How I Cope With Negative Reviews
I thought I’d share a little bit about this topic, since it seems to be in the genre news these days. Not passing this down as gospel truth for anyone else. Just sharing what works for me (in case anyone else is interested). So, without further ado, here goes…
Step 1. I read it again and ask myself: “Is it really that negative?”
As human beings (and writers) we tend to pay more attention to negative criticism than to praise. (At least I do. I suspect I’m not alone). There have been times when I’ve gotten reviews that were 2/3 positive and only 1/3 negative. And yet where does my attention usually focus? The 1/3 negative. It’s human nature.
But just because it’s human nature doesn’t mean I have to yield to the impulse. I can fight it. Sometimes, I’m able to talk with my hubbie and (especially since he’s not in the publishing biz) he’s able to offer a more balanced perspective. Sometimes I take a day or two away from Goodreads or Amazon or Facebook or blogs or wherever else the review occurred. The best medicine, of all, for a negative review is to simply get back to work on the next project.
Anyway, the overall theme for step one? I put the negative review in perspective and remember that — no matter how well I think I’ve written something — I’m not entitled to a chorus of unanimous praise.
Step 2. I read it again and ask myself: “Is there anything this review can teach me about how to improve my game?
Don’t get me wrong, I take plenty of reviews with a grain of salt. But I read them all and I think I can learn something from each and every one. (Sometimes what I learn is that my fiction just isn’t likely to appeal to certain kinds of readers. If your favorite author is Dean Koontz or Brandon Sanderson, for example, you’re unlikely to dig my stuff. Fair enough.)
But sometimes reviewers offer more substantial criticisms. Sometimes these criticisms have led me to change my approach. Not often. Rarely, in fact. But it happens.
Sometimes, it’s okay to admit to yourself (and maybe only yourself) that the reviewer’s right. Maybe not even right about everything. Maybe just right about something.
Step 3. I congratulate myself. Getting a negative review means my work is being read outside my immediate circle of well-wishers. It’s a sign of a growing readership.
I first heard this idea from urban fantasy author Mur Lafferty on her podcast I Should Be Writing. (Recommended listening, by the way. You don’t have to be an urban fantasy writer to get something out of her show). It’s an idea I’ve come, over time, to embrace.
The greater the number of readers, the more varied the responses will be. Compare and contrast two different scenarios.
Scenario #1: If I read a story to a group of twenty friends, most of them are going to say they like it. They’re my friends. We share a common frame of reference. We think alike. They might be writers, too. Supporting each other might be part of an essential esprit de corps that keeps us all going in the midst of an extremely difficult career path. Negative criticism may be seen as a betrayal of that espirt de corps.
There may be a temptation to buy into a notion that all of us are magnificent writers. (You can see this in a lot of small, face-to-face critique groups.) One of us is the next Hemingway, another the next Fitzgerald. Why, our social circle is just like the expats in Paris!
It’s a phenomenon that can be particularly seductive in small press communities devoted to niche genres and subgenres. There’s a temptation to let out a chant of: “I’m great, / you’re great. / Isn’t it great / we’re all great!” The good thing about chants is that they can bring a group together like perhaps nothing else can (as any NFL stadium can show you, in the fourth quarter). The bad thing about chants is that they don’t leave a whole lot of room for nuance.
Scenario #2: If, on the other hand, I read a story to an auditorium of 1,000 people, then maybe only seven hundred are going to really love it (if I’m lucky). Two hundred may feel “meh” about it. One hundred may absolutely loathe it.
They’re not my friends. They may not share the same frame of reference at all. They may not get that what I was doing in chapter one was a reference to Bruno Schulz (they’ve never heard of him, perhaps). They wonder why my book isn’t more like The Hunger Games. Or they wonder why my book isn’t more like Henry James. The critiques may be coming from various different directions, but the common thread is: they don’t like it. Some may even be crass in their statements of why they don’t like it. Because they don’t know me, they treat me in the same way they would treat a public figure. (Because — surprise! — all of a sudden I am one). I’m fair game. They may say things that are hurtful. Sarcastic.
Now, which scenario do I want? If I’m in this only for ego-stroking, I’ll choose scenario #1 every time. (And, with the emergence of fan fiction, hobbyist presses, micro presses and the like, there are more and more opportunities for writers to encounter scenario #1 — and only scenario #1. )
And, if that’s honestly all I want, then I’m going to focus my efforts in the direction of ensuring outcomes like scenario #1.
But if I’m in this to grow my readership and/or make a dent on my field, then that’s going to mean at least occasionally facing scenario #2. That means I’m going to have to grow thick skin (if I don’t already have it). Everyone’s heard this before, but it bears repeating: bad reviews are part of the business. If I tend to become extremely frustrated or sad each time I see a negative review, then I may want to focus my energy on toughening up. If I find, over time, that I can’t toughen up then I may want to choose another business.
Step 4. I never, ever publicly lash out against the reviewer. *
*Okay, there was the one time I kinda/sorta made fun of an Amazon reviewer who seemed to say she felt Children of No One was based on real-life events (she said she knew it but “didn’t have proof”). But even that wasn’t so much of a lashing out as a bewildered “WTF?” And at least it was a three-star review, and not a one or two-star one. 🙂
But, that incident aside, I don’t criticize critics.
Because if I do, there’s a chance that someone is going to see it as a simple case of sour grapes. Maybe 99% of people are going to see it as justified. But I suspect 1% won’t. And I never know who that 1% might be. It could be an editor. It could be an agent. It could be a reader. It could be a colleague. If I lash out, I have to accept that someone out there will lose at least a smidgen of respect for me. If I was well-established in the field, I might be willing to take that risk. But I’m pretty new. So I’ll pass on the revenge, thanks.
Step 5. I don’t talk about / link to / the negative review.
My work has mostly been well-reviewed, but I’ve gotten my share of negative reviews as well. But I’ll never talk about them. If people want to find them, they can. Why should I put a spotlight on them? When I ignore them, they lose their power over me.
So, to sum it up…
For me, negative reviews are like bee stings. Sure, they hurt like a motherfucker for a few minutes. But then the pain fades and I move on. And, damn, there’s a lot of freedom in that.
Just my two cents. Your mileage may vary.