I’ve been thinking about this post for awhile and have hesitated to write it. The thing is, this is a sensitive topic. It’s sensitive because there’s a line that should exist between authors and reviewers. Reviewers should never feel intimidated or bullied or pressured into giving anything except their honest opinion of a book. As an author, when you ask for an honest review, you should understand that’s what you’re going to get. And it’s not always sunshine and rainbows. Some people aren’t going to like your book. It’s simply the way of things. Welcome to authorhood, you’ve arrived.
That said, I strive to speak openly here about the emotional experience of this whole writing journey, and I feel I would be remiss if I didn’t speak on the extremely emotional experience of receiving a bad review. Before we begin, however, I want to emphasize this isn’t a “sub-blog post” or something of the sort. This isn’t a direct response to any particular bad review I’ve received and “bad” is pretty subjective anyway. I think we can universally acknowledge that a one-star review is bad, but I’ve seen authors who also struggle with four-star reviews. Authors, as a breed, tend to be perfectionists, and anything less than perfect can sting.
Your Book Isn’t Going to be for Everyone
The best thing about art is that it’s completely subjective. The worst thing about art is that it’s completely subjective. Some people are going to be on the same wave length as you. They’re going to “get” your work and love it. Others aren’t. That’s okay. It just means humanity is diverse and beautiful and lovely and we all have different likes and dislikes. It’s what makes us interesting. And messy. And glorious. It’s important to try and keep that in mind when the inevitable bad review comes knocking.
It’s really interesting to me to see the responses I’ve received on The Wheel Mages. Some people think my world building is great, the best part about my writing. Others think it’s confusing. Some people think my style is unique and refreshing. Others think it’s stilted. Some think my characters are well-developed and believable. Some people think they’re one-dimensional and unnatural feeling. Some people think I defy conventions. Others think I play into tropes. If I take a step back and look at it all laid out before me, the differences can be a beautiful thing. They prove what I already knew: that humans are marvelously complex beings with diverse interests and tastes.
Developing a Thick Skin is a Real Thing
So if you’re involved in the writing community at all you’re going to hear that you need a thick skin. I’m sure I’ve said it about a billion times. It’s true. Very, very, very true. This industry is not necessarily the kindest one that ever was. But then again, life doesn’t happen to be particularly kind, at least not 100% of the time. Developing a thick skin is important, but so is simply being able to build yourself boundaries.
For example, some authors don’t read reviews at all. I don’t have enough self control for this, but I’m a new author. Maybe after I’ve been through this half a dozen times I’ll be able to ignore reviews too. For now, I can’t. If you can, awesome. If you can’t (like me), be prepared. Remember to build yourself boundaries. It’s okay to not check every day for new reviews. It’s okay to know you’re in a bad place and couldn’t handle it if you got a bad one. Heck, it’s okay to have someone pre-screen them for you (if you have someone that generous). Taking care of yourself is important. You’re important, and you are more than your words. Just because someone didn’t like your book doesn’t mean they don’t like you (they don’t know you, likely). Even if your main character is a self-insert character and people say they hate her, it’s still not personal. <– This may have been for myself. Regardless, you are more than your words.
Let it Sting
This is the hardest part for me, and it’s the hardest advice to give. Because it does hurt. The first time I received a bad review of my published work (which is infinitely worse than receiving criticism of something you can fix, so unpublished writers, sorry to tell you, it doesn’t get better), I crawled into bed and didn’t emerge for 29 hours. I didn’t cry because that’s not a thing I do much, but I did run my failings as an author over and over in my mind. I felt terrible about so many things: about inflicting this scourge of a book on the rest of humanity; about being insulted on the internet; about potentially hurting someone’s feelings or at the very least wasting their time; about how angry I was and how ungrateful and selfish and stupid and unworthy. I felt like I should never write again. I felt like my voice didn’t matter and then felt selfish and vain for ever thinking it should matter in the first place. What a narcissist I am, thinking someone should care what I have to say. What an arrogant, egocentric asshole I was for then being angry when someone didn’t “get me.” Every nasty thing I could say to myself was said. I didn’t eat, I didn’t sleep, I didn’t move, I just played this grotesque game with myself. It. was. awful. So telling you to accept that is hard, because I know what it feels like and it’s not pleasant.
What I really wish I could say is for you to just brush it off, mutter to yourself that person doesn’t know what the hell he/she/they is talking about and move on with your life. But I can’t tell you that for several reasons.
First, the reviewer probably does know what he/she/they is talking about. They are reading tons and tons of books, and they know what they like and don’t like. They also probably know a little bit about what a book should have. They know what world building is and pacing and plot and such. A lot of reviewers are writers themselves. That’s part of the reason it hurts so much to receive a bad review. I think for me, most of the sting of a bad review comes from being able to recognize that something in that review was true, at least for that individual, and that hurts because I feel like I’ve failed as a writer. Failure sucks.
