Facing Opinionated Readers…My First Book Club Experience as an Author

Last week I mentioned going to a book club where I was invited as the author of Cinders to take part in the discussion. I was forewarned that several of the members didn’t like my book. In fact, my friend who invited me warned me that one of the readers really disliked the book. Meaning, to me, she hated it. A lot.

I was nervous. I told myself not to defend my work or feel upset by anything that was said. I made the long, long drive to my destination and entered feeling extremely nervous, but confident that I had written what I wanted to write and I would not feel ashamed by anything anyone had to say.

I’m happy I made that resolve beforehand.

I’m a very sensitive person. It doesn’t take much to upset me, especially when it has to do with my writing and something like a novella I self-published because I wrote it just for me. The discussion started off really well with questions from each member. My friend Susan confessed that she didn’t understand the book at all when she first read it, but since she felt there was something deeper going on that she wanted to understand, she read all of the reviews she could find and then read the book again. She fell in love with it the second time. Amazing what that will do! Susan then asked whether or not I chose specific names for a reason and then there were other questions I don’t really remember now. Many of them were things I have answered in interviews and other discussions I’ve had with friends.

I did realize after awhile that I’ve made a huge mistake in assuming everyone knows Cinders is a continuation of the Brother’s Grimm original fairy tale of Cinderella. One of the only things I took from the Disney version is the fact that there is a fairy godmother instead of a magical tree. And because of this assumption, I forget quite quickly that I am:

(1) messing with one of the most beloved fairy tales and characters of all time, and…

(2) telling a story that takes such a deviant course from the Disney story it’s no wonder many readers don’t like the end…or my version of the character Cinderella.

I think if I do a reprinting of the book I may add a short note at the beginning about the original fairy tale. I may also add some book club questions at the end to help guide readers toward a more structured view of the work as I intended – specifically outlining the more subtle layers I added to the story. Readers could, of course, always choose to ignore the questions.

Overall, despite one of the readers not budging in her opinion that Cinderella is a terrible person who adds no empowerment to women for the story (I have my own very strong opinions on this that I will not get into here), I had a great experience. In fact, I stepped away from that meeting realizing I had accomplished exactly what I wanted to accomplish: Cinders makes readers think, feel, and discuss a character and her choices…often quite passionately!

In the end I honestly don’t mind people not liking the story or the characters. This experience was phenomenal and it was fascinating to get down to the nitty gritty of why someone didn’t like the story. I will never forget this. I learned a lot, and I want to thank each and every one of those readers for their opinions and sharing them with such courage.

Posted by Michelle D. Argyle

35 comments

C. N. Nevets

I'm so glad that it went well for you. I'm sure it was full of a lot of challenges, but it sounds like you met them head on, and came away with some really good things. I hope that someday when it's my turn, I can be that strong and right-headed.Okay. I've said the noble part. The other part is, I think Cinderella's boldness in stepping out to making choices, face consequences, and come to grips with life, reality, and her identity define empowerment more than many one-dimensional female characters who are granted that credit simply because they are angry or have extra-marital affairs.

I'm really proud of you for the way you handled all that! Sometimes it is a matter of resolving beforehand how you'll deal with it, and I have confidence that you did it with grace.Whether some cared for your choices in how you wrote it, or not, I bet no one had a problem with your beautiful writing!

Michelle Davidson Argyle

Nevets: Thanks! Yeah, I have some pretty strong opinions (similar to your own) on what is empowering and what isn't. I was hoping that the reader who didn't like the story would read it again with of things in mind that we had talked about. I'm not sure it will change her opinion, though, because we all see things differently and that's okay. What is empowering to one woman isn't empowering to another. I think it depends on where we are in our journey called life.Bridget: You're right! Even the lady that really disliked the book said she really enjoyed and respected the actual writing. No one has said anything bad about my actual prose. I like that!

That takes great courage to go to an event knowing that someone didn't like the book and keep a cool head. It's so hard when someone is attacking your baby. I'm glad it was a good experience.

