How to face the culture of negativity if you’re a young writer

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 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.

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