Reviews Blues: How to Deal with Negative Feedback

On command, authors should be able to rattle off their strengths and weaknesses in the discipline.

Me? I excel at characterization, and my dialogue’s not too shabby. On the other side, plot and pacing are consistent struggles.

Knowing this is invaluable. When I create a story, I build it around the characters. I feature more dialogue than most contemporary authors. During the creation and editing process, I spend an inordinate amount of time addressing the shortcomings.

Of course, this knowledge can come at a cost. Looking back at some of my stories, I wonder if I haven’t relied to heavily on building interesting characters or if some of those fictitious folks aren’t a bit too chatty. Strengths can become crutches.

Or to put it in terms you’d expect from a self-important blowhard like myself, “quod me nutrit me destruit.” “That which nourishes me destroys me.” It’s an inspirational quote, famously appearing in Christopher Marlowe’s Cambridge Portrait:

Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

And perhaps more famously on Angelina Jolie’s taught tummy. (Those images are copyrighted, so you’ll just have Google that.)

As writers, we have to wriggle out of our comfort zones on occasion and make ourselves uncomfortable. It allows for growth and creativity.

Take Joss Whedon for example. When told his strength was his pithy, punchy dialogue, he deliberately set about writing an episode of Buffy where the characters were mystically robbed of their voices, and a full 40 minutes of “Hush” contains not a single spoken word. It also turned out to be one of the most beloved and most critically acclaimed episodes of a show that is rife with narrative triumphs.

And it’s pants-crappingly horrifying. Don’t believe me?

Photo credit: 20th Century Fox.

The act of writing and putting that product out for the world to judge is nearly as harrowing as the Gentlemen, which probably explains why we stick to our strengths and drive them into a rut more pronounced than Jolie’s hip bone. (Again, you’re going to have to see for yourself.) We feel discomfort when we step outside our wheelhouse, take a swing at a ball outside the strike zone.

Yet, lest we go stale, we must.

Another potential cringe-inducing facet of authors, perhaps moreso in this digital age than ever, is having our work held up for criticism.

We indie authors in particular crave feedback from our readership. It’s a scientific fact that for every 50 people who read our story, only one takes the time to rate or review it. (Not actually a scientific fact. That’s just the way it seems for me.) Often, we solicit our readers to “leave an honest review.”

Let’s be frank here: when we say “honest” we really mean “5-star.” We understand that any writer’s prose isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of Earl Grey, but we’re not just “any writer.” Everyone should love us.

My fellows in the trade have all felt the swell of anticipation when a notification from their Amazon Author Page or Goodreads says they have a new review. We’ve also felt the gut punch of opening up the site to behold only a pair of stars.

As I’ve noted before, writing is a slog; it’s laborious, often painful. It’s baring your soul, exposing your private danglies and crevices to the world.

Having someone pooh-pooh your effort is akin to the pain a mother would feel if a blackguard called her newborn a wrinkly, gnarled pile of turd flesh.

We all know we shouldn’t–can’t–take it personally, yet our knee-jerk reaction is to take it personally. Our duck’s backs turn into sponges.

I’ve been mulling this idea for the last few days. Admittedly, ever since I popped on Goodreads to find someone had given “Archer Bob’s Blue-Ribbon Guide to Unique, Curious, and Inexplicable Roadside Attractions” two stars. Two freaking stars? Are you kidding me? My debut short story was exquisite!

So, for those budding and hopeful writers out there who are still following my winding train of thought, allow a fellow upstart to offer his unsolicited advice.

Star Me, Kitten

Amazon explicitly explains their rating system. Goodreads and other literary pages do not, but it’s safe to assume it’s all about the same. (It’s worth noting that five years ago, Amazon purchased Goodreads.)

5 stars – Loved It
4 stars – Liked it
3 stars – It was OK
2 stars – Didn’t like it
1 star  – Hated it

Thanks to my day job, I often think of the stars as a standard A-F grading scale. After all, I spend most of my days evaluating my students’ writing on a similar scale. What kind of hypocrite would I be if I didn’t accept the same scrutiny from my readers?

But I Got a Bunch of 5-Stars!

Yeah, so do I. Don’t get cocky.

Step back from that swell of aggrandizing pride. How many of those come from family members? Friends? Acquaintances?

