Sunday, December 11, 2011

Writing Advice 25—Dealing With Reviews

When at long last you finally manage to get published, either through a traditional house, an indie press, or by self-publishing, you will have to face reviews both good and bad. How do you deal with people bashing your work? How do you handle critics who make comments about your novel that are blatantly wrong? Comments, through intent, preconceived blindness, or lazy reading,  slam you for things you didn’t even do? Or did do and they said you didn’t? How do you deal with people putting words in your mouth that you didn’t say, or making assumptions that are completely false? Even accusing you of plagiarism?

You don’t.

When you hear/read comments that make you want to chew through steel, you just have to repeat this simple mantra: People have the right to their opinions.

It really is as simple as that.

You might think they are wrong, but in a way that is only your opinion, and how can you expect them to accept your opinion of a topic when you refuse theirs?

The thing you learn after a few years of listening to people both praise and destroy your work is that everyone has different tastes. Some people will love the very thing that someone else abhors. And there will be large groups on both sides of any argument.

Last year I wrote a post called The Best and Worst of 2010, that was passed around a bit back then. In it I cut and pasted comments about my first book The Crown Conspiracy—all from people I never met. I went to the effort of matching them so that for every comment on a specific subject, I also listed the exact opposite opinion presented by someone else.  For me it was a way of venting, for others who read it, the example was enlightening and reassuring.

The problem with writing is that it is very hard to tell what the majority of people think.

When I was in high school I was known for my art, and Mrs. Franchi, my English teacher, suggested I do a comic strip for the school newspaper. I wasn’t in the journalism class, and I wasn’t in the newspaper club. I just asked the teacher overseeing the school paper if they would publish a comic—no one had ever done it before, certainly not on a regular basis.

So I created an ongoing fantasy story, the adventures of Fobert the Fibbit and his trusty side-kicks, a bird and a dwarf, who he picked up along the way. I did a full page comic each week that was inserted into the paper. I expected instant praise, but heard nothing. Months went by and still I heard nothing—nothing good. The journalism students and the members of the newspaper team, hated me and my comic. They asserted in their self-important attempt to act like real journalists that the comic demeaned the serious nature of their work in the news. All I ever heard were insults and jokes. When finally the teacher overseeing the paper’s publication claimed I intentionally inserted the word “fart” in the text after she had approved the comic for printing (which I did not) and proceeded to berate me and insist I was a liar, I gave up. The comic wasn’t worth the effort. It wasn’t fun to work each week making something that nobody wanted and that everyone universally hated. I ended the comic series and washed my hands of the whole affair feeling depressed.

A week later, the first week the paper came out without a comic, I ran into a kid in the cafeteria—a kid I never met before.

“Are you the one who made the Fobert comic?”
“Yes,” I replied cringing.
“Why’d you stop?”
“No one liked it—actually everyone hated it.”
“I liked it.” I must have looked surprised, because he went on. “I never bought the paper before, but I bought it every week just to read your comic. It was nice that it was an insert cause I just tossed the rest. I wish you hadn’t stopped. Now I have nothing to look forward to on Fridays, well, besides getting out of school.”

He was the first, but he wasn’t the last. Other kids found me to complain that I ended the comic. A lot of them were people I only knew by sight, underclassmen, girls who I was only just getting the nerve to speak to. One was my future wife. The year after I graduated I returned to talk to Mrs. Franchi, and saw a copy of the new school paper on her desk. There was a comic in it that looked a lot like mine.

“Someone is stealing my idea,” I told Mrs. Fanchi with a decidedly irritated tone. “And not doing a very good job of it. I thought this school taught that plagiarism was bad.”

“He’s a huge fan of yours,” she said. “He loved your comic, and when you stopped he was very disappointed. This year he decided to do something about it. His comic is a tribute to your work.”

I just stood there looking stupid. And like any good teacher, Mrs. Franchi let me.

All these invisible people loved my comic, but I never knew. This was a lesson I learned and kept in my back-pocket knowing one day I would need it again:

People are slow to praise, but quick to complain.

When things are the way people want, they are content and silent. It is only when something happens that they don’t like that they become vocal.

The same thing happened again almost a year ago when I announced I was accepting a deal with Orbit Books that would delay the release of the final installment in the series. Until then I got two, maybe three comments on my blog—most of the time, none at all. And sure I had sold a lot of books, but that didn’t mean people actually read them, and it certainly didn’t mean they liked them. That post about the delayed release had over thirty comments almost all negative. I also received email and lots of forum attacks. I honestly had no idea my books were so popular until I decided to withhold one for ten months.

It’s hard to determine how appealing your book really is when you know you’ll only hear—and hear in detail—how much people don’t like it, while those who do like it, don’t say a word. I’m the same way, and this extends beyond the scope of books. I have a childhood friend who was quick to compliment others. At the time I assumed he was disingenuous, (he wasn’t) even so it made me feel better whenever he said something nice (even if I thought he was lying). As I got older I made an effort to be more like that—to tell people when I approved. I even told my friend that I admired his ability to praise so easily, when for me, it was hard and often uncomfortable. I was stunned to discover no one had ever complimented him like that before and I could see the smile I put on his face. 

