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The Benefits of Embracing Bad Reviews

elmore-Leonards-ten-rules-of-writingEvery book–EVERY book–gets bad reviews. Even books like Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl have been dinged for one reason or another.

As writers, especially when we are newly published, it’s very easy to take these personally. And tempting to want to stick out our chests and defend our honor.

Don’t. It’s bad business. No matter how you approach the reviewer, you will come out in the negative end. They’re entitled to their opinion, no matter how far off you feel it is.

And even though you may not leave a bad review if you don’t like a book, others feel the need to. As authors, we have to respect that, especially when we are asking for reviews.

I believe if we are going to become better writers and better entertainers, we need to at least keep our minds open and try to learn from the bad reviews.

TIN GOD has 80 reviews on Amazon. 54 five-star, and I’m proud to say those were from Goodreads ladies who wanted to read the book and loved it, or reviewers who later purchased the book and enjoyed it. The book has 21 four-stars, 3 three-stars, and 2 two-stars.

Those are the ones I’m going to share with you.

First is a lady who was excited to read the book, but it fell short for her.

I was really interested in reading this book. The concept was really intriguing, and provided an opportunity for a great story. The idea of a baby selling ring and a predator who takes advantage of young girls to impregnate them for the purpose of selling their babies, was great, but in the end, I was very disappointed with this book. The characters were all unlikeable, and many of their actions just did not ring true. The book also needed a good editor, as it was about 100 pages too long, repeating thoughts and dialogue that was unnecessary for the story. Also, the idea that a “good mother” stays with a physically and emotionally abusive husband to hold a family together, is just wrong!!

So, yes, at first this hurt. But I stepped back and tried to put myself in the reader’s shoes to see if there was anything I could take away to make me a better writer. Part of the issue is simply a matter of preference: she ended up not liking the subject matter or how it was handled. Those things are going to happen no matter what. But she also mentions character development and editing. Hmm. Okay. I bristled at first considering the investment in editing I made, but when I calmed down, I remembered this was only my second book and no matter how solid I think it is, it could be better.

And you know what? Repeating thoughts and dialogue is something I used to be really bad at. I’m getting better, but when I read that line, I knew deep down she had a point. I was in the middle of getting SKELTON’S KEY ready for the content edit, and I went back and made sure to look for that. And I told both my editors to do the same. I also addressed some character development issues.

The second two-star review is even more critical, and I’ll be honest: I stopped writing for at least a day after I read it. I may have shed a tear. But then I went back and read it again. It’s a much longer review, so I’m only going to show the parts that really resonated with me, and you’ll see my comments in bold.

I don’t understand why some authors feel the need to constantly repeat themselves. Is the purpose to meet some arbitrary word count? Or do they think we don’t get it the first time? I wasn’t very far into the story before I found myself screaming: “Enough about the humidity. I get that it is constant. I get that it is oppressive. Can we just get on with the story?” I lost count of the number of times the purported heroine heard rushing in her ears or was biting her lips to the point of drawing blood. It is quite amazing to me she actually had lips left to kiss with what with all the self-inflicted injury she caused them.

Oh, I was mad. But then I realized WHY I was mad. Because I knew she was right. And see the pattern? Same thing the other reviewer said.

Which brings us to Jaymee Ballard, the purported heroine previously mentioned. I felt no empathy for her whatsoever as she was totally self-absorbed. She knew the murders were connected to her yet she still continued to selfishly harbor her secrets. Secrets that were hardly necessary as this is, after all, the twenty first century. Secrets that may have helped bring a murderer to justice. I found it all so implausible.

She’s got a point, and the implausibility thing is something I worried about as I wrote. But this is a more subjective comment, because a lot of readers loved Jaymee. So I had to let this one go, but I did make notes on developing more well-rounded characters.

I do not recommend this book. I know I am going against the grain…all five and four star reviews except for my two stars. I guess I prefer more realism even if it is fiction. I need to be able to feel something for at least some of the character even if that something is dislike. I felt nothing for anyone in Tin God. I need a sense of time and place. The author failed to place me at the scene. I could not even feel the humidity despite the constant references to it. I think I need another Barbara Samuel story right now.

Some of this is subjective, too. She felt like there was a lack of romance, she didn’t feel the chemistry. Okay. But it’s the character development thing that bothers me here. Both two-stars mentioned this, as well as a three-star. 

