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.

39 thoughts on “If You Can’t Say Anything Nice (repost)

  1. Judith, this probably won’t matter much, because there are so many of us who love all your books…and we tell you we do. I hope all the positive replies heal your heart. Hugs.

  2. More power to you. For being so strong.

    World is full of such “bigots” in this modern day and it’s appalling, we can put a man on moon but can’t change thinking of these men towards women (ironically a woman is the reason they are in this world). But, you are right one has to move on as discrimination towards women will always will be there, sad but unfortunately a realty.

    P. S. I am one of those person who receives your post late, if I do get it.

  3. Great and beautiful advice. Wish it was used more in today’s world. I’m a big fan and loved the book.
    Loved the story and would nice to know Joanna’s daughter has a story of her own.
    Have a blessed day

  4. P. D. James has written that she always planned to be a writer, but family commitments got in the way until she was in her 40s. Her first book was published in 1962. When asked what name she wanted to use she decided on P. D. James as she thought it would look good on the spine of the book. Her name was Phyllis Dorothy James. She was married to Connor White, but had always planned to use her maiden name.

  5. So true! Some people delight in spreading negativity.
    I worked with an unbelievably mean narcissistic bully. She is a classic case of a narcissist.
    I loved the job, (hey, it was a food tasting lab!) so I wasn’t going to let her run me off. She wasn’t even our manager, or in charge of anything. Our bosses were even afraid of her. Any complaints about her were ignored. Her former job was managing strip joints. She couldn’t shake that power trip, apparently. New trainees would start to work with us but would soon quit. These were mostly mature, smart, wonderful people. They didn’t need the hassle. That, and bad management higher up eventually killed off our job.
    So, it still grates on me, but we must move on, hoping that the awful people get what they deserve. I believe critics suffer from low self-esteem, so they have to run everyone else down.
    Poor things. 🙁
    You have a special talent, a fabulous work ethic, and a huge body of work that amazes me.
    Thank you!

    • Lana, agree 100% with your comment – You have a special talent, a fabulous work ethic, and a huge body of work that amazes me.

  6. Amen to sending only positive comments. One of the delightful things about the Internet is that an excited reader can communicate directly with an author.

    When I love a book or a passage or find something significant to me, I can say it to the creator. I just want to inspire the person in question to create more books!

  7. Hmmm, I’ve been asking God what I should give up for Lent. Your blog gave me an idea: give up criticism. And gossip. Might have to put a tape over my mouth. Think before I speak: is what I’m about to say helpful direction? or just mean?

  8. “Kind words are appreciated, but they come and go. Ugly words, mean words, leave an indelible scar.” So true, Judy, so true…from someone who bears many scars.

  9. I’m glad you chose the high road and (hopefully) have put those negative comments in the trash where they belong. You are an amazing writer and person and an inspiration and role model for many, many people. I thoroughly enjoyed Blessing of the Lost Girls (as I have all of your other books). Please keep writing and I’ll see you at the TFOB.

  10. Thank you for this one. Reminded me of my Dad. In his 84 years in this world I never heard him raise his voice or say anything negative about anyone. He truly lived by If You Can’t Say Anything Nice…I doubt if I have accomplished the same goal, but I try. Unfortunately, there are people out there who delight in criticism and making others feel bad, and you just have to consider the source. Just keep on doing what you are doing. Most everyone who has ever read anything you wrote, loves you.

  11. Thank you for sharing this personal thought. I’m a long-term fan of yours, especially Beaumont! I read your books for years before I realized you were a female author. I thought the author was a man, since he used such man’s thinking and words. I was shocked! Your work is top notch! Especially Beautiful ?

  12. How sad for the “Blessings” reader that he was unable to enjoy and appreciate such a great book. Hopefully this is a one off for him and he is not otherwise so limited.


  13. I haven’t been able to read “Blessings “ yet, but I know I will. I am sure I will like it – well, because I’ve liked every one of your books I have read so far.
    On another note – a few years ago I shared with you that my eldest son, an alcoholic, also read and enjoyed your books. This son, passed away last year, a month before his 58th birthday. The anniversary of his death is coming up in a month.
    I want to Thank you for keeping on writing. I think of him every time I see/read one of your books. (Of course, many other times too). Please keep up the good work.

