Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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March 16, 2012

How To Handle A Scathing Review

Writers In The Storm is especially pleased to welcome our guest blogger, Kristina McMorris. She comes to us from the Pacific Northwest where refuses to carry an umbrella.

Recipient of nearly twenty national literary awards, she’s hosted weekly TV shows since the age of nine, including an Emmy® Award-winning program.

Her debut novel, the highly acclaimed, Letters from Home (Kensington books, Avon/HarperCollins UK), was inspired by her grandparents’ wartime courtship. It was declared a must-read by Woman’s Day Magazine and was a Reader’s Digest Select Editions feature as well as a Doubleday Literary Guild selection. Her second novel, Bridge of Scarlet Leaves (March 2012) has already received glowing reviews from Publisher’s Weekly and Kirkus Reviews.

By Kristina McMorris

Unfortunately, for authors—as much as we deeply wish our own books were magically immune to such pride-shredding atrocities—there's no escaping bad reviews. It's just part of the gig.

Of course, this doesn't change the fact that it isn't always easy to gracefully handle a stranger's public declaration that our "baby," whom we've lovingly nurtured through teething and first steps and colicky nights, is flat-out ugly. Worse yet, that our sweet child is so ghastly a creation it should be scorned and forever ostracized.

I admit, I'm confused by this concept. Not that bad reviews exist; the literary world would be a boring one if every reader shared the same opinion. (Case in point, there are enough fans of the movie "Saw" to warrant millions of production dollars and a series of SEVEN films.) Rather, what I'm referring to are the vicious, you deserve to die for writing such a steaming pile of doggy-doo kind. Fortunately, I haven't been the victim of such a review to date, but I'm not naive enough to believe one isn't headed my way in the future.

I can't help but wonder what prompts such anger, and not merely toward the work, but the author as well—particularly when the topic isn't a controversial one. Indeed the internet, in both good and bad aspects, has provided a microphone to the masses, encouraging "anonymous" commenters to often express words they'd likely never say in person. With the promotional trend of free ebooks today, the chances of readers sampling a book that defies their tastes have never been greater.

And yet, the overwhelming advice distributed among writers remains: Do. Not. Respond.

Gripe to your family and friends, even create a voodoo doll akin to a sock monkey if you must. Then, after you've had a chance to cool off, visit a site like Goodreads or Amazon, look up your three all-time favorite novels, and read at least two one-star reviews of each. The nastier, the better—because hey, how could any person in their right mind despise such a work of brilliance?!

To further heal your wounds, reread wise words of advice like

"If you get a bad review, it's because someone outside your target audience has found your book and gave it a shot. It's no reflection on them as a reader, and no reflection on you as a writer. If, as an author, you don't understand this, your writing will suffer, because you'll be writing not to get bad reviews instead of writing to reward your target audience."   - John Locke

Then there's my personal favorite…

"I get out my work and have a show for myself before I have it publicly. I make up my own mind about it—how good or bad or indifferent it is. After that the critics can write what they please. I have already settled it for myself so flattery and criticism go down the same drain and I am quite free."   - Georgia O'Keefe

And finally, once you've done all of the above, it's time to brush away those self-doubts, sit your tush back down at that computer, and, for the readers who eagerly await your next book, forge ahead and write.

Have any readers here at WITS had bad reviews? How did you handle them?

Kristina's Links:

Behind-the-book video (2.5 min)  

0 comments on “How To Handle A Scathing Review”

  1. The advise not to respond to reviews is a good one because, as with forum posts, it is a bad idea to feed the trolls. If you feed them they come back with more vitriol because you have justified their spite. If you ignore them they might go away.

    I don't mind a review which is constructive and actually points out valid criticisms (and sometimes I even agree with them) but I actually do not see the point in making a wholly negative review.

    One thing to consider are sites like Trip Advisor.(http://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/) which often have quite damning reviews of hotels by members of the public who have (presumably) been to the places they are reviewing. I have read reviews of hotels I have stayed in on that site which make me wonder if they have been to the same place I have and some of them seem to think things like the weather and bad traffic are somehow the fault of the hotel. My conclusion from that experience is that many people are idiots and the opinions of idiots are not worth giving credit too...

    1. DA - You're so right. What's ironic is that the only reviews that really bother me are the ones that point out criticisms I agree with, lol. I've actually been tempted to reply to the person and say, "YES, I totally agree and would do that differently if I were allowed to rewrite the whole book!" (Wouldn't that shock the reviewer? Ha.)

