The negative review culture and how to avoid it (for new writers)

It’s a shame how negative the culture of reviews can be. I mentor several first time writers and received this email last week:

How do you deal with HORRIBLE, “you’re the worst author ever” reviews, full of NASTY mean things? How do you write a sequel when you know people out there HATE your work? I get lots of 5 stars, and then ill get these terrible ones, and I feel like they want to murder me.

The saddest thing about this email is that it came from someone who has real talent. They’ve worked incredibly hard. Many books by first time novelists have problems (mine did!), but patient readers realize that it’s a process – first time novels are often rough around the edges, but they almost all deliver on something important: a fresh voice. If you read a first time novelist and hate their book, constructive criticism is fine. But if you feel like totally trashing someone’s work online, my strong opinion is that you will hurt the writer a lot more than you probably think. Experienced writers like me and Roland Smith and Peter Lerangis are better at ignoring this garbage (though it still hurts when someone is mean!) – but the first timers take it hard.

If you’re a writer, especially a first time writer, here are five rules to live by when it comes to online reviews:

1. Don’t go looking for trouble.

Once you’re published you’re guaranteed to find terrible reviews of your book. Everyone gets them. There are plenty of mean spirited, awful reviews of my books. It’s tempting to go looking for the good ones, but reading the bad ones can really bring you down and mess with your confidence as a writer. So while it might seem like you’re going online to look for something good, you’re really looking for trouble. And if you go looking, you will find it.

Writers need to be on Amazon and Goodreads in order to do promotional work, so it’s not realistic to never visit these places again. But you can adhere to a rule I live by: never read online reviews or comments on Amazon, Goodreads, or BN.com. And be accountable to someone close to you (I’m accountable to my wife), because it ruins their day too when they have to deal with a whiny, depressed writer.

2. Be realistic about who is posting a mean spirited review and why.

I think most mean spirited reviews are written by one of three types of people: failed writers, know it alls, and outright jerks. A lot of personal garbage is wrapped up in many of these reviews, so you can’t really take them seriously. On the other hand, someone who just didn’t like your book and writes a reasonable review is more likely written by someone who reads a lot and just didn’t get what you were putting out there. Why they find it necessary to share this opinion with the rest of the world often has to do with promoting their own book blog. It’s fair game, but you don’t have to read it.

Understanding who is posting and why is especially true if you’re a young, first time novelist. A high percentage of people will go into the experience of reading a book by a person in their 20′s and assume it’s going to be awful. It’s a hard mountain to climb, and more readers should expect a bumpy ride with first time novelists and be nicer about the whole thing. Why these people read books by young writers to begin with is a mystery.

3. Remember: everyone is a critic

As a published writer you are a member of a deeply maligned creative group (be thankful you’re not an actor!). The system is set up for haters to thrive – it is what it is – but they only win if you care. Don’t care!

And bad reviews can be good for you. Polarizing reviews can drive sales. You’re better off with 100 five star reviews and 100 one star reviews than you are with 200 three star reviews. It’s hard to believe, but it’s true. People who love your book will fight for it even more in the face of mean reviews.

4. You have loyal fans and supporters, focus on them.

Your real fans will throw punches for you if you take care of them. True story.

5. A publisher didn’t choose you and your story because you couldn’t write.

It’s a long journey going from first novel to a career as a novelist. If you want to still be writing published books in 10 years, keep reminding yourself that you were chosen because you have the stuff and it’s up to you to keep getting better at your craft. Your first book is a beginning – there’s a lot of story left to tell.

Put your book buying in a Half Nelson’s

half-nelsons-web

With the recent closing of Nelsons, another legendary indie book store, I’d like to propose a truce, a stalemate, a compromise with Amazon. Like most people, there are things I love about Amazon. It’s cheap, it’s fast, and it’s at my doorstep. But Amazon will never replace the important role my local indie plays in my community. There is nothing like getting a hot drink and stepping into Book and Game, my local bookstore, where I know the owner and the manager and I can browse for something new. It’s an important part of our town that helps make Walla Walla feel like home.

So here’s what I’m putting out there: it’s called a Half Nelsons, and it goes like this:

For every book I purchase on Amazon I will purchase one book at a local independent bookstore. I will continue to enjoy the cheap, fast, at my doorstep service Amazon provides – a whole 50% of the time! And I will enjoy wandering the isles of my local bookstore and supporting their important work in my community the other 50% of the time.

Don’t let another classic indie go down without putting a bunch of books in a Half Nelsons this year.