Michelle Davidson Argyle

Lois: Well, I went in thinking it would be attacking, but it wasn't at ALL. It was a very good discussion. I like discussion. 🙂

Wow, kudos to you for going and handling it professionally. I already know that if I get published, there will be a definite "learning to roll with bad reviews" phase for me because I know my first instinct will be to take that stuff too much to heart. But I can't even imagine having to respond to "I hated the book/character" criticism face to face. I hope I'll be able to face it as bravely as you did. 🙂 And you're right–getting readers to think should definitely be celebrated!

Anne R. Allen

What a fascinating (if a little disheartening)experience. "Don't mess with Disney fantasies" may be a mantra for us all. Disney cutsied up a lot of fairy tales so the real meaning has been lost. Even I didn't know about the magic tree–a folk tale with Druid origins, perhaps?But I love the idea of putting "book club" questions and answers in the next edition–something you couldn't do if you were traditionally published.And controversy creates interest–and great discussions!

Why is it that people expect Cinders to be a 2010 kind of woman? Seriously!!! The time/place/setting – even in fiction – play a part in the choices of the characters. Yes, you have leeway to change things. Personally, I thought the choice Cinders makes at the end was very empowered: she chose to marry into a position of power to atone for some bad choices on her part. She could have walked away. She didn't. So, maybe she wasn't this "I am woman, here me roar" kind of character. I didn't expect her to be. The time/place of Cinders was a time/place of subservience by most women. You definitely showed empowerment in the Queen, and in Cinders when she made the choices about her stepmother and stepsisters, as well as in her final decisions.S

Glass Dragon

Am I a traitor to my sex if I don't care two straws about female empowerment in fiction? I'm all for my heroines kicking ass and taking names so long as it makes sense within the story. It wouldn't have made sense to me in Cinders. I find it funny that other people are bothered by it, though. I love that people (especially similar people in similar circumstances) can have so many different opinions on the same subject. It makes life (and book clubs!) so much more interesting, doesn't it? =)

Alex J. Cavanaugh

Not sure I could face a similar situation and handle it as well as you.Sad so many think of the cutsy Disney version rather than the original tale. Did you ask if any of them had actually read the original story?

I love this discussion. It's awesome!I also have opinions on feminine empowerment, and I'm with Scott, Cinderella choose the noble path. She could have gone the easy way and lived happily ever after. But she grew up, didn't have an IQ of 36D, and choose the right thing, even though it was the hard thing.Did I mention I really, really, really loved Cinders?Speaking of bravery, wow Michelle, I would have been a nervous wreck!

Dawn Kurtagich

Yeah I think I would be nervous in that situation too, but very, very open to hearing what people honestly thought. It's a great opportunity that writers don't always get. Well done for being so brave! And thanks for sharing!Dawn

Genie of the Shell

Poor literary heroines. They are always expected to be idealized and politically correct role models for womankind these days, instead of realistic and sympathetic story characters.And sometimes to be blonde as well. If someone has a preconceived notion about your character, you often can't win with them. Oh well. I think most of your readers could tell from the cover, blurb, and first page that this was not a sequel to the Disney cartoon. But if you wanted to add a note somewhere that this is mainly influenced by the Grimm version, you could do that. If you choose to do so, I would say "the Grimm version" and not "the original," since there are many versions of Cinderella that predate the Grimm telling–it possibly originated in ancient Greece. The first "official," written-down, Western European version of the Cinderella folktale was by Charles Perrault in France in the 17th century. The Grimm version was the Grimm brothers' recording of how German folks were telling it a couple hundred years later.Because of Cinderella's nature as a cross-cultural and ancient folk tale, it's kind of ridiculous for anybody to think the character needs to be presented any one way. But some people don't know better, I guess, and have strong emotional associations with "their" familiar version.

Heh heh heh, It's funny that even a post how Cinders struck a nerve, struck a nerve.

Amber Argyle-Smith

Scary. This is one of the things that makes me want to hold tight to my books and never let anyone else read them. You have to have such tough skin as a writer. Good for you, Michelle. Us tough Argyles (even adopted ones) have to hang in there.BTW, why is it I can't log in to comment unless I've logged in my page first . . . this has happened the last dozen times I've tried to comment on anyone's blog?

