Writing: Dealing With Criticism


Writing: Dealing With Criticism

I want to be honest up front here: I have never had anyone out and out tell me I was a shitty writer. I’ve never gotten a one star review: or, for that matter, a less than four star review.

This isn’t, much as I want to believe it is, because I’m just that good. It simply hasn’t happened yet. And, judging from the reviews I’ve seen writers just as good as I am get, it WILL happen.

It’s just a matter of time. And, as a self-pubber, I don’t have the advantage of a publishing company between me and the reviewer. It’s just me, five Amazonian stars, and some stranger who’s read my book.

There’s the opportunity here, especially for a delicate multi-feelings’d cupcake such as myself, to get bruised. There’s the opportunity, for a grammargating, mouth-frothing, itinerant fragile flower such as myself, to get pretty butthurt. There’s the opportunity, I might even dare say, for a bright-eyed, artistically souled, chirpy chirpy baby bird such as moi to get downright pissed.

But here’s the thing: I’m not just writing for my grandmother and my cat any more. My book is going places other than my dad’s office or the storage compartment on my boyfriend’s bike. I voluntarily underwent the process of publication: put myself through it, actually. I did this because I deemed my own story fit for public consumption.

And that’s the thing about the public–not everyone likes the same things. Not everyone’s going to like my book as much as I liked it. And of the people who do–well, who’s going to be as enthusiastic about it as I am? Almost nobody.

Lemme tell you, I’m a sensitive, sensitive little shit. I take everything personally. I take the kindest and most well-intentioned criticism deeply personally. I take the way people look at me personally. I probably have self esteem issues, or something boring like that. Luckily, I’m also egotistical, so I mostly ignore them.

But here’s the thing: I signed on that ‘for public consumption’ dotted line. And this means my work–and myself–exist, in these public spaces, as a public entity.

And the folks who’re kind enough to give me reviews–they’re existing in a public space as well. They’re taking the same risks, albeit with a less lengthy piece of writing, that I am. For all a one-star reviewer knows, I’m actually a crazy hacker lady with a butcher knife and access to their private address and family phone numbers. And what you said about my main character being boring and horrible to read about–rawr. It makes me and my forty-seven cat army very angry.

Therefore: I do them the same favor they do me. What they’re offering isn’t criticism, or praise, of me–hell, they don’t even know me.

So I don’t take it personally.

Yes, you might be a shy wounded flower in private. But in public, you’re the guy or girl who wrote that book somebody may or may not have liked. That’s all.

It’s irritating sometimes, sure. Again, you’re an individual snowflake and whatnot. But it’s also freeing.

You are, to repeat, the individual, artistic little snowflake who signed your work off as ready for publication. There are no special allowances for you because you’re indie, because you’re a single dad, because you’re homo/heterosexual, because you’re very young, because you’re very old, etc. To your readers, it’s just a book. It isn’t you.

You can decrease your number of negative reviews by making it a damned good book. But that’s about all you can do, and you’ll still get some.

Whenever something makes the shuddering snowflake side of me rear its ugly multifaceted little head, I just think of this:

One of my favorite writers amongst the bestselling indies is Hugh Howey. He’s a very kind man, very supportive of other startup writers, and his first Wool novella was pure genius, a la classic sci fi. It was a story you might’ve expected to see in Playboy circa 1970, next to Ray Bradbury or Richard Matheson. The twist was perfect, the ending left you gasping. The writing was terse, elegant, emotionally charged. (Are you one of the four people left on earth who hasn’t read it? Here it is, do yourself a favor and read it.)

The first Wool story has, to date, 2,020 reviews. That number’s probably changed since I wrote it down five minutes ago, but there you go. It’s a lovely piece of writing. There’s little to dislike about it, if you’re a sci-fi fan.

And yet. And yet.

Out of those 2,020 reviews, sixty-four of them are one star. Eighty of them are two. Which means that, out of 2,020 people bold enough to leave a review, one hundred and forty-four of them–somewhere around seven percent, I think–found it unacceptable.

One hundred and forty-four. That’s over ten times the number of reviews I have, total.

So logically–even with a great piece of writing–somewhere around five percent of people just won’t like it, and won’t like it enough to tell the world just how much they didn’t like it. Respect these people. Respect their opinions. They cared enough to tell the rest of the world how they felt–care enough about them, and the time they took to read and purchase your book, to let it stand in silence.

