Monday, June 16, 2014

Please Don't Cry: How to Deal With Negative Reviews

"I'll wheel you outside where you can sit and crrrrrriticize everyone who passes by."
"Criticize? Now Miss Shirley, that's not Christian!"
-Anne of Avonlea

The release of a new book is such a mixed feed-bag of delight and terror. For the first few weeks, you don't worry so much and then the reviews start pouring in. Every review is different: some rave that your book is the best thing they've ever read, while others say it wasn't up to their standard, or they didn't enjoy it very much at all, or they've read better books. Of course they've read better books -- even I know that, and I'm partial to my stories.

I got my first two-star review of Fly Away Home the other day. 

Much as I'd like to say I didn't care, I really did. It's a terrible feeling as an author to see that someone who bought your book rather wishes they hadn't. You know in your head that not everyone will find your book to their taste but there is something in every writer's heart that wants to be loved by everyone in the whole wide world. This particular reader's review went something along the lines of, "I didn't know what to expect (not a romance), the plot didn't seem very original and I guess I was expecting a murder mystery, but don't let my prejudices turn you away if you like a good (mostly) clean romance." I could begin to counter these points (why, exactly, did she expect a murder mystery? Did I ever mention murder on the back-cover blurb? How could she not have known it was a romance?) but that isn't my prerogative. You know why? Because everyone is entitled to think what they think about my book just as I am entitled to the same.

Not everyone is going to like your book. 

I want you to know that because it's something I didn't really expect to encounter. But it's there and I have. There are people who will like other peoples' stories better (heads up, I'm sure it's happening even in the very recent release of Five Glass Slippers) and that's okay. Not to say it isn't disappointing. Gosh, it's terribly disappointing, especially for an indie author because you feel that you can't afford to disappoint a single reader. You don't have that many! How can you let one go? But it is going to happen. My grandmother told my mother, growing up:

"You're not going to like everyone, and everyone else isn't always going to like you."

As much as I wish it wasn't true, it is. There are people who didn't "get" Callie Harper and there are people who will, I'm sure, resent the fact that I took the hallowed story of Cinderella and irreverently turned it upside on its head to give a snarky miss the lead role. To the criticism issue first,  I would say this: be gracious and admit that you will not always be the preferred flavor of some people's palate and try not to beat yourself over the head because you failed to please one of your readers. If you take it upon yourself to write so that everyone and their blessed brother will adore you, you'll lose sight of who you are. I have readers who remark on the fact that all of my heroines have a bit more ... chutzpah than is realistic. To them, I would reply kindly that I based those aspects of both Callie Harper and Alisandra Carlisle on real-life friends and family members. In that case, their criticism is untrue because I can present real evidence that there are people with Callie's changeable moods and Alis' political brain.

But the real killer, the real thing that stings, is that sometimes your readers are just plain right.

This is the thing I sometimes like to ignore. This criticism stings not because it is unjust but because yeah, you actually botched up that aspect of a character, situation, plot, or whatever else the reader is mewling about. Maybe you really don't have enough suspects in your mystery, virtues in your villain, or your dialog really stinks. Here, you have two choices: give them a martyrous "God loves you and so I must, though your opinion is wrong," (which is gratifying to the feelings, somehow) or you can get your big-girl panties on and say, "You know what, you're correct. Next book I write, I'll keep an eye out for this sort of thing and try to do better." The former is, of course, my favorite choice because it feels so good to think you're right and to justify your rightness in the eyes of God and man and it feels so worm-ridden to let that arrow hit home and make you work. Odd thing is, I don't know of any person who has become a better whatever-they-are by staying at the same skill-level their whole lives.

Reader-reviews are the equivalent of a teacher's red pen: they mark the places that seem wrong and give you a place to begin thinking.

I want to thank my readers who have taken or will take the time to review Fly Away Home, The Windy Side of Care, and all my future work. I actually do read those reviews and I take them quite seriously. You can make me feel crummy or elated and in either case, I go back and read your review a second, third, even fourth time to weigh it in the balance and sort out the things I'll choose to take home. All of you are, in some way, helping to build my career as a writer. If you kept mum and never said a thing, I'd go along complacently at rest in the current puddle of my skill-set, never growing, never branching out. You keep me sharp, you keep me cross and inspired by turns, and you're an integral part of what it means to have my books in the public's view. So thanks to everyone, even to Miss Two-Star & Co.

Perhaps next time I'll keep some of that chutzpah to myself.


Carmel Elizabeth said...

I've not gotten a negative review on my personal writing, as I haven't published anything yet, but I have definitely received less-than-admirable academic critique. And like you said, I never learned anything when I shoved the paper in my desk and thought it was "her fault for misunderstanding me." When you start applying that critique to how you work, you avoid a second review (on a second work) of the same nature, and that's improvement.
(But darn it, it hurts. )

And I'll refer to this quote, since it's one of my favorites: "You could be the ripest, juiciest peach and there will still always be someone who hates peaches." There you have it. XP Excellent post, Rachel. I'll keep it nearby for when I'm in your place and need a little bolstering.

Candice said...

Good post! Criticism hard to take - especially when it's about your writing - but as you pointed out we always have the choice of learning from it, or just being hurt and ignoring it. Thanks for the reminder!

Candice said...

Criticism is hard to take, I meant. Sheesh!

Kendra E. Ardnek said...

I remember well my first negative review. I was a bubbly new author of sixteen, and everyone who had read my book up to that point had loved it, and then I checked Goodreads one day, and there it was. A three-star review. Now, the stars, I didn't mind, but the words cut. The gist of it was "This book was basically paper mache and I couldn't find any Christian references despite it being in the Christian section." Having scanned down through her other books, I recognized that it wasn't her sort, but the mention that there were no Christian references cut. I had published the book during a spiritually low point (not the best time to have made such a decision), and it showed. It made me evaluate my writing goals, and the book itself. I've gotten more negative reviews since then, and I've even come to appreciate them even from a marketing standpoint. Yes, good reviews sell a book, but a book without negative reviews can look like it was all paid reviews or something like that. You need a few negative reviews that make you seem real. And often, they're far more honest about what the book was about.

But as for that particular review (and I know which one you're talking about since I'm friends with her on Goodreads) her own book is a murder mystery, so that may have have something to do with it.