I'm very glad that you choose to make the book club experience a good one. I think a note at the beginning about the origin/recap of the Cinderella story sounds useful.And definite support for the readers guide at the end! It is what I enjoyed most about the Fablehaven novels. In fact, I recommend you read that series and see what readers guide questions were at the end of each book as an example of what works well for those.Good for you loving your work, Michelle! In the end that is what really determines satisfaction.

You are so brave. Meeting face to face with someone who you know doesn't like your book would be scary.

Neurotic Workaholic

I think that it's a great idea to "continue" the story of Cinderella; it's one of my favorite stories. And I think that that person you mentioned who was so focused on Cinderella not being empowered was actually missing so many other elements of the story that explain why people still like it. I admire you for handling the book club so well; I'm not sure I could have.

Domey Malasarn

I've been curious about how this went, Michelle. Thanks for posting your experience. I also agree that it's great that you are making readers react passionately to the writing. I think that's the ultimate power of art. If it's making people think, it it's making people care, you are doing a fantastic job!

C. N. Nevets

@Michelle – Understood and agreed. That's why I said the noble part first. Because you handled it the right way and you were right that you were not going to change her mind — and that, essentially, you don't *need* to change her mind.As Domey says, the cool thing is getting them to think about it, not getting them to agree with you.The defensive response is my emotional gut reaction which I hope I would have contained under similar circumstances. But I'm not sure. lol

Genie of the Shell

Davin has a great point! That woman could only have such strong feelings about the book if it moved her on a gut level. It was really brave of you to go and face that kind of criticism, but people only bother to get riled up about things that interest them.

One of the things I always tell myself is, you can't please everyone. All you can do is write the story that won't remain silent in your head. I'm almost positive far more will love than hate your work. (Hugs)Indigo

Michelle Davidson Argyle

Roni: It's definitely an ongoing phase, I think. I take a lot of things to heart, but it's difficult not to! I think as writers we have to care deeply, youknow?Anne: I call it being "Disney-fied." Can you really not do book club questions in traditionally published books? That's where I thought I saw them before.Scott: Ohhh, yes, I agree. I've read a few YA fantasy stories lately that pretty much stick a 2010 female character into a supposedly historical setting. I guess if it's fantasy anything goes, right? The thing is that I was trying to be accurate for the most part and that meant dealing with how people lived then – and thought. I'm not quite certain if my friend's friend expected a 2010 woman to be in the book, but it did seem that she was upset about Cinderella submitting in the end.Becca: No, you're not a traitor. I'm kind of the same way. I think equality should trump all, and there are some subtle hints near the end that Alden is aiming to treat Cinderella as fairly as he knows how. Alex: I did ask them if they had read the original story and I don't think many of them had.Anthony: See, I think she could have gone the easy way and thrown herself off the cliff. But she didn't. She chose to face her problems and accept her duties. To me, that's pretty empowering.I love that you love Cinders so much. 🙂Dawn: Aww, thanks! Yeah, I was pretty nervous. I do have a feeling this won't be the last time I come face to face with people who don't care for my work.Genie: Oh, yes, I know the Grimm's version isn't the original. I mean the original Grimm's version. I must admit that writing a "familiar" character was something I knew I'd get flack for. 🙂Amber: Haha, yes, I do think this is one of the most frightening things about being a writer! I don't know what's going on with Blogger, but I'm sorry! 🙁

Michelle Davidson Argyle

Alicia: I really wanted the experience to be a good one, yes, because I knew I would compare to a lot of things down the road. I would love to read the Fablehaven series. I've heard great things about them. 🙂Patti: Very scary, yes! But I wouldn't trade the experience for anything. I'm really grateful for those readers because I think they were brave, as well.Neurotic: Cinderella seems to be a lot of people's favorite. That's what made it fun and frightening to write at the same time. Domey: Yeah, I've been meaning to write this post for awhile but other things kept getting in the way…and I wanted to make sure I had my thoughts collected, as well. Thank you! I agree with you about making people think. I think that is one of the main reasons I write.Nevets: Oh, you would, I'm sure. I think the only reason I wouldn't is if something came out of the blue. I had plenty of time to prepare for this, so that really helped.Genie: She was very passionate about it, yes!Indigo: You are so, so right. I have to remind myself of this literally every time I sit down to write!