After I licked my wounds, I realized something about this review: if this reader took the time to write so much (it’s much longer than I shared) then surely I can at least consider her points.

Some authors will say that reading reviews will spin you in circles, but I believe that’s only if you allow them to. Because unless a person just doesn’t like the story on principle, nine times out of ten, the issues he or she have are valid.

So what did I take away?

Keep learning. Dig deeper on character development because that is what keeps readers coming back. Be more diligent about not repeating feelings, reactions and description. Most of all, focus on the story more than the prose. And I needed to make sure I communicated to my editors and proofers additional things to look for in my books.

My point is this: learn to take what you can from the bad ones. There will always be ones that are rooted in a difference of opinion, but there are plenty of reviews out there that can expose some fixable issues in your writing. Find ways to turn the negative into positives.

How do you handle bad reviews?

29 comments on… “The Benefits of Embracing Bad Reviews”

  1. Great post, Stacy! I admire your honesty and bravery, and readers and writers will only respect you for considering the points made by those thoughtful, articulate reviewers (forget the idiots!) and writing out a game plan based on comments that seem well-founded. Kudos to you!

    • Hi Jodie! Thanks so much for your kind comment. I debated on whether or not to share the reviews, but I didn’t think I could really articulate my point without actually showing everyone what the readers said. Glad you enjoyed it.

      • jodierennerediting

        Your open-minded, positive attitude and roll-up-your-sleeves work ethic will take you a long way, Stacy! Keep on writing!

  2. Stacy – great attitude.

    I’ve become slightly more Zen about reviews now – because you really can’t please everyone. If someone hates that a story is far-fetched, someone else would have hated the realism if you had written it differently. One person might think the mystery in a story had them guessing until the end while someone else thinks it was super obvious.

    There are things you can learn from some bad reviews – editing issues (even when we’ve had things edited properly, it can happen), author “tics”, etc… I make sure that I only read the
    “bad” ones when I am in the right frame of mind, though.

    For a people pleaser (like me) it takes a bit to come to terms with the fact that not everyone is going to be pleased – and that those who aren’t may not be nice about it.

    I read all the reviews on Amazon – good and bad – but I honestly limit myself on Goodreads, since I’ve seen a pattern of bad reviews being nasty and not terribly constructive over there.

    • Thanks! Yes, you can’t please everyone. And there are going to be plenty who just don’t like it for whatever personal reasons. Those are the ones we have to move on from. But as you said, there are things to learn, especially if the feedback becomes a pattern. I know what you mean about being a people-pleaser. It is hard, especially when people are talking about something so near to you. Thanks!

  3. I just received a one star review on Goodreads for my book. As a self publishing author, I can’t afford an editor, but the review was the same as yours saying that I repeat myself too much and describe things too much as well. I was ready to throw in the towel until a friend just shared your post and I gave it a read. I need to go back and rework the story then re-upload it. Thanks for talking me down!

    • I’m sorry about your one star review, and I’m so glad this post helped. Bad reviews are always tough, especially the first ones. If at all possibly, try to get an editor. At least a copy editor, because you want your product to be as professional as possible. Good luck!

    • Nat, one suggestion about editing. You might be able to barter with someone on services. If you can get another author that you know pretty well to be a beta reader for you, they are usually pretty good at editing, too. You can offer to beta read for them. Just a thought.

  4. Reviews, even when they’re bad, can help us be better writers. But then there are the reviews that are just nasty and don’t really help at all. I ignore those. The ones that actually give feedback? Those are the ones to listen to, good or bad. As writers, we have to develop a thick skin. Mine is MUCH thicker than it used to be. Bad reviews are always going to hurt, but if we learn from them, then maybe we can’t call them “bad”.

    • Yes, there will always be those, and we have to have thick skin and ignore. Absolutely on the feedback! Yes, mine too. I used to be pretty sensitive, but I am getting better and learning to take what I can learn from. Thanks!

  5. Stacy, as I mentioned earlier, your honesty on this post is awesome. Your attitude is admirable. Turning lemons into lemonade is something we have to learn to do in all parts of our life. Learning to do it with our jobs (the writing) is vital.