As far as I know, Mr. Howey didn’t bitch. He might not have liked it–I don’t know the man, I don’t presume to speak for him–but I’ve never heard anyone complain about the way he treats reviewers. If I were him, I would have looked at that 1,876 figure–the people who DID like it and find it acceptable–and patted myself on the back.

So just know: whatever it is you’ve written, even if it’s the goddamn Mona Lisa of speculative fiction, someone, somewhere, isn’t going to like it.

And that has nothing to do with you.

So button it up.


PS–And, of course, what would this post be without a dangerous and passive-aggressive plug? Give me five stars and make my heart go gummy, or give me one and imagine me silently and respectfully going batshit while I say nothing. Those’re odds everybody feels comfortable with, I know. 😛 Booky booky, looky looky.

3 thoughts on “Writing: Dealing With Criticism

  1. Reblogged this on Dog's Breakfast and commented:
    I read a piece by Emily F. Russell on Writing: Dealing with Criticism, describing the experience of obtaining negative feedback (which she hasn’t yet, but anticipates someone somewhere will eventually give that to her).

    I considered my position on feedback and how it influences my buying decisions. It’s difficult to leave proper feedback for some books. You might be thinking, “I don’t want to chainsaw this guy’s baby, but he stole a part of my life and I can’t get it back.” Retaliation! So you get out the trusty Stihl and fire that sucker up.  [Reminds me of that joke where an old Swede finally decides to get a chainsaw. He makes terrible progress with it, and returns it to the store, where the store worker says “Let’s fire it up and see what the problem is,” and upon starting the chainsaw, the old Swede says “What’s that noise?!”]

    But good reviewers, some of ’em are honest and may speak wisdom about the book and maybe it gets a 2 star. OTOH, I tend to look at the one and two stars to see what crits they have; and if they seem reasonable, I may give it a pass. I also look at the body of the high reviews. Did they just drive by and give it 5, or do they explain why they think it’s the best thing evar? I recall one book where the reviewers were all people with the same last name as the author.  “It’s the best book I’ve ever read,” said one lady, truthfully, about this war book. 

    In that way, I’m kind of like an American jury. Is the witness lying? What’s his character? Does he just travel around with a large chainsaw and hate on everything? Are there a lot of bad reviews?

    I remember one book I looked at was a sci-fi deal that had some ex-military guy discover a starship hidden in the earth. It was one of those deals where the starship has god-powers, if you’re in control. The critics tore it apart- the writer didn’t know about military ranks, or the military in general (it was presented as present day U.S. sci fi), and then there was the issue of the godship and this caused the wondering reviewers to say, “we didn’t see any conflict there. The ship was all powerful. What was the point of this book?”

    Because Self-published. And I’m willing to bet every last shekel I own that there was no developmental or other editor on the work.  Not that I’m ever going to read it. The savage pack of reviewers caused me to steer clear.

    The fewer the number of reviews, the more apt I am to pay attention to them. A book with 2000 reviews, okay, that’s a big wide audience and maybe some of them like what I like. A book with 6 reviews, I tread cautiously.

    I ask: 1) Why so few reviews?
    2) Is it undiscovered?
    3) When was it published?
    4) What did the people reading it have to say about it?
    5) Are the reviews complete or are they two lines? (May be a shill.)
    6) Does the book blurb appeal to me?

    I’ve managed to get a lot of decent books that way. Only one or two were terrible. If I liked the book, I’ll try to give it a fair review, saying what I liked, what I didn’t like, and so on. It’s the trail of breadcrumbs I’d want from other people.

  2. I LOVED Wool. The facts about Howey’s reviews are encouraging. You’re absolutely right – if that awesome book can get crummy reviews, so can ours. Mine has, in fact. When it got 2 stars I decided to go read a bunch of 2-star reviews for The Hunger Games. It might not have been healthy, but it made me feel better.

    1. Y’know, that first story was amazing. The rest of the series was good, but that first one, MAN. I’m gonna go read it AGAIN now, just because now I’m thinking about how good it was.

      And I think it’s perfectly healthy to look at other people’s two star reviews. I would’ve gone for Twilight, probably. I bet that’s a fun one.

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