If You Can’t Say Anything Nice (repost)

Reposted as some email subscribers did not receive the earlier posting. 

Having been in the business of writing for more than forty years, I’m considered to be an old hand at it, and I’m sometimes asked for advice by relative newcomers. That happened again this week when an author mentioned being devastated by nasty reviews.

Turns out, I know how that feels, starting way back in 1985 when the first Beaumont book was published. The Beau books are written in the first person through the male protagonist’s point of view. When I sent the manuscript to my agent, the title page read: Until Proven Guilty by Judith Ann Jance. My agent, knowing more than a little about the male bias in the publishing business, made a small change. When she submitted the manuscript, she did so with a title page that read: Until Proven Guilty by J.A. Jance.

The second editor who read it, John Douglas from Avon Books, called the agent and said to her: “The guy who wrote Until Proven Guilty is a good writer.” She replied, “What if I told you the guy who wrote Until Proven Guilty is a woman?” He responded, “I’d say she was a hell of a good writer.” He followed up by purchasing two books—one that was already written and one that wasn’t. In the lead-up to publication, Avon’s marketing team got ahold of the manuscript. Their position was that male readers would not accept a police procedural written by a woman. (Never mind that P.D. James, my soon to be next door neighbor on bookshelves in stores and libraries everywhere, had been doing just that for years!)

The marketing team suggested a substitution—J.A. Jance for Judith Ann Jance. I was a girl from a small mining town in the West. I was being published by a New York-based publishing house. J.A. or Judith Ann? No skin off my nose either way, so J.A. Jance I became. Since I always sign books in red, you can bet that using my initials as opposed to writing out my whole name has saved me miles of red ink over the years!

As a consequence, when Until Proven Guilty was published, it was under the name of J.A. Jance. There was no author bio and no author photo included. Over the years I’ve been amused by having people tell me they thought J.A. Jance was a retired Seattle PD cop. But when news got around that a new upstart Seattle-based author was being published, a local paper sent their book editor around to interview me. When he knocked on the door to my Denny Regrade condo, he was shocked when it was opened by, as he said in his review, “a tall emotional woman.”

The article went on to take the book apart, claiming that no recently-divorced man in his right mind would hire an interior designer to decorate and furnish his new living space. Later on, when Jim Hunt came into our lives, he assured me that he had done so for many recently divorced folks—male and female alike. But having the reviewer’s negative focus on that really lodged in my heart. How do I know? The reviewer died years ago, but I still remember what he said. Because that’s what happens. Kind words are appreciated, but they come and go. Ugly words, mean words, leave an indelible scar.

So that was my advice to this new writer. Don’t read reviews, because the only ones you’ll remember are the bad ones.

When readers encounter typos in my books or errors in continuity, I do my best to make changes wherever possible. I appreciate what I call my SERs—my sharp-eyed readers—because they make my books better.

Sometimes, however, bad reviews manage to sneak through my bad review filter. That happened last week someone wrote to me about Blessing of the Lost Girls. Most people who have written to me concerning the book have enjoyed it. That was not the case here. This guy actually hated it. For one thing, he complained that the book was “all over the map.” That’s certainly true because the bad guy was a serial killer who traveled the nation’s highways to find his victims.

But then, my correspondent went on to wonder if I had used a collaborator or a ghost writer or an AI to write the book. That comment got me because that book, written in two months beginning to end, came straight from my heart. I explained to him, in a polite fashion, that my much earlier experiences with PTA committees had demonstrated my inability to function on committees and that, as a result I’m a strictly solo writer, and I had written Blessing of the Lost Girls all by myself with my very own fingers running the keyboard.

But guess what? I was still stuck with his negative comments rattling around in my head. Then, after sending that bit of sage advice to my fellow author, I decided it was time for me to take some of my own advice. Eventually I realized he was right. A ghost writer really was involved in writing that book. The spirit of James, that brave Sioux warrior who was pushed under a moving train in a hate crime, really did help me write the book. It wasn’t the kind of ghost writer my correspondent meant, but it works for me.

Here’s the thing. Creating art isn’t easy. So before you decide to tear into someone’s efforts, take a minute to think about it before you press send. Is what you’re sending meant to be kind or helpful or is it just to score points? And remember what Thumper’s father said: If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.”

Once you delete that mean message, you’ll not only be doing the intended recipient a favor, you’ll be doing yourself one, too.