      1. The only review I was ever scared of was that of my wife.... because I know she'll be honest...:)

        I can see how you'd feel that way about criticisms you agree with. But in my opinion, overall it is for the best because good crits make you a better writer. It is hard, though. And it would probably shock the reviewer...

  2. Kristina, so happy to see you here at WITS, by far my favorite writer's blog. That being said, I must say once more how much I loved your first LETTERS FROM HOME and await the delivery of your second BRIDGE OF SCARLET LEAVES ... As of this date I am at the "submitting" stage and can only relate to this topic with two experiences ... the very bad reactions to a reading of a first draft: first lesson ... never share the first draft with anyone but the cat ... and the response of a badly done query of said book, from an agent ... Two and a half sentences that more or less said ... why would I want to read this? I must state that I foolishly sent this horrible query of the horrible first draft. My reaction was to write another book. After that I went back to the agent's comments and based solely on her two and a half lines rewrote the entire book. Rewrote it three times, revised it three more times ... rewrote the dasdardly query 25 times and this month I send out the completed and finally decent query of a book that bares no resemblence to the first.

    About a finished, beloved and real life bouncing baby book? I guess I'd have to do the same. Take it in stride and sit down and write another book. I like to use the line from an old TV show ... "There are eight million stories in The Naked City." And not all of them will be liked by everyone 🙂

    1. Florence -- Thank you so much! Rest assured, I'll never get tired of hearing compliments about my "baby." 🙂

      As for querying and first drafts....we've ALL been there. In fact, I have a folder of rejection letters that must be two inches thick. Query letters require a completely different skill set than an actual book, so as writers have to hone two separate abilities. And the only way to do that is to put our mss. and letters out there, learn, improve, and try again. Best wishes to you!

  3. Excellent advice -especially the do not respond - for words on the internet last forever. There are always going to be some who like and some who don't. That being said, I know that a negative word will hurt my feelings when I finally get my "baby" out there.

    Re the not carrying umbrella - may be wise advice. Got a robo-call from my son's college about a kid walking around campus with a rifle. Called son who drove to school anyway. All kids hunkered down in safety. Police discover the student armed with an umbrella. Must have gotten that poor kid's adrenaline going - drop your weapon - he puts umbrella down on ground. Bet he gets a collapsable umbrella for future use. Still, I'm grateful for the extra caution. Rather they err on the side of caution.

    1. Heather -- So true! I think people forget that even though we're able to delete on a computer, once something is posted, it's etched forever in the cyber world.

      That's too crazy about the umbrella story! As they say, stranger than fiction, right? Hmm...might have to use that one in a future book. Ha!

  4. Thanks for blogging with us, Kristina!

    I just read 'Letters' and can't imagine anyone not liking it - can't wait to pick up 'Bridge!'
    My first book comes out next July, and I trying to steel my heart already . . . I'm saving the Georgia O'Keefe quote above to read when I need it.

    Oh, and I'll vent to my buds . . . and I may write a reply to the commenter - - but I promise not to hit SEND. 😉

    1. Laura -- Compliments like yours are framable. You know this, don't you?? 🙂

      Georgia was a genius, no doubt about it. I so look forward to (hopefully someday) developing that same wise perspective. How freeing that must be. Until then, yes, we share with friends and avoid the SEND button.

  5. Oh, Kristina, of course you've hit a chord with all of us, right? I just got a chance to talk with an agent about the book I'm sending out query letters for and she said the exact opposite of what my editor and critique person told me was happening with my novel. Who to believe? I have to go with my gut and my critique person who reviewed and edited the entire book as opposed to the agent who had only read my query letter. It's a hard ball game submitting your work to people "out there", but you have to know in your heart what's good and what works and ultimately we make the decision what others see.

    1. Patricia -- Agents, editors, and CPs are people, like everyone else, with differing opinions shaped by their own personal experiences. And as I mentioned above, query letters are vastly different than books -- a query is like a billboard ad, meant simply to grab someone's attention and make them want to know more.

      I can tell you that my previous agent had read LETTERS FROM HOME in manuscript form and refused to shop it because "it didn't have one single compelling love story in the book." I felt differently. I soon signed with another agent who subbed it on a Friday and received a call on Monday from the editor who then bought it. Bottom line, when it comes to telling your story, treat criticism like a cafeteria line: pick and choose what works for you. After all, this is YOUR story. So tell it.

