Donna Tartt is the award-winning author of The Goldfinch and other novels. The attached photo is of the actual steno notebook she bought in 1980 that we used for our writing game. My mom found it in her attic when she moved in 2020.
I grew up in the seventies and eighties long before the internet and the endless number of online streaming options we have today. In my free time, I read books. Lots of books. I loved how they could take you anywhere and you could experience life in another country or another time. Not surprisingly, my first job was as a library assistant at the Elizabeth Jones Library in my hometown of Grenada, Mississippi. The other teenage library assistant at the time was Donna Tartt. She and I played a writing game of sorts.
Donna bought a steno notebook, and each week one of us would write a few pages of a story. The next week the other would pick up where the first left off. Neither of us knew what the other was thinking. For my part, I had no idea what I would write until I wrote it. This silly game clearly revealed to me that Donna was a gifted writer. Whatever ridiculousness flowed from my pen, she made it make sense. Like it had purpose. A few years later, it came as no surprise to me to learn that Donna had received a book deal from a well-known publisher. I was genuinely happy for her. She was talented and the world needed to hear from her.
More than four decades have passed since our library game. Donna is now a famous author, and I am a medical research scientist at a major university. Our paths have never crossed again, and I doubt she even remembers me. Like Donna though, I have my share of publications. My most famous work appeared in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, a medical journal that won’t be found at any grocery store and can’t be ordered from Amazon. That’s okay. Writing about our scientific findings is one of my favorite parts of the research process, even though I know my audience will be rather small.
Last year I decided to try my hand at writing a novel. I was nervous and insecure. Would it be any good? Would anyone be interested in the story I wanted to tell? The first complete draft was just under 40,000 words. It seemed short for a novel, but I felt I had said everything I needed to say. I sent it to my sister, Leana. She LOVED it. I was happy but also cautious. She’s my sister—of course she liked it. It’s a bit like your mom telling you you’re pretty. It’s not exactly an unbiased opinion.
The next person to read that first draft was my close friend, Christina. She liked the story but said she needed details. “Tell me more about the people and the places. I need you to paint a picture.”
Oh, I thought, I can do that. Before long Time Intertwined had expanded to more than 70,000 words, and it truly became a novel and not just a story. Leana and Christina both read it again and assured me it was good. I gave it to my brother-in-law, an avid reader who warned me he wouldn’t finish it if he didn’t like it. He read it in a weekend.
Feeling more confident, I proceeded with having the book professionally edited. Then I self-published with Amazon and waited. Would anyone buy it? If so, would they like it?
Although there is no danger of me making the bestseller list anytime soon, I sold more copies than I expected. Even better, the people who read it liked it. Nearly every review was five stars. Not bad for a first book, right? I was elated and more than a little relieved. The feeling didn’t last, however. Insecurity and self-doubt began to creep in again, and I wondered if all those reviews were written by friends and family. I needed more validation. With trepidation, I submitted Time Intertwined for professional review. There was no guarantee that my book would be reviewed, and no guarantee that if it was it would be positive. All I could do was throw my book into the reviewer ring and wait.
After nearly two months without any communication, I received an email telling me the book had been picked up by a professional reviewer. More waiting. Another two months dragged by. Finally the email I had been nervously waiting for arrived. The long-awaited review. My hands were shaking as I opened it. “Five Stars. A must read.” The reviewer wrote a long and effusive review and said I should keep writing. I felt amazing. But I wanted more. Good reviews are addictive. Kind of like crack. The more you get, the more you want. The more you need.
By the time I received my first professional review of Book One, my second book, Lives Intertwined, was live on Amazon. Fewer sales than the first book, but every review was five stars. And so, with a little less anxiety than the first time, I threw Book Two into the professional reviewer ring. Two days later I was told the book had been selected. Less than a week after that, the review was back. Wow, I thought, they must have loved it since they read it so fast.
I was wrong. Three stars.
Three?? I was devastated.
I was so upset it took me two days to read the full review and even then insisted a friend sit with me while I read it. It turns out the reviewer didn’t hate my book. He just didn’t love it.
Lives Intertwined tells the story of two soldiers who meet during the American War in Vietnam and remain friends over many decades. Only two chapters out of more than 100 can be considered war scenes, but those chapters annoyed my reviewer. He had been there—in Vietnam. Apparently, my characters’ experiences didn’t mirror his own. He called my descriptions of battle “Rambo-esque.” Okay. I can’t disagree. I wanted my soldiers to be tough guys and somewhat larger than life. I wanted them to be heroes who my readers admired and loved. And I wanted my readers to remember that these men were young once, even though they grow old across the pages of the book.
In the end, despite the three-star rating, my reviewer said that he “felt a visceral connection to much of the story,” and he recommended it to his readers. Those words made me feel a tiny bit less devastated.
Somewhere deep in my psyche I know that my books aren’t for everyone, and I should be able to accept that. Surely most creative people have experienced a less-than-stellar review of their work. Maybe even Donna Tartt. Maybe between her Pulitzer Prize and her movie deal she received a review that felt like a gut punch to her soul. I hope not, but, if so, I am glad she kept writing anyway.
I think I’ll do the same. Writing makes me happy—and, if I am very lucky, my words will make other people happy too.