Dealing With Critics
edited: Tuesday, February 10, 2004
By E D Detetcheverrie
Posted: Tuesday, October 28, 2003
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When you're smiling in the spotlight, sometimes someone will come along and kick you in the teeth.
Okay. I'm gonna address all of you out there who keep moaning and whining on your blogs and elsewhere about a bad review you may have gotten on your work or even several bad reviews you may have received.
Truth is, critiques can often be more helpful than harmful if you're mature enough to accept them. Sure there are jerks and morons out there who like to kick puppies, and perhaps your piece was trashed by one of them--someone, often anonymous, who, it seems, may not have even read any of what you wrote.
Having worked in a bookstore for a couple of years, I can tell you why people buy books.
1. They've heard of the author or read their other works.
2. Oprah said it was good.
3. The book deals with a subject familiar to or of interest to the potential reader.
4. It's not even for them--they're buying it for someone else.
5. Interesting cover.
I've never heard of anybody purchasing a book just because the back cover or the first twelve pages were full of fantastic praise for the book or any of the author's other works. Here's an ugly little tidbit for ya--many book reviewers are PAID to make a book sound better than it is. I've done this myself ONCE. I'm not happy about it.
I was asked if I'd review books for a magazine. I said sure. No mention of money at first. The book was sent to me along with a check. I asked what, exactly, they wanted in the review since I don't usually give a synopsis of the book itself like so many amateur reviewers do, opting instead to discuss the author's talents or lack thereof. I was instructed to make the book sound good. This bothered me. I hadn't even read it yet. The book turned out to be bland. Not really good, not really bad, just somewhere in between--mainly due to the writer's lack of storytelling ability and inability to come up with more than an endlessly repeated handful of adjectives. The review I wrote was brief, and the highlights focused strictly on the fact the book was "light reading", "soft-core", with "likeable" characters. I recognized that it might be a good title for newcomers to the genre or younger readers. I never said I didn't care for it--which I did not--but if I'd had the ability to be honest about it, then perhaps the upset author might've learned from my opinion and been able to correct some of the problems with the overall story and style.
Is that the kind of review you're looking for? Dishonesty to push your perhaps incompetent crap toward readers who'll soon learn what kind of fraud you are and never purchase anything of yours again?
Harsh, ain't I? Welcome to the world of critics, babe.
A guy emailed me about his "friend's" book. I suspect maybe he was trying to sell his own stuff and he'd used a pen name--not sure. Anyway, it was a self-published Print On Demand thing, and while these are generally overpriced and often crap, I actually spent my own money to buy a copy to review. Print On Demand publishers are Vanity publishers and don't let anyone tell you otherwise. If you're paying for the book to become print, then it's vanity. Probably 90% of what's vanity published is crap because anybody with enough money can do it--no talent required. And they do. That's how these companies make money. $500.00 to feed a manuscript that'll never or hardly sell into a computer. Pure profit, my friend. If you don't sell a copy, they've still milked you dry. If you sell a few or more, they're still getting more out of you than you'll ever see for yourself. Don't get me wrong--POD has advantages, but, still, most of what they "publish" is trash, full of grammatical errors, poor spelling, poor punctuation, poor storytelling, pointless stories. Okay, 'nuff said. Back to the guy with the book. I get the book and the cover's pretty cool and the back cover has text on it that makes it sound like a Crichton novel--awesome! I now suspect anybody but the author composed that back piece. As I began the story, I noted the numerous spelling, punctuation, grammatical, etc. errors, so I told myself grimly that I'd try and focus on the storyline instead. While the story was certainly different, it was slow to the point of tedium, and about halfway through it, the point of it all suddenly came to me and I found myself shaking my head muttering, "No...no...can't be..." I scanned ahead to learn that my guess was dead-on, much to my chagrin. Lame story. I gave it two out of five points. Why give it any at all if it sucked so much? The guy had a very unique and original idea, even though he couldn't plot it out very well. He also had a knack for keeping the bulk of the story realistic. I had to give him credit for those because I recognized some meagre potential for him at least and while the overall review was terrible, I was able to recognize that with encouragement and (hopefully) some writing-type courses, this guy might one day succeed in impressing me.
I don't know if he got any of the encouragement out of my review. Probably, I pissed him off and made his family and friends upset. Or not. Let me tell you about reviews from family and friends.
