book. Really. It was well-written and thought-provoking.

But I won't be recommending it to anyone, no matter how well-written it was. And the reason for my reluctance to recommend is entirely subjective and totally personal. Basically, it boils down to the language. This book was so full of profanity that I was seriously uncomfortable reading it. 

Now, before you jump into the comments to yell at me for having a holier-than-thou attitude or something, please let me explain. Yes, I know that profanity is perfectly realistic. I am fully aware that kids hear a lot worse in the hallways at school every single day. And I know that many writers and readers believe that the only way to show the reality is to dive right into it, headfirst. If that's what you feel you have to do, I'm not going to tell you that you can't.

But when I read a book where the f-bomb lands several times in only a few pages, I'm saddened by the fact that this is a book I can't recommend to my kids. Not because I'm trying to censor what they're exposed to (believe me, I've spent enough time at the schools to know they're exposed to as much or worse every day), but because they judge me by the books I recommend. A few months ago, my teenage daughter picked up a book I had been reading, and after a few chapters she put it away again with a sad shake of her head. "I don't know how you can read things like this, Mom. I have to hear it all day long at school. When I read, I like to take a break from language like that." And two days ago, my youngest daughter came to me in tears because she'd just listened to the non-Radio-Disney version of her favorite song for the first time. "Mom, I thought Disney singers weren't supposed to swear." 

And my kids aren't the only young folks who like to take a break from the profanity of the world from time to time, by the way. I've had several of their friends complain to me about it too. Yes, they might be the minority, but these are the people who look to me most often for book recommendations. I can't disregard their trust by recommending books I know will make them uncomfortable.

Which is exactly my point. Reading is totally subjective. One agent may love your story and your characters, but the best friend or the love interest is too much like the boy who crushed her heart in high school, and your story brings up painful memories. Another may adore every single one of your characters and be totally in love with the voice of your story, but when he went backpacking through Europe for a semester in college, the international spies he encountered were nothing like those you've depicted, so the story doesn't feel entirely authentic to him. And that editor you met at a conference may have just signed a deal for a book that's so similar to yours it would cause unnecessary competition between titles on their list. You never know what personal circumstances might make your book one that an agent/editor would enjoy enough to read but not enough to gush over for months and years to come.

When the rejections pile high and you're tempted to get discouraged, it never hurts to take a second look at your manuscript. Maybe there's something you can do to make a character more likable or a situation more believable. Maybe there's still room for improvement. But maybe not. If you are happy with the story as-is, and your critique partners (yes, there should be more than one - and your family members and best friend don't count) all think your story is the best thing since sliced bread, then it's likely you simply haven't found the right agent or editor. Don't give up! You may be closer than you think.


  1. I can think of a couple big best sellers that I really did not like. They were both books chosen for our book club. One I didn't finish and the other one I only finished because back then I made myself finish all the book club books. (I don't now.) But yeah, most of the world loved them! Which is why I never give negative reviews either. I realize just because I hated it doesn't mean others won't love it. :)

    1. Precisely. Usually the things that make me dislike a book are the exact things that will make someone else love it to pieces. And there have even been a few times when I've recommended a book I really didn't like, because I knew it was perfectly-suited for the person I was giving it to.

  2. I put down a best seller for the sole reason that I don't like f-bombs in my fantasy stories. Portal and urban will get some leeway, but epic? High? Nup.
    I get some people want their character to swear, but when they've done such a wonderful job on world building and the best they can come up with is -that-? *shakes head* I'll actually squeal when I find the author worked out a creative way to swear.

    Now it turns out there'd be other reasons to put it down if I read past that point. But maybe I would've swallowed them if those dreadful swears weren't clouding my judgement.