On Handling Criticism
On Saturday morning, as I was scrolling through my Twitter feed, I came across an article written by another author, describing the great lengths she had gone to to track down and, I guess, expose a reviewer she felt was too harsh and inaccurate in her review of this author's work. The author describes the supposed harassment she received from this reviewer in the weeks that followed, and, after some "light stalking" (there is no such thing as "light stalking," just stalking) of this reviewer's social media, she ultimately showed up on the reviewer's doorstep to confront her. I think we are all in agreement that this act was 100% unacceptable behavior and terribly, horribly frightening for the reviewer who had every right to protect her identity online. I'm fairly certain you all know what I'm talking about, but rather than link you to the essay, I will point you in the direction of posts from Dear Author and Smart Bitches, Trashy Books for a better, balanced discussion.
What I want to talk about today are ways to cope with negative criticism as an author. We all receive it. We all see it. And if you haven't reached that step of your career yet, well, you should expect it and start conditioning yourself to handle it now. It's easy to think that you can take a rational stance when it comes to getting feedback about your work, but there are so many emotions at play here, that I think many authors are surprised by how gut-deep they feel negative words (and how easy it is to ignore the positive). I'll be the first to admit that I was not great at coping when my first book was published in 2010. I stalked my Google Alerts and the book's GoodReads page. Every good review was like a hit of wonderful sunshine-y rainbows, and I'd keep coming back for more... but then I'd see a critical review and it would smack me down into this dark "maybe I do suck" place. So what formed was a cycle and I knew I was going to have to break it if I wanted any sort of career. Here is what has helped me:
1. Don't read reviews. Plain and simple, do not read reviews, good or bad. This is the only thing that has ultimately saved my sanity and allowed me to be productive. It's obviously easier said than done, especially when a book is first coming out and you're dying to hear what people think. You will never be able to stop with just one review. I recommend staying off GoodReads entirely, but I actually do think it's important for authors to have a presence there so they can update their books' information pages and respond to questions and messages. If you find you need a hit of GR, I recommend bookmarking the Readers Questions page for each book or your author dashboard and really keeping to just those pages. You can also add books you're currently reading without looking at your own books' pages—don't sneak a peek. If you find yourself with a crippling addiction to checking on the average or seeing if anyone new is reading it, block GoodReads on your browser.
My one exception to this rule is that I do read professional reviews from trade publications like PublishersWeekly and Kirkus Reviews, because those publications are used by librarians to see if they should purchase the books for their libraries. But you can always ask your editor to hold the reviews back if you really don't want to see anything.
2. Remember that not every reader is on GoodReads. GR is a fantastic community of book lovers, but if you were to ask the average person on the street what they thought of it, a lot of people would just blink at you in confusion. Bad reviews may feel like someone is trying to mock or humiliate you (they're not) for public consumption, but that public is actually just a fraction of the number of people reading your books. Don't believe me? Check your royalty statement against the people who have marked the book as 'read.'
3. We are all students. The goal of any writer should be to improve and grow with each book. No matter how perfect you think the story is, there is always room for improvement. Embrace that idea, and, if you must-must-must read reviews, learn to recognize a real critique someone is giving you versus a statement about their personal taste, the latter of which is completely out of your control. (eg "This author didn't spend enough time developing the secondary characters." versus "I didn't like XX character. I thought they were annoying.")
4. Trust reviewers to know their tastes. One thing I've learned over the years of getting to know book bloggers and reviewers is that they know what's going to work for them and what's not going to work for them. They can read another reviewer's negative review and recognize, oh, s/he doesn't like this element in books, but I do, and still purchase or request it. They can even recommend a book they, personally, didn't like to another reviewer/friend who they think will.
5. Bad reviews are better than no reviews. Trust me.
5.5. THREE STARS MEANS "I LIKED IT." THEY LIKED IT. THEY DID. IT'S NOT LIKE GETTING A "C" GRADE. THEY LIKED IT. GETTING THREE STARS IS ACTUALLY NICE, OKAY? REMEMBER THAT.
6. Keep the old adage in mind: taste is subjective. Think of your group of friends and family. Think about a movie you all saw, or a book you all read that you, personally loved. Not everyone agreed with you, right? Everyone found their own problem with the story or characters that they fixated on. Readers bring their own world with them to a story, and that informs how they read it and how they enjoy it. I think it was Dita Von Teese who said, "You can be the ripest, juiciest peach in the world, but there's still going to be someone who hates peaches." I will repeat that to myself over and over if I have to until it clicks in my brain. My epiphany moment came, again, with my first book. I was deep down into the GR rabbit hole, torturing myself by looking at all of the negative reviews, and had a moment of, "Well, what else has this reviewer hated?" Reader, this reviewer hated a lot of books that I myself had given five stars to.
7. Don't respond to reviews, good or bad. Do not respond. DO NOT RESPOND. If someone includes you when they tweet out the link to the review, you can say thank you, but do not leave comments on their blog, do not leave comments on the GR review. Reviewers are reviewing the books for other readers, not for you. Not even for your publisher. Other readers.
8. Know that you can still be friends with bloggers, even if they didn't like your book. You are not your book(s). You are an awesome person, and awesome people can be friends with other awesome people. Much like you can be friends with other authors never having read their books or not liking them very much. A negative review isn't a sign that you're being shunned, just that your book did not work for that reviewer. But, hey! You both love Sleepy Hollow, so why not chat about that on Twitter instead?
9. Make it so the people who love your work can find you and you can banish the negative voices. The best thing I ever did in this regard was set up a PO Box and an author email account for readers to contact me. Because the ones that are taking the time to write to you are the ones who either are thinking critically about your story enough to have pressing questions or because they love it. You might occasionally get a message from someone who has strong beliefs that contradict what you're saying in your books, but those will always be fewer than the chorus of sweet, awesome voices of the readers you reached and affected on a personal level. If someone is being a troll on Twitter to you, block them. Done. If you track Tumblr tags of your name or book title, install an extension or plug-in like Tumblr Hatred that lets you hide posts you'd rather not see each time you check the tags.
10. Shake it off. Yes. Like TSwift is telling you to. One of my favorite lyrics in that song is Just think while you've been getting down and out about the liars and the dirty, dirty cheats of the world/You could've been getting down to this sick beat. Basically, your energy is WAY better spent thinking and caring about the people who like your book. As I said above, don't ignore a hundred voices telling you they like your stuff in favor of the one or two voices who are basically just saying "eh... not my cup of tea." There are certainly going to be reviews that are way harsher than that in your lifetime, ones you think go too far. The best response is still no response. It's getting up from your computer and going to do something you love. Or, you know, turning off the internet and writing. Anything that affects your productivity isn't worth your time.