Lessons learned (2) – a thickened skin

One of the nice things about putting one’s work out to the public eye is that when it shines upon your work, it can be a very nice feeling. But on the other hand, when that eye frowns and a certain hardness appears, it can quickly turn into a harsh spotlight, picking out all your flaws which stand on display.

The shining part first. I’m pretty good at dealing with a five-star review. I mean, I sit forward, reading and nodding, and then sit back with a generally satisfied feeling. I’m rubbish at taking a compliment in person; I stand awkwardly, wondering what the person is expecting me to say in reply to them saying they’ve enjoyed this odd thing I’ve put together from various facets of my personality and experience in life. Normally I manage a muttered ‘thank you’, ‘great’ or ‘glad you enjoyed it!’ (the last if I’m feeling particularly well-balanced that day). Sitting at my computer though, on my own… I can take a glowing review with the best of them.

But the one-star review is a different beast altogether. In my experience of them (I’ve garnered two one-star reviews to date – no doubt more are to come), they fall into two categories. One is easy to deal with. The other takes a bit more time.

The easy one to deal with is the one that arrived on my doorstep a few days ago, although I only noticed it this morning (I used to check for reviews every few hours when Tricks of the Trade first came out. Then, as time went on, like waiting for a parcel to come that you initially couldn’t wait for, you check every few days, or once a week, or whenever).

This review, rather bluntly, stated that it didn’t like the ‘foul terms’ that often occurred in the book. I presume this is the main character’s constant use of the word ‘shite’. The reviewer stopped reading after three or four pages, having had to deal with quite enough of that kind of thing.

The response is straightforward. A shrug about captures it. What else to do? The book is admittedly in the ‘cosy mystery’ category, so perhaps readers are not expecting the main character to be quite so explicit. And I would hate to think what the reaction might have been if a blogger, the Puzzle Doctor, hadn’t convinced me to take out a lot of the much harsher swear words in the first draft due to this very idea.

But beyond that? A reader either does or does not accept bad language. It’s no reflection (I think) on the merits of the book. Therefore we shrug, and move on. I read about a similar type of review, even more extreme, recently. An indie author (afraid I can’t remember who) got a review stating that the physical quality of the book was lacking, with pages torn and the ink on the page running. One star. The book, of course, was only available as an eBook.

The other type of one-star review, though, is a different creature. Whereas the first one is like a dull, stupid beast that charges but is easily avoided, the second is more like some kind of heat-seeking emotion missile.

My version of this review arrived some months previously. It stated, simply, that it couldn’t believe this book had got anything other than a one-star review. It complained that it was slow, tedious and added not only that the reader hadn’t finished it, but regretted even buying it.

Here my reaction was different. One reason is that the review itself is harsher (“I have never given a one-star before and regret buying this book” – naturally I went and checked the reviewer’s history. They have given one-star reviews before, several in fact, which made me feel slightly better).

But the major reason these almost invariably strike the target it that they make a criticism you may well recognise, because it’s probably sitting in your own mind somewhere.

Tricks of the Trade may well be a bit slow off the mark. It’s the first book in a series, so we have to introduce the characters and give a bit of background before we get into the actual death, and whodunit and howdunit stuff. I think even the top authors struggle with getting through the background. And it was only my second effort as an author, and thus is as riddled with stylistic errors as one might imagine.

Suddenly my nightmares came home to roost! I had been found out, as a bogus author, as just an ordinary person who had pretended to be an author and was now getting the rotten tomatoes pelted towards my face.

After I’d got over my minor hysterics, I eventually worked out that with this type of criticism, there are two critical things to do (for me at least).

The first is not to take it personally (no matter how personal it may seem). My review wasn’t too personal, although I hate the idea of anyone regretting buying a book I’ve written. Deep breathing, mantras, going for a long run, having a few stiff drinks, chasing a squirrel around a swimming pool on a pogo stick… Whatever it takes for you to get your calm back, do it a few times.

The second thing is to take whatever constructive information you can from it. You have to grasp whatever it is in the review that’s subconsciously making you say – ‘damn, that’s true’. The part that hurts.

In all honesty, I can see why people think Tricks of the Trade might be slow at the start. And I don’t want it to happen again. So I’m rapidly getting through books on plot, structure and character to try and ensure it doesn’t. While it should be easier to do in the second book in a series anyway, as we need no introductions (or at least far shortened ones), I hope to write other series and they will all have to start somewhere.

These are the two critical things I’d suggest, in that they worked for me. There are two other things I’d suggest doing. One, don’t respond to any review, unless it’s to say thank you. Like talking to the referee in rugby. Even when you want to throttle the (insert ‘foul term’ here), only ever say ‘thank you, sir/ma’am’. I’d suggest the same with reviewers. Otherwise you might end up shouting at a screen, or physically trying to reach into it to squeeze the life out of the anonymous voice on the other side, and no-one likes that person.

And secondly, go and have a read of the man in the arena quotation by Theodore Roosevelt. Yes, it might be a bit dramatic for our purposes, but then again, sometimes it can make a bad day better. Anything that lets you pretend you’re Russell Crowe in Gladiator, basically fighting the entire cheating Roman Army (and assorted animals). You can find it dramatized in the excellent Zen Pencils here, as well. And Brené Brown has some pretty inspiring things to say too.

So yes, there you have what I’ve figured out so far. Don’t let them get you down, and try and take whatever it is that’s annoying you and figure it out. And in the meantime, do something that’ll make you smile.

Happy writing (and reading of reviews)


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