Dealing with the Negative

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This might take a while. It’s a recurrent theme here at MW but not one we’ve addressed much recently so I thought I’d come at it from a slightly different perspective.

Different conversations with friends over the last few days got me thinking about the various forms of crap that gets thrown at writers.  Some instances:

           bitter, hostile or otherwise unhelpful beta readers/critique partners

           snide remarks from friends and colleagues about your literary “hobby” (these don’t go away after you’ve hit the NY Times

          Bestseller list, by the way)

          rejections from agents, editors and their minions, the tone of which range from the bland to the brutal

         blistering, mean-spirited unfair or ill-informed reviews of your published work everywhere from legitimate newspapers and websites

         to the dreaded one star reviews on Amazon.

I’d like to say that if you just tough it out, your success will eventually lift you above this poisonous tide and you’ll float free, unsullied by negativity, to your literary goals (critical and fiscal).

But that would be a lie.

So here’s the unvarnished truth and an attempt to wrestle with its implications.

It NEVER stops. Not when you land an agent, not when you make your first sale, not when your book comes out, not when your tenth book garners awards or makes you a fortune. Never.

There will always be people who either just don’t like your stuff or are driven to try and tear you down. The problem of course is that the former (which might be a legitimate difference in taste, values, politics or whatever) easily slides into the latter which is simply hateful, at least in the mind of the author whose work is being pummeled.

The consequences of such negativity are potentially deep and crippling. Writers might suffer huge crises of confidence faced with negative reviews or rejections, and some give up outright, or become so unsure of their own ability and the value of their story that they never manage to get it out at all. The criticism and rejection chokes the author’s sense of all they do well, and they freeze up.

As regular readers of this blog know only too well, I’ve had my share of rejection of negativity, particularly in the 20+ years when I sought to sell my first novel, though there has been more since, some of it harder to handle than the comparatively familiar if grueling rejection of the those early years. I won’t bore you with the details, but trust me; when it comes to negative response to my work, I know whereof I speak.

So. How do you get through it?

The usual answer, one I’ve often offered to writers, is that you have to develop a thick skin, that you just develop a resilience to criticism so that it rolls off you like water off a duck’s back.

But this is only partly true and is, as I think seriously about, at least as partly just plain wrong. People who know me well will tell you that I don’t have a thick skin at all. I take criticism and negativity to heart and I take it personally, whether it’s a snide review on Amazon or the one bad student evaluation in a pile of enthusiastic thumbs up. I dwell on these in ways quite disproportionate to their real value. Why? Because that’s who I am and because my writing (and, yes, my teaching) are deeply personal to me, things I invest a good deal of myself in, things that come out of my very soul. Reject my books and you reject me. Mock my writing, dismiss it as trash, consign it to the dung heap of literary history and I’m going to be hurt and pissed.

So sue me.

I make no apologies for taking such things personally. They ARE personal, and no amount of skin-thickening will make them otherwise. Time, of course, mitigates such things, raises the immunity level and makes them sting a little less (especially as you move on to new projects), but the whips and scorns of the world outside my own head will always have power to wound.

But that’s okay, and I’ve started to think that a thick skin is an overrated commodity. Writers need to be able to feel, to be open to ideas, to sensations, to pain. Numb up our bodies to protect our feelings and those feelings go away. The fact that I feel things deeply is not just who I am, and it certainly isn’t weakness. Only people too scared to feel anything would think otherwise. There’s power in feeling, power writers need.

I’m not saying pain is necessarily good, that all that negativity is somehow doing us a favor and making us better people, better artists or whatever. Too much terrible history has been built on that convenient lie. What I’m saying is that writing is not a business for people who don’t feel, and pain is therefore inevitable. You can turn away from it (ignoring the one star review, the belligerent beta reader, or the petulant rejection letter) but that’s dangerous too, because however poorly expressed those criticisms are, they MIGHT contain a grain of truth from which you could learn and improve.

