Why the title? Well first off, this blog is about reviews and the effects they can have on a writer’s craft and confidence.
I should start by saying (hopefully non defensively) that I have developed a thick skin and I value critique that I can learn and improve from. On my soon to be closed (March 22nd) favourite writing site WRITEON, I have enjoyed interacting with close to a hundred other writers – Since joining in August 2015 I have got into the habit of writing something every week, mostly through the weekly writing challenges WO does/did. I got so much from them – not just a disciplined routine but valuable critique and people pointing out where I missed commas or typo’d a word or three. I always appreciate that.
My writing philosophy on there was to always comment on the stories/chapters that I read and saw merit in – sometimes I would encounter a story that I just couldn’t get through. In that case I stopped reading and said nothing. My mother always taught me if you can’t say anything nice, say nothing – but honestly 95% of the time I found stories I could say something constructive about and as a qualified teacher, I believe in helping people to better themselves and accentuating the positive. So if I saw a good idea but the writing wasn’t too hot, I would compliment on the story and offer some constructive critique on the structure. Most people have the ability to improve and in my experience on WriteOn, I never saw anything to contradict that, when a writer was willing.
This brings me to Amazon where my philosophy was the reverse. On Amazon it’s a case of who is reviewing my books and good or bad, my policy is to not reply. If I thanked all the 4 or 5 star reviewers (which might sound egotistical) then I would have to also respond to reviewers giving me bad reviews and there is no capital in that, especially if you get (which I did) a one star review saying ‘I didn’t like the sound of this book so I never read it.’
What can you say to idiocy on that level? That was for my book FOREVER TORN and it got lost in dozens of good reviews so I shrugged and moved on, after briefly contemplating that ‘there is always one.’ Actually Amazon is rife with trolling – sometimes it appears if a very well received book (I’m talking about other authors, not mine – I still haven’t topped 60 reviews on my most popular book) has mostly 4 or 5 stars, some … individual will feel it their troll’ly duty to ‘take them down a peg or two.’ – I have seen one star reviews stating that although the book was good, Amazon delivered it late so they were reviewing it with a one star! That is among the most sane and non malicious one or two star reviews.
Many writers (I’ve seen them on WriteOn, other writing sites and Amazon) take even well meaning constructive reviews very personally. Some rant and respond to even the most well intentioned critique and are hurt, pissed off and dejected by this. I myself have a much thicker skin but on a very few occasions when my replies get a bad reaction (on writing sites. On Amazon my rule is never to give a review unless I can give a 4 or 5 star) I’ve backed away and left those writers to their own devices.
However the bulk of writers know they can only improve from getting help and advice – but there is helpful critique and there is mean spirited critique. As Amazon is mostly readers leaving reviews rather than the workshopping of sites like WriteOn, there are many thoughtless or even malicious reviews left.
My own rule of thumb is that if a reviewer leaves me a 1-3 star, explaining why they didn’t like my book, having read the entire work, I just shrug it off. After all not everything is for everyone and sometimes my non linear narrative techniques don’t appeal to people who like a more straight-forward read. That’s not to say that I use these techniques all the time but I do in several of my books such as THE UNSEEN MAN. Set in a superhero universe it’s told almost entirely in flashback and there are flashbacks within flashbacks as the universe is established. The narrator is in a situation in his present day – injured and speaking of having ‘hours to live,’ he records his story, first talking about his world, then his origin and bringing the reader up to date. The final chapters lead up to the events that put him in his predicament and it’s a pretty epic read – one I am very proud of. It’s followed by another hundred or so pages of annotations which explain a lot of the references and influences – there is a lot of comic book/pop culture within the pages of The Unseen Man and it’s part comic nostalgia and part adult (non sexual) sci-fi/fantasy epic.
Up until a few days ago it had two reviews on Amazon.com. Both 5 stars. Then a third person reviewed it and gave me a one star review. If he had read the book and explained why he thought it was bad, then fair enough – though my rating is now 3. something and therefore the book will be harder for people to find on Amazon – well thems the breaks.
What annoyed me is that this person got barely into it (my chapters are very short so it doesn’t take long to get to the meat of the story) and gave up. Again that’s fair enough – I’ve occasionally not been able to get into a book though generally I do give it at least 50 pages or 3-4 chapters whatever comes first. I know as a writer that it sometimes takes a while for a book to get going and some of my best reads were ones I felt had confusing or luke warm starts – I’m the same with tv shows. At least 8-10 episodes. My brother who is more impatient told me FRINGE was crap – I found the first 13 episodes solid but not great, but then after that it was one of the best shows ever – but not if I’d bailed during the set up/world building. Believe me THE UNSEEN MAN gets rolling a lot faster.
So why did this particular review prompt me to break my dignified review silence that’s been in place since 2013? Well, not only was it overly harsh for not even barely scraping the surface of a book (Fair play – you don’t like the start of something – walk away or give a 3 star to indicate mediocrity.) but it affected the ratings which affects the ability of people to see this book which means I lose money. Most of all its the principle – I have become heartsick of online message forum trolls in the last year or two and while I personally believe in my path to being better known and that one day THE UNSEEN MAN and other works will make it, it’s the principle of the thing.
Not every writer (and I know hundreds – there are millions) can take a mean spirited unnecessary review with thick skinned minor annoyance at best. Some will despair and give up or it will affect their bottom line. Imagine if someone walked into a cafe, sniffed a cake and started screaming ‘Don’t eat here – it tastes disgusting and will probably poison you.’ Then imagine the person screaming that was there constantly and you couldn’t remove them.
We writers tend to discuss these things from time to time and we know that a bad review has a lasting effect – it can drive a writer to up their game if the critique is constructive and well intentioned or it can ruin confidence or sabotage the future of a good book, all because of thoughtlessness or malicious intent.
‘If you can’t say anything nice (or helpful) don’t say anything at all.’