Why You Can Give Me A Bad Review

If there’s one valuable lesson a creator can learn, it’s not to engage with reviewers. With very few exceptions, railing against a negative review reflects most poorly on the reviewed, who are likely to come off as petulant, not the reviewer.

–Susana Polo, [Anne Rice Sics Her Fandom on Unaffiliated Lone Blogger for One Poor Review] 11:45 am, April 30th, 2013 

Once Upon A Time…

…There was a writer who worked really hard, did some hardcore personal PR, and broke into print with a major bestseller. It was a Cinderella-grade story. With sociopathic vampires. Then in an attempt to re-create success, they created a series of books that were increasingly off the wall and disconnected. And when I say it is actually possible to disconnect from both the Regular Realty, and the Reality That Has Vampires, Werewolves, Relentless Dub-Con and Underage Squeamish Bits, trust me, it is.

And then just when things got their weirdest, that author saw a 1-star review and went pyroclastic.  

They never reacted when readers pointed out neither she nor her editor did not know yolk and yoke. They ignored the concerned voices when existing Orders and Societies were used and re-worked to suit her violent demographic. And I guess they were never even on the Internet when readers noticed that the villain of each book became the hero of the next with facts and situations completely re-worked, like a book version of PHANTASM.

Nope. They saw a one-star review and I’d say “witch hunt” was what happened next, but in this case, the witch was the hunter. Language was hurled. Private information exploited. Vindictive vows and foam-flecked sentences were rocketed, and there were diatribes you are unlikely to see repeated again–outside of Bad Fanfic or Mein Kampf, anyway. She had such a disconnect that it had spread to her fans. Many of them couldn’t believe she’d written the vicious attack against the one-star reviewer…because the writing was just so terrible. I’m sorry people, but she really is that bad.) 

So the lesson I took from this eyeball-popping public behavior?

Be a grown up.

Bad reviews do not mean your book is actually bad. Yes. Your book may be horrible and you are the only one unaware of it– but how you deal with it sure indicates your character. Unfailingly.

Neil Gaiman likened the whole disaster to kicking a tar baby–brave and satisfying for the author, but if he ever did something like that, please shoot him. You can read it on this page HERE. Enjoy it. I did.

There are bad reviews, and then there are REALLY bad reviews. Do the books deserve it? Well that depends, doesn’t it? When a book offends us we want to be Dorothy Parker. More likely, we stumble and fumble and try to be nice and hedge and haw…because we don’t want to be treated badly with our own reviews.

We don’t want to write badly…but if we do, what will the reviews be like?

A book is a work of art. No artist is going to know what will happen at the opening of the gallery. Critics are never in short supply. Unlike a painter, however, a book can be revised and re-crafted. It can be melted down like Peer Gynt’s Buttonmaker (that terrifying creature!) and made into something new.

And that leads to the most poignant, potentially horrifying question: Do we want to make our creation into something new? Can we bear it? What if–just possibly–we created something that did not reflect our best work? What if we did not accomplish all that we could do?

That question lies patiently in the back-brains of many a writer’s skull, whispering and snickering.

Well, I’ve had some bad reviews, and I needed them. They wake me up. There are some arrows that never fail to hit me, because they are true: I do not have an editor. I do not have a proofreader. I write for a small press and they do not have editors and proofreaders on the payroll. Oh, if only. Because I make mistakes. I can churn out 5,000 words in a short time. That sure doesn’t mean those words are perfect! You try working on the same 7,000 words all week and see what blatantly obvious, cringe-worthy whales merrily slip past your own radar. Don’t worry. You’ll see them again. After print.

Several people have out of the kindness of their hearts offered to proof my work. Very rarely do I say yes–because how many of them really know what they are doing?  And to take on this horrific task for free? I shudder to think.