Do you tell your friend that outfit looks hideous? Do you encourage him to try and hide his wayward eye? Probably not. Some friends you can do this with, but not all of them. What about a stranger? Could you tell a girl in the mall she's not fooling anybody trying to dress like a Salvation Army Brittney Spears? Yikes! Better not go there. We can tell the truth (our honest opinions anyway) behind someone's back better than we can to their face, often just because we have no idea what kind of (probable) negative reaction they might have. Your friends and family members will probably support your writing no matter how bad you suck. This is something you HAVE to recognize, or else you may very well be just deluding yourself. Every freakin' POD "author" on Amazon.com has glowing reviews from family and friends. Knowing this, how can you possibly trust the reviews? I'VE got freaking F&F reviews on my books--and I even review my OWN stuff! Nobody's payin' me to review my work, so I'm honest about it. I've spent many years in retail, and I've always been the un-salesman, telling people they can get that book or jacket elsewhere at a lower price, or to come back next week when it's on sale, or don't even get it--it's crap. My managers have taken me aside for one-sided conversations given from between clenched teeth, and yet I've always ranked as the number one or number two salesman consistently everywhere I've worked. Consumers find honesty refreshing. I won't tell you I have a five-star book until I have one. My friends and family members try to convince me everything I do is either five star or at least 99% there...
Strangers are your best critics. You think great reviews will sell your work and get you known, but you're wrong. The moment people start buying your work and discover they're unhappy with it for whatever reason, they'll warn their own friends and family members. Word of mouth carries more weight in reality than anything a professional critic says. If people don't like your work, word gets out, and no one will be fooled into buying a second thing you've done. If one or two bad reviews freak you out when the rest of your reviews from unbiased, unpaid strangers are good, then let them go. Forget 'em. Who cares?
Now let's learn from our mistakes, shall we? In one of my least liked Quasar 169 stories, some of the action takes place in an elevator shaft. My knowledge of elevator shafts is obtained exclusively from movies. It's not a technical scene, so I never worried about research. It's a freakin' square, vertical tunnel with a box in it that moves up and down by way of cables, right? Some of my readers commented on this scene. They said it was hard to follow. They couldn't picture what I was trying to convey. I wasted valuable time trying to explain the scene in person. Then it dawned on me. I was being foolish, unprofessional, and immature. If the readers needed someone to verbally explain the scene, it obviously didn't work! Duh! I went back and rewrote it. Nope. Not good enough. Tried it again. Gettin' there... Again. Better, but still a bit murky... In the final draft it's been simplified, and while I can picture the action clearly in my head when I read it, I recognize that a few of my readers are still getting bogged down there. Unless I just tried to use a friggin' staircase, I'm not sure how much more I could've tweaked it, and thus it stands...and I always wince a little when I read those few paragraphs now. By the way, the elevator scene is not the reason it's my least-liked story. It's the first story the hero does by himself, and nobody really cared for him without his partner at his side. That, and even I have to admit the romance in it is a bit contrived. Sigh.
In Quasar Real, I introduce Virtual Holography to my readers. Virtual Holography is basically taking Hollywood's version of Virtual Reality and blending it with the Holosuites out of Star Trek. There's science behind it. I love science, but when the science used is fictional, you may still have to plan out and formulate how the stuff works. I used graph paper and my scientific calculator and a drawing compass to show degrees for this one scene I use where a girl on a trapeze is about to fall to her death. She believes she's 30 feet or so up in the air, but she's only maybe six feet from the floor in reality. While her computer generated world is revealed as a circus tent with poles spaced another 30 feet or so apart, in reality, all this is taking place inside a room maybe twenty feet by twenty feet. The heroine had to rescue the girl from falling by calculating the actual angle she would have to fly at her from in order to catch her in mid-air. I know...you're thinking a fall of six feet won't kill her. In Virtual Holography, the environment responds to what the controller believes at any given time. Thus, if she thinks she's falling thirty feet, the ground will rise up and smack her with the same impact...just trust me on this one. It works fine in the story. You're still confused, though, and so were the readers of the initial manuscript. Again, because I was explaining things verbally and with props this time, it was clear the scene required a good overhaul. I overhauled it. Simplified it. The science and the scene still stand.
Thus, without my critics, the examples I've mentioned might've been left as they were originally written, and this kind of writing--this kind of disregarding my readers' opinions--might've spelled the end of my series. Who'd want to read further if they couldn't understand half of what I'd tried to convey? I even tried to completely omit the story with the elevator scene, but it sets up a later story that won't work at all without it. Any writer that tells you all of his or her works are great or wonderful or whatever is full of himself, herself, or something else. I'm just grateful things worked out so that I was able to set my writing aside long enough to go back over it later and review it with fresh eyes. Sure, it was pretty cool stuff, but I couldn't really write for crap, and I needed the time to polish my style and refine my storytelling technique. My friends never mentioned anything about that, save for one girl who kept telling me I was gonna be famous for using so many run-on sentences. Thank you, Marge. I appreciate your honesty.
