When I was about eleven or twelve, I gave my mother one of my early efforts to read. When I asked her what she thought, she began telling me all the problems with it. I had expected lavish praise, and so I responded by growing sullen—and after a few moments she said, “Look I can tell you it’s fantastic and wonderful if you want. But if you actually want to become a better writer, then that’s not going to do you any good.”
I went away and thought about it and decided she was right. Newly humbled, I went back and asked her to tell me what was wrong with the chapter—and she did.
Thus began my long history with negative feedback. I’ve certainly gotten a lot of it over the years, and it is key to growth and development—but only if it’s in line with the direction in which you want to grow and develop.
These days, I deal with negative feedback rather differently, whether it’s a scathing critique or a negative review on my Amazon listing. My first question is always, “Is it a fair comment?” Though I’ve heard of malicious rivals posting negative reviews, I don’t think I’ve reached sufficient fame or stature as a writer to be the target of such ill will. So, while I assume that any review posted is genuine, I also have to step back and ask if it’s fair. And I try to be brutally honest.
My second question: “Is it useful?” To put it another way: can I learn something from this negative review—does it actually provide useful information beyond the complaint being made? Reviews like “the characters didn’t grab me”, while valid with respect to the reader’s experience, are not very helpful in addressing why. So, while I can bear them in mind–for this reader, the characters were not effective–I don’t have a specific enough idea of why they didn’t grab the reader, so I can’t really act on the comment. But, if a negative comment actually provides me with some scope for guidance, then comes my final question.
Question number three: “Should I do something about it?” Sometimes, the negative review arises simply because a work hasn’t reached its intended audience. As a writer, you cast a wide net. Some people who pick up your book aren’t going to like it.
Before I launch into a real-life example, a brief disclaimer. Only two readers have reviewed Konstantin’s Gifts and I neither know the reviewers nor asked for the reviews. Two reviews isn’t a large enough sample size to really get a good sense of where along the spectrum the book actually falls–particularly given that they basically provide opposite messages to each other. The first was on Goodreads from user Nicola (Noodles220) and was basically an author’s dream review. I’ll paste it at the end of the post, for those who are interested.
Here, verbatim, is the second review I received on Konstantin’s Gifts. It is from bluewynd, in the US kindle store (I just did a cut and paste):
althought it had believable characters, a plot, and an ok pace to the story. I found it too wordy, too much repeating of what I already read, I found my self skipping pages, trying to find something new or interesting.
this was my first read of were wolves, blood suckers, and such. and I would not try a second. perhaps if you are into this type of book you would be more forgiving. for myself, I am starting a new collection on my kindle, “books I never finished.” just lost interest.
When I first read this, of course I felt a touch of disappointment–this book I’ve worked so hard on, and she didn’t even finish! But fast on the heels were my usual questions.
Is It Fair?
Usually I construe this broadly. It’s her experience of it–the pacing and so on didn’t work for her. I think that’s fair in the sense of being valid. It wasn’t the book for her. And she found it verbose. Also fair. I tend to be wordy–some people like this, while others might prefer a faster pace marked by a sparser style. It passes the “fair” test.
Is it Useful?
Again, I think it is. I know wordiness is a problem for me. So it’s helpful to know that I still fell into that trap with this book. Very helpful, in fact. So then, there’s the final question–the biggie, since this book was released and out there in the world already:
Should I do something about it?
While the reader clearly wasn’t the intended audience–she doesn’t read this genre, and clearly has a preference for a tighter style and faster pace, in this case, I actually decided that I should still act on it. I felt the book was too long, and this review spoke to that impression. As well, I had planned on doing a print edition of Konstantin’s Gifts, so I was going to be doing another proof of the entire mss anyway. When I began the proof, I did it in a form that could feed into both an e-book and print version of the work. I was as ruthless with myself in making cuts as I knew how to be. Then, once I completed that, I uploaded a tighter version of the book, in which I had cut out between 5,000 and 10,000 words.
Ultimately–notwithstanding my disappointment–reading such comments from a reader was helpful. I believe they helped to make the final product a stronger one.
Bad reviews are no fun, and different people deal with them in different ways. But if you’re putting your work out there, you’ll need to figure out some way to handle the negative feedback. For me the best way to process them is to use them as an opportunity to learn something and to grow as a writer.
For those interested, here is the positive review from Goodreads, which Nicola subsequently also posted at the Amazon UK site under Nicolay92. As a note, this one is also cited verbatim, as a cut and paste. You’ll see what I mean by “totally opposite messages”. I was thrilled to read it–not just because it feels great to have an appreciative audience, but also because it means that there are readers out there for whom what I write actually does work, just as it is–an extremely helpful message!
I really, really enjoyed this book. So much so that it’s one of the few I’ve read in a long time that I’m torn between giving 4.5 or 5 stars.
I found it looking through the free downloads for the Kindle, but it’s a book that I’d gladly buy and will definitely be reading again at some point in the future (which in itself is unusual for me).
I really liked the whole flow of the story. The author has a way with words that I instantly took to, and I found the almost-but-not-quite version of our world she’s created with its split politics interesting.
I thought the action was well paced and I loved how the characters grew and developed – especially how Vasya moved from being subservient and self-blaming to a stronger woman that began to see herself in a different light, and how Theo started off with one set of ideas and ended up completely re-evaluating what he knew to make the right decisions in the end.
I don’t think I’d be able to give a good enough synopsis of the story to do it justice, so instead I’ll just say that I couldn’t put it down and finished it within two days.
I presume (and hope!) that there’ll be a second book, and if there is I look forward to reading it.
If you find the blurb interesting, definitely give this book a read!