Catherine's book Second Hand Heart, a crossover YA book, was first traditionally published in the UK (and is now available in paperback on Amazon). Catherine has just made it available as an ebook--for only $2.99!
And now, to Catherine's thoughtful guest post.
Guest Post: Catherine Ryan Hyde
I had an interesting conversation with a reader a few days ago. Well, I call it a conversation, but it actually took the form of direct Twitter messages. These days that’s a viable conversation.
This reader is a blogger who had just reviewed my novel Second Hand Heart. And it was a good, thoughtful review, in which my book came off well. But there was one part of the way the novel developed that was not okay with her. That she just did not like.
I’d read a more detailed and honest description of her feelings about this on Goodreads, and I was able to match that up with this review. I wanted her to know that, in my mind at least, there was more love and consideration in that moment than she might have gathered. But I was unsure how to approach the situation. Because I try to take a step back and view the reader experience with a lot of latitude and respect.
Did it really matter what I intended for that scene, as opposed to what she took away? Many writers, especially ones newer to reviews and feedback, might say yes. For years I sat in writer’s workshops and listened to authors “straighten out” the group about how their work should be received. I’m sure at one time I tried it myself. But there comes a moment when we accept that we send our novel out into the world unaccompanied. Like a child we’ve finished raising, we let it have a life. We can’t follow it around to alter how it’s being received. Nor should we.
The truth of the matter, in my opinion, is that we don’t own the novel once it’s in the hands of its reader. The reader has to take the experience from there. And the reader is not a blank slate. The reader comes to your work with a lifetime of experiences, opinions, judgments, likes and dislikes. And…here’s where it gets interesting…the words you wrote and the mind of that reader meld. And the result is a unique experience.
I find this wonderful. I suspect some other authors do not. Well, let’s just say it’s easier to love it when it goes the author’s way. In a recent viral “author behaving badly” meltdown, a reviewer pointed out some problems with the writing, and the author got into the comment section and said, “The writing is fine,” then began hurling angry invectives. Such stories—and there have been many lately—never end well. Apparently she wanted to convince the reviewer that he was wrong about what he perceived as a problem. But the reader is never wrong, because fiction is too subjective for right and wrong.
I had a particularly interesting time with this about twelve years ago when my novel Electric God was released. It was a character study of a violently angry man. Granted, his violence was aimed at defending the innocent and righting wrongs. Think of him as the Robin Hood of breaking jaws and getting thrown in jail. In the end it was a book about forgiveness. Forgiving one’s self first, then others. Making peace inside so no wars need to play out externally. In the end, Hayden forgave—himself, and others. And laid down his anger. But some readers still didn’t forgive him. Most, but not all. I had some interesting conversations with readers, some of whom were surprisingly forthcoming in admitting to me that they were not very forgiving people. Not so surprisingly, they had trouble with the book. This is when I realized that, when people tell me what they thought of my book, they are actually revealing a great deal about themselves. They are describing to me the unique experience that came about when their life history mixed with my story. I learned to listen more objectively.
Back to Second Hand Heart. This reader and blogger was nice enough to explain her own views in a way that made it clear why she would read this scene differently from most others who picked up the book. Ultimately, her reality has to be validated, which is what I did. It doesn’t pay to say, “Nine out of ten people liked that.” It could be 99 out of 100. Doesn’t matter. Doesn’t make the hundredth reader wrong. Just different.
I told her I thought it was important to let readers own what they take away from the work. And that authors who quarrel with that are fighting a losing battle and making everybody unhappy, themselves included. I told her that’s what I love about reading. It’s not just the words. It’s the words in special combination with the reader.
Anybody who lives a life deeply surrounded by books has watched some of this unnecessary pain playing out. Feelings get hurt in the writer’s group, beta readers become awkward ex-friends or sworn enemies, and well-known and once-well-respected authors put a reviewer’s phone number on Twitter so people can call her up and tell her she’s wrong.
I’ve noticed in my own life that any time I feel a deep sense of frustration and stress, I’m probably trying to change something that can’t be changed. Like someone else’s opinion, for example.
So I try to get better and better about getting out of the readers’ way and respecting the unique bonds between them and my book. And if their perception occasionally doesn’t match with my intention, probably it’s because they’re not me. I do this because I deeply respect the process of reading, because I want my reader to be happy…and because I want to be happy, too.