Finally, who are you writing for anyway? Is the person who gave you the bad review someone you never intended the book for? A big-name author wrote a book about the life of Christ. If you liked the film Dogma, you'd love this book. He gets odd and poor reviews from religious types. Gee--who'da thought that, huh? Is some mom tryin' to get your stuff banned 'cause her pwecious baby-waybums got a hold of it? Did you write the book for kids that age? How the heck did the kid get hold of it? As long as you're marketing towards the right people, you can pretty much dismiss those kinds of critics. Right now, while full of foul language and probably rated "R" if it was a movie, my sci-fi series is marketed toward the eighteen and older crowd. There are no warnings on it, because hey, plenty of kids a bit younger than 18 see, hear, and read stuff like it everyday. It isn't everyone's cup of tea. If you don't get that from skimming a couple of pages before you buy it, what can I do? It would never be shelved in the religious section, nor will Oprah touch it, I'm sure. As it becomes increasingly more graphic and "offensive", I will add the appropriate labeling. It's not my desire to educate nor offend anyone. Like with food, I want my contents spelled out for ya. Nobody allergic to anything in my books will have a reaction to them. Not as long as they read the label. I'm not looking for bad publicity, but I'm not afraid of bad reviews. If you read my stuff and don't care for it and you want to voice this, just be sure to point out what you didn't care for so I can try and work on that. Anybody who bashes a work vaguely is an idiot whose opinions shouldn't matter to you. You can even remain anonymous for all I care--just be specific when there's something you don't like. I swear to God I'll review the bad spot myself and see what I can do to avoid it in the future.
I worked in TV, too. Live broadcast news. Most of the time, my job was to catch grammatical, spelling, and punctuation errors before they went on air as onscreen graphics. No one is 100% successful at this, but if you work in TV, then you know you need to strive for that kind of success anyway. Because many of the reporters and so-called "talent" were college graduates who, it often seemed, must've bought or cheated their way through journalism class, it was not uncommon for any one of them to come storming down the hallway after the news was over, screaming like the giant two-year olds they often were, red faced and lumpy-veined because I'd spelled something wrong or corrected something that wasn't wrong. After, or sometimes to my delight during, their tirade, the director would ask me to prove via a dictionary or other source that what I'd done was indeed correct after all. Oh, I screwed up numerous times all right, but there was always immense satisfaction in proving I'd done the right thing and that the "talent" was just a hair-triggered, overly inflated, idiot. In other words, if you're going to bust on somebody, make sure you know what the hell you're talking about. Don't criticise someone's use of grammar, etc. when it's obvious from your review you have little grasp of it yourself. Even Tom Clancy has an occasional typo in his books. It would be foolhardy to harp on this without knowing how to spell yourself. If your critic falls into this category, just laugh it off. Poor editing can harm your work. I see lots of typos and poor grammar and such here in Author's Den. No wonder some of you people haven't been picked up by "Big-Time" companies or promoters. Why should they take you seriously? If you're not committed to making yourself seem professional, then what other areas are you a slacker in?
You got a bad review. So what? Can you learn from it? Improve from it? Is it legitimate? Are there multiple bad reviews from a variety of individuals? Do they all seem to point out the same basic thing(s)? Has the reviewer even read your work? Is there any evidence they have? Is it a personal attack? Are you able to remove the bad review from your site? Would it be honest to remove an honest review from an unbiased source? Are you trying to push your crappy work on people just to make a dime/try and gain fame? Do you want to learn from your mistakes and use them to improve what you do? Are you mature enough to face a reality in which sometimes people won't like everything you do and that we live in a country which tries to promote the illusion of free speech?
You got a good review?
Was the person paid (by you or your publishing company) to make you sound better than you really are? Is it a review from a friend or relative who's obviously biased toward you? Does the review gloss over your shortcomings? Did the reviewer even read your book?
When you get noticed, people form opinions of you. Deal with it. If it's all negative, change or market to somebody else. If it's all positive, run with it if the sources are honest ones. Mixed reviews? You're blessed. You should be able to fine tune your strengths and work on your weaknesses. Just can't deal with the stress of any negative comments at all? You're in the wrong field--get out or grow up.
Web Site: Dig Team Detetcheverrie
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|Reviewed by Anne Brooks
|Great article.I agree with you:image is very important to sell books.Take AD for instance, I started by placing poems on witchcraft and witches (pure fiction) and innocent pictures of ,I think, wicca gatherings.I live in France ,no one has heard of Wicca ,nor the Salem witch trials and I feel I have to censure my-self or else be branded as a witch ...expression seems to be a illusion in a country where The 1789 Revolution took place ,challenging oppression and inequality. People have to open up to novelty and diversity..Anne Pawlak.|
|Reviewed by Susan Sparks (Reader)
|This is excellent and full of wisdom. Writing is not for thin-skinned people. All criticism, good, bad, and even ugly is positive if a writer learns something from it and becomes a better writer because of it.|
|Reviewed by Erin Kelly-Moen
|Informative and well written, Ed.|
|Reviewed by Julie Donner Andersen
|Excellent piece, E.D. Lots of wisdom and truth. "If ya can't stand the heat, get out of this writing business" should be every writer's mantra.
A bit lengthly for a typical article, but it held my interest until the end. Good job.
|Reviewed by Elizabeth Taylor (Reader)
|Ahhh, critics...ya' gotta love 'em. And you are right, if something is panned, I'd rather form my own opinion. Good article. Writing is a tough business to be in. You have to be able to handle the rejection.|