I started out posting fan fiction online. It was a different world on FF.NET back then. We had a large, literate and supportive gang from around the world. Not only were they able to help, they were willing to help and if something was off they told you. But they told you kindly. They also tracked down people who might be stealing your work. They were tops. I was spoiled but also I was at the peak of my creative outflow. Because a good environment is nurturing. Trust me when I say there were reviewers who didn’t know what they were talking about, and at least one who questioned the validity of my facts. There were reviewers who couldn’t think of anything, really, but they felt they had to say something, so they just repeated themselves over and over. There was also a troll that wrote as horribly as possible so people would scream at them (As I recall all too well, there was a haunted house, Dr. Watson levitating, and a vacuum cleaner). At first I thought that story was a really messed up attempt to write in English for the first time, but the Gang quietly PM’d me and told me they knew this guy, and there was no way in hell anyone could write so badly, so consistently.

Enough of him. Back to the topic: I did get reviews that scraped me raw. But you know what? The more I was swamped with fulsome praise, the more sensitive I got to the least imagined criticism! Why was that? I could defend myself pretty well!  Simple answer: I really *liked* getting praised. And looking back, all those positive reviews weren’t good for me. Because when people are unhappy about something, they tend to bless us with specifics. They poke and prod and show the soft spots. They hold the lens up to the light so we can see the flaws. Praise is easy to read and easy to write–if you just say you love it, that’s great. But many of the “I love it” reviewers back in the old days wouldn’t tell me why they loved it. So how did I know how to repeat that reaction again? But horrors upon horrors, in my salad days I spent more time basking in the glow of the happy reviews than looking at the criticisms.

And you’d think I would know better! Because half the time, it is the negative review on Amazon that inspires me to buy a book in the first place! Sort of like FURY ROAD–when someone kvetches it has too much feminism my reaction was, “In Australia? This I have to see.” Likewise half my bookshelves are lined with books I really like and won’t part with, because the criticism made me think–and also, what annoyed one person was something I liked for myself.

Which brings us to the most awkward of all reading and reviewing situations: Combined book projects.

We may be more comfortable with receiving the punishment of a bad review than giving them, but think how it feels to find out your particular submission to an anthology or a short story publication is the one people remember for being the bad one.1 God help us, there ARE collections out there in which it is all too clear that a friend of the editor or publisher was invited to the party. This situation inflates all the weakness of a collaboration, because what do you say? That book has your work in it too!

Honestly, say what needs to be said because if you are silent with your unhappiness, that implies that you are supporting the flaws in the book. Think about what makes you unhappy–was the cover inappropriate? Was the publisher hogging all the space in the ads? Formatting errors or things that just plain didn’t belong with the guidelines? Maybe the book was published for cheap in another country and the topic is on American jobs? 

We can be honest, and we can be kind. We can show the strengths of the story along with the weaknesses in order to be balanced.  What would make a criticism of our own work go down better? Honest acknowledgment of our efforts. We need to believe in our work enough to defend it–but also, we need to recognize the truth when someone tells us there may be flaws in our precious babies.

Do you have to respond to the critics? That’s up to you. The human brain is generally resistant to criticism, having troubles telling the difference between “helpful advice” and “personal attack”. Criticism didn’t stop such deathless gems like TWEELIGHT and its unholy child, 50 SHADES OF GROSS. But what are you going to say to your critics? Someone once twisted my valid criticisms into an accusation of backstabbing, thus rendering me the monster and they the poor innocent victim. To them I dared criticize, and criticism was not allowed on a group project. So somehow I deliberately broke a sacred rule that neither I nor any of the seasoned old veterans of the word had ever heard of. Don’t forget, some people can’t take the responsibility of their position. Be prepared for consequences. Consequences may not be what you anticipate. I was dropped from my first publishing company because they were animal abusers and sympathizing with an attempted rapist and I said that was not cool. I have yet to ask them for my share of the sales. 