  6. Kristina, I've received a couple bad reviews for my memoir, Six Cats In My Kitchen, from people who don't approve of some of my cat care beliefs. That is their right, and I've also received enough glowing reviews for Six Cats to know some folks like it. However, I got a stinker review from one person who, after reading only a few pages by her admission, said she hopes the author (me) isn't trying to make a living from writing. That one stung. I didn't reply directly to her, but did write a blog post about such reviews. Probably a mistake, but it's out there so no point in worrying now.

    Thanks for your valuable advice about handling such reviews. I'll take it to heart.

    1. I would say you're in a more challenging situation than many authors in that many people, as you well know, have very strong feelings about animals -- their pets, in particular. We're all seen people who pamper their cuddly companions more than their own children. Thus, when it comes to opinions of caring for pets, I imagine there are readers who will have a visceral, knee-jerk, defensive reaction. Much of that is going to have little to do with you or your writing. It's about their own past and perspective and how they interpreted what you wrote, regardless of what's actually on the page.

      A memoir is YOUR personal story. Don't let another person's personal story affect how you feel about your own. Best wishes for your book's success!

  7. You already equated it to movies (aptly with seven Saws - can that be possible?!). The analogy that keeps me humming a happy tune is the varied taste in music. One of my all-time favorite bands is The Cocteau Twins. I don't know anyone else who even likes them (besides my wife), let alone loves them like I do. I've played them for folks I thought might like them. Nope. Almost never. And yet, when I look them up online I find legions of devoted fans, worldwide. And this is 16 years after their breakup! There's even a club in England that meets annually.

    I write in a genre that prokes a similar 'love it' - slash - 'not so much' response (historical fantasy... and I've found it's mostly of the 'not so much' variety). As I collect rejections slips during submissions this week, I just put on The Cocteau Twins' song Summer-Blink real loud, and know that I am not alone loving them.

    P.S. Almost done with Bridge and I am decidedly a devoted fan. I love your work almost as much as I love The Cocteau Twins! 🙂 Hope that helps take away a bit of the negativity of the idiot in question. Hugs to you, my friend.

    1. Vaughn -- I do indeed adore you. To know I'm now ranked with The Cocteau Twins in your mind makes me a happy camper, lol.

      I'm so happy you're subbing! It takes a lot of courage to put your "baby" out there--to be cuddled and cooed over, or sneered at and spit on, ack. The best advice I can give you when it comes to query rejections is this (from firsthand experience): every time you receive a rejection, send out TWO more queries. That's TWO. The sting of a "no" quickly turns into double the hope. I'm SO pulling for you and just know we'll hear good news soon.

      Btw, I should probably clarify that I personally have yet to receive a super scathing "doggy-doo" type review....but I've read plenty of those kind and am perplexed by them. The same way you're bewildered by your wife's indifference to The Cocteau Twins, I imagine. Ha.

  8. Kristina, I think there is no excuse for a bad review, I can review a novel that I didn't care for without tearing up the work or the author, a review is a personal opinion and I haven't read a released book in a while so I wouldn't know what a corrected copy looks like so grammer doesn't play a part here. If I hate a book I won't review it unless it's for one of the publications I work for then I have no choice because then I'm putting away my "reader" reviewer hat and putting on my "expert" review hat but there are many ways to review a book you don't like without being mean.
    I tend to agree with the commenter who said they couldn't imagine anyone not liking your novel.

    1. Debbie -- I'm with you on this! When I read a book that doesn't do it for me, I simply close the cover and move on. I don't feel the need to "warn" other unsuspecting readers, lol.

      Thanks for your sweet words about my work; your support continues to leave me in awe. Thankfully, as I just mentioned above, I have yet to face the type of meaner-than-mean, outright attacking reviews that I wrote about in the post. But I've read them about other books and am baffled by the anger that clearly needs a convenient outlet.

      Ah, well. Different strokes... 🙂

  9. Ever rejection letter I've had over the last 20+ years feels like a bad review! However I did have one particularly nasty experience last year that has stayed with me. An agent was going to take me on and asked to read my book. She finally replied that although she could see I had put a lot of work in, it was not worth working on any further and definitely didn't deserve a sequel (it's one of three). She said, 'a lot of writers have manuscripts in their bottom drawers that don't deserve to see the light of day, and this is one of them'. I was gutted. It wasn't until later conversations with other authors that I found out, that this particular agent has a reputation for speaking this way!
    Yvette Carol

    1. Ouch! Oh, Yvette I'm so sorry. If it makes you feel any better, you should take comfort knowing that this agent was clearly NOT the right choice for you. Any agent that would use such unnecessarily mean words to express their disinterest isn't the type of person you want to work with anyway. Believe me. Wishing you the best of luck in finding the right fit!