The key, I think, is to assess the validity of the critique, part of which is an assessment of the source. If you know that one guy in your writers’ group hates you or the genre you write in or anything that isn’t written by, you know, him, then you can ignore him safely. Such things can be healthily sloughed off like old skin.

Trickier are the jabs which hit a nerve, which press on things we suspect—or simply fear—might be true. In such cases I would suggest you ask other readers to look at your work and then talk to them about the very issue for which you’ve been attacked and see what they think. Finally, of course, you have to trust your own judgment. Again, there maybe something to be learned, something that will help you fix a real deficiency, but it might just as easily be a matter of taste or judgment that doesn’t need addressing at all.

Because the bottom line is the obvious one: you can’t please everyone, and though some of us secretly want to, you won’t. Ever. When you get used to that idea, the criticism may still hurt but you’ll be less likely to let it stop you or even slow you down. You’re going to get criticized, even attacked, but you keep going because you’re a writer and that’s what writers do. You have stories to tell, characters to develop. So yeah, feel the hurt and do what you need to for a time: yell, cry, rant, find friends to commiserate with, drink with, watch a movie, burn your critics in effigy, whatever: then get over it, think about all you know you do well, and get on with producing more. If you don’t, the haters win, and the world is a little poorer.

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31 comments to Dealing with the Negative

  • Thanks for the post, AJ. It was a good one, at a good time.

  • Razziecat

    Excellent post. Criticisms and negative reviews are inevitable, and we all have our own way of dealing with them. I don’t want to dwell on the negative, but I know it’s unavoidable. One way I deal with that is to re-read the good comments–some of which came from this site (who was it that said, “I can live for days on one compliment”? 🙂 )

    One thing I love about Magical Words is that you guys don’t shrink from bringing up stuff like this. It’s not all roses and rainbows, but we have to deal with it and keep doing what we love to do.

  • davidhewson

    A lot of this stuff isn’t criticism at all. It’s just vitriol, and some of it comes from people who haven’t even read the book. I’ve had one star reviews on Amazon because people didn’t like the price of the ebook edition. One stars because someone read my newspaper column and decided they didn’t like my views.

    The internet has handed out an extraordinary sense of entitlement which is not always a good thing. People who once would have read a book and either liked it, thought ‘meh’ or gone elsewhere now feel they have the right to pass judgement on it as if they’re writers themselves. It’s ridiculous. I don’t read Amazon reviews – you’d lose the will to write if you did that too much. And it has to be said: there’s a lot of bitterness and envy in the vitriol to. It comes from people who can’t get published and resent you for the fact you are.

    I don’t agree this kind of bitterness is a positive thing. If you have twenty great reviews and one nasty one it’s the nasty one you always remember. Best to steer clear, rely on the judgement of your editor, and that of professional reviewers who do the job properly – dispassionately but with great care and knowledge about books.

    Reviews like this (he says rather naughtily) – http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/bookreviews/9243399/The-Killing-by-David-Hewson-review.html

  • Scribe,
    though I’m sorry this came at an appropriate time, I’m glad it helped. Couragio.

    Razzie,
    I did feel in writing this that perhaps I should end on a more upbeat note, focussing on all the great things that get said about people’s writing, but the tonal shift didn’t work, so I left the rather dour version as is. Next time I’ll write aut something positive 🙂 I do think MW is good at painting a ‘warts and all’ picture of the business, but I’d hate readers to think that the negative stuff overshadows the positive. It doesn’t. Honest.

    David,
    nice to see you back, and congrats on the Telegraph review: always nice to get a genuinely thoughtful response to your work in a major publication. Of course, most writers won’t get such reviews (and I thought the remark about fantasy readers pretty snide in ways suggesting this reviewer wouldn’t cover much of the fiction discussed on this site, for instance), so Amazon reviews and the like loom large. You’re right about the irrelevance and the vitriol, and you can certainly ignore such things without fear of missing constructive advice, but it’s still galling to know they are out there, affecting potential buyers right at the point of purchase. I’m not saying that such bitterness is a good thing, just that you have to resign yourself to the idea that you’re going to get beaten up from time to time. Occasionally there may be something useful in there, but you’re right that usually there isn’t. Incidentally, can you believe we have over 500 reviews of Macbeth, a Novel on Audible.com? Amazing.