You can still buy from an indie if there’s not one nearby. Just visitwww.indienbound.org, find a store you love, and order online.

Share the Half Nelsons logo I threw together. Do it for the brave independent booksellers still standing strong.

Netflix is cutting into my reading time

As of 2013 there were more than 100,000 hours of streaming content on Netflix. Assuming you went overboard and spent an average of 5 hours a day watching Netflix, it would take you 54 years to watch everything. Who would have thought the day would come when, for ten bucks a month, we could have access to more screen content than we could consume on a screen in a lifetime? And that’s to say nothing of the almighty DVR, constantly recording between three and seven things I really must watch.

When I was growing up I worked for a week around the house to raise the money for a movie, and then got on my bike and rode five miles to the mall in order to see it. I waited very impatiently for Tuesday night’s episodes of Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley. If I could have watched five seasons of Fantasy Island in a handful of marathon sessions, I would have done it. Twice. And like any enjoyable habit, I would have repeated this entertaining process with more and more content.

Is it just me or have shows have gotten better at drawing us in, paying off cliff hangers faster, making us gasp, making us want to come back, pointing us to the next thing we’re going to love? It’s hard to quit a show once you get sucked in, and the habit of always having a show waiting for us at the end of the day is a real thing for most kids and teens and adults.

The only way this habit shifts to a book is if I have the willpower to choose a different path and stick to it over the long haul. It’s easier and more natural turning to my phone or my iPad for a show or a movie, and it’s all basically free and at my fingertips. Reading for an hour every day is way tougher than watching one episode of Breaking Bad.

So far in 2014 my habit has been to crawl into bed after two episodes of Dracula and crack open a book for the first time as my head hits the pillow. I fall asleep approximately 7 minutes later.

If reading is a priority in my life, a moral imperative, then I can’t get into a habit of making it the last thing I do at the end of an exhausting day.

I think I’ll make my 2014 resolution now: don’t watch a TV show or a movie until I’ve read for an hour every day.

This is going to require some planning! The Bachelor is on tonight and I have a date planned with my wife to watch it. Juan Pablo, you’re killing me.

If anyone else has thoughts on the Netflix DVR paradigm, I’d love to hear them.

Word Pictures

A teacher contacted me this week and asked if I could write a note she could read out loud in her class. The note was supposed to encourage her students to try their hand at doing a word picture, something I do a lot of when I’m writing because it makes everything so much easier. Here’s what I wrote in case, you know, you were thinking of doing a word picture or something.

Hello young writer peoples!

When I write a book it always starts the same way: I look at other books and think: whoa, that looks like a lot of flippin work. All those pages! Covered in words! My face starts to feel like a garbage can and I slump, hard, in my chair. It’s the kind of slump where I could practically touch the floor with my garbage can face.

But then I remember how I start every single book I write and I feel a lot better. I stop slumping! My face feels like a normal face with a nose and eyeballs and other stuff that belongs on my face!

I take out a piece of paper and I ask myself: what the heck is my story about? And then, like a little piece of magic, I have the courage to begin. What I do is very simple and it makes me stop feeling afraid of all those pages that will come later. I draw pictures of what my story is about – lots of them – and I make little notes next to my pictures that remind me of the big moments in my story. Pretty soon I have a whole page covered with simple drawings and a bunch of little notes that guide my way and quite a bit of orange cheeto dust (I don’t know how the orange cheeto dust got on my paper).

Once I have a word picture, it’s so much easier to write my story. Now I have a road map that tells me where to go and how to get there. I can zero in on the most important parts, I can see what the story looks like. I can totally write this. I can!

And so can you.

Write on,

Patrick Carman

Writing Tips Video Series

I’ve been getting a lot of email lately asking for help with various aspects of writing a novel. When I wrote the Atherton trilogy I created a series of nine short videos that describe the two year process of writing those books. If you’re a teacher or a librarian, these might be helpful for the young writers in your schools. And if you’re a writer yourself and you’re feeling a little bit stuck, I hope these help! Write on. http://www.patrickcarman.com/the-author/writing-tips/

Twitter

  • Seen at the Legendary Pictures office in Los Angeles. I asked if I could ride it but they wouldn’t let me. http://t.co/6zATNKUo93 13 hours ago
  • Fall is here, my favorite time to read. I’m looking for awesome new literary fiction. Anyone? Bueller? http://t.co/gBB8MAjPnk 17 hours ago
  • The Land of Elyon diorama sitting next to my desk. Endlessly inspiring. http://t.co/EPeNvCPhON 2 days ago

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