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Prepare for the Critics, the Nasty Ones

November 12, 2012 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified November 12, 2012

No matter how well written, your books will have critics. And I don’t mean critics such as those who judge a work based on its merits or its intended promises, pointing out where it either fulfilled or failed those promises. I’m talking about nasty critics who sling mud at a book just because they can.

These critics either have baseless grounds for dumping their bad critiques or they pick apart one (often) minor element of a story and focus on it to the exclusion of anything else. They often ignore the quality of the writing, the scope of the plot, and the insights of the characters, as if the one element they noted is far more important than those that most critics note and that readers typically come to a book for.

Instead they turn their attention toward some silly story weakness and trash the book—and sometimes the author—because of that one element. A element which may or may not be wrong beyond the opinion of the critic. If it, whatever it is, doesn’t fit the critic’s expectation, however, it becomes grounds for a savage attack.

Why am I addressing this issue? I spent some time on Amazon and Goodreads and Barnes & Noble this weekend, looking up books and their reviews in an array of genres and fields. I’m always curious to see what readers have to say—why do they like, love, or abhor a particular book.

And while I wasn’t surprised at some of the reviews, I was surprised at the baseless excuses provided to savage someone else’s work. I’d read some of the books whose reviews I was checking out. A few of those reviews had me wondering if I’d read the same book the reviewer had. (Quite a few of these were non-fiction books.)

I do understand that everyone has an opinion and has the right to voice it. I also understand that some people attack others simply to try to elevate themselves by bringing others down. I also understand that some books are more than poorly written and that saving potential buyers their hard-earned money by posting an honest review can be a useful service.

But to zero in on one issue of disagreement and trash a book because of an opinion concerning that one point reveals a lot more about the critic than it does the book in question or its author.

My warning to you is this: prepare for some critics to not like your book. Or to say, whether they read it or not, that they didn’t like it.

They may give logical-sounding arguments or they may just report that the book stinks. Please expect this. And know that the opinion of one or even a few nasty critics does not mean a book is garbage. The opinion of one critic certainly doesn’t mean you can’t write.

Now, maybe you do need work on your writing. But that’s a separate issue. If your writing skills or your story isn’t up to it, don’t rush to publication. You’re better off waiting until your skills have caught up with your ambitions.

But you can keep writing and working. A writer doesn’t get better by perching a dictionary or how-to book on top of his head. He gets better by writing again and again, by reading, and by learning what works, what doesn’t, and why.

But the nasty critics? I don’t know if they can get better. Do they think they’re doing the world a service by showing their ill temper? Are they scoring points from some third party by proving they know more than another writer? Do they think that a bad review negates a good book or disproves positive reviews?

My intent today is to give you a heads-up. Write your novels and publish them. And enjoy the good reviews. Learn from the constructive reviews, even those that are hard to take. But expect the nasty review and decide now, before you get one, how you’ll react.

Do not take on the reviewer. That only feeds into their pattern—attention is a reward for bad behavior and if you give it to them, they’re only emboldened the next time. If they cared that they were nasty or ignorant or hurtful, they wouldn’t have written a cutting review in the first place. Your pleas or threats will not get them to retract their review or see the light.

Don’t encourage friends or family members to take on the reviewer. This still feeds the critic’s ego and self-affirming feelings. Unless the critic has libeled you, ignore him or her. Nasty folks have the right to be nasty, but you don’t have to give them your time and attention.

Don’t feed bad behavior—it only grows. The hostile critic who is challenged comes back for more, maybe to justify his initial critique. Deny him that opportunity. If you don’t feed stray animals, they go somewhere else to be fed.

Note: I’m not talking about harassment or libel here. If the issue is dangerous or libelous, if an individual is threatening you or trying to damage your reputation, seek advice and assistance at the appropriate level. If a person is violating terms of service (TOS) on a social network, report him to the site. If he’s engaging you on your own blog, block him. If you’ve got a case of libel, seek a lawyer. If you’ve been physically threatened, seek help from law enforcement.

Learn to laugh at personal digs masquerading as professional critiques. Some folks are full of themselves. Some have no idea what they’re talking about. Some are simply jealous. If such wasn’t true, they’d be able to give a full critique, including mentioning the issue that has them so bent out of shape, without limiting their review to just the one story issue.

Now, if you’ve written something that comes across as implausible from page one and it only gets worse, if the whole book is completely out of whack, then that’s a matter that needs to be addressed. And if such is the case, don’t you want to know about the problem?

Of course, knowing before you published would be more palatable and helpful. But I don’t want you to think that all negative critique is bad or unwelcome or undeserved. Much of it helps us improve our craft.