  • KR1L3Y

    Thank you for the insightful post. My first novel is still a work in progress so I have not experienced any negativity (aside from my own) yet, but it helps to know what to expect so I can begin to prepare myself now.

  • davidhewson

    I think he is a mainstream fiction reviewer but they do review a lot of kinds of books on the Telegraph. To be honest I was surprised to get such space there for a book some other papers seem to regard as a stock TV tie-in (i.e. they ain’t read it). Yep – the reviews on Audible are amazing. But don’t you find that they’re different to the reviews you get for books on Amazon? Maybe it’s because people have to have made the effort to listen to the thing first. Though we did get that one chap who said we were a threat to people’s immortal souls. And the ‘teacher’ who couldn’t believe we’d made Shakespeare violent!

    My reaction now to Amazon I’m afraid is I just don’t go there. I’ve one ridiculous review for The Killing which complains it’s just a rerun of the TV series. Which means he’s either never read the book or seen the series.

  • sagablessed

    This post came at a perfect time. I just sent out a query letter, and I am on pins and needles until I get a response. I aniticipate the negative, and am trying to brace for it. (If I get a “Send us more”, I am cracking open a bottle Dom Perignon, lol.) So reading this clarified some of my own trepiditions, which I have been unwilling to acknowledge.
    Thank you for this post, as well as the others who have made posts like this before. I am going to re-read them, brace for impact, and pray.

  • On the bit about not being able to please everyone: A while back, I actually bought a book based on Amazon one star reviews. It was CJ Cherryh’s Faded Sun trilogy and as I scrolled through the nasty reviews, I began to realize that the very things they were complaining (whining) about were the things I wanted in sci-fi. So I bought it, and I wasn’t disappointed. So now, whenever I look for sci-fi, I read the one star reviews just for that purpose, because especially in sci-fi, you can’t please everyone, and when I’m writing it, I don’t try. I please me and hope in the end that it pleases other readers like me.

    And I completely agree with the vitriol comment. So many of the Amazon reviews especially are just people trying to be scathingly witty and often failing, coming off as merely cruel and annoying. A true review hits on both the good and bad aspects of a piece in a tasteful and tactful manner, IMO, not in a manner that suggests that you’re looking for a job as Howard Stern’s angry sidekick. I try not to review things anymore, simply because I don’t want anyone to possibly take offense and perhaps poison the occasional eye toward my own work, but even when I really dislike a book, I can still always find some good in it. Maybe the plot was bad, but the pacing worked. Perhaps the setting needed help, but the characters were spot on. The action lagged, but they nailed emotional scenes. I feel like a good review should inform a potential reader in a neutral manner if this book is going to be for them based on the individual’s likes and dislikes, not a warning to head for the hills because it was “teh suxxorzz an teh ritur neds 2 stop riting NAOH! lololzz” 😉

  • Hear, hear, AJ.

    I pride myself on being an optimist—and I really try, I really do—but that doesn’t allow for the unexpected criticisms. The feeling of having that sometimes-foolhardy “Yay I’m awesome” feeling upon submission punctured by bad feedback, criticism, or rejection.

    So how do I deal with it? 1) I have come to accept that I’m a crybaby. Tears are my way of getting over the worst of it, and I refuse to be ashamed of that. On the other hand, let me have my (preferably private) crying fit, and I recover *very* quickly. 2) I have a reliable shoulder to on which to cry. (Besides supportive writing friends.) My husband is the most supportive person in my life. Even when I have to make drastic changes and he protests, “But that’s going to be so much work!”, he’s there for me. 3) I accept that I *do* have anxiety, and getting a good night’s sleep does me so much good. 4) If I’m *really* pissed off, an hour at the gym does wonders for my sanity.

