We are told that reviews are important. Other people see reviews and decide whether or not to invest the dollar or two and take a chance on your unknown work. It has been said that Amazon doesn’t care whether the reviews are good or bad, more is better, and the more reviews your book has, the more it gets seen. Whether any of this is true, I’m not going to say. This is not meant to be an essay on the merits of reviews – any person is entitled to their opinion about anything, and the expression thereof. This is only a comment about what it’s like to be a writer on the receiving end of reviews. This is not to say I think someone should lie, and say they liked a book when they didn’t, or a book was great when it wasn’t, or that it was well-edited when there were typos on every second or third page, but there is such a thing as the golden rule and “Would I like to have someone say this about something I wrote?”. There is such a thing as recognition that the person didn’t intend to write the worst possible book they could, in fact, they intended to write the best book they knew how and if they knew of a better way to do it, they would have done so. There is such a thing as encouraging a person to improve and do better, and not killing any tendency to put anything out into the world ever again. There is such a thing as compassion and humanity, the taking into consideration that you are talking about a real, live person with feelings.
I can say from personal experience that having someone dislike your book sucks. Having someone dislike your book enough that they go and tell other people how much they dislike it is even worse. I don’t know if there are words to accurately convey what it’s like to get a really bad review on something you’ve created. Unfortunately, you’ll just have to experience that for yourself. And I hope you do. That may sound cold and cruel, but it’s not. There are a lot of people in the world, and you’re going to have to get your book out in front of all of them. Not all of them will read it, but some of them will. And some of those will not like it. And some of those will write you negative, bad, horrible, or downright shitty reviews.
If you’re looking for the one true answer to how to deal with such reviews (if you’re a writer), this may or may not be what you’re looking for. This is just one writer’s thoughts when she got her first one-star, this-is-the-single-worst-book-I-have-ever-read review, and because I felt it might be of benefit to others, I took the time to write this little post. It was not the easiest thing in the world to do, and frankly, I’d rather just forget about the whole thing, shove it under the carpet and pretend it never happened. Maybe a better way to handle it is to do just that, quietly go on my way, and say nothing of it, and hope no one notices. But I think this is important enough to say something about, so here goes.
Not all people (and hence, not all writers) are the same. Like the song says, some people sail through their troubles and some have to live with the scars. If you’re not one of those super-confident inside and out, breeze through the world and brush aside any negative comments like the glitter to your sparkle that they are, a bad review will probably hit you in that incredibly sensitive part of you that is composed of self-doubt and uncertainty, that part that is not quite sure you’re good enough and makes sure to put in its two cents to that effect, especially when the world is offering you convincing reasons why you’re not as hot as you thought you were.
I found this review – the first negative review – for my book First Magyc very demoralizing:
Pretty bad, right? And the thought that anyone else could read it was even worse. It was rather surprising to discover how much it hurt – I never for a moment thought that everybody would love my book – but on second thought, why shouldn’t it hurt? You’ve put your time, effort, heart and soul into creating this beautiful thing that wasn’t there before, something magical, and someone has just trounced carelessly over it as though it were nothing at all. Hell, worse than nothing. I have yet to see a negative review of a book that hasn’t been written yet. It’s one thing to say “Be confident. Be thick-skinned. Don’t give a damn what anyone says or thinks.” but that can be a lot easier said than done. Even when you know that is true, and believe it with all your heart, when push comes to shove, it doesn’t matter, it still hurts, and all you want to do is lock yourself away, have a mental breakdown and never show your face again because now the whole internet knows – and worse agrees – that your book is not good enough and should not exist. It’s a really horrible feeling, and difficult to describe. After a moment of stunned shock, in which you try to figure out if this is just a bad dream, and if not, where it all went wrong, you get around to thinking, “What do I do now?”
The list of “what do I do now?” that would be composed in the early stages of shock might look something like this:
1. Chocolate (or ice cream).
2. Cry (or rage).
3. Give up on all your hope and dreams of ever writing anything decent.
4. Call your friends and cry.
5. Have your friends bring chocolate.
6. Go into self-imposed exile, excommunicate yourself from anyone who might know you, especially anyone who knows you write.
7. More chocolate (and maybe pizza).
While that all sounded appealing, it didn’t sound particularly useful. After the initial shock and despair wore off, I did what any (more or less sensible) person would do and Googled “How to deal with a bad review for writers” (I had to add that last clause in there because Google gave me articles only regarding businesses, which I don’t see as particularly relevant or useful to my situation). I read many of the articles, but I felt something was missing, something proactive, because none of them really make me feel any better.
So, I thought it over carefully, and I came up with my own plan, and it is as follows:
Step 0 – Recognize that one of the things this world lacks more than anything else is care and compassion. This person may have made you feel about as attractive, creative, valuable and important as a smear of canine feces on the bottom of a Prada shoe with their review, but instead of getting angry or upset at them or feeling sorry for yourself, think about what Martin Luther King Jr. said: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” You don’t know what this person is going through. Maybe they’ve just been diagnosed with a terminal illness and the whole world is pretty bleak to them right now, or maybe their boss fired them and ran off with both their wife and the beautiful antique car that they painstakingly restored, and the only thing they would give a good review to is a newspaper article about said car going off a cliff. I don’t know. Maybe they’re truly just an unhappy person who can only tear people down instead of building them up. The point is, you don’t have to change just because someone doesn’t like something you’ve done, and you don’t have to feel bad just because someone else does. Two seconds before you read the review, you probably thought you had a good story, than you were writing it to the best of your ability, and you were more or less happy with the idea of having written the book. The best thing you can do for you is remain dedicated and optimistic despite the invitation to feel otherwise (and fake it ’til you make it if you have to).