I’ll forgive a book for minor editing and formatting flops. I’d be a hypocrite not to–and if a plot is really good I’ll forget to count all the “its vs. it’s.” More rarely, I’m up against a nice style, good writing, and an ouch plot. A year ago I chickened out of a pastiche review because it was so much like a plot out of DARK SHADOWS I couldn’t believe it. Yes. I chickened out. Because as God as my witness, I still don’t know what to say because it was already in print and I couldn’t believe the publishing company hadn’t caught on it either. That same year it took me 6 months to tell someone I couldn’t read more than 2 pages of their book because it was triggering my PTSD. It was not my fault, it was not her fault; but I felt so badly that she’d written something I couldn’t stomach.  I mean, how do you tell someone they are so good they give you nightmares? One magical day, a nurse PM’d her and asked her if she was aware she was channeling PTSD traumas. 

But…this is all about first-level impact. Writer to writer, and reader to reader. Reviewers write. They should be respected for that because how many of us could do that? Don’t turn what they write about your story into a feedback loop. It may feel very personal, but I’m less afraid of that than I am facing a bad review in a collection to which I have contributed. “Survivor’s Guilt” may be the best word for that. Even if it isn’t you getting blistered, your story is still there with it. It is easier if you feel the author needs defending…but what if you secretly agree?

It is in part to prevent these agonies that a publisher and editor work together to create something worthy. They don’t always get along–they aren’t supposed to ‘get along’ they are supposed to ‘work together’ for the greater good. Both of them have aspects to their job that is, frankly and without malice…thankless.

Books with short story collections by different authors may be the most sensitive to criticism and/or praise because of the following reasons:

  • There are different writers with their own styles.
  • The book is expected to reflect the best of the writers, the editor, the book designers, the advertisers AND the publisher as well as the other books under the label. That is a lot of expectation and all can be destroyed by careless assumptions or lack of respect the rules–or that horrible little gremlin, Simple Human Error, also known as “Dammit!”

If your editor incorporates someone who cannot/will not respect the guidelines for quality that you yourself strive for, you have reason to worry. They should have your back. Read this following link, if you dare, about a brave editor who had to deal with a truly diseased brain because ‘a friend of a friend’ got through the entry level requirements. Be warned. This is hilariously awful.

If your publisher doesn’t see a problem with letting in people who fail to meet the minimum requirements for higher brain function, you have reason to worry.

If your publisher seems to think a book is worth publishing because somebody somewhere, will buy it, you have reason to worry–because you have cause to second-guess how much faith they have in you if their standards are so low. Over 160 authors sent letters of protest to Simon & Schuster because they were going to publish good old “Milo Y” and more protests followed. Check out the story HERE. They were within their rights to not associate with a known libelous walking pile of slander. Silence means consent. When in doubt, see above Rule. Silence means consent.

If anyone thinks you, the writer, owns the authority to control the entire book project, you definitely have reason to worry.

You will never win all the battles. Don’t even try. It isn’t pretty when an editor is hired for a project and then the publisher tries to tell them what to do, or vice versa, or you have a creative force that can’t follow simple instructions and keep thy head out of the clouds. 

Unless everyone has a paid proofreader in the closet behind the mop bucket, not everyone is going to have the same quality of story.

Don’t think your struggle is new and unique and precious. The greatest writers in the English language also have equally great writer/rivals who wouldn’t touch their work with a barge pole. GO HERE if you want to read some outstandingly blistering reviews–reviews so flesh-ripping you’d think they were harvested straight off the hungry thorns of the Himalayan blackberry.

There are days when I laugh that NORTON’S ANTHOLOGY will allow Mark Twain, Jane Austen, and Edgar Allan Poe under the same cover.   These masters had no love for each other. They were erudite and tough and gifted, but they didn’t agree on what made a good story. In these modern times we have grown no less fractious–re: Manley Wade Wellman threatening to “take it outside” with Tennessee Williams, or the time Will Eisner created an episode of THE SPIRIT just so he could stab Al Capp in the back with an ink nib (Oh, the sheer poetry of this wonderful act of righteous malevolence).

We don’t always have that luxury of a war amongst the giants but it is a good idea to remember that disagreements…and stupid mistakes…can and will happen regardless of your holy writing cause. Blunders respect no boundaries. Sometimes all it takes to make an embarrassment is…overlook the obvious. Think I’m kidding? Just go mention “jelly beans” to Harlan Ellison and see what happens. It’s been, what, 50+ years since that jelly beans incident? And this is one of the best writers out there! It can happen to anyone, but because he and high-caliber writers are dedicated to their Art, these incidences are few and far between.2

But dedication to the Art means keeping at it. And like all callings, it is not easy.