    But being an optimist, and being polite, really helps in the first place. For example: I don’t care how crazy it is or if most of them don’t reply; if I get a rejection from an agent, so far I send a polite (not snarky) thank-you, because often the feedback has helped. *I* feel good about it. And in one case so far, I’ve been asked to re-submit when I’m ready. 🙂

  • Terrific post, A.J., and to me this is the key right here: “Writers need to be able to feel, to be open to ideas, to sensations, to pain. Numb up our bodies to protect our feelings and those feelings go away. The fact that I feel things deeply is not just who I am, and it certainly isn’t weakness. Only people too scared to feel anything would think otherwise. There’s power in feeling, power writers need.”

    I am thin skinned, too. As you say, how can I not take personally unkind words about the most personal thing I do? But I do think that revenge, of a sort, comes from success. And I don’t simply mean commercial success (though that doesn’t hurt). Knowing that I have moved readers with my words, knowing that I have garnered good reviews from professional critics and Amazon readers alike — those things help, too. Like you, I can have 20 four and five star reviews on, say, Amazon, and invariably I will focus on the one guy who hated by book. At least I will in the short run. I’ve found, however, that the good feedback has more staying power. The sting of a bad review is way more intense, but it fades with time. The glow of those good reviews remains, at least for me. And that’s something at least.

  • Thanks for this AJ. I having been sending out a flood of queties and am now swimming in the sea of rejections. Thankfully it is still “swimming” and not drowning.

  • One that often hurts me is reference to writing as “my hobby”. Admittedly… I am not yet a professional, and in a certain sense it is a hobby. But the use of the word, I feel, cheapens my relationship with the activity of writing. I find writing to be more self-defining for me than what I imagine a mere “hobby” to be.

    I once got a critique back from someone who said they were trying to become an editor someday on a short story I had written which takes place entirely in a virtual/video-game world, and they said they couldn’t keep reading it. Fair enough, I figured. Lots of other people had enjoyed the story thoroughly, so one bad review wasn’t so bad. The story wasn’t meant for everyone. But one of the reasons they cited for disliking it was that the characters in the story did things like sweat or have physical pain or tire from exertion – and since this was a virtual world, the critiquer just couldn’t get over that bit of unreality. I was under the impression that the person was a genre reader, and so I was like “Really? Really? That’s your big hang-up? That a character in a virtual reality sweats?” Needless to say, I felt no need to change my story because the critiquer lacked any imagination. What I feared, however, was the possibly the critiquer had some other, more fundamental reason they couldn’t finish the story but which they didn’t know how to properly articulate… and that I’d missed an opportunity to actually make an improvement because of it.

    Critiques, even very hard ones, that help me improve, I’ve learned to love. Pointless, negative and small-minded criticism that doesn’t help me improve… Those can hurt, but sometimes I’m just as likely to be disdainful and dismissive of those.

  • Another thing this post reminded me of: a successful horror writer tells the tale of how he had an extremely negative review of his first novel. He put that reviewer in his next book, and killed them slowly. (Of course, he also changed their name and gender, so the reviewer couldn’t make a public stink about it.)

  • AJ. I too have had some really bad reviews over the years, and the rejections (which I do still have) always hurt. For a time (years) I refused to read the negative reviews because they hurt so very much. It was like being flayed alive to hear / read my work being excoriated by the revilers.

    Recently, however, I read a one star review on Amazon that said one of my characters was so full of guilt she was boring, and I took it to heart. I wrote in the next book *why* she was guilty all the time, and showed a backstory scene of the moment that broke her.

    It took 20 years, but I allowed myself to learn something from a review. Finally, I can at least *try* to learn from the wise ones. The hateful ones I still ignore, BTW. If someone just needs to draw blood, I am not offering my flesh to flay.

  • Stephen’s last comment is right on. The word critique denotes a critical look and one that should make you look critically at your work, not just a useless bash session.

  • KR1L3Y,
    you’re welcome, and yes, don’t underestimate our own capacity to attack our own work!

