Wednesday, March 13th, 2019
Recently, I had to confront one of the writer’s biggest challenges: the Bad Review. Well, it wasn’t exactly my first rodeo. I’d had like one or two bad reviews over six years, then I entered the Self Published Fantasy Blog Off, made it into the finals, so I was riding high, and got something like seven or eight brutal reviews in a month’s time. So it wasn’t my very first time, but it was the first time I felt really beaten up.
One thing that came to the forefront of my thinking was boxing. When I was very young, my dad and my paternal grandfather were big into boxing. My grandfather had boxed in his youth. Muhammad Ali was a household name. Fight posters and cigar smoke are my two clearest memories of my grandfather’s house. It was a thing in my life, so boxing metaphors work for me. And the thing about boxing is that, if you get in the ring, yeah, you need to be able to throw a punch and to move and to guard yourself, but ultimately, you need to be able to take a punch.
It’s going to happen. If you put your work out there, it’s going to get reviewed, and some people aren’t going to like it. We may love the good reviews, and I’ve been very fortunate that most of mine have been positive, but sooner or later, somebody’s gonna land a glove on you.
So how do you take it?
Ideally, you need to do three things. Most people don’t. Many people can get through one or maybe two. But to be great, you need to do all three.
First of all, you need to get back up.
These things happen. And they hurt and they suck, but it’s part of the game. It’s a part that you agreed to, tacitly at least, when you put your work out there. It’s not unfair. It hurts, because when we write, we basically stand naked on a stage, and that’s a very vulnerable place to be. But you decided to be there. So the first test is: Can you get back up? Can you write another book?
Maybe you need to shake your head until the double vision goes away, and maybe you need to spit out a few teeth, and maybe you need to stagger over to your corner and hope you have a good cut man, but if you don’t get up, your only option is to throw in the towel. To admit you don’t have what it takes to be an author.
Nothing wrong with not being an author. There are plenty of other things you could be doing with your time, and lots of them are more fun or pay better.
If you are committed to writing, if you are passionate about telling your story, dig deep, deal with the pain, but get back on your feet.
This step is the only really essential one. If you can take the abuse and keep getting up, you are a writer. You can keep putting out books and collecting bruises. But if you want to be better, you need to go further.
The next thing you are going to need to do is keep your composure. Don’t lash out at bad reviews. You may feel attacked, because somebody is talking shit about your baby, but critics are doing exactly what you asked them to do. What they are supposed to do. Here, the boxing analogy is particularly apt, because it’s the other guy’s actual job to punch you, so you really can’t fault him for it. If you were better at boxing, maybe you wouldn’t have gotten hit. If you were a better writer, you wouldn’t have gotten a bad review. You got in the ring, or you sent your book out for review or you clicked on the review link at Goodreads. You agreed to this, don’t blame anyone else.
If you react by lashing out, you will hurt your reputation. You will come across as whiny and thin skinned and will turn off readers and other reviewers. You will be burning bridges in a market that is very dependent on bridges.
So say “thank you” and move on. If you need to swear and throw things before you can calm down and say “thank you,” that’s fine. Take some time. But turn off the computer or at least log off the site with the bad review and have your rant in private.
If the first step takes grit and fortitude, this step takes control. Self assurance. Sang froid. Cool.
Brush the dust off your shoulder like Luke Skywalker at the end of The Last Jedi.
If you have the grit to get back up and the cool to shrug it off, you can do fairly well. You can keep writing and not alienate the readers and reviewers.
But if you stop there, you are missing the one possible benefit to the whole ordeal. The final challenge, and probably the toughest.
Can you listen to the review, and can you learn from it?
This takes both some humility, and enough confidence so that you can hear your efforts trashed without breaking down. It also requires some introspection and the ability to separate valid criticism from that which isn’t valid. No book is going to make everybody happy, and if the review is something like “I just read The Walking Dead and it was awful. I don’t like walking or the dead” you can probably ignore it. But sometimes critics have a point.
That can be tough to swallow. You need to really take a hard look at what you’ve written, and consider the case against it, rather than just giving a knee jerk defense. Yes, you cried tears of blood while writing it, but sometimes just trying really hard doesn’t win you any awards. The thoughts of your critics can give you insight into what you could do better, if you have the strength of character to stare into that abyss.
The third is the hardest, for me at least. Growing up as a little guy with a big mouth, I learned to take a punch early on. Learning not to lash out, to just smile through that split lip and shrug it off was harder. But the final lesson, the hardest lesson, is what will make you better. There’s no shame in getting floored by a left hook you didn’t see coming. But until you learn the gap in your defense that let that punch in, and you fix it, you’re never going to shine.
So what are you gonna do? Are you gonna get back up, shake it off and be thankful for the chance to learn, to grow, to be a better writer?
It’s up to you.
But the ref is counting.