  14. The hateful words linger as scars on our hearts. It’s a shame all the good words don’t make such an indelible impression. I’m sorry you endured such a negative encounter, but I hope you’ve found a new bad guy to bump off for your next novel!
    I’m convinced that the opposition we encounter in life has a cosmic purpose to provide subject matter for our writing. No conflict equals a boring book. The scars we share are common experiences of this existence. That’s why your books resonate with so many who have suffered injuries and injustice. Thank you for hanging your heart out there, Judy. That kind of courage is why we love you and your characters.

  15. Personally, I love all your books and would say, just ignore all the naysayers. You can’t please everyone and people who say make negative remarks are usually very insecure, unhappy people. So keep on writing and don’t ever let JP die. God Bless you!!

  16. I really applaud you for pushing through so many obstacles to hone your craft & become the successful woman that you are. We came through that period when women were pushing through stereotypes from the generation before us. My parents came from backgrounds that were not education oriented & were of the opinion that the only reason girls went to college was to find a husband. Really! So, I wasn’t programmed to head to a university. Now I see that my argument would have been that finding a husband with a college degree would most likely offer me more opportunities in life which, ironically, is what happened- right there in Bisbee. My good fortune was to marry a man who graduated U of A School of mines & came to work for P.D. as a mining engineer the summer I had just graduated from BHS. BTW, Miss Woundy was very upset with me when I told her I wasn’t going to college. You broke through that barrier too when you pursued your dream even though she discouraged you. Can’t see why she would have discouraged any senior who was interested in college. My path was succesfull in spite of ourselves- only knew each other 2 1/2 months when we married, 59 years ago.

    Keep writing – love your plots & character development. Can’t wait for the next JP book???

    • I”m assuming you know about the fire in Bisbee night before last? Two buildings up the canyon from the JC Penneys store burned. At the moment Main Street is still closed. I’m sure the remains of the buildings are unstable.

      And congrats on 59 years. Obviously you did far better the first time at bat than I did.

      Onward Bisbee!

      • I did hear about the fire. Lucky it was stopped at 2 buildings. They named what businesses those were but means nothing to me unless they say what they were 60 years ago.

  17. So grateful for you, your sincerity and honesty as you share your thoughts each week in your blog posts. More importantly that you share with promising new writers your wisdom gained through the years with that same truth, honesty and sincerity.

    • I started reading the Beaumont books from the beginning. I’m trying to recall if I knew then that JA Jance was a woman, but I can’t. Doesn’t matter, and wouldn’t have mattered. I have pretty close ties to the Puget Sound area, and one of the things that draws me in is the setting. Being familiar with a location makes the story line more interesting to me as well. I was stationed at NAS Ault Field several years before the first book came out but there was still that pull. Same thing with Sedona and Bisbee, and I’ve read all the Ali and Brady books as well. The point is that I don’t care who the author is. If I enjoy the book I stick with that author and look forward to what they let me explore and experience in the next novel.
      I can’t get my head around the thought that someone hated Blessings. My thinking is that when someone goes to such lengths to purposely try to be hurtful, that person is just displaying their own basic nature.
      Already excited about the next release in October.
      Let me finish by taking JA back with a hashed up little ditty she
      might remember and get a kick out
      Double your pleasure
      Double your fun
      (Read JAJance
      She’s number one)

  18. I’m so sorry that that critic got under your skin for even one minute. Remember that people who are not able to create as you do will fall into two camps. The first will appreciate that you can do what they can’t and enjoy your work (see my hand raised?). The second will be jealous and envious and feel the need to belittle and denigrate you. The second are not worth your time.
    If I have a complaint (about food, service or whatever) I make a phone call. I figure spoken words go into the wind. If I have a compliment, I put it into writing (email or snail mail) so that on bleak days it can be taken out and re-read.

    • Susan, I agree with you about writing a compliment. The person who gets it can keep it to read again and again. It’s a great morale booster.

  19. I loved your last book and hope you’ll return to Joanna and Alli soon. I admit I’m not a fan of the Beau books, maybe because of the first person.

