It’s that time: I’ve sent the first draft of my novel to my editor. Soon I’ll receive his comments and begin revising it. And this summer I published a novel that’s been reviewed by newspapers and magazines in North America, the UK and continental Europe, not to mention by bloggers, anonymous online commenters, and my relatives. And some new people are joining my writers’ group, which means they’ll be giving — and taking — critiques. So I’ve been thinking about the ways writers receive, and respond to, criticism.
Here’s the deal: Everybody hates criticism. Everybody. Writers crave fawning, drooling, unconditional adoration. However, if you’re an adult who lives in the neighborhood of reality, you realize that relentless, unrestrained worship will never be yours. It shouldn’t be. None of us is perfect. We can all improve — especially on our first drafts.
How do different writers deal with critics? Tess Gerritsen writes honestly about the pain bad reviews cause her. John Scalzi posted his one-star Amazon reviews online and challenged other authors to do the same. At ThrillerFest this year, the International Thriller Writers took it a step farther and held a contest to judge who’d gotten the worst Amazon review. The winner was Lee Child.
Two remarks I heard this summer have stuck in my mind. The first came from a friend of a friend in Texas, who asked, “Do people ever criticize your novels?” I broke into uncontrollable laughter and said, “Are you frickin’ kidding me?” People criticize authors all the time. I am fortunate in the extreme that my novels have received so many great reviews. But some critics have hated them, or me. Publication does not insulate a writer from complaint. It paints a big red target on your back.
The second remark was from an author whose debut novel has won raves and awards — but who, baffled and stung, asked in all sincerity, “Why do Amazon reviewers get so angry?” That’s harder to answer. The advice, from me and every other writer who’s been in print for a while, was: Do not read online reviews. They’re the digital version of graffiti scrawled in a high school bathroom. Stop reading them. Now.
How should writers deal with criticism? Consider the source, and its authority. Trusted editor = listen carefully. Jealous and angst-ridden creative writing classmate = tread softly and watch for daggers thrown at your back. Reviewer who sneers at your gender or nationality = brush them from your shoulder like dust. Anonymous troll = ignore. That’s often easier said than done. But it’s best to smile and take it and keep writing the best stuff you can. Take pride in your work, and remember: If they criticized you, it means they read your book.