Sunday, April 21, 2013

The First Bad Review (gulp)

Yeah, so I knew it was bound to happen. A bad review. As far as bad reviews go, it wasn't even that bad. More meh-ish, really. I only read the first paragraph, took in the two star out of five star rating, and then handed it to my husband to read the rest.

He was adorably defensive on my behalf, pointing out how ridiculous it was and wrong, etc. I nodded along, and weirdly, defended the reviewer. Oh well, I said. She read the whole thing, right? And she took the time to think and process her reaction. Her review--um, the paragraph I read of it--was thoughtful.

The rest of the day, I'd click on my Goodreads account (this is where the review went up) and, yup, it was still there, the two star review. I kept waiting to feel something. Anger. Depression. Annoyance. But nope. What I actually felt was more like relief. I got my first bad review, and apparently, I'm going to be okay.

Not all writers have the same reaction. I've heard that some argue back to the reviewer, a faux pas in my opinion, but then I've had good training taking criticism.

This goes back to college when I was a creative writing major and we had these marathon workshop sessions where we tore each other's work apart. Our professor jumped in here and there when things got a little too personal, but for the most part he let us go. The poem, the story--the writing--speaks for itself, he told us. What you meant to imply was either there on the page or it wasn't, and hearing readers articulate their responses was something a writer was just going to have to deal with.

Use it as fuel to work harder, ignore the critic, or call him a dingbat in your head, but never EVER argue back.

I grew an even thicker skin when I began submitting my work. Here's a cool perk of being a publishing late bloomer: you get LOTS of practice absorbing criticism. I have a wonderfully bulging file of rejection letters from agents and editors that spans over 20 years. They range from bland form letters to very personal and specific signed handwritten notes. Some of the phrasing sticks in my head even now.

Fun sampling:
"full of authorial mistakes"
"unbelievable characters"
"no teen appeal"

The nice thing about rejections is that once you absorb the blow, you really can use them to make your writing better.

Negative reviews, unfortunately, can't be used that way. The book is as finished as a book can be.

Even when a book is in ARC form, there's not much that can be fixed, aside from formatting issues or typos. True story: when I did my final pass through Thin Space, my editor pointed out that I'd used the word "clench" 33 times. So, yeah. Gotta nice clench in my stomach upon hearing that. And then, clenching a thesaurus in my clenched hand, I opened the manuscript back up and got rid of 30 of those clenches.

Reviews aren't for authors. Reviews are for readers.

As a reader, I read reviews to help in my decision-making process. A million+ potential books to read-- which one should I pick up next? Or maybe I've just finished reading a book and am grappling with what I thought about it--something didn't quite work for me or I wasn't connecting with the story. I read a few reviews and find that other readers felt the same way. Or not.

There's a whole community of readers out there weighing in and digesting and mocking and passionately loving books, and they're talking and sharing and complaining and defending.

The writer truly plays no role in this equation except possibly to lean in now and then and marvel that a book she wrote is now being passed around in the world. Hated. Loved. Thrown across the room in disgust.

Or cherished so much it is read, again. And again.


  1. Ugh. So sorry, Jody. If it's any consolation--you develop a thick skin about these too.

  2. I find that my reaction to a review has less to do with the review itself than with where I am emotionally at the moment. Some days, no amount of criticism can dent me. Other days, even a "meh" can feel like a sledgehammer.

    I got through my first bad review no problem, but was surprised to find that some later negative reviews had a worse effect on me (even when they were milder in tone than that first one). And I realized that my reactions were variable (like everything else about writing, at least in my world).

    But I don't read many reviews nowadays. I read more of them in the beginning because my curiosity was overwhelming, but after a while, that curiosity got satisfied!

    1. Jenn, I suspect you may be right and I'm betting my reaction will be tied to the weather. As in, on sunny days, reviews won't touch me, but on those blechy gray days, I'll have to watch out! It's silly ultimately to let an outside force dictate your mood. And that may go for good reviews too. Sara Zarr said something about this--that she doesn't read good reviews because they mess with her mind just as much as the bad ones. I'm still a newby at all this, but hoping to get to that place.