Step 1 – Take a deep breath, and tell yourself that everything is going to be just fine. Look around and see the world hasn’t ended. In fact, it hasn’t even changed. No matter how much you want, at this moment, to crawl into a small dark corner and hide for the rest of eternity, that’s not going to help anything. This is your first practical experience about why people tell writers to develop thick skins – they need it. So if you’re going to be a real writer, you might as well start now. This is a good thing – and not in the reverse-psychological babble meaning of “you’re not a real artist until someone hates your work”. The world is full of people, and some of these people will like your book, some will not like it, and some won’t care one way or the other. You will have to deal with all of these people when you put your book out there. Protesting this is not going to change anything. This diagram sums it up nicely:
So your book has moved outside your comfort zone. It might be floating somewhere in the black space between your comfort zone and where the magic happens, but it’s moving in the right direction. And this is a good thing.
Step 2 – This video is the single most relevant thing you can watch as a writer (or artist) in my opinion. Watch it now, all 19 minutes and 54 seconds of it – do it, you won’t regret it.
If you find you no longer need the rest of this article, congratulations! If you’re curious about the final thing I did, please, read on.
Step 3 – One thing the articles I read suggested what you should do is go and read all the negative reviews of books that you love, or the negative reviews of best-selling books by best-selling authors. Now, I did this, but I don’t recommend that you do. Why? Because while misery loves company, and it is comforting to know that even successful writers and books get horrible reviews, it’s pointless and unproductive. Also, do you really think J. K. Rowling or Stephen King go scrolling through others authors’ bad reviews if someone gives them a this-is-the-single-worst-book-I-have-ever-read review?
Instead, I suggest the following:
- Do one thing that is productive and that relates directly to your writing. Outline the next chapter or write the next scene. Make a beautiful and inspiriting aesthetic and set it as your desktop background. Do the character sketch for your Main Character or Antagonist, or that really cool Supporting Character than you’re already planning a novel for. Plug your book on Twitter, Facebook, or other social media you have.
- Do one thing that you have been meaning to do for a while and that you haven’t gotten around to (again, that relates to your writing – I’m not talking about laundry). That podcast episode on how to be a best-selling indie author? Go listen to it. That query letter you need to write and haven’t made the time for? Go write it. That submission for an author interview you’ve been meaning to send in? Go send it. That scene you’re avoiding writing? Go write it. Now. No excuses.
- And finally, do something good, or as I like to put it, create good karma. Go read a book (or books) from authors like yourself – read them, and review them. Give them the review you’d like to receive if you had written that book. Read and review as many as it takes to make you feel good about the world. There’s one review in the world from a person obviously does not appreciate what it takes to create anything – so give the world one, two, three, four, ten that will make it better, that will lift someone up, or encourage them to continue to create the beautiful things this world so desperately needs. Whatever makes you feel good about the world. I picked three, and you can read my reviews here, here, and here. If you don’t like the exact method of #3, you can do whatever you like to achieve the same effect. Just be the change you want to see. Here are some great ideas. Or these ones. Or these ones – the options are limitless. If you don’t feel better after this step, start at #1 above, and repeat as necessary.
And that’s it. You will feel better, I guarantee it (unless you’re just determined to be miserable). Am I happy about my first negative review? No. Do I want to get more? Absolutely not. But I haven’t let my certainty that I am a good writer with a good story to tell die, I’m still smiling, and I’m still going to publish book number 5 in the Guardians of the Path Series (cover reveal coming soon – I’m super excited about that!). In closing, I leave you with a beautiful sentiment from my good friend Lisa Barry, a sentiment which I think is really important for all artists to keep in mind, and which helped ground me when my thoughts and emotions were doing a tornado-coaster: “For every story that is read and disliked, there are countless numbers of people standing in line who love and support that story or author.” So, don’t give up, keep calm and write on, and make good art!
If you found this helpful, pass it on, and if you have any advice of your own on the matter, please share!
P.S. And if you like epic fantasy, you can check out my excellent book here:
The Path is fading, and the music of Life is vanishing. Cedar and his fellow Guardians have been entrusted for centuries to protect the Path, the very force of Life itself.
An accident traps Cedar between his home and another world devoid of magyc–but not of music. He is found by Ria, a mysterious girl who holds the key to returning him home.
With little choice Cedar uses First Magyc, Blood Magyc, to save himself, and finds himself the unlikely caretaker of the very girl who might fulfill an ancient Prophecy and restore the Guardians to their former station as honored heroes.
Enchanted by Demona, a world of magyc and music, Ria struggles to understand her own growing abilities even as she is drawn into an ages old conflict.
Cedar doesn’t want Ria to be the one named in the Prophecy, but what if she is the Guardians’ only hope to defeat the Sorcerer and save Magyc?