Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Learning to Deal with Book Reviews (excerpt included)

by Lisa Dale

As some of you know, my new book, IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT, has just come out (which means the reviews have started coming in!). So I thought it might be helpful to share my—admittedly awkward—story of how I learned to deal with reviews. It was…and still is…no simple task!

For me, getting “the call” was a shock to my system. For my entire life, I’d kept my writing largely private. So when I got the first offer for SIMPLE WISHES, I realized that the story that I had cradled and nurtured in the privacy of my heart was about to go rushing naked out into the world. It was exciting, but scary too.

So here’s the very first review of SIMPLE WISHES I ever got—I’ll include it almost in its entirety. After you read it, I’ll tell you what my reaction to it was:

Publishers Weekly: The only flaw in Dale's haunting debut is its reliance on the old chestnut that small town life is superior to the big-city crush…Dale strongly communicates Adele's fears about the future and anger over the past through her relationships with vivid secondary characters such as the Loprestis' troubled teenage granddaughter, Kayleigh, as she puts the reader through a well-paced emotional wringer.

Here’s how I reacted: Oh no. How terrible! Flaw? The old chestnut of small town life? But I LOVE the city! This is awful! They’re calling my writing cliché!

I called all my friends and family so I could read it to them. What did they think of it? Everyone tried to assure me it was a good review. But for some reason I just couldn’t hear that. I was focused on that one single word: flaw. It’s such an ugly word. Slang for pimple. Or maybe a nice way of saying screw-up.

Then, I got glowing emails from my agent and my editor, both offering congratulations, and I thought…Really? That was a good review? Then what’s a bad one?

Clearly, something wasn’t right. I took some time to dig deep and figure out why my reading of the review was so different than theirs. In hindsight, I realize that my fear of getting a bad review actually made me focus on the negative. If I’d read the review from a different angle, I might have noticed that it said not that my book is badly flawed, but that it is nearly flawless.

The way I deal with reviews these days is by trying to a) stay focused on the positive, to let all that good energy fuel my vigor to write, and b) stay true to the goals of my writing (as opposed to people’s reactions to my goals).

I want to write modern, contemporary love stories that are solid and consistently good reads. I want to write characters whose motives aren’t always black and white—stories that will drive people to keep talking about them, to puzzle them out, long after the last page is turned.

So, on that note, I hope you won’t mind if I share my new review of IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT with you, since I think it pertains. This is from Romantic Times:

Lisa Dale is adept at weaving beautiful, romantic, heart-wrenching stories. She pays attention to the finest details, and the effect knocks the wind out of you. Every single scene, character conflict and reaction is perfect. The only downside is that the story concludes, which means our time with these wonderful characters comes to an end. (RT, Nov 09)

Thankfully, not much to misinterpret there! ♥

BIO:    Lisa Dale worked briefly in publishing before going back to school to get an MFA in fiction at Fairleigh Dickinson University. A nominee for Best New American Voices and the Pushcart Prize, her writing appears in many literary magazines, such as Fourth Genre, Flyway, Fugue, Sou’wester, The Southeast Review, The MacGuffin, Many Mountains Moving, and more. She is the author of SIMPLE WISHES and IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT. To learn more about Lisa Dale or her novels, visit

Below is an excerpt from IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT:

She drove as fast as the curves of the road would allow, her mind racing with the fact of what she’d just done. She’d kissed her best friend. She hadn’t kissed him back, she’d just plain kissed him.

There were reasons people didn’t fall for their friends. She had to remember that. She’d been around long enough to know that when fantasy collided with reality, the result was usually a breakdown. The high expectations of fantasy and the baser truths of real life simply couldn’t combine. That was part of the reason that she’d trained herself to compartmentalize her feelings about Eli, tucking away desire and bringing feelings of friendship out into the light of day.

But the place Eli occupied in her heart was too big, too expansive to be superficially labeled or contained. All this time she’d counted on him to be her reality, her welcome, dependable day-to-day. But now he was telling her that he was something different: he was also her fantasy, a secret promise of pleasure, passion, and sex. And she worried, How could he be both and be lasting? How could she make a life with him?

She taken such care to build the structure of their relationship; she’d spent years honing her own feelings toward him, dulling them when they became too hot and sharp, encouraging herself to feel distant and mild. For ten years, friendship had seen them through Eli’s many travels—the ups and downs created by his absence and presence. Friendship had protected Lana’s dreams of traveling on her own—as long as she kept herself at arm’s length from him, she would not be tempted for forfeit her dreams for his.

Her rules had served them both well.

But as the miles disappeared under her tires and she told herself, again and again, to be logical—to be realistic and smart—some part of her remained with him, in his living room, in his arms, demanding everything he had to give, and seeing the evening through to a different, more satisfying end.


  1. Great post Lisa! I think that all authors need to take a step back after they read a review and mull it over and then read it again. I've seen authors freak out over mostly positive reviews, your mind seems to automatically jump to the one part that is not positive. I think it has to be particularly hard when its your first book, especially if it something that has been perculating for years.

  2. Very good lesson, Lisa. Thank you for sharing from your own files and your very own experience. I can certainly see how you zeroed in on "flaw". Given the blood, sweat and tears invested, totally understandable! Congrats on subsequent raves and good luck with all your books.

  3. Lisa,
    Congratulations on a great review (PW) and a fabulous review (RT)! I completely understand your insecurities, unfounded as they are. I think I would feel the same way about my "baby" and will try to keep this in mind when I read reviews of my book. But I'm glad others were able to convince you that these are truly wonderful reviews. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this topic.
    And your excerpt is beautiful.

  4. @Elizabeth, Lise, and Lis--Do you guys realize we all of our names go back to the same root? How funny is that?

    Anyway, thanks for reading! I think that in the long run there's probably no good way to get over reviews, except to just deal with them on a case by case basis, and focus on what's good.

    The upside of being so sensitive to critique--especially self-critique--is that it really does serve the purpose of forcing improvement.

    Thanks so much for letting me post today, especially Maria! It's been fun!

  5. Hi, Lisa. That was a great post. I think that responding to a review must be a little like responding to a professor's comments on a long research paper that involved copious work and near-terminal levels of fatigue. To a certain extent, you have to take the critique maturely and professionally, and try to learn from it. On another level, you yourself are a professional, and you completed the project as your vision dictated it should be. No matter what the reviews say, you may need to stand by your guns and be firm that you did it with purpose, and exactly as you wanted it to be. As all the Elizabeth derivatives are posting, I thought I (Elizabeth Palladino) should, too. I will definitely be looking for your books.

  6. As a book reviewer, every book I pick up begins with five stars. It is up to the author -- and her book -- to keep those stars. I try to be as complimentary as possible, but note that I am not writing the review for You, for the author. The review is for the Reader. In the case of reviews, Readers come first. Nothing personal. --Liza