“I can’t read your books because all I see is you”
This was something my wife said to me before we were married and it bothered the hell out of me. Now it doesn’t as much, and I’ll get to why.
Early in a writers career, especially as an independent author we naturally rely on friends and family to give us traction in our careers. We release a book and tell everyone about it on Facebook and expect everyone to tell everyone else they know. This doesn’t usually happen that way though. Experienced authors know that reviews from family and friends (although appreciated) can make us cringe and often they make an author look unprofessional. Nothing screams rookie book with questionable editing and writing ability like a review that says something like, “My son is so fantastic, what a great book and I am just so proud of you Billy! Love Mom” followed by heart emoji’s and thumbs up. Not that we don’t appreciate moms support (and no mine did not do this) but reviews like this just don’t look professional to a potential reader. In the case of Amazon, this is something that will get a review flagged and removed. It’s a tough dilemma because we can’t tell people what and how to write a review but at the same time, we don’t want to be ungrateful for reviews even if they are from family.
Fiction and reality
As authors, we learn along the way that there is a fine but strong line between our personal life and business life. Between our family life and our business relationships. Between our stories and reality and between our characters and us. WE understand that our books are not us as people but merely stories we create. Now yes, of course, small parts of our lives, parts of ourselves make there ways into our books whether intentional or not but they are usually warped reflections not copies. WE understand that a steamy sex scene in a romance or an intense murder in a suspense novel is not usually a reference to something we ourselves did. But that is us. Other people don’t have it that easy and the lines blur.
When my wife tried reading my first book, Running Northwest all she could see was me even though my first book came out years before we even started dating. Me in a coffee shop, me being a bad boy, me having sex with or falling in love with other women. My mom felt the same way i.e. me ruthlessly hurting people and me saying or doing things that make her feel awkward or even embarrassed, but it wasn’t me. It was a character or characters that were not me but ones I created. I know other people who had similar issues for varying reasons and this bothered the hell out of me for a long time because for me as an author of fiction it was such an obvious separation. Part of the joy of reading a fictional novel is being able to suspend disbelief and enjoy a sometimes-outrageous situation, character/s or circumstance.
I learned, however, that when people who know you very well in your personal life and have for years or even all of it, read your books they often have a hard time suspending their disbelief. They have a hard time separating the author they know (or think they know) from the characters he or she created and the things those characters say and do. In their minds, our characters are us no matter how different we try and make them. In their mind, certain situations that our characters are in may sound familiar to something that happened in real life. “No, it didn’t happen that way,” they might say.
Well, of course, it didn’t but they are not the author we are. We might have used an incident or situation from our past as inspiration but changed it completely in order to fit the expectations, circumstances, and direction of our story with only a faint glimmer of reality showing through. In reality, the similarity isn’t noticeable to a complete stranger but sometimes family and friends who have been around us our whole lives start seeing our stories as almost biographical. They see those faint glimmers of the author shining through in the story and they either love them, hate them or both. More importantly, though they often focus on those glimmers and ignore the rest, OR they see the rest in a different light than what we the authors intended because of those gimmers. Friends and family of an author have a particular perception of that author. This perception clouds their judgment and their perception of the books written by the author they know. Sometimes this can benefit the author and sometimes it can severely hurt them professionally.
Yes, I would love for my wife to read any or all of my books, but I understand why she can’t and won’t. I’m okay with it now and perhaps it (like was suggested by a person with some letters behind her name) is better for our marriage that way. I also understand why it could be hard for my mom, or an aunt, best friend or even old friends I no longer talk with to read my books. Will it change what I write about? No absolutory not and most of them wouldn’t expect that. Whether intentional or not those glimmers of the author (in this case me) will only be noticed by roughly .00000006% of the population of the USA and that’s not enough to scrap a writing career or a work in progress.
So what’s the point of telling you this?
What’s the nugget of advice from this post? Here it is…
Don’t make the mistake of using your friends and family as the sole launching point of your writing career. It’s fine to have their support but you need more. Think bigger and broader. Being an author isn’t the same as owning a coffee shop, ice cream stand, clothing boutique or some other “brick and mortar” type business where it’s easier and more acceptable for friends and family to support it publicly. It shouldn’t be but it is. A 5-star review from someone who is clearly a relative or even a close friend looks worse than a 3-star review from a total stranger.
Don’t get up in arms if your spouse or significant other doesn’t want to read your books whether they are published or not. They can still support you without reading them and be there for you. Not everyone is as lucky as Stephen King and his wife. Most novelists and storytellers use their art and talent as a means of opening themselves up and releasing their emotions, demons, hopes, fantasies, fears, ideas, and dreams through their stories and characters. Remember though that not everyone is okay with seeing those things. Not everyone is comfortable considering and accepting what could or could not be us on the page. Not everyone is comfortable having their perceptions of us changed for better or worse. Those last three sentences can be directly applied to friends but more often family.
So, my fellow authors and writers am I totally off here? What do you think about this situation?