Don’t get me wrong; that’s still wonderful. Any fledgling auteur is going to need his/her immediate circle to provide a boost. By the same token, however, could you imagine your mother giving you a 2-star review? For that matter, a 4? Mama, you better be thinking your precious hellspawn is top-notch.

That said, you’ll get people you don’t know who think you’re superlative too. When that happens, stand up and give yourself a good old fashioned ass smack. Hell, leave a red handprint there. You earned it.

Just don’t get an oversized noggin. There was a time when I had a perfect streak going, and not just family. I might have even made a couple of true fans along the way. (I love you too, Cheryl. Keep reading and reviewing.)

That streak will end.

Oh No! Someone Only Gave Me Four!

Alas! I hope your liquor cabinet is well stocked because you’ve just found out you are a failure at your passion. /sarcasm

Smile. Be grateful. Maybe still low-five yourself, just with less vigor.

Remember what four stars means? I liked it. Someone read your story and liked it. That’s an accomplishment. I’m guessing if you’re a writer you also love to read. Do you love every single narrative you pick up? For that matter, haven’t you slapped a few four-star ratings out there too?

As a professor, I’m often baffled when I get students who complain about making a B in my class. It’s a freaking B. B means “good.” Who wouldn’t want to be good? It’s a far cry from the kiss of death. Chiefly because college is hard.

Writing fiction could possibly be harder. Revel in the good.

Three Stars? My Life Is Over.

“It was OK” certainly doesn’t have the same ring as “I liked it.” Nonetheless, it shouldn’t send you into a spiral of gloom and doom.

I also tell my students “C’s get degrees.” It might seem ridiculous to those of you who haven’t donned the hallowed halls of academia in the past decade or more, but grade inflation has given most of my pupils Lake Wobegon Syndrome, where “all the children are above average.”

I actually take class time to explain the definition of “average.” Maybe some of my students think I’m a fist-waving curmudgeon–and I am–but I do realize the stigma our society has put on the word. Hell, I don’t want to be an average writer. I will never win a Pulitzer or a Nobel, but I still think I’m better than the next. (Especially if the next is Stephenie Meyer.)

Truth bomb: even above-average storytellers are going to have some readers who think they are average.

If I may be permitted a digression here, I’d like to flash back to the release of my short story “Amorous Birds of Prey.” My first title fell solidly into the genre of horror (more about that below), and my second, “Baptized in Dirty Water,” was technically Southern Gothic, though there were elements common in horror stories present.

It’s not that I didn’t want to get pigeonholed. I’m not that snob who decries “genre fiction” as an inferior art form. It’s just that I wanted to try my hand at another classification near and dear to my heart: literary fiction. Incidentally, for some inexplicable reason, nearly that entire sub-category on Amazon Kindle is populated with romance novels.

And, I suppose, my story is a romance. It tells the story of a writer/creative writing professor (who, I swear, is not a stand-in for me) and his affair with a married ornithologist. There are slightly less literary allusions as T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, and–not to spoil anything–but, like most noncommercial fiction, happily ever after is a pipe dream.

For a while, I was sitting on one solid five-star review. (You’re my hero, Cheryl!) Then a new one popped up. 3 stars.

I’m going to paraphrase. The reviewer said it was good, mentioned that it had funny moments. However, she was quick to point out that the two protagonists were only interested in the sexual allure of the other, not really caring about the three-dimensional being attached to the naughty bits.

I read it several times. I blinked and rubbed my eyes, then read it again. I might have even spoken to the screen. “Well, duh. That’s sort of a major point of the whole yarn.”

I contemplated responding to the review. Of course, the first few minutes of soul-searing ire urged me to hit the caps lock and rage type.

When collected me resurfaced, I still mulled about a response. “Hi, [name redacted]. Thank you for reading for my story. I’m glad you found parts humorous. I would like to address …”

After more minutes, maybe hours, days, whatever, I accepted the review. I still think the very point that tainted the story for her was a necessary part of the tale. But, clearly she expected one thing, and she didn’t get it.

It’s OK. Same thing she thought about my text.

Moral? Nothing good is going to come of you personally, publicly confronting a review you perceive as negative. Let it go.

And if you start singing that god-forsaken song from that kiddie movie, I swear I will hunt you down and leave 1-star reviews of all your work.

But … But … Twos. That Means “Didn’t Like.”