Second, reviews can actually help your writing if you’re open to them. Don’t get me wrong, you’re probably not going to be open to them right away. But after the initial sting has worn off, a bad review can help you improve future books, so simply brushing it off isn’t always the wisest approach. This is especially true if the reviewer is in your target audience.
Third, if you’ve been hurt by a review, you’re probably not going to be able to simply move on. Period. You might be able to mask some of the pain (guilty), and if you have to do that for a little, do that. But eventually, you should confront it. Storing pain isn’t a great decision (trust me, I’ve got years of it I’m dealing with).
It’s okay to let it sting, to take a few days off, to recenter yourself. But get back up. It’s like falling off a bicycle (or horse, in my case). Confront the pain, but don’t let fear of falling stop you from doing something you love. You’re going to fall. Again and again and again. Learn to tuck and roll and protect yourself as best you can. When you fall hard, heal, then go right back out. Life is too short to let the voices in your head control you. And at the end of the day, those voices are yours. The review or the reviewer didn’t put them there. You did. Your experience, your self-doubt, your insecurities, those are what did that. Battle them. Valiantly. You deserve no less.
Do Not Engage the Reviewer
Seriously. Don’t do this. It’s an extremely bad look. Especially if you asked for the review. In my view, there is little more distasteful than an author coming for a reviewer. And if your reviewer is a teenager because you write YA or MG or what have you, please remember you are the adult in this situation and act accordingly. You’re a professional. Be professional. No matter how hurt you are.
I know it’s hard. Trust me, there have been reviews I’ve received where I’ve wanted to ask questions. To try and explain myself. To tell the reviewer if they’d just read a little bit more they’d see I was about to twist that trope or that wasn’t quite the way they thought it was or or or… Don’t do it. You had the words to make your point and for that person, you didn’t. There is nothing to discuss and it’s only going to turn out badly for you. There will be other reviewers and other reviews. Some of them will likely laud the very things that particular reviewer didn’t like. It will be confusing and annoying and frustrating. But it’s not your place to make a case or state a claim. And it’s not the place of your friends or fans, either. Of course you can’t control the actions of others, but if someone approaches you asking if they should/could come to your defense, the most professional response is to tell them you’re okay, thank them for their support, but explain it’s unnecessary. It’s part of being an author. This isn’t a courtroom. This is Goodreads.
Build Your Community
This is another biggie you’ll see on refrain in the writing community, and it’s also extremely true. Having a community of other writers to vent to is crucial in this business. Because it’s a hard business and when you do receive the dreaded bad review, you’re going to want to have someone (or several someones) to talk/scream/weep to. Fellow writers are great for this because they understand the sting in the way perhaps even your friends and family don’t. They understand it on a visceral, personal level, and good writing friends will be able to act as a crutch or talk you off the ledge or commiserate with you on the level you need. Having these people around will help you get what you need off your chest without doing anything rash (like… uh… coming at the reviewer). Writing pals are a Godsend. Make lots of them.
You’re not a Failure
You might feel like one. But you’re not. If you need it, take a few days off from whatever you’re working on to absorb the hurt, and then expel it however you do. I know that when I receive a bad review, then try to work on something immediately thereafter, it affects everything. I received, for example (again, not calling anyone out, just an observation), a review about my style once. Specifically, that it was stilted and this reviewer didn’t like that. I went to edit the same day, thinking my armor was well enough intact to get what I needed to get done, done. But nope. Everything I read that day felt fake and awkward and didn’t flow and was terrible and gross. My brain was doing a weird brain thing where it was absorbing my insecurities and bringing them to life.
Good news is I was able to recognize what was happening and put the pen down before I destroyed everything I’d written by trying to be a writer I wasn’t. It’s true that certain aspects of my style are stilted. I was trained to write postmodern literary fiction. It’s not necessarily a flowing style (as much as postmodernism can be defined as anything), and it does sometimes find itself out of place in the YA/NA fantasy world. Some people find this refreshing, some people find it off-putting. But it’s how I write. It’s what makes me unique. Was the reviewer who critiqued my style correct? Yep, absolutely. Does that mean I should change? Not today, it doesn’t.
Who knows, though, what tomorrow will bring. The only thing to do is to make sure there is tomorrow.
Next week on the blog: I’m going to the RWA Day of YA in Orlando! And I’ll hopefully talk about it! The Wheel Mages is up for an award, too, so I’ll be revealing the results of that 😛 Don’t want to miss it? Don’t forget to follow!