How Do You Handle Negative Book Reviews? You Trust, That’s What You Do.

Writing InspirationLike everything else with writing and publishing, there are a lot of opinions about how to handle negative book reviews. Here’s one from Digital Book World, one from Write to Done, and my personal favorite from Joe Konrath. I love Konrath’s advice of just ignore them. In my case, I don’t read them at all.

You read that correctly. I don’t read negative reviews of my books. I don’t argue with anyone’s right to dislike my work, and I don’t argue with anyone’s right to share their dislike. I certainly don’t like every book I read. As an author, I have the right to choose what kind of energy I want to take in, and I choose to surround myself with positive energy that supports my vision. Yes, I know…that’s a little on the woo woo side. Let me try to be more practical.

First of all, negative reviews aren’t always a bad thing, and there’s truth to the adage that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. I think the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon is a great example. I’ve never seen a book with so many negative reviews (there are thousands of them), and yet it’s become one of the best selling books of all time. If anything, the negativity fueled the phenomenon rather than quelled it because it made people curious. There was a time when writers were told that negative reviews were the kiss of death for their books, and maybe some people still believe that, but I’ve seen many books sell well after negative reviews.

It’s not only the number of reviews you have that matter, but the type of reviews. Not all reviews are created equal. A five star review that says “Great Book!” is okay, but a five star review where readers go into some detail about why they liked the book can be very helpful. It’s the same with one star reviews. One star reviews where readers state why they didn’t like the book are fine. Really, they’re fine. It’s not realistic to expect that everyone who reads your book will like it. People have different tastes, that’s all. Then there are the one star reviews that come from a desire to be snarky. I blame Simon Cowell and the Real Housewives for making insolence something people aspire to. Still, I trust readers, and I believe they can tell the difference between honest reviews and mean-spirited reviews. They can tell if someone is simply sharing their dislike of a book or being mean for the fun of it. And don’t forget those entertaining reviews that comment on the timeliness of the shipping or the condition of the product. Just the other day I was scanning the reviews for a book I wanted to buy and there was a one star review because the book arrived in four days instead of two. I bought the book, in case you were wondering.

I understand why writers feel so hurt when they read criticism of their work. I used to be hypersensitive about such criticism myself. Creative writing classes in college were hard for me because there was an unnecessary sting in the feedback from other students. I thought the point of writers workshop was to help each other, not to hurt each other, and I didn’t understand the meanness in the other students’ critiques and I didn’t find those classes useful. Then when I began The Copperfield Review nearly 15 years ago, I received a number of anonymous e-mails that put down the stories Copperfield published. I guessed at the time that the e-mails were from disgruntled writers we had chosen not to publish, but I still let the negativity bother me. Around the same time my first novel, My Brother’s Battle, was published through Xlibris (don’t ask), and someone, also anonymous, asked how I could put such drivel into the world. Again, most likely a disgruntled submitter, or maybe even a legitimate naysayer, who knows, but it got to me.

When Her Dear & Loving Husband was published in 2011, I was known by exactly zero people. I read every review that popped up because I was fascinated by these total strangers who took the time to say things about my book. After a while, I began to realize that the reviews—both good and bad—weren’t about me or even my book. I know that sounds odd, but I believe that reviews have more to do with the reviewer than the reviewed. The Write to Done article says as much. If you give two people the same book and one loves it and one hates it, is that about the book or about the people reading the book? When we read, all we have is ourselves—our personalities, our perspectives, our likes, our dislikes, our interests, our emotions, our imaginations—and all of those traits come into play when we read. Sometimes that works in favor of our books and sometimes it doesn’t. Besides, haven’t you noticed how whenever someone writes negative reviews online, whether it’s for books, restaurants, or whatever, it’s almost always done anonymously under a false name like PookieICU or TinyTom789? Are you going to let Pookie get to you because he (or she) is venting about whatever is actually bothering him (or her)? Very rarely do people own up to their meanness (unless they’re the afore mentioned Simon Cowell or the Real Housewives). What does their negativity have to do with you or your book? Really? Haters gonna hate. Why let them pull you down?