    Saga,
    I hope you get to crack open the bubbly, of course, but if this helps deal with the alternative, that’s good too.

    Daniel,
    yes, as David H suggests, the internet has given everyone a megaphone and what looks like a review is often just a demand for attention and a performance of the reviewer’s (putative) wit and cleverness. You’re also right that sometimes the very things some readers attack might mean it’s the right book for you!

    Laura,
    that’s sounds very sanguine and balanced, which puts you a few steps in front of me. It is good advice never to snap back at an agent or editor who has rejected you. You never know when you might cross paths with that person again. Publishing is a small world and people talk… If you acquire a reputation for being whiny, rude or otherwise difficult to work with, your career is dead.

    Thanks, David. I agree that the good stuff lasts longer even if the tang of the bad feels especially nasty when you first encounter it. And yeah, any kind of success goes a long way to take the edge off the negativity.

    Pea,
    well, to quote “Findng Nemo,” just keep swimming…

    Steven
    yes, learning to sift the constructive criticism from the clueless or hateful is key. The “hobby” thing is a tough one. I still have professional colleagues (academics) who treat my fiction in precisely that way, and it makes me want to strangle them or, better, bludgeon them to death with their one of their more “serious” monographs which has been read by 3 people… (Not that I’m bitter…)

  • Faith,
    yeah, 9 times out of 10 a bad review will just annoy/upset you, but once in a while there’s something useful to be gleaned. Those odds may not be enough to make you wade through the trash, but it’s worth bearing in mind. Some writers can simply ignore reviews good or bad, or feel they need to, but my natural curiosity always gets the better of me…

  • Thank you, AJ; your post was so very timely, it was as if the universe reached out to pat me on the shoulder. There is a big difference between critiques that offer insight and suggestions and those meant to draw blood, especially from other writers. I tend to believe that the negative stuff is somehow more legitimate than the positive. I can lose days of creativity while my mind circles the drain around one especially cruel sentence. After I stop feeling sorry for myself (I like to think that my pity parties are getting shorter), I counter such feelings by looking for the subtext that may reveal what in particular the person objected to in my writing, and see if there is something that resonates for me. The other thing I do is pull out my favorite writing books by other writers (Stephen King, Orson Scott Card, James Bell) and read a few chapters. They never fail to re-ignite my perseverance gene.

    In a wierd way, I am reassured by hearing you say that it never stops, even after you’ve ‘made it’. I never considered that even after you sell your work and made a name for yourself that the critics can still cut deep, but of course it’s true. Thank you so much for making me feel like a card-carrying member of the club.

  • Pandora,
    delighted to hear this helped a little. I think your strategy about delving into good how-to books (and just good books generally) is a great way of getting back on the horse. Circling the drain of an especially cruel sentence is a nice phrase, by the way 🙂

  • Like KR1L3Y, my first novel is still in the beginning stages, so the only negative reviews so far are my own. I agree with those who have said that many reviewers are just looking for ways to show off how clever they are, and apparently most people find it easier to be clever and negative. Many other reviewers just know what they like, and what they hate, and don’t see any reason to explain or justify their opinion–but they often expect others to share that opinion based on their say-so. As a book lover who frequently reads reviews, the bitterness and hostility in many of them just baffles me.

  • “If I think anything about bad reviews I think that maybe they’ll like the next book, or maybe they won’t, and then I get on with whatever I’m doing. It takes less energy.” –Neil Gaiman

    This may sound as though it should go under the category of Good Advice But Unrealistic. It certainly would for me. But I’ve talked with Neil -albeit briefly- and despite all the fame and attention that has been shoveled his way, he really does have his head on straighter than ninety percent of everyone I know. How he does it is beyond me to comprehend.

  • Well said and very timely. Thank you AJ.

  • Dan

    Let me try to close that Italic tag. There. Did that work?

