Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Question #17

We are down to the last question in our series! If someone would like to add more, that is fine . . . I'll continue this series through September or the end of the questions, whichever happens first. But as of right now, this is our final question.

Faith asks:

How do you handle strong critical feedback or overtly negative feedback?

For those of you who don't know, Faith King is the co-author of Awakenings, the first novel in a fantasy adventure series, Restoration. Which you should totally check out!

So that question.

I suppose the first answer that comes to mind for me is, "I don't."

That is, I don't handle it well. Nor do I usually try to handle it at all. Most authors I know make every effort to avoid the negative feedback, many by not reading reviews at all, either positive or negative. I don't quite fall into this category yet. I am very curious, and I do still occasionally check my reviews on Amazon or Goodreads or wherever. But I usually wish that I hadn't. Not because I'm not receiving favorable reviews! The majority reaction to my work has been positive.

But there are those few . . . and those few are the ones that stick.

The problem with negative feedback in this context of reader-response is that is extremely unhelpful to me as the author. I'm not saying it isn't helpful to other readers. There are SO many different reading tastes out there and SO many different books. Negative reviews help steer readers toward books that they will probably like rather than allowing them to waste time on something they probably won't. So yes, when you look at it from that objective perspective, negative reviews are a good and helpful part of the publishing world.

But they are completely unhelpful to a developing author. They reflect an individual's tastes that are obviously not the same tastes as the author's. Just because you happen to like to read and write something that person does not, does this mean that you should only write what that person enjoys? Certainly not! You need to write what you love to read. If other people don't like it, well, they probably don't enjoy the same books you enjoy, or don't enjoy them for the same reasons you do. You are two different people. You have two different tastes. So you cannot let negative feedback alter your work.

Robin McKinley was talking about this on her blog recently. She was saying how readers often complain that her work is "too slow." But the reality is, she thoroughly enjoys books like George Elliot's Middlemarch. Big, meaty, heavy, sloooooooow books that develop the world and the characters in a style completely different to the fast-paced frenetic writing popular today. Is her taste wrong? Nope. It's just different.

But people can be nasty in their reviews. I have seen brilliant authors accused of idiocy and laziness by readers who simply did not like a particular work. Sir Terry Pratchett suffers from Alzheimer's. Reviewers who don't care for his more recent pieces will hurl that in his face, saying the sickness is affecting  his work. Utter and insulting nonsense! Yet people will say this and more. They will forget that there is an actual person on the other end of this whole publishing schematic and sling mud with vim. I have had reviewers call into question my intelligence, my morality, accusing me of ultra-conservative-patriarchal-repressions, bigotry, plagiarism, complete lack of originality, all sorts of horrible things.

Makes you really want to be a professional author, huh?

The fact is, receiving negative reviews, as painful as it is, also means that your work is getting out to a broader audience. If only people who like your work read your work, your audience is probably still too small. These days, I try (the key word here is try) to see it as a benefit when one of those nasty Two Star reviews pops up somewhere. That means that my work is getting out there. Yes, it's landing in the hands of some who do not like or appreciate what I am trying to do. But that also means its landing in the hands of some who might not normally read this type of work. And some of those people  might actually like it.

The best thing to do is simply not to respond. Stay out of arguing and defending your work. If someone doesn't like it, you'll never convince them that they do. If they have already disrespected you publically, they're not going to back down and apologize. Being a professional author means being willing to stand up on the soapbox and have rotten fruit hurled at your face. And you can't hurl it back. You have to take it.

Now, there is a time and a place for proper negative feedback. For professional writers, your editors and publishing house proof readers are a legitimate and highly useful source of objective perspective. It's still not fun to hear it when they dislike this, that, or the other about your work. But the nice thing is, it's not in print yet! You can rework it to be something that both of you like. Sometimes, this means taking their critiques exactly. Sometimes, it means defending your choice. Sometimes, it means tweaking a theme or character in a completely different direction at first not perceived by either of you. No matter what, negative feedback from that source should be considered a blessing and a help, not a burden.

Negative feedback from a trusted critique partner is also something hard to take but important to appreciate. If you write and ask someone for their opinion, you should not expect all positive comments. And yes, some of those negative comments will be unhelpful, which will color your perspective on  those that ARE helpful.

The fact is, a good writer is aware of the faults in their own work. Maybe she would like to ignore them, but she knows they are there. These days, when I send a manuscript to a reader for opinions, I let them read it, and then I send a list of problems that I am seeing or suspecting with the project. I ask for their take on those problems specifically, getting a fresh point-of-view. This not only forces me to be more critical of my own work, but also gets me objective opinions on problems when I am too close to see solutions.