And if someone is writing an honest review and they didn’t like your book, it’s okay. I promise—both you and your book will be fine. It just means that person isn’t meant to be your reader. Focus on the readers who like what you do. They’re the ones who are going to buy your future books. Why make yourself crazy over someone else’s opinion? That is, unless you have a mother like mine. When Her Dear & Loving Husband was first released and the reviews were popping up on Amazon, I was so happy because the majority of reviews were five stars. At the time there was something like 20 five-star reviews and one one-star review. My mother said, the way only a Jewish mother can, “Did you read that one star review?”

Despite my mother, I had grown in fortitude in the 11 years between My Brother’s Battle and Her Dear & Loving Husband. I had such faith in Her Dear & Loving Husband, and I felt in my gut there was an audience for it. As a result, the negative reviews didn’t sting because I had a sense that if that person didn’t like the book, there would be others who did. After reading reviews, both good and bad, I realized I believed in what I was doing, and that was enough. That’s when I stopped reading reviews. It’s not that I don’t care if people like my work, and I don’t completely ignore reviews. When I do check my books on Amazon or iTunes, I don’t look at individual reviews, though I do look to see the average star count. I look at it this way—as long as I have more good reviews than bad, it’s all good.

Am I missing out on some feedback? Perhaps. But I have beta readers who help me through the review process, and I have editors, so I feel I’m getting the necessary outside point of view (as in outside my own head). The fact is there’s no one tougher on my own work than I am. That’s why I only publish one book a year. If there’s a book out there with my name on it, then it has passed the test of the toughest reader of all—me. And even though I’m proud of my books, I know not everyone will like them. That’s okay. Like I said, different people have different tastes. I keep writing and publishing books. I keep finding ways to grow my audience. And I keep trusting the readers. That’s what this all boils down to—trust. Trusting yourself, your talent, and your vision, and trusting the readers who want to find good books to read.

Baking Time: Giving Your Story Time to Breathe

When the indie author revolution started several years ago, there was a lot of advice about how authors must do things in order to be successful. One piece of sage advice still making the rounds is how authors must write and publish books as fast as they can—story-time assembly line writing, if you will. The rationale behind this is simple: the more books you have to sell, the more money you’ll make. Makes sense, right? As a result, I felt bad about myself for not writing faster. I kept hearing about these authors who write, edit, and publish a book every few months, sometimes every few weeks, and I thought I should do that too. I felt like I worked at a snail’s pace compared to others. Then, just as I had to do with social media and marketing, I had to find what works for me, not what works for others.

I write and publish exactly one book a year. I’m not writing the entire year, mind you. I find that my stories need time to bake. I need time to roll them, knead them, push them this way and make them round, press them there while they roll. I always start out with a general idea of what the story is about, who the characters are, what happens to them, that sort of thing. First, I write a general outline of what I think will happen in the story. Then I write my first draft, which is always a painful experience for me (you can see my thoughts on writing a first draft here). As I’ve said before, I love Anne Lamott for many reasons, but mainly I love her for introducing me to the phrase “shitty first drafts” since mine are the shittiest shitty first drafts anywhere. I know that most of what I write in the first draft will either be changed, rearranged, or deleted. When I’m writing a first draft I write the story in its most basic form with hardly any description, not much dialogue, and no thought to theme or foreshadowing. I’ve been writing long enough to understand my writing process, and for whatever reason the shitty first draft is my brain’s way of working through the first layer of the story so that when I’m done I can dig a little deeper to see what’s really tasty there. When I can write “The End” on my first draft I sigh with relief because I know the hardest part is over.

After I finish my first draft, I put it aside, usually for 2-3 months—sometimes more, sometimes less. That might seem like a long time to some people, especially those of the “write as many books as you can, as fast as you can” variety, but I find that time between drafts, what I call the baking time, is important for me. Even though I’m not working on the manuscript during this time, this is when I let my mind wander through different scenes, putting the characters in different situations, playing the “What will happen if…” game that fiction writers are so fond of.