    • Thanks so much. I wasn’t sure I really wanted to put those reviews out there, but I needed them to drive home what I was saying. And yes on the lemonade. God knows I am working on it!

  6. This is a great post, Stacy. As someone who’s left honest but critical reviews, I’ve written them hoping to help other readers make buying decisions, but also a small part–selfishly–that the author would someday read them and think I had a good point. Very grown up of you 🙂

    • Thank you so much! It’s very tough to do, but for me, constructive criticism is invaluable. And most of the time, you can tell which reviews are ones to leave and which reviews are ones to learn from. Good for you in voicing your opinion:)

  7. Great post, Stacy! I do read my reviews, too, and take into consideration what they say. Jodie is right–you can spot the idiots, but when they’ve got valid points, it pays for us to listen. Keep writing–you will only improve on your already talented skills. 🙂

    • Thanks so much! Yes, you can spot the unhelpful ones pretty easily once you learn to take the emotion out of it. Congrats on the NYTBS list, by the way!

  8. Loved the post. Got a rejection notice for a story I’d submitted to a magazine. It was an e-mail barely one and a half line long. When I first wrote it for a class it was a two part story that I combined into one. I wrote the first part and began the second part as a seamless continuation. My instructor enjoyed it and recommended that I submit it. I did. I didn’t want money, just seeing something I wrote in print and getting the reinforcement that writers need. Right now I’m depressed, and doubting why I write. I’ll reread and edit it and get it published somewhere even if it means I print it up myself and hand it out in front of the supermarket on Saturdays and Sundays. Just to get them to follow the blog and give them stories.

    • Rejections are really tough, but they are part of the game. Believe me, I question myself on an almost daily basis, lol. I’m so glad you’re going to continue. You might consider seeing if it fits any anthologies/short story collections and try subbing there. Good luck!

  9. I’ve found that all my bad reviews came from those people who had downloaded the book for free during my KDP Amazon days. I’ve heard about this trend with other authors, and I can’t figure it out. Personally, I would be more apt to post a bad review on a book I didn’t like if I’d spent my hard earned money on it rather than if I’d received it for free.

    • Yes, that does happen. I’ve been lucky with it, but have heard of happening many times. Those are the reviews you just have to set aside and more on from. Thanks for commenting!

  10. brendat59

    Wonderful post Stacy! I admire you for being able to face up to bad reviews, even though they hurt – I am only a reader, I was one of your 4 star reviews on Goodreads and thoroughly enjoyed the story, but I wish more authors were like you. I feel authors will be respected more by their readers when they “go with the flow” and I guess, learn by perceived mistakes. All the best for your future writing, and I’ll definitely be reading more of you 🙂

    • Thank you so much. I remember your review, and I really appreciate it. For me, the only way to deal with bad reviews is spin them in a positive way and try to make my writing better. Otherwise they can eat a person up. Thanks again!

  11. I just recently had this discussion with someone, I think I will send them here to this post. I think your honestly will help them understand the value of all reviews. Thank you for this one.

    • Please do send them my way if you think will help. That was my goal with swallowing my pride and sharing those reviews, lol. You’re very welcome. Thanks for commenting.

  12. Jonetta (Ejaygirl)

    Great topic and timely. Your first reactions to these reviews are so honest and human. Your next reaction is a reflection of your maturation as a writer. Taking them cumulatively and identifying like themes was smart. I think you’re a fine and gifted writer and what you did will just make you an even more compelling storyteller.

    Thanks for the post!

    • Thanks so much for the encouragement! While I have a long way to go, I have definitely matured as a writer. And thank you again for the sweet words. They really mean a lot!

  13. Well I’m one of the “even a book like Gone Girl” haters, because I thought it was fast-paced but ultimately left a bad taste in my mouth/mind, like Diet Coke. Some people LOVE Diet Coke, and some people don’t, that’s the kind of world we live in.

    I love your spirit in this, and your willingness to learn from reader feedback. Recently I reviewed a self-pubbed book (after being solicited by the author to do so), and had real problems getting through the first part, but partway in, the tone changed, and I loved it from that point out. Gave it four stars and a recommend, but I was honest in my review about how much trouble I had with the first part. Author was offended and actually wrote an entire blog post about how mean and horrible I was to her, then tagged me on it on FaceBook. Which I found kind of sad and kind of amusing and wholly unprofessional.

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