Hey, I’m there with ya’. Remember what I said earlier? The whole genesis of this essay came from a two-star rating.

How could you not like what I wrote?

This discovery really did knock the air out of my lungs. It didn’t help that it was only a rating, not text review to go alongside.

Every semester, my classes do instructor evaluations, on a 1-5 scale, similar to the stars. I tell my students to be honest. I also mention that if they are going to be critical, they should leave comments explain why they gave negative marks.

I always get a disgruntled student or two who marks the Scantron solid ones and doesn’t do me that common courtesy.

Likewise, I would like to know why this one person didn’t like “Archer Bob’s.” Hell, all stories have weaknesses. Would be nice to hear where this reader thought I fell short. Instead, I’m just looking at two stars marring my overall rating.

Archer Bob’s” is classified as horror. It’s not a run-of-the-mill, jump-scare sort. It’s character driven.

I thought of some recent movies classified as horror that I really enjoyed, The Witch and It Follows immediately coming to mind. Many moviegoers hated them because they were slow-burn, cerebral pieces.

I like to think “Archer Bob’s”–while not achieving the same level of brilliance–is cut from a similar mold.

Maybe this rater expected a piece that conformed a little more to the genre. Maybe [whatever gender] anticipated more moments of terror, more supernatural, more explicitness. I will admit it’s a subtle tale that requires its readers to assemble parts of the jigsaw, even after the denouement.

I also have to entertain the notion that this reader could, in fact, be intelligent, and whatever I wrote just didn’t nuzzle the sweet spots.

In the end, I have to accept the fact that I’ll never know what was so irksome.

I can also take solace in the fact that this individual merely “didn’t like it,” not “hated it.” Something about my text added a paltry extra star. Could be worse.

OK, Smartypants, One Star. Nothing Is Worse.

You’re right. One star, hated it, I fart in the hamster-lineaged direction of your elderberry-smelling work.

That one’s gotta’ hurt.

Truth be told, I’ve yet to receive a single star. That’s not to brag. I just don’t have a whole hell of a lot of reviews. It’s hard enough just getting people to read what you’ve written. Pulling teeth, one might say. Getting them to click on a row of stars, much less take time to provide text reviews, is like pulling the teeth of an unsedated lion.

Yet I know it’s coming.

In anticipation, I’ll try to imagine my reaction.

The people who rate you one-star are the same ones who gave The Emoji Movie five. They didn’t understand your work because they didn’t read it, and they didn’t read it because they are illiterate.

Or they’ve been hired by that one malicious ex of yours to sabotage your writing career.

Or they’re Russian bots who got tired to influencing elections and now want to destroy authors with true potential, like yourself.

They don’t exist.

What Does It All Mean?

Public Domain, courtesy of Petr Kratochvil

We thrive on reviews, but not all of them are going to give your ego a happy ending. I hear screenwriters, novelists, directors, actors all the time who say they don’t read what critics have to say.

I’d be willing to bet Monopoly money, should we hook them up to a polygraph, they do. We all want to be accepted, to be liked. Loved even.

Not everyone’s gonna’.

I do read my text reviews, several times. If I’m able to click on raters and see what else those people have loved, liked, disliked, etc., I will.

Feedback is an essential part of our craft. We get it differently nowadays, but writers have always sought the opinions of others.

Learn what you can. Approach both positive and negative reviews with an open mind. Acknowledge the salient points and ignore the few yokels who extract an almost sexualized gratification from expressing displeasure behind the removed safety of a keyboard.

Whatever you do, just don’t let it stop you from doing what you do. The world needs storytellers, and, at this crucial junction in human history, they aren’t getting the respect they deserve.

Tell your story. Think about your audience. But don’t think about them so much that you turn your life’s work into some festering MRSA boil like The Transformers franchise.

Unless you’re Michael Bay. Then–for the love of the Flying Spaghetti Monster–stop making movies. I give them all one star.

And, last I checked, I’m neither slack-jawed nor Russian.

Stephen G. Melvin is a professor, essayist, lecturer, producer, and author who lives in Florence, Alabama. His short stories include “Baptized in Dirty Water,” “Amorous Birds of Prey,” “A Shaken Shadow,” and “Confines, Wards, & Dungeons.”

You can follow his Amazon Author Page and befriend him on Goodreads. And please, feel free to leave honest reviews (you know what he means … wink, wink) on both.

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