Mary Campbell

I was curious about this especially since one of my friends was involved in the book group. Sounds like it went well actually – it is a thought provoking book – one that brings on a lot of discussion. I hope no one was out right rude to you.Isn't it awesome that you have a book out there that invokes such strong reactions in people?

Michelle Davidson Argyle

Mary: I didn't know you knew someone in the group! It went really well, actually. I wouldn't trade it for anything! And everyone was very nice. No rudeness in the slightest. 🙂

creativebarbwire

Well, I never considered Disney's Cinderella the original, but I had a version of it in my childhood fairy tales books… that's what I based my reading on! 😉 But after reading Cinders I went to look for ALL the originals: Perrault, Brother Grimm, Aesopus and even an Italian author of which I forgot the name (and I'm Italian…). I guess what we got is a mix of all four and then you re-elaborated it according to your tastes.I just don't get those people who stick to one version of a tale and can't think of any alternative. Like readers of Sir Walter Scott who are convinced he portrayed correct Middle Ages (he wasn't an historian). So don't bother about those who didn't like the story because you strayed from the original. They have no imagination for themselves, while you do! ;-)Happy writing!Barb

Glad it went well and congratulations on dealing so professionally with it 🙂

Piedmont Writer

But isn't this what we all want from someone reading our book — a reaction, whether bad or good. I'd rather have someone hate my book than say, "it was okay."For those of them who didn't like your book, I wonder if it was your characterization of Cinderella — perhaps it hit too close to home.Didn't we all want to marry the handsome prince, and for those of them that did, now isn't that dream slowly fading amid the bills, soccer pratcice and mini-vans? Your Cinderella might not be the perfect princess but neither is anyone else. Thanks for posting Michelle. Takes a lot of guts to stand up for what you believe. I'm very proud of you.

L.T. Elliot

Congratulations, Michelle! I think you totally did your job right. People who think passionately about your character, remember your character. =]

Okay, since I started all this, I guess I'll add to the comments! Thanks again for coming all the way out here for me. I've talked to the ladies since and they said that you were amazing. They loved that you put so much thought into answering their questions and that you didn't even flinch at the "negative" comments but you expressed your point and very fluently. They were very impressed, as was I. I have since read the original Grimm's version and it helped me even more! I plan on sharing it with the rest of the book club so that they can see more as well. I LOVED the book and thank you again for facing the crazy Fruitland ladies and coming off the champion.

Michelle Davidson Argyle

Barb: Thanks! I love studying the "originals" of the story. It would be amazing to travel back in time and listen to when the story was first told. 🙂Alexa: Thanks!Anne: Aww, thank you. I like what you say here and I agree with you all the way. I think the best stories can be adapted to any time period, and I do think my story of Cinders can do that. Maybe that sounds a bit stuffy and egocentric of me…but I also think there are many, many stories out there that are the same story as Cinders, just told differently.Laura: Ahhh, so true. It is often the stories I disliked a lot that I remember…and oftentimes later I realize that there are things I liked about those stories. I just didn't see it at the time. Suzy: Thank you for stopping by! And thank you so much for inviting me to take part in your group. It was an honor and such a great experience. I'm impressed with your group and how much you all differ in your tastes. It makes it a lot of fun for you, I'm sure!

Jessica Nelson

I've never read the original Cinderella (or I've forgotten) so I think a note at the beginning and questions at the end is an excellent idea. Otherwise I'd go in thinking one thing and probably be surprised. LOLCongrats on the successful meeting though! Sounds like you handled yourself great. 🙂

It's like the original Sleeping Beauty story with the cannibalistic mother-in-law — these fairy tales have some very real, dark messages in them — which is why I so enjoyed Cinders. It shouldn't, but it annoys me when people want only sanitized versions of things in their lives!

Michelle Davidson Argyle

Jessica: Thank you! Yeah, I think it has been shocking for a lot of readers. Some in a good way, some in a bad way. 🙂Audra: Yeah, I need to go re-read Snow White! I remember it being very, very dark!