I have read some great blog posts lately about how writers need to learn to cope with bad reviews after publication, and before that, discouraging comments from people who have read their work. The stories told both in the posts and the comments that followed revealed the barrage of criticism that writers endure, from the thoughtless to the downright malicious.
|Thanks to selfpublishingadvice.org|
Of course, as writers we are hoping to find and please an audience, so to resist any criticism at all would be pig-headed and self-defeating. However, as one blogger pointed out, we need to be able to discern what motivates the criticism we receive. Is it honest and constructive, designed to inform us and improve our work, or does it come from a darker place altogether?
|Thanks to www.dailymail.co.uk|
My day job is editing art and craft books, and as publishers, we occasionally have an author contact us, upset by a bad review. In a competitive market, we cannot afford to assume that all criticism is unfounded, so we always read the review carefully, get the book out and have a good look, to see if the reviewer's comments are justified. Sometimes we conclude that we could have done something better and that other readers might have the same issue with the book, and we resolve to put it right next time. At times, though, the comments are so unfounded as to be completely baffling, and it is possible to conclude that the review really is malicious. There isn’t much we can tell an author other than that we don’t feel the comments are justified, and it is best to put it down to experience and move on. In a world where a bad review from Tripadvisor or Amazon can scupper a business or book, it is also a good idea to encourage someone with more favourable views to go online and make themselves heard – but those early reviews can do a lot of damage.
All this reminded me of a bruising experience I had when trying to get an agent for an earlier version of my work in progress, Unspeakable Things. I had heard that it might be useful to get an endorsement from someone with writing credentials. I thought of an old family friend who has had many novels published for the teenage market. I played with his daughters from babyhood and we all grew up together, sharing Christmases and summer outings. He now lives near my parents, so I asked if he would be willing to read my work and write a few lines of endorsement, and he agreed. A while later, my Dad contacted me, sounding uncomfortable. The friend had written me something but, now that my Dad had read and reread it, he was concerned that it wasn’t very favourable in tone. My heart sank a little, but I asked to see it anyway.
What I read could only be described as an extremely hostile review. It was written in the tone of someone exasperated by an annoyingly poor piece of work. There was nothing constructive in any of the remarks, and I could not find even two lines in it that I could have taken out and used as an endorsement, and yet I had made it completely clear that this was what I required. I have searched through my filing cabinet for the review so that I could quote from it (honestly!) but something must have made me throw it away.
I struggled to think what could have motivated an old family friend to write something so unkind. I hadn’t even asked for a critique, but for an endorsement. If he didn’t like the work, he could have returned it with a few encouraging lines – perhaps, ‘I don’t feel I can endorse it in its current state, as it needs some work, but it shows promise, good luck with it.’ I did remember though that, as a teacher, this man had been notorious for his harsh criticism of students’ work, and as a father, I recalled his little daughter going to show him a drawing that we children all thought was good, and coming back completely crestfallen, saying that her father had said it was rubbish. Now, I’m not saying for a minute that my novel didn’t need work – clearly it did. But the moral of this story is that I asked the wrong man for a review. In retrospect, encouragement is not his forte.
My family were outraged on my behalf, and it turned out that my sister knew a novelist who was willing to read my work and give his opinion. He is in fact much better known than the family friend in question; he has had a novel turned into a cult film.
|Thanks to www.benkeightley.com|
He wrote me a lovely review, from which I extracted the following:
‘Couldn’t put it down… Had to read it in one hit… Really excellent in every way – pace, involvement with the characters, description, atmosphere, story… And always unease, fear and horror just that one half-step from safe normality… It has of course to end also as a film, which will be gripping classic drama.’
Now, of course, this man’s encouragement was heart-warming, just as the other review was stinging, but this does not mean that I believe all criticism is bad and all praise is true. The bad review reveals a lack tact, let alone of awareness of the terms of friendship(!!) but the lovely endorsement may say more about the writer’s kindness and wish to encourage other writers than it does about my writing.
My next move, which I highly recommend to anyone who wants a dispassionate critique of their writing, was to pay for one. I sent my work for a professional consultant working through a literary agency, and received an 18-page assessment of every aspect of my work, that then formed the basis for a comprehensive rewrite. The criticism was thorough and extensive, but the tone was sensitive, constructive and encouraging. In case you are wondering, none of the criticisms were the same as the exasperated comments I received from that first non-endorsement.
|Thanks to www.telegraph.co.uk|
The writer of that hostile review is still a family friend. I send him a Christmas card every year. But I will not be asking him to critique my work again. And when I fantasise about getting my novel published, I sneak in a little imagining of the look on his face. George Orwell wrote that success meant getting his revenge on people who slighted him when he was younger. I’m no George Orwell, but you have to allow me to hope I’ll have that pleasure one day.