  20. This blog is an example of why you are such an excellent writer as well as a very special human being!! Look forward to each and every book!

  21. Your comment about negative comments remaining in your memory longer than the positives really hit me. I used to post on FB a lot but when I got some negative comments about a totally innocent post, I chickened out and don’t post anything except sunsets and food or dog photos. You are my favorite author and I look forward so much for your latest book to be released. I hope the ones that post the negative comments get what is coming to them in your next books! I am one of your fans that is usually quiet but please, don’t let the grinches win! You are awesome!

  22. I will make a blanket statement: you are a fabulous story teller, and your books are enjoyed by so many including me. Now take that blanket and cover the negative comments you receive and smother them.

  23. There is such a thing as “constructive” criticism but the ability to do so is rare. I believe I have read every one of your books, and love each character. Joanna, of course is the favorite, but Beau stretches my imagination ,lol.
    “Blessings” was a bit hard to read for personal reasons, but beautifully done!
    To all the above comments, including you are my favorite author! Can’t wait for the next book.

  24. Thanks for giving sage advice not only for writers but for all of us trying to be good human- caring and kind.

  25. Your books have been my favorites since I discovered them about 20 years ago. Your blogs let your readers know you’re FI, female intelligence! I plan to reread Blessings, enjoyed it very much

  26. You are So talented!
    I’ve taught my kids re: criticism: consider the source. If you wouldn’t take advice from them on what to wear, how to spend your money, how to parent, etc. etc. then why would you listen to the nits & picks? Develop a ducky back & let it all roll off!
    They’ve learned this & are healthier for it. Applies to adults too!
    Most of these types would never have the nerve to say it to hour face, but are plenty brave to say it via keyboard. Not ever worth your stomach acid. Or reply;)
    You have a lovely week!

  27. I have to admit that these nasty, gratuitous verbal attacks in the false guise of “Criticism” make me extremely angry-
    As for the guy who claimed no {“Red-Blooded, Divorced Male Cop”} would hire a Decorator to turn his Apartment into a Wondrous, Welcoming Sanctuary to Come Home to after Rough Days on the Job, (1) He is an imbecile who is trying to make himself feel big by spouting rubbish, and (2) he is clearly a homophobe stuck in the 16th century-
    Unfortunately, being a famous, extremely successful, nationally-beloved writer of four mystery series, ( and a woman to boot, who has done an enormous amount to further the standing of women writers) lends itself to those who love to tear down those they can never hope to equal-
    Of all the sins, ENVY is perhaps the most profoundly destructive one can experience as a target in life-
    As for the character who described “Blessings” as “All over the place,” well, DUH….!
    That’s the whole point of being a serial killer!
    I’m afraid that reader, poor sod, is just not too bright- S/he cannot follow the action, and pathetically blames yours truly!
    As a writer, you put your whole being out there, on the pages of your work-
    You share your very soul- In this way you enter into an intimate relationship with every reader- That is a huge part of of why we love you and give ourselves over to the
    emotional experience of your stories, as well as to the nitty gritty aspects that make it all come together in a thrilling crescendo at the finale!
    If a reader abuses this relationship, violates your vulnerability as a writer with hateful, deliberately cruel reactions, using you as a public “Sitting Duck” just because you happen to be in their cross-hairs, it is almost impossible not to feel wounded, however much you know in your rational mind that what they are saying is based on their own dark pathology and, usually, sheer stupidity and ignorance-
    Bullies all have a feral instinct for putting creative, brilliant, and sensitive souls on the defensive-
    I really, really wish I could protect you from those wounded feelings- However, they are part of what makes you so extremely gifted- They infuse all your stories and the relationships within your stories, so very, very important to me as a reader-
    However, let me say how much I admire you for sharing the bad experiences with your fans, and for not pretending to be “Above it All-”
    All of us fans know with total certainty that those who attack you for the hell of it, who have nothing constructive or thoughtful to say, are LOSERS and, forgive me, A-HOLES!!!
    THAT is the REALITY!!!

  28. I love the Thumper quote you added at the end. Probably my favorite Disney phrase of all time.

    PS. I know this is late but it’s been a busy last few days.

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