I’m not only imagining my way through the story during this time. I read, a lot, particularly books written during or about the time my story takes place. My latest project is set in Victorian England, so you’ve already guessed that I’ve reread a number of Dickens’ novels—most recently Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend, both of which touch on the same themes I want to address. I’ve also read Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, which is set in New York, but since one of my main characters is a young American woman from New York, the novel has been a great read, giving me insight into New York society. If I’ve got you thinking of Wharton’s The Buccaneers or Lady Grantham from Downton Abbey, no, my book isn’t about American heiresses in London—not quite, anyway. In addition to my reading, I’ve been watching a lot of television about the Victorian period. The BBC is a master at recreating classic works of literature, many of which are set in the Victorian era. I’ve also been watching a number of documentaries about the period. The journey back to the Victorian era is mainly review for me since I studied that period for my Master’s degree (my thesis was on Dickens, the Big D himself). One thing I’m doing this time that I haven’t done before is I created a board on Pinterest where I’m pinning clothing from the Victorian era, as well as furniture, houses, art, gardens, books—anything I can find to give me a feel for the period. Right now the board is private because I don’t want to bombard people with the 40 pins a day I put on my research board, but soon I’ll make a public version so others can see what I’ve found.

This is where the fun of writing fiction begins for me—immersing myself in the time period. Reading other authors, learning new information, seeing the clothing and the furniture, listening to the music, watching the movies and documentaries, it all gives me an abundance of ideas to use in my own story. Of course, not everything I read or see will end up in the novel, but it doesn’t matter. It gives me a framework from which to build the world in which my characters inhabit. If it takes time for the ideas to meld together to form a cohesive story, that’s fine. I’ve learned to be content with my writing process.

How do I know it’s time to start writing again? It hits me out of the blue, like an oven timer letting me know the baking is done and my story is ready. This happened to me just last week. Suddenly, I saw a new opening scene for my novel playing before me as though it were on a movie reel behind my eyes. As an opening chapter it works better than the one I had before because it introduces us to the main characters, to the main setting of the story, and yet there’s enough action in it so it isn’t all exposition. So far so good. As I continued thinking about it, I realized that I could see the story through to its new conclusion, along with a few twists and turns I hadn’t thought of when I was writing the first draft. I wrote a new outline, and now I can begin writing the second draft, which is where all the pieces of the puzzle start to fit together. Really, I know it’s time to start writing again when the pain from not getting back to the story is stronger than the pain of writing—though, to be fair, this second draft isn’t painful the way the first draft is. In fact, the second draft isn’t painful at all. This break between first and second draft costs me a few months, but I find it’s a fun time for me and it’s time well spent.

It took some time, but I did finally realize that I’m not on anyone’s time frame but my own. For authors who write more quickly than I do, that’s great. My point is only to say that it’s up to authors to find out what works for them, and everyone’s process is different. Don’t fall into the trap, as I nearly did, of being dictated to about how often you should write or publish books. If you can write more quickly, go for it. If you need a year, two years, take it. Do your own thing. Write your own way. I would rather publish one book a year and put out something I was happy with, something I was proud to have my name on, than put out something I wasn’t satisfied with because I felt like I had to publish something. Over the years, I’ve come to terms with my “baking time.” Bringing stories to life is what I love most about writing, and the baking time allows me to do that in a richer, fuller way.

Wherever You Go, Go With All Your Heart

I’ve been following Catherine Ryan Howard’s blog Catherine, Caffeinated for a few years now, and I love her insights into indie publishing, her sarcastic sense of humor, and I freely admit that I share her love for all things caffeine. Recently, Catherine posted an article about how the hardest thing about a decision is making it. In her post, Catherine talks about her long-time desire to attend Trinity College in Dublin, and how, finally, at the last minute she applied, and how, finally, she’s attending the university she dreamed about. I nodded as I read Catherine’s post because I had the same realization—that the hardest part about a decision is making it.

_Oh_the_places_you_ll_go_There_is_fun_to_be_done_There_are_points_to_be_scored._There_are_games_to_be_won._And_the_magical_things_you_can_do_with_that_ball_will_make_you_the_winning_est_winner_of_all._Like Catherine, I had university dreams for years. I knew from the time I was working on my BA in English that I wanted to pursue my PhD so I could teach at the university level, but you know that great saying about how life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans. As soon as I finished my BA, I dutifully went into an MA program, also in English, with the intention of following up with a doctoral program. I finished my Master’s degree, but I was sidetracked when I worked in “The Industry” (television and film) in Hollywood for a couple of years as a script analyst. The Hollywood work was exciting at first, though it lost its luster soon enough for me. On a whim I took a job teaching kindergarten at a small private school in Southern California, and I felt like I had come home. I loved teaching. I loved the children. I loved that the world is new for five year-olds and everything is fascinating to them. I decided to go back to school to get my teaching license, and since then I’ve spent 20 years teaching everything from Pre-K to elementary school to middle school to high school to writing workshops for adults. At the same time I was running The Copperfield Review and writing short stories, articles, and novels, and in 2011 I began Copperfield Press and joined the indie author revolution.