  10. I don't believe that authors should EVER pan another writer. What possible "good reason" would there be for that? Our perspective is different, almost an inside game. There are plenty of trolls out there without us piling on. The clever sniping that many find so entertaining is close to being downright evil. Aggrandizing oneself at the expensive of another's efforts. I think a good rule is: never be anonymous. If you're not willing to put your name on it, don't write it.
    Great blog Kristina. Thanks for dealing with this.

    1. Couldn't agree with you more, Pam. More often than not, the nastiest comments online to news articles, blogs, etc are from an oh-so-brave, opinionated "Anonymous." Amazing how loose people can be with their words when they don't have to say them to a real person's face. And yes, authors who cut down other authors are another phenomenon that does nothing but make me think less of the criticizing author.

      On the flip-side, I feel fortunate to have met so many supportive writers -- like you -- who enjoy building others up, rather than tearing them down.

  11. This is such great advice. My own novel is in its publishing infancy (bought by a publisher, but not yet in production) and it's good to start reminding myself that I'll need to follow the same advice I give my publishing clients - which is precisely what you say here: "Say nothing." Or, more specifically, "If you can't say something nice [in response] don't say anything at all."

    Friendship principles come into play with bad reviews - a thing many authors don't realize. Authors see a bad review and worry that everyone will shun them and their work forevermore just because one person likened call the book "as appetizing as roadkill sorbet." What they forget is that fans and loyal readers will be incensed over the bad review and more likely to post good reviews of their own to counter it. Even if they don't, readers who love an author's work won't be swayed by bad reviews - fans remain fans. They just think the reviewer is off his rocker.

    Great advice on growing a thick skin. I'll keep this one firmly in mind!

    1. That's so true, Susan! There are times I've even seen a really bad review drum up lots of sales for an author because it made readers so curious about what could have been THAT bad. As they say in the PR world, "no publicity is bad publicity" -- (with my amendment) so long as the author doesn't add fuel to the fire. 🙂

      The "roadkill sorbet" line made me laugh, btw. Wishing you loads of good fortune with your forthcoming release!

  12. I've had a few scathing reviews like that. Some of them little more than personal attacks from strangers. It's true that no publicity is bad publicity, and responding indeed fuels the fire - this is usually what the attacking reviewer is looking for. Authors should also have a thick skin. But sometimes the assaults are so OTT, so directly personal, as to demand some response.

    My worst instance came when my former thesis co-supervisor 'reviewed' a book I'd written for Penguin, in a two-page headline spread in a leading national magazine. He'd been publicly attacking everything I wrote in his private territory for years, and this particular outburst was about as subtle as a brick; an outright denial of my professionalism, worth and character pivoting around claims that were factually untrue. New Zealand is a small country and the market is tiny; sales dropped to virtually nothing directly afterwards. I felt obliged to have my solicitor read the 'review' for content, just to see what options I had. The advice I got was that winning would only be a moral victory - anything I made would be passed over to my solicitor, and more, in fees.

    In the end i declined to dignify the attack by answering. I still occasionally run into the guy in the street - NZ is uber-tiny and this guy lives in the same city as me - and greet him in friendly fashion. He doesn't return the courtesy, but that's his problem.

    Matthew Wright

    1. Matthew,
      I'm sure that Kristina will respond, but I just wanted to tell you how impressed I am wtih your response to this horrible situation. Greeting this toad in a friendly manner is exactly the right thing to do - it's the only way to make him look at his behavior. I also know that I'm not a big enough person to do it. Kudos to you!

      1. I fully agree with Laura. You took the high road, Matthew, and you're the better person for it. I'm so sorry about the other man's terrible behavior, but it's clear which of you two bears the stronger character -- and in the end, that will come through to others, especially in a small residence. Best wishes to you!

  13. I can't help but think of the writers who received a scathing review and never set pen to paper again and the wonderful books that were never written because of a scathing review.

    1. I agree, Sharon. It's a sad thought. Yet another reason why writers -- or any artist, for that matter -- need a good support system to keep us going. Constructive critiques are as essential as having an unconditionally supportive cheering squad!

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