    I’m just a beginner, so I haven’t experienced either bad professional or amateur reviews. I have had one short story rejection, however, for my first and so far only submission. And wow, did that sting. I tried to prepare myself mentally for almost inevitable rejection, but man, did it rock my confidence anyway. I just couldn’t help it. I suppose I am of Laura’s tribe in that crying it out was my response. It took a long time, though.

    I can only imagine what it’ll be like when I send off my first novel to the slaughter. It is going to be brutal, I am sure.

    Besides that short story rejection, I do have plenty of experience getting responses from my critique group. It can definitely be rough. As I’ve gotten older and less insecure in general, though, it does seem to shake me less than it used to. That seems to be the only solution I know of. Heal up from those past traumas, etc.

    It sure can be puzzling to know when to take someone’s advice or when not to. Like AJ said, even unpleasantly delivered criticism sometimes seem to have a nugget of truth in it. It’s so tough to judge, maybe more so for a beginner, especially when you get people wanting to change your story in completely opposite ways!

  • Dan

    OK, did that stop the italics?

  • Dan

    Argh. I give up.

  • Sisi,
    agreed. The vitriol some people pour into reviews of pretty innocuous books is staggering. Makes you wonder who these clowns are. Makes you glad you (hopefully) don’t know them.

    Wolf,
    well, instant points for talking to The Neil. I’m a big fan. Not entirely surprised to hear he’s so level headed about such things, though I suppose when you have the number of fans he does, it gets easier.

    You’re welcome, Sarah.

    Dan,
    no idea what’s going on with the italics. If you scroll up to the origin point of the problem it’s clearly the fault of one David B. Coe, though I hear he’s trying to blame some guy called D.B. Jackson. And yes, you are probably right that t will get rough when you send your novel out, but you know that in advance which, hopefully, will make it sting a little less. In the end, where agents and publishers are concerned, one yes makes up for a hundred nos, no matter how vehement.

  • mudepoz

    I was once in a workshop that flayed the skin right from my bones. It was awful and it left me not only not only hating my writing, but questioning my intelligence. Not good. While they might have been correct about my intelligence (I should have left much earlier), that was destructive criticism. I taught at Alverno College, an all women’s Catholic school that doesn’t grade. It’s all feedback that takes a tremendous amount of time to write. We were taught how to write feedback that was constructive.

    It took me two tries to find workshops that didn’t include a Baptist memoir writer and it really helps focus what I’m doing. As to rejections, I think I must be lucky. My first short story sold quickly, unfortunately I am now known as queen of the zombies. My second and third get wonderful rejections. I’ve gotten comments about the tight writing and humor in the horror. They just don’t have a home for it.

    My first agent rejection came after a pitch I did at the Romantic Times convention. She wanted 100 pages of my story. The rejection came quickly and was filled with very helpful edits, most that I agree with. Now I just have to go through and cut 50K words. Since I’ve given notice at the WI state run University I’ve been with for 10 years (Yay, politics!) I might have the energy to do it.

    Okay, maybe I’m a glass full (half wine, half air) kind of woman, but I’m thinking they certainly could be worse. Or perhaps my first two workshops were so bad it couldn’t get any worse? Hell, I wouldn’t let anyone see what I wrote, or know I wrote something other than doggy articles, text books, and technical stuff for a few years.

  • mudepoz

    *snort* I didn’t read anything beyond Pandora’s, since I was on my iPod. I see the word of the day is ‘Flay’.

  • Mud,
    as you know, these are the best kinds of rejections: constructive, specific and encouraging. I hear too often of writers being crushed by the fact of rejection and failing to see just how positive the bulk of the actual content is. It’s tough when editors say that they like a book but don’t have room for it or are otherwise not right, but that’s real, not a polite dodge. Publishers have very specific slots and sometimes good work just won’t fit. So you take it elsewhere or find ways to edit to fit the slot better. Still, relatively nice problems to have 🙂

  • […] all of the time?  Well, on Magical Words, which I guest blog for regularly, AJ Hartley did a wonderful post a few days ago on Dealing with Negativity.  It’s something we all encounter, and it can be so […]