Ask most aspiring writers what they think are the fundamental ingredients for publishing success and they’ll probably say talent, a killer story idea, awesome characters, a perfectly polished query letter, and a lot of luck. In short, you need to write a kick-ass book and get it in front of the right people.
All of those things are true. The trouble is, what constitutes a kick-ass book is a very subjective matter. If you don’t believe me, try looking up a few of your favourites on Amazon or Goodreads and check the one star reviews. I guarantee you there will be some, and they won’t be pretty. Something you consider to be a work of life-changing genius will have left someone else apoplectic with rage, perplexed, or just plain indifferent. Personally I find the latter the hardest to swallow. Hate I can deal with. ‘Meh’ breaks my heart!
That’s why I believe the best asset you can have as a writer is a thick skin.
It’s almost certainly a given that anyone who’s had work published - be it a novel, an article, or a short story in an anthology - has experienced rejection to some degree. A ‘no’ from an agent or an editor is never pleasant, but generally you can take comfort in the fact it wasn’t personal. Perhaps the story wasn’t a good fit with the others selected for the collection. Maybe that agent already represents a romance about a voodoo high priest and a timid young missionary. On the flipside, a ‘yes’ is like finding a golden ticket. It never loses its lustre. And it’s tempting to think that once you’re in print, you’re immune to disappointment. Until the first negative review rolls in…
However level-headed you are, and however many time it’s happened to you, seeing a reader savage something you’ve spent blood, sweat, and tears honing - possibly for years of your life - is always a smack in the mouth. So how do you get past your initial knee-jerk reaction and deal with the feelings of anger, inadequacy, and despondency negative feedback can evoke?
Firstly, I think it’s important to distinguish between the various types of bad review. Once the initial feelings of heart-sink and outrage have passed, take a deep breath, get yourself a cup of tea/coffee/gin, and read the offending article as objectively as possible. Try and take the emotion out of it. Pretend you’re reading a review of someone else’s work if it helps. Do not be tempted to respond, especially not in the heat of the moment. That way madness lies.
What is the tone of the review? Is it hyperbolic, personal, or deliberately offensive? If so, you are probably dealing with a troll. We all know there are people out there in cyberspace who get their jollies attacking people from the anonymous safety of an online persona, and they really aren’t worthy of your headspace. Unfortunately trolling is rife. Try browsing the mentions of your favourite celebrity on Twitter for a few minutes. Even people who claim to be fans can send the most entitled and abusive messages sometimes. Unless you’re being targeted by someone who is engaging in threatening or illegal behaviour, it’s best to just ignore this kind of taunting. It’s just a sick compulsion, and has no bearing whatsoever on you or your abilities. If you have a loyal following, the chances are they will shoot trolls down on your behalf anyway, but I don’t recommend encouraging a flame war. Karma will out. Don’t dwell. Read something you enjoy and leave some feedback. Spread positivity and love. There’s nothing trolls hate more than someone who’s impervious to their attempts at provocation.
More often than not, a bad review is just that. Someone, for one reason or another, didn’t like your writing. I know it’s hard when you’re at the top of the despair spiral, staring down into the dark core of it and considering throwing your laptop out of a window, but again, try to be analytical. It may feel that way, but it’s unlikely your reviewer is attacking you personally. What is the reader actually saying? Humility is your friend here. Galling as it might be, perhaps your critic has a point? Have they hit a nerve because they have shone a spotlight on a genuine flaw that you failed to fix? Maybe you knew your main character was a bit passive but hoped no one else would notice. Is your pacing all over the place? Perhaps your ending is a little weak. If so, take the comments on board and chalk it up to experience. We’re all works in progress; we’re all learning a craft. Dust yourself off, and vow that your next protagonist will drive the action like a total BAMF.
Sometimes a reader will find something in your work distasteful. There is nothing you can do about this. Stand by your work and try not to second guess yourself. Everyone has the right to be offended, but that doesn’t mean you have to censor yourself or apologise. You’re a writer, not a moral compass. Some people just won’t get it. Again, remember that your agent, your publisher, your editor, all the readers who left positive reviews, they did get it. Concentrate on them instead, and don’t waste your energy chasing the naysayers. You can’t write for everyone. You can only write the stories you want to tell in your own unique voice, and if you stay true to yourself, your authenticity and passion will find you the right audience. I promise.
Sometimes, someone will just plain hate your stuff, and you know what? That’s fine. Personal taste is just that, and there’s no accounting for it. Don’t wallow, don’t let self-doubt mess with your mojo. The best way to get over the pain of a bad review is to work on the next project. Get lost in a new and exciting idea. Fall down a rabbit hole. Find a new obsession. You birthed a piece of work, it has a life of its own, and now it’s time to let go. It’s out in the world. Your job is done. Let it fend for itself and channel your emotions into creating something else. You can’t control what people say about your work, but you get to choose how you react to their words. The only difference between the happy and the unhappy, the lucky and the unlucky, is perception. Don’t get dragged down into the mire of negativity. Stay in the light.
Better still, be a beacon.
Now go make something beautiful.
Katie Young is a writer, fantasist and occasional zombie movie ‘supporting artiste’.
She also works in kids’ TV but wishes she were a rock star. She has various shorts available to download from Ether Books, and has tales featured in anthologies from Collaboration of the Dead Press, Angelic Knight Press, Indigo Mosaic, Song Stories Press, Static Movement and Fox Spirit Books.
Her story, Atelic, was shortlisted for the 2010 Writers’ & Artists’ Year Book short fiction prize, and she is a regular contributor to the Are You Sitting Comfortably? story-telling events run by White Rabbit in her native London. The Other Lamb is her first novel. She lives in Greenwich with her partner and a second-hand cat. She’s not a natural redhead.