Monday, October 24, 2011


A rather strange title. I was thinking the other day while reading a post from my former agent on the growing field of Christian speculative fiction. I recalled the words he told me when I was trying to get him to shop my fiction around. His words were far from encouraging. In fact, they were discouraging. But, because of his discouragement, I just worked harder if for no other reason than to prove he was wrong about my fiction. And I concluded after my period of thinking that often, it doesn’t matter whether the words are encouraging or discouraging as long as we have the right attitude about what we do with those words. If I’m discouraged, I won’t give up. If I’m encouraged, I start looking over my shoulder because something bad is about to happen. I decided to write down five of the most -couraging phrases I’ve heard in my career as a writer.
1 -- “Publish! Publish!” was written in red ink at the top of every one of my creative writing assignments in the ninth grade. I was so blessed to have one of the most positive, encouraging English teachers in history. Mrs. Griswold thought my stories and poems and haiku were the best thing a ninth grade student had ever written. I don’t know if they really were, but it inspired me to become a writer. I still have those fading notebook sheets in a plastic sleeve to remind me how important an encouraging word can be at just the right time.
2 -- “Fiction has to be stunning!” was the phrase uttered to me by my second agent. My co-author, Mark Sutton and I hired him after the success of “Conquering Depression.” I had finished the rough draft of “The 13th Demon” and was ready to start shopping it around with a real agent behind my manuscript. His terse reply was the above statement. I was wasting my time with fiction. Stick to non-fiction and self-help books. You will NEVER get your fiction published! It has to be stunning to get the attention of a Christian publisher. And, let’s face it. You will NEVER write a piece of fiction that is stunning! I was stunned! I thought my agent worked for me! I understood that my agent would be able to look at my work and tell me if it had a chance; if it had an audience; if this was the project I should focus on at this time. But, to tell me forget about it? I was so discouraged. Eventually, he left the firm he was with and I severed our contract after two wasted years of arguing over my fiction. So, I decided I was going to prove him wrong!
3 -- “Who cares?” was the operative phrase from my editor on my first book with Realms. His assessment of my manuscript was scathing and eviscerating, but ultimately liberating. It was like listening to Simon Cowell destroy the latest American Idol contestant and realizing the man, however loathsome, was absolutely right! My editor, however, was no Simon. Andy was a great guy who cared about my book and he wanted to help me make it the best it could be. Sometimes the truth hurts, but only in hearing the truth can we change direction and make our path right. I took my editor’s suggestions and I embraced them. After a month worth of rewriting, the book was hardly recognizable compared to the original manuscript. But, that was good! It flowed! It moved! It was a book I couldn’t put down! Now, let’s see if readers would agree! Who cares? I care!
4 -- “Cheesy, but an honest effort.” This from a recent review of my debut novel, “The 13th Demon: Altar of the Spiral Eye”. I’ll admit the review did upset me some. I never pictured my book as “cheesy” although it was certainly an “honest effort”. Of course, one man’s “cheese” is another man’s fondue and there are several other more positive reviews than this one. So, should I let this upset me? What should I take from it? I plan on writing more books so I want to improve my writing. I have several favorite book serials and I’ve noticed that the first book is always the worst written book. But, each subsequent book got better and better. This is what I am hoping for. I remain teachable! As Mike Duran posted recently in a quote from Andy Crouch: “it is better to create something worth criticizing than to criticize and create nothing.”
5 -- “Never Surrender Dreams” comes from one of my favorite writers, Michael J. Strazcynski creator of Babylon 5. That television series still stands the test of time as one of the best series ever created. Michael sat down and mapped out every episode over a five year story arc. He took characters through tremendous changes and upheavals. One major character started out as an arrogant politician and ended up as the savior of his people. One started out as a drunk and ended up the emperor of his world. Strazcynski’s passion for his story and his dogged and relentless pursuit of his story was inspiring. My son, Sean, gave me an autographed sign with that phrase and it hangs on my wall where I can see it. No matter how discouraging things may get; no matter how hard the criticism hits; no matter how dark the day becomes I will never surrender the dream God has given me!
So, how about you? How did you react to a negative book review, assuming you received one? How did you plan on improving with time? Or, were there any phrases, words of wisdom, pearls of encouragement you have relied on during your most trying times as a writer? How about sharing some of them with the rest of us?


Jillian Kent said...

Hi Bruce!
I love this comment . . .one man’s “cheese” is another man’s fondue . . . :) Your're right. I think we're all pretty much in the same boat. I was at the Cincinnati Book Festival this weekend and gratefully involved in a huge signing event. My hubby and I got an opportunity to talk to Dennis Lehane (Mystic River, Shutter Island, etc.). Dennis told us that it's important to stay true to your story. It's yours. He said that when he was still struggling to make money his book, The Given Day wouldn't sell because he has a long narrative section in it about Babe Ruth that editors wanted him to cut but he stood firmly saying that some readers might not understand it but it is significant to the book.

Anyway, all this to say that everyone struggles in this writing world. Go read his reviews. He'll have lots of stars, mostly good, but someone always has something negative to say about him and other great writers, so why should we be any different?

No one likes negative reviews but we all know how subjective reading taste is. I think the best we can do is to keep going, keep learning, and hold tight to integrity.

Lena Nelson Dooley said...

I do read the negative reviews as well as the positive ones, because they help me stay balanced.

Praise the Lord, the positive ones have far, far outnumbered the negative ones.

Then after reading a negative review, I filter it through the Lord to see if there's something He wants me to learn from it. Then I move on and forget about that review.

Bruce Hennigan said...

Thank you, Jillian for the encouragement. Stay true to your story! How true and fitting.

And, thank you Lena for reminding me once again that ultimately I am writing because the Lord has called me, yes CALLED me to write. I know some think that concept is trite or mundane or just plain wrong. But, I know in my heart where the inspiration comes from and it is from the Divine!

Beth Shriver said...


Great post. We've all had some sort of negative during this writing game. I learned early on not to take other opinions too seriously. Fiction is so subjective, it's hard to rationalize beating yourself up. Once I got a good agent who had the same attitude, my work started selling. But I had to learn a lot about the industry before I understood how to deal with rejections. And I still have more to learn.

Bruce Hennigan said...

Thanks, Beth for the kind words. Remaining teachable is one of my goals. I guess what I have to learn is how to separate the dross and chaff from the nuggets of gold. Constructive criticism is so important in our business especially from a good editor. I have to learn who to discern the negative reviews from the teachable moments. I'm the new kid on the block but already I've learned so much from all of your blogs and from working with my editor. I can only hope my writing will continue to improve from here on.