About two years ago I started getting antsy. I had been in education 18 years by then, I had Copperfield Press up and running, and I had found a flow for indie publishing that works for me. I realized I needed something new, some new challenge. I think that’s what happens to some people when they’ve been doing the same thing for a while. It could just be me since I know teachers who have taught at the same school for years and love it. At my first job in Las Vegas, as a learning strategist at a middle school, I met a teacher who taught the same subject in the same school in the same classroom for over 30 years. She taught there so long that she was teaching the children of her original students. She would have stayed even longer than she did but her mother’s health began to fail so she retired to stay home to take care of her mother. I’ve always envied people like that, people who know where they belong, but I have too much of a restless spirit to keep still in that way. The way I kept teaching interesting for me was to keep moving—from grade level to grade level, from school to school, sometimes even from state to state, moving first from California to Idaho and then from Idaho to Nevada. Once I started teaching high school, I realized there was nowhere else to teach except university, which is where I wanted to go in the first place.

The things you are passionate about are not random, they are your callingExcuses are funny things, aren’t they? They love to multiply and make you question yourself, leaving you nervous about decisions that should be easy peasy. Over the years my desire to get my PhD would rise to the surface, but the excuses would come, like ants marching one by one: What if I don’t get accepted anywhere? What if I do get accepted somewhere? I can’t decide what to study—English or Education? What if I choose the wrong one? And whatever I choose I’ll have to go back to school for four years. I’ve been out of school too long to be able to go back for four years. I’ll have to leave my job but my job is comfortable and safe. What will I do without my salary? And what about my writing? I’m a writer. I need to write. When will I find time to write my fiction if I’m back in school? I’m too old. I’m too set in my ways. And so on. You know the drill. We all have a list of excuses that scream into our brains whenever we want to do something different.

For me, I make changes when the pain from not making them is stronger than my fear of the change. I had been feeling like I needed a career change for a while, but at first it was just a mild hum in the background that I could ignore or explain away.Then the mild hum became a pointed stick that wouldn’t stop poking me. I understood on a visceral level that I needed to move on since being comfortable wasn’t enough anymore. I finally made the decision to apply to PhD programs. I took the GRE (Graduate Record Exam) because that’s a requirement for graduate school here in the U.S. and I hadn’t taken it since I applied for my Master’s program 24 years ago. I researched different programs at universities in Nevada, California, Oregon, and Washington State. After some soul searching and several discussions with a friend and co-worker who has been my cheerleader (thanks Judy!) I realized that I had something to offer when it comes to the teaching of writing so I decided to pursue a PhD in Education. It was a happy accident when I discovered that one of the best programs in the U.S. for teacher education is right in my own backyard at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. I applied to one school—UNLV—and the rest, as they say, is history.

It’s funny how things happen sometimes. I remember when I had taken a class at UNLV when I first moved to Vegas 10 or 11 years ago, and I remember standing on the grassy lawn near the Carlson Education Building, and I remember feeling like I belonged on that campus. Well, it only took me a decade, but now I do belong there. The funny thing is that now, taking my classes and planning out my program for the long haul, I don’t know what took me so long. Yes, the classes are challenging, but it’s a PhD and you have to work for it. The truth is, I love it. Even when it’s hard and I’m exhausted and I’m ready to pull my hair out I love it. That’s what happens when you end up where you’re supposed to be—something clicks and it just feels right. In Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, there’s this great saying about how when you follow your dreams the universe conspires to help you. That’s how I feel now. Once I made the decision that this is what I wanted to do, everything else was easy. And you know what? The other stuff gets done. My own writing, as in for my new novel, is getting done, maybe not as quickly as before, but I can see I’m making progress and that’s enough right now.

_Wherever_you_go_go_with_all_your_heart._Once, when Oprah Winfrey still had her talk show, she had a guest who talked about how it’s not the things people do that cause them pain but the things they don’t do. I’ve always held that idea close. Whenever I have a decision to make—yes or no?—I always ask myself if I would regret it if I didn’t try. I hope that whatever decisions you have to make—yes or no?—you’re able to follow your dreams, and, as Confucius said, wherever you go, go with all your heart.