For writers however, it is easy, and almost impossible not to focus on the negative when it comes to their own work. The bad reviews and comments are always so much louder. Even a great review—if it has one nit-pick—is remembered as awful, because the negative criticism is so overwhelming on an emotional level, while the nice things are always seen as the polite fluff. Everyone asks “How are you?” upon meeting. They don’t really care, it’s just a way of greeting. But if they say, “You look awful.” You know they mean it.

And as a writer, just as ignorance of the silent approvers is bad, so is focusing only on the bad.

Not long ago there was a woman who responded to what was generally a decent review of her book, but had some negative things to say as well. She responded defensively on the reviewer’s blog in a series of comments that degraded into insults. This public conversation went viral and became the poster-child for how to destroy a writing career before it starts. The idea of “any publicity is good publicity” has its limits. All the other bloggers and reviewers read it and declared they would never read her books—ever.

When someone criticizes your work, all you can successfully do, is thank them for taking the time to read it. Anything else is putting a gun in your mouth.

And just because a review pointed out flaws, doesn’t make it a bad review. I’ve had four and even five star reviews where the commentary that followed it made me believe the critic hated the book. People have ripped my novels apart and then ended by saying they were eagerly awaiting the next book. This happens a lot.

I think, as a writer you need to put yourself in the position of a reviewer. Whether they host a review site as a hobby or as a job, they feel responsible for their readers—not the authors. And this is how it should be. Their job is to evaluate books and give recommendations to readers. If they fail in this, no one will listen to them. I think there is also a fear of fan-boy stigma.  Even if you absolutely love something you feel obligated to find something to complain about, if only not to be seen as a total gushing teenage girl, bouncing incessantly in front of a stage where the Beatles are playing. Such overwhelming praise is not dignified and might not be accepted by the critical audience they write to. Nothing is that good, and reviewers who do nothing by gush, will not be taken seriously and soon ignored.

This isn’t to say there aren’t bad reviews. And when I say bad, I mean objectively bad. Reviews that even if they are full of praise, are just badly done.

The worst reviews are those that succumb to hyperbole,  give away spoilers, and provide nothing of value or insight for the reader. A good example would be this short review of L. Frank Baum’s work: “This is the worst book I’ve ever read! I really hated The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and I knew all along it was a dream.”

This kind of review is awful. Not only is it worthless to readers hoping to gain some real information to help make an informed decision, it ruins the story for all who read it. I am lucky not to have received many of these, but there are a few out there that I won’t name in the hope they will just fade away.

The fact is, I’ve read wonderful reviews by people who hated my books. People who took the time to write down detailed explanations of why they felt my books were poorly done, using intelligent examples and comparisons, but always careful not to spoil the story for those who might disagree.  One such individual I personally contacted and asked if he would be willing to expound even further so that I could make corrections. He was so surprised, he agreed.  I did make changes to the book (which were not so major as he first suggested) and as a result, he altered his review to a more positive position.  This was never my intention, but it was a pleasant result and shows what can happen if you respond to those with opposing opinions with respect and a checked ego.

So the bottom line is, never respond to a negative review except to thank the reviewer. I try not to even respond to positive reviews as, then by omission, you are showing your disapproval of negative ones. You can also make it appear as if you and the reviewer are buddies which can undermine the critic’s credibility. The last thing you want to do is hurt a reviewer who likes your books. I have written some private messages to reviewers who I feel did not just like my work, or happen to write what I felt were excellent reviews, but understood my books on a level I did not expect most people would. Hearing that someone really “got it,” that they understood exactly what it was I was doing, is fantastic. But even then I hesitate because I feel establishing a friendship with reviewers is, in a way cheating, and can make it harder for a critique to slam my next book if they feel it warrants it.

Reviewers are people too, and they have opinions on what is good and bad. Some like long books, some like short ones, some like simple books, some like complex books. If a book is in contrast to the values the reviewer holds, it doesn’t mean it is a bad book necessarily, but only that individuals who share those values will most likely not enjoy it. Just think about those friends you have whose opinions on movies you know not to take. Good reviewers understand this and restrain their comments to reflect that while they did not like it, those of other tastes, might. You don’t see them making statements like: “Worst book ever/just shows that anything can be published/evidence of how far civilization has fallen/don’t buy this book!”

Good reviewers also don’t rate a book based on the price anymore than they rate it on the cover art—although they may mention both so readers can be aware, and explain whether they feel it was worth the cash or how well the cover reflects the contents.  

It is a reviewer’s responsibility to be honest so that those who have grown to trust them (knowing their personal book-ideological slant) can evaluate whether your book is a good fit for them. And a well-done-bad review can be a very good thing for an author. It will wave away those individuals who, if they had read it, would post scathing reviews on Amazon, or make it their life’s work to denounce you as a hack. A well-done, negative review can save you from this fate because no matter how good a book you’ve written, no matter how universal the appeal, someone will hate it and it is best to keep it out of their hands.