When my reader agrees that the problem is very real, I ask for specific solution recommendations. How would they prefer to see this issue resolved? Again, their specific suggestion may or may not be what you use in the end, but it will help you start seeing from a new perspective.

I have started using this method with my more recent manuscripts and have found it VERY helpful. I am blessed with two or three excellent readers who know how to critique without trying to rewrite. Not everyone is so fortunate!

The worst negative feedback to receive is unsolicited feedback from well-meaning friends. That can be tough to handle. I have had friends who have believed it their duty to tell me perceived "faults" in my published work. Which, to their minds, may be very real faults. But at that point, whether they be just critiques or not, they are unhelpful. It's rather like telling a new mother that her newborn has crooked eyes. There isn't a great deal she can do about it, and after the enormity of her labor, she really could use a certain amount of petting and praising where this baby of hers is concerned!

Not always going to happen. This is the World of the Arts. A wretched and wonderful world it is!

I think the most important way to handle negative reviews is to keep in mind who and what you are writing for. You have an audience who will be touched and blessed by your work. You have an audience who will be insulted by it. You can't write for both at once.

And ultimately, you can't write for your own glory. The world of publishing can be so much fun! But it is also a humiliating field. If you make your own glory your highest goal, you will be one disappointed and frustrated little cookie. Write for your readers. Write with eyes fixed heavenward. Write for those characters in your head who are itching to have a life of their own.

Write because it is the talent God gave you and  trust He has a purpose for your work.


Jenny Freitag said...

Thank you, Anne Elisabeth. I've been kicking around thinking about the difficulty of managing negative feedback myself. I'm a very sensitive soul so, to avoid pain, I tend to play my cards close to my chest. This is of course not the way to go about it, but I am getting over that. The problem is learning how to sneak out of the turtle-shell and remain sensitive, but also sensible. Like you, I will occasionally poke over to Amazon or Goodreads and run an eye over reviews for The Shadow Things, but you're right: you can read dozens of favourable reviews, but that one disagreeable review is the one that sticks with you. I am very curious by nature, but they say curiosity also killed the cat. The viewpoint of people who don't see the world quite the way I do isn't going to help me write.

Granted, there is the other side of it. There are those good few who see the world a trifle differently and I can trust them to help me work on my stories, I can trust them to give me agreeable feedback, even if that agreeable feedback is negative. As painful as this can be sometimes, I readily acknowledge my debt of gratitude to these folk.

I agree with you about critiquing published works. I've stood up under that gauntlet, and it isn't fun. My sister Abigail and I tell each other, the book isn't finished until it is published, and then there's nothing you can do about it. As you said, I appreciate people who review and give other readers a head's up about the book's content, no matter whose book it is, but it really doesn't help the author to go review her book to her face.

Still, hazards of the trade. We can put a bold face on it, as Puddleglum recommends, and maybe even learn to laugh about it a little.

Jessica R. Patch said...

This is excellent advice. I just told a friend that I was going to try and not look at any reviews to eliminate all the frustration, but I seriously doubt I'll be able to.

My book isn't out yet. I just accepted the offer of representation from Rachel Kent and if I'm right, I think that makes us agent-mates! :)

Anne Elisabeth Stengl said...

Hi ladies! I can finally post reponses!

Jenny, I'm glad you found this post helpful/interesting. I think I'll write a different post one of these days on how I go about seeking helpful feedback from friend readers. Because you're right, that negative feedback CAN be invaluable . . . it can also be frustrating. But I think I have recently found a way to get the very best out of that, which my fellow writers might find interesting.

Jessica, congrats on getting Rachel as your agent! That's super exciting. Rachel is completely professional and will, I have no doubt, be an agent in top demand in just another few years as her name gets out there more and more! She has been marvelous with my work, and a very sweet lady too. I hope your book endeavors are going well! Are you signed with a publisher or still searching for the right home for your work?

Faith King said...

Yikes! How did I miss the answer to my own question? Distractions, I guess.

Still, even coming late to the party, I was really gratified to read this, most particularly the point about taking negative reader reviews as evidence of a broader audience. Most of our fanbase is just still friends and family at this point.

Being a Christian writer with a lot of secular, highly liberal friends and acquaintances, I suspect that if my writing career reaches a certain level of public attention I'll probably get my share of the "ultra-conservative-patriarchal-repressions" sort of criticism, and that's probably going to be the toughest sort for me to handle-- my brother and I just had a really good heart-to-heart in which we both confessed how we're hyper defensive people, and usually when people fling anything of that sort, the subtext is that they're accusing me of being religiously brainwashed, and obviously the flare of indignation isn't fun to deal with.

This is a lot of good food for thought, and thank you for the advice!

Faith King said...

Oh! And thank you for the book rec! :-)