Note: I’ve read manuscripts so filled with fiction clichés and every single writing and storytelling error—and I do mean every one, as if they were textbook examples of what not to do when writing a novel—that I thought they were put-ons, that someone was trying to see if I’d point out that not only did the emperor have no clothes, but that he wasn’t even an emperor.

While I’ve never questioned the writer of such a story, asking if he was putting me on (because that would crush the writer who knew nothing about writing a novel), I wouldn’t be surprised if some critics/reviewers feel the same way. No one wants to be made to play the fool.

If a critic thinks a story’s so bad that it must be a fake, that the writer is playing, seeing if anyone calls him on it, he may well let loose with a scathing review. I can see just this scenario playing out. What the critic forgets is that some writers do write at this level, not knowing anything about what makes good fiction. Yes, some stories really are that bad.

If you’re reading this article, I know you’re interested in writing well. You visit writing blogs, sites, or forums or are a member of a writing group or your teacher sent you this way. And that means you’re not the writer who makes every mistake. Your stories may not be perfect, but they’re on the way to being acceptable and good. I say this so you don’t start wondering if your manuscripts are the kind I’m talking about, those rife with every common and uncommon writing error.

They’re not.

If you’re a student of writing or of fiction, even if you’re a beginning writer, you’re beyond writing the kind of manuscript I’m pointing out here. Imagine a story written by someone who doesn’t read, who perhaps heard of the success of the Harry Potter books or Shades of Grey or The DaVinci Code and wants to not write a great book, but a great-selling one.

Imagine a story filled with tit-for-tat real conversations, with all their uhms and digressions and pointless banter, in place of dialogue. Imagine dialogue among a large group of characters presented with no dialogue tags. Imagine flashbacks that run on for pages or chapters. Imagine no scenes, no passage of time or mention of place, just telling, a report of events that happened to a character.

Imagine head-hopping and a mix of points of view and verbs in any and every tense imaginable.

Imagine the order of events out of sync, so that reactions come before actions or characters know what’s happened before reports of events reach them.

Imagine the same words repeated again and again. Imagine no setting details other than those dumped, en masse, into the beginning of the story. Imagine characters with no goals or motivation.

Imagine no discernible protagonist.

Imagine story events without links to those that came before and those that follow. Imagine characters with independent agendas, who have no reactions to the words or actions of others. Imagine no climax.

Imagine no transitions or narrative summary, merely a report of one character’s movements, in detail, from the time he got up to the point at which you couldn’t read anymore.

Imagine . . .

I’m certain that you can imagine. And see? This is nothing like the story you’re working on. You might have problem areas and struggles, but no doubt you’re doing some things exactly right.

Keep in mind, also, that we’re talking about books put out for the public or those that inexperienced writers think are ready for the public, not works in progress or exercises. There are vast differences between practice works and stories released to the public.

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You should want and expect honest critique, no matter what the outcome. Dishonest or misleading or crazy critiques? You should expect those too and prepare yourself to face them. No matter how good your work, you’ll have critics. No matter how well you write, someone won’t like what you write. And they may have legitimate reasons, and you may never sway them to your side. But for the nasties out there, simply expect that they’ll have something to say as well.

The Internet has made it easy for anyone to say anything at any time. Television has played its part too, showing us reality TV stars cutting each other down day after day.

No, I’m not longing for the old days—what’s here is what we’ve got and I love a lot of what we have today. I just want to let you know that no matter how nice a person you are and no matter how great a book you may write, someone’s going to give you a bad review or a hellacious review or a savage review. And that review may have nothing to do with you or your book or your credentials. It may simply be a reflection of the critic, the twisted representation of what he sees in his own mirror every day.

Write your best. Expect both good and bad reviews. And give the nasties not what they want but what they deserve—not even one moment of your day.

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Have you had experience with a nasty reviewer? Do you have advice for other writers?

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Tags: , ,     Posted in: A Writer's Life

5 Responses to “Prepare for the Critics, the Nasty Ones”

  1. Rebecca says:

    I read your comments from top to bottom and cried. I have never been so in sync with the thoughts of another person.

  2. Rebecca, I hope the tears are a good thing.

  3. Tom says:

    The troll is omnipresent. Don’t feed the troll is the best advice indeed.

  4. I can only hope that between a good review and a bad one, I will have the temperment to ignore the bad, willingness to accept the constructive and the discernment to know the difference!

  5. I’ll reply with an amen, Rebecca. There’s nothing to be gained by responding to trolls (using Tom’s very apt word). But getting free constructive advice, if it’s on target, is marvelous.

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