Most reviewers don't like posting negative reviews. Many refuse to. They simply restrict themselves to reviewing only the books they like. They are well aware of the pain they can cause, and there is a reason why executioners are rotated in their responsibility, only psychopaths have no problem hurting others. And yet it can cause even more problems, hurt even more people, being dishonest.  

This is why you never see, nor ever will see, reviews of other author's books on this blog. I would make a terrible reviewer for the same reason I was so impressed by my friend who finds it so easy to praise others. I am both a very honest and critical person, particularly when it comes to writing, or stories in general. Getting praise from me is like squeezing water from a stone. It's a problem I'm still working on, and one of the reasons my wife never asks me the famous, "does this dress make me look fat?"

I’d just like to end this post by thanking the 99% of all the book reviewers out there for doing a great job. As for the 1%...I’m pretty sure Dante wrote about a special plane in hell for them, which I am certain they reviewed poorly.


  1. So... DOES it make her look fat?

  2. You're just trying to get me in trouble now, aren't you?

  3. on this note, the review note, I'd like drop in and let you know how much I appreciate your books. I've been an avid reader all my life and read quite a few different genres regularly. Fantasy has never been my favorite genre, but I read and loved George RR Martin's books.

    I stumbled across your books through Amazon's recommended list and was a bit weary at first. At first glance, the books sounded like your average run of the mill D&D literature, but then I visited your blog, read your story and decided that hey, I want to support someone who's embraced the indie-culture, so I bought the first piece in the Orbit-edition.

    I'm a fan.

    You have created not only a wonderfully crafted storyline, but also a truly great group of characters with rich backgrounds that you gradually bring up to the surface throughout the books. Well, I could go on with superlatives, but you've most likely heard them all already :).

    Add to this your blog - which after hours of reading - has easily become a place I visit regularly. I'm truly happy to have found your books, and will buy everything you ever release!

    On that final note, through which channel should I buy them so that you get the highest cut? I see lots of links for them here - for the ebooks, is there one site that gives you a higher cut?

  4. Thanks for writing this. My novel is coming out in a couple of weeks and I admit that I'm a little scared of reviews.

  5. Thank you, Michael. This could not have hit me at a better time. Last Saturday, I discovered that I had gotten my first one-star “drive by” rating. No review, just a single star rating with no explanation.

    I admit that I was proud of my rating record with all four and five stars. I was almost hoping for a bad review because I know people get suspicious when books have all four and five star ratings. When I logged on and saw that one-star, I was disappointed but curious to see why the rating was so low. I mean, I can give people MAYBE half a dozen reasons they might like my work (and I would struggle with the last two) but I can give them a myriad of reasons why they will not like it. I was hoping to see some explanation of there being too much violence, no perfectly good guys, no bodice ripping, etc.. Like you said, such a review might have warned off other potential readers who would be predisposed to not liking my books.

    Instead, I got just a single star that drags down my over all ratings. No help there. I got so curious I even looked up the person’s other ratings and reviews to try to get some clue as to why they would not like my work. It was a mixed bag with no solid clues.

    I did not even get the satisfaction of having a gut reaction. How could I feel negative toward that rating when I could not put it into context? How could I feel good about my reserved reaction to the first person who hated my work? I felt almost nothing. Now, I feel cheated because, as my books are now being read by a larger audience, I will STILL have to go through that first negative review at some point in the future.

    It is a helpless feeling. I want the reviewer to elucidate their thoughts, but I am afraid that any message I sent them would sound like whining even though I really just want feedback for me and for potential readers.

    So, thank you again for this blog and this post. Well written and well timed!


  6. Great post. I tossed the link into my writer's group with a Need To Read.

  7. Excellent post and what a great lesson you learned early on.
    Thank you,

  8. Thanks for this blog post. I'm basically right in the middle of this situation, as I've just begun dipping my toes in the self-publishing world. In fact, I got my first negative review today. It stung and, being honest, it stung quite a bit. But I was polite to the reviewer in reply to an email they sent me. It was the reviewer's right not to enjoy or like what I wrote and it was their right to tell other people.

    Whether they like your work on not, they're still your readers. Going down the road of attacking people over their opinions, even if those opinions are TOTALLY WRONG [hah!], you're only ever going to turn people away with that kind of attitude.

    It's incredibly difficult to keep from being hurt by those negative barbs, but you've just got to believe in yourself and take all the negative comments and figure out how they can make you a better writer.

  9. Hi Michael,

    I've been reading a lot of your writing-advice posts, and since most of the comments are from 2011 I thought you deserved to know that people are still discovering and reading these. There's a lot of helpful information and inspiration here.

    But what really got me to comment right now was your high-school comic story. It literally brought a tear to my eye. I own two software companies, and what you say about people communicating when there are problems but remaining silent when there are not is true in this arena too.

    I wish you continued success,


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