There’s a much-beloved modern proverb about the English language. Thank you, Mr. James Nicoll for this wisdom:

“The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.”

Part of the problem with writing well is that…well…we’re talking English. As Rita Mae Brown said, no other language is so designed for comedy.3 Too often this means a comedy of errors. We need to learn to laugh back at it, and I don’t mean just by joining a Croakerism competition, or playing with quotation marks in a Solar Pons anecdote, or Good Lord, going for the grand prize in the Dark and Stormy Night contest.

In a nutshell: If we want to write, we shouldn’t let anything stop us. That includes ourselves.

If we think we’re perfect, then we don’t need criticism or praise. In which case stop reading reviews because clearly, there is nothing to be gained.


If we’re going to break the rules, learn the rules! archy the cockroach did. You can write as well as a cockroach, can’t you?

If we believe there is always room for improvement, we need to understand the value of feedback and dialog.

Open your work to review. Set down the rules of behavior. Most people (they call themselves beta readers) will follow them because you are showing them respect by asking politely what they think. This is how the world was enriched by the Percy Jackson novels–because the creator had a dream to write for kids like his son, and he read selections to schoolkids and asked them what they thought. Who is your target audience?


That sounds easy to explain…until you think about it. 

We’ll start with the basics. The target audience is the specific group that you intend to reach.

Read that again.

Specific group.

Surprisingly enough, you can fall in love with, say, Sherlock Holmes pastichery, write a ton about it, send it out to the world with a dedication for how much you love the works of ACD and Joseph Bell…and still completely miss the fact that your target audience is not other humans that love Sherlock Holmes as much as you. Nope.

Is your target audience a specific age group? Are you writing for those parallel-universes called speculative fiction where genders, timelines, and anachronisms rule the world? Are you writing for feminists, veterans with PTSD, or Neo-Nazis? 

For that matter, what are you going to do when uninvited people show up to your target audience party?

An editor once told me that writers can’t click until they hit their proper target audience–and that can take trial and error. One of her writers struggled for months until she realized her style and content was a perfect match for a different age group–as soon as she switched, she found success. Good beta readers and reviewers can help you along that path of self-discovery. Thank them for their input, and if they violate the rules of engagement, you certainly don’t have to take stock in what they say.

But listen to them. You can’t afford to get complacent. Technical criticisms should be noted, especially if you hear it from more than one person. If they tell you they have a problem with your 200-word paragraphs and runon sentences, they may have a point! If you can’t read your own work out loud without gulping water, consider a few periods. Do you struggle with English? So does Fannie Flagg. Take a class in technical writing or join a workshop. There is a reason why the really great writers out there, like Charles DeLint and Neil Gaiman are always out there, giving feedback, reading stories out loud, or playing in a band in a smokey dive. Because they know their target audience is always changing–and so should they. 

And don’t give up on yourself.

Anyone can write the way they want to.

But a writer who wants to be something better, something greater, needs to remember the pen is not a one-way street.


1 Before we go any further, let me say that no one, unless their publisher and editor go off the deep end clutching hands, will ever be responsible for something as morally offensive as TALES FROM THE GREAT TURTLE, a collection of stories “inspired” by Native American stories–which had precious few actual First Nations writers in it and more than a little creepy wish-fulfillment. 

2 I am, of course, referencing REPENT, HARLEQUIN! SAID THE TICKTOCKMAN. Readers disagree on the format; they squabble over the style. The use/abuse of narrative flow gives regimented English teachers schizophrenic migraines. But his strongest reaction was when the fans at convention smilingly pointed out he had a character who had no idea what to do with jellybeans…pick up and eat jellybeans. Read Bjo Trimble’s fond recollection in the classic ON THE GOOD SHIP ENTERPRISE 

3 Rita Mae Brown, biography, RITA WILL


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