Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Oh the Reviews! Contradictions and, Also, Chocolate

Stupid Web Tricks

I've been writing for a while now so you'd think I'd be inured to reviews, good or bad, but it's a fresh experience each and every time. Book 3 of my My Immortals series just came out (My Immortal Assassin) so the subject of reviews is quite fresh in my mind. There's a reason for the heading above this paragraph.

The Bad Outweighs the Good

My personal experience, and I think I'm not alone in this, is that bad reviews impact me more than the good ones do. I get way more depressed by a bad review than I get elated by a good one. Once I realized that, and it's embarrassing how long it took me, I stopped clicking through on the Google Alerts to reviews of my books. I only look at reviews if a trusted friend tells me it's safe or if my publisher sends it to me -- since they're unlikely to send on a bad review. If a review site emails me a review, I usually delete it unread unless there's wording in the subject to suggest it's a good review.

I did, recently, get a review emailed to me that contained a reference to a top pick graphic I could use. Hmm, I thought. Do I risk looking at this review and finding out that introductory paragraph (damn you preview pane!) is boilerplate? I elected to violate my policy against performing Stupid Web Tricks and read enough of the email to determine it was probably safe. It was. But I recognized I was taking a risk.

It's all about Saftey

I've decided I need to keep my fragile writer ego safe. This is true even though I realize that people have different tastes and that some people just aren't going to connect with my writing. It's true even though I have good friends who I know are smart and insightful and they will like books I disliked and vice versa. It's true even though I know that differing opinions make for great discussions about books. It's true even though I believe readers are fundamentally entitled to say whatever they like about my books. It was their reading experience, after all. Readers can and do bring a whole different set of life experience, preferences, tastes and, yes, even intellect to their reading, so of course there are different experiences of the same book.

But I know the effect of a bad review on me and how important it is that I protect my writer's soul so I no longer perform what I call "Stupid Web Tricks" and search out reviews. I don't read Amazon or other bookseller-site reviews either. I think that community should feel free to discuss their opinions and reactions without worrying that an author is going to go postal on them, or even just chill the fun by her presence.

Most readers are plenty smart enough to spot reviews or commentaries that aren't well supported, are poorly written or thinly disguised attacks on the author or the publisher, so I really don't worry about that much.

Free discourse means just that. But I don't need to be there when it's about one of my books.

Why the Bad Is Worse Than the Good

When someone has a negative reaction to my writing, the interior dialog goes like this:

Ohmygod she's totally right. I suck. Why did I ever think I could be a writer? I'm a failure, and everything about this book is horrible. Why didn't my editor see that and make me fix it? Why didn't I see that and fix it?

That way lies paralysis in the current project.

The interior monologue for good reviews often goes like this:

Ohmygod, I dodged a bullet there. She totally missed all the weaknesses. The last time tried to read my own book, I was horrified by how bad it was. Thank god she didn't pick up on all the flaws.

I can't win. Even against myself.

In Which I Completely Contradict Myself

Sci-Fi author John Scalzi once wrote a blog post where he challenged authors to own their 1-star reviews and blog about it. So I did. And it was a strangely freeing experience. It made me see that there were readers who just did not connect with my work in any sense, but that was balanced by people who did. There were also readers who couldn't possibly have read the book I wrote -- they reviewed events that just never happened and named characters who weren't in my book.

That experience, by the way, is what made me decide to stop reading reviews. Because, ultimately, a review is as much about the reader as it is the book. And I saw that I was allowing myself to be unduly affected by negative reviews -- a fault that lies entirely with me, and my choice was to step away from that experience.

I think that once a book of mine is safely in the past, three years I think, is enough, then the bad reviews don't feel quite so depressing, because I can tell myself that, well, in three years, I've become a MUCH better writer. But I haven't lived up to the Scalzi standard and owned my 1-stars since even though it would probably be good for me.

About that Chocolate

I'm having a contest over at my website where the prize is 2 lbs of Leonidas chocolate. Go enter. You have until midnight Friday (2/4/2011) Pacific time.


  1. This is really interesting--I guess I thought that having your work published would be such a validating experience that random reviews wouldn't bother an author anymore.

  2. Hi Carolyn, I love your internal dialogue. Sounds really familiar!! Thanks for this post!

  3. @book Groupie: You're right about the validation part, but that comes earlier in the process when you have a contract, or when you're looking at back cover copy or actually seeing your book in stores. That's incredibly validating.

    Writers, I think, are notoriously neurotic folks. A writer has to believe in her work enough to actually finish and not second-guess herself out of story decisions, yet also open to seeing where things aren't working. It's crazy making.

    But I keep hoping I'll become more sanguine about reviews.

  4. A very thoughtful post and I admire your restraint. I can't resist a peek at any review.

  5. Oh, Carolyn, I really needed this post today! Recently a good friend who I find rather brilliant told me she just didn't "get" Toy Story. Thought the characters were whiny, etc. This was such an "aha!" moment for me. The truth is, if we all loved the same thing it would be a boring boring world.

  6. In a perfect world, we would be able to read our bad reviews and either learn something from them that would improve our writing, or simply embrace the fact that not everyone will like what we write. I wish I could do both, but I suspect that's pretty difficult!

  7. Maria: Yes! Very boring indeed!

    Suzanne: You are absolutely right.

    Lauren: That chocolate is sooooo good.

    Thanks for all the comments!

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