*So before we get started, I feel I would be sadly remiss if I didn’t address the fact that Elizabeth Blackwell recently posted about handling critique. Her post, Author Milestones: The First Bad Review, is eloquent and funny, and I am in no way trying to piggyback on her wise words. I suppose great minds think alike (or something like that), and I had drafted this post before Elizabeth’s went up. If you haven’t read her take on the subject at hand, you’re missing out! Click here to read. Now, on to your regularly scheduled post...*
In our last Walk the Walk installment, I talked about a rookie mistake I made when I struggled to accept praise with confidence and grace. (A little life lesson I’ve learned: always respond to a compliment with a smile and a thank you.) Today let’s turn our attention to the flip side: What should you do when someone criticizes your work?
It’s going to happen, friends. Even if you write a virtually flawless, critically acclaimed and bestselling book, there will be people who hate it. Don’t believe me? Just ask Lemony Snicket of A Series of Unfortunate Events fame: “This book reminds me more of something someone’s dirty-minded old uncle would write while huddled in his basement watching kiddie porn.” Ouch. I mean, seriously. Ouch.
Sadly, I can relate to what is undoubtedly his nasty review pain. My books have been called “plotless,” “boring,” “depressing,” “disappointing,” and “pointless.” My faith has been questioned, my sanity debated, and my prose maligned. People have hated my characters, my plot, and the author photo on the back of my book (for real). And though no one has insulted me quite as eloquently as Lemony Snicket’s cringe-worthy review, “I really hated this book” still hurts.
Although we’d like to pretend that criticism doesn't affect us, it does. Let’s face it, we put our hearts and souls into our books--we allow ourselves to be open and vulnerable and exposed--and instead of treating our offered intimacy with respect, some people abuse it and then spit on us for good measure. If you haven’t already been disparaged for your work, I assure you: it’s coming. Brace yourself.
But is that all we can do? Steel ourselves for the inevitable mudslinging and take it squarely in the chest? I’d like to think our options are more varied than that. We’re made of tough stuff, and when life hands us lemons, we add a shot of vodka and have happy hour. So, a couple of dos and don’ts when faced with certain critique.
- Do not obsess. You’re going to read your Amazon reviews. Don’t pretend that you’re not. Sure, we all strive for professional aloofness when it comes to reader response, but it would be inhuman of us to not be at least a little curious about our 1 and 2 star reviews. Go ahead and read a few. Mourn. Throw some pillows. Have a stiff drink. Then shut down the computer and walk away. Go for a run, play with your kids, watch a movie, or do whatever it is you do to gain some perspective. Remind yourself that not everyone is going to love your book and then let. it. go.
- Do not engage. Some people will misunderstand your work and write uninformed, misguided reviews. I’ve received 1-star ratings from people who admitted to not even reading the book. No matter what a reviewer says, no matter how whacked the critique, do not engage your reviewers. Responding to a review makes you look insecure and fledgling, and throwing your hat into the conversational ring (as the author!) will only draw a mob of people who are eager to see a cat fight. You are above the fray. Let them say what they will, but it is not worth your time or energy to respond.
- Do not let vitriol dictate what you write. One of the biggest critiques that I regularly receive is that my books are too character driven. Well, guess what? That’s what I write. I like a good plot as much as the next person, but what really interests me is people--and I’m told I write them well. For me to try and write a lightning-paced but character-lite book would be a disservice to me and my readers. And the same is true for you. Definitely sift through critique to find the nuggets of truth, but a lot of the negative things that people say about your books will be subjective. Don’t let their words change who you are or what you write.
- Do learn from valid or recurring complaints. Believe it or not, you can learn a lot from a smart, negative review. Once you’ve gotten past the ouch factor, take a minute to ask yourself: Is there anything valid in this review? If a critique resonates with you, chances are the reviewer has hit on a weakness in your writing. Why not learn from your mistakes and write a better book the next time around? Iron sharpens iron, friends.
- Do know your limits. Some people really struggle with negative reviews and spiral into a cynical, self-destructive place when faced with critique. If you’re one of those people, don’t do that to yourself. It’s just not worth it. Practice whatever discipline you need to keep yourself positive and writing--haters gonna hate and you have to find a way to transcend their pessimism about your work. I try to be sensitive to when I’m feeling fragile and insecure, and avoid reading bad reviews during those times. It’s just not healthy.
- Do laugh. Negative reviews are hurtful, true, but there is a certain dark humor that can be incredibly satisfying when you allow yourself to laugh about them. I’ve giggled at word choice and the sometimes shocking negativity of some reviewers, but I’ve also had a chuckle at my own expense when reading bad reviews. There can be a sort of reluctant accord with my reviewer: “You’re right! I do do that. Silly me.” Try to find the humor in bad reviews--they're a good reminder not to take ourselves so seriously. And if you can’t laugh at yourself, take a few minutes to laugh in solidarity with your author friends around the globe as you watch some famous children’s authors read their worst reviews below. If you’re brave enough, feel free to post your best whopper in the comment section. ;-) I’ll post mine, too.
Wishing you all the best, friends. Bad reviews and all.