Reviews and fan mail

Tricky situations:

1. A very kind and thoughtful review of my book by another blogger.
2. A lovely message via my website from a grateful reader. (Never thought I would type that particular sentence as you’d have to be peculiarly twisted individual to be grateful for most of the short fiction I write!)

For the former, I have a simple acknowledgement – thank you for letting me know, your review is much appreciated. It sounds very cold, doesn’t it? But I don’t respond to reviews in any way, simply because I’ve learned over the years that it’s not a good idea. Nice reviews are lovely but can lead to obligation (ie I then owe somebody a review of their self-published five volume opus on the symbolism of the owl in the Ring Cycle and its relationship to Harry Potter) or refusal (when folk ask for free tickets to readings that I’m not in charge of; for free copies of the book for their Mum and aunties; for me to pitch up and present prizes at their village fete in Northumberland …) Also there’s the vexed question of nasty reviews and if I respond to the nice ones, I feel it would be wimpish not to engage with the less nice ones, and that means eventually, by a process of folly, I would end up talking to the trolls and the trashers who are always out there and who delight in being unpleasant about things other people find pleasant. So I have a blanket policy and it works for me.

For the latter, a personal reply. When somebody has read something of mine and comments on it, I try to reply as fully and helpfully as I can – not because I feel obligated, nor because my ego is stroked (although there is some of that, to be honest) but because as a writer it’s invaluable for me to know how people found my work; what they thought of it; and what prompted them to make contact with me. This is not just ‘my audience’, it’s my research panel, my only group of advocates, and it will be my sternest bunch of critics if my standards start to slip. These are the people who work the magic – they read words on a page and turn them into life by virtue of exercising their imaginations within the bounds I’ve set on the page – they are alchemists and I am just the laboratory – but when I get the mixture right, and they report back on how that potion worked for them, a miracle has happened for me.

Sorry this is all a bit wizardly, but I am thinking right now of myself aged eight, reading Eleanor Farjeon’s Martin Pippin in the Apple Orchard and feeling transported to a different world. Farjeon died when I was three, but even if she’d been alive it would never have occurred to me to write to her, because I thought books were made by magic.

I have the incredible luck, as an adult, to be in occasional communication with two women whom I believe to be the great writers of my generation and the idea that somebody writing to me is writing to me as a writer—as part of that band of creative humanity that makes new worlds or makes the old world new—is astonishing, humbling and not a little terrifying. So today I am sending out one form reply and one considered response, and I feel that this, more than holding the first copy of my first book, is the day that I truly become a writer.

PS – yes it’s a baby owl in a bucket. No it’s not cruel. This is how owlets are kept happy in owl sanctuaries.


  1. Jim Murdoch
    16th September 2011

    #1 is an awkward one not that it’s ever happened to me that I’m aware of. I suppose it depends on the relationship between the parties if there is one. I would love to say everything I do is altruistic but the bottom line is I am nice to other people because I . . . and here’s the key word . . . hope they’ll be nice to me back but I don’t presume that they will or feel I have any claim on them. We belong to a fairly small community online and it can get a bit . . . not sure if the word I’m looking for here is incestuous or nepotistic . . . you know what I mean. I’ve joined a couple of sites on Facebook and I have to say I’m a wee bit wary of getting too involved because all they consist of are a pile of writers promoting each other’s work to each other. On the surface is seems like a good thing – writers supporting other writers – but I’m not sure that they’re not simply promoting the illusion or delusion (can’t seem to find the right word today) that stuff is going on when not much is really going on at all. A few have accepted review copies of The Whole Truth, an omnibus edition of my first two novels which I’m only putting out as an e-book, but so far I’ve not been inundated with review requests and I’m rather glad because so many straight-to-e-book titles are genre works that I would never touch no matter who the publisher was.

    I also struggle with the there’s-a-writer-looking-back-at-me-from-the-mirror problem. I’ve just had my next novel back from two beta readers that I trust to be honest and I was genuinely uncomfortable with their responses. They treated me like a real writer and were both clearly flattered that I’d even consider their opinions and one is a fairly successful playwright. By that I mean he’s been paid for plays that have been performed on the radio, on stage and even on film so in that respect he’s had far more success than I have. I suppose it’s like the day you finally admit to being an adult: the training wheels are off and they’re staying off. Then you write a short paragraph like that last one and you have to shake your head and think: Call yourself a writer!

  2. Jane Steen
    18th September 2011

    I don’t know though… I wrote a nice review of a novel and the author left a comment thanking me and providing the link to her Facebook page. I Liked it, and kind of turned from happy reader into fan right there…

    And I would never dream of asking for return favors. But that’s just me. I prefer my writing to stand on its merits – anything else would just seem wrong. I know a lot of people expect to get something in return.

    I think I’d go with my gut. I wouldn’t think I had to thank everyone for good reviews, but there might be one or two where a thank-you just feels right. I would never respond to a bad review, unless the reviewer made a difference for the better to my writing!


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