I’ve received reviews with everything from five stars to one. Nine-paragraph reviews and one-word reviews. I’ve had people write to me in the middle of the night saying they just finished it and simply had to tell me how much they liked it. I’ve had people who praised all the “fascinating historical details” and those who said there was “just too much” about railways and stock markets. I’ve had people tell me the romance was “sweet, sweet,” “passionate,” and “tepid.” I’ve had people tell me that they went online because they didn’t believe there were such a thing as railway surgeons, and then they were pleased that I’d taken the time to get my facts wonderfully right. I’ve also been corrected by someone who told me that in fact, the Italians do not call laudanum “bella donna” (although a railway surgeon might be excused for thinking they did).
If responses are cards, this was what, in sales, we called “a full deck.”
When I was in my twenties, I did door-to-door sales. It was the hardest thing I’d ever done. (This was before childbirth or writing a book.) One of our sales exercises involved a deck of cards. Each person in the room would receive a card. Anything with a picture was a sale (“yes”). A 2-8 was a “no.” A 9 or 10 was a mean, nasty rejection. The trainee would go around the room to each person, the cards in random order. As soon as the trainee’s attitude started to slump, the person holding the card could choose to say “no.” You get the idea. The whole idea was that the salesperson had to present the same positive, friendly approach to EVERY single one. On the one hand, I found it a bummer to discover that I often had very little control over the outcome of a sales call. But it was also oddly reassuring to discover that the response often had NOTHING to do with me. My job was to show up, keep my side of the street clean, be consistent, and keep going. Other people’s response really wasn’t my responsibility.
Neverthless, it is easier to do in a training room than in real life.
One day I walked into an office and had the owner snarl at me, “Get out of here! I don’t want any of your crap, you stupid … ”
I don’t even remember what else she said. Crestfallen, bruised, with a twisted, horrible feeling in my gut, I went to the next door. This woman was very polite, listened to what I had to say, and even expressed some interest. I was just about to walk out the door when she said, “Oh—by the way, don’t go next door. Her husband divorced her a few weeks ago, and she’s about to lose her lease. She’s just not in a good place.”
It was a life-changer for me.
And I realize, as a writer, I cannot ask myself, “What will people think of this?” Down that path looms the darkness of writer’s block, at least for me. The proper questions are, “Have I wholly immersed myself in this city, these crimes? Have I done my research? Am I letting myself muck around in the rag-and-bone shop of the hearts of these characters?”
If the answers are yes, I keep on.