What’s more disheartening to a writer: a rejection letter or a bad review? Both can crush your spirit if you let them. The trick is not to let them.
Tastes are subjective. If they weren’t, we’d all like the same things and there wouldn’t be a wealth of different genres out there to appeal to different audiences, or a wealth of publishers in each genre all looking for slightly different things.
It’s easy to read a rejection from a publisher and think that it says, “No one will like this.” Really, what it says is, “This isn’t for me, at this time.” It’s easy to read a bad review and think that it says, “You’re awful and your publisher was wrong to take a chance on you. And also, you probably smell.” Really, all it necessarily says is, “This isn’t for me.”
If you have been published, you can be confident that your work is good enough to be published. Publishers generally know what they’re doing and have certain minimum standards of quality. People, meanwhile, have individual tastes. They may have higher or lower standards. They may require some certain elements, or require the absence of others, or their tastes may be swayed by personal circumstances or the other media they’ve recently been exposed to.
I was speaking yesterday with the author of a mystery, who said that X number of readers thought that his handling of the reveal was perfect, and Y others thought that he didn’t give enough clues, and Z others complained that he made it too obvious. You can’t please everyone, and you shouldn’t feel pressured to try.
I’m going to divert for a moment, with a disclaimer: This isn’t to say that every manuscript is flawless. If that were true, I wouldn’t have a job. But consider the source and evaluate critically when you receive critique. If your editor or your agent tells you that you have technical issues (plot, grammar, pacing, worldbuilding, point of view) that’s one thing. If the issues are matters of individual preference, it’s okay to stay true to your vision and explain why you’ve done things the way you have. You’ll find that an editor will either work with you to make your vision come across more clearly in the manuscript, or that their vision won’t align with yours. Be as open to their reasoning as they’ve been to yours, and then make your choice: trust someone else’s judgment (with the knowledge that their guidance could make the manuscript stronger), or hold out for an editor or agent who sees things the way you do and agrees with your choices.
So, okay. For the sake of argument, we’ve established that your book is as good as it can be. Your publisher raves about it, your editor loves it, and your legions of fans are plucking it off the shelves faster than it can be printed and telling their friends how great it is. Maybe it’s even up for some awards.
Once you’ve moved past the opinions of publishers, editors and agents, and on to the opinions of readers and reviewers, your window for second-guessing is over. There is no going back and changing things based on the feedback that you get. You have a finished product, it’s out there, and people will think of it what they will.
Some will like it. Some won’t. Some may even have good reasons for not liking it and strong, constructive critique regarding the aspects they don’t like, or may point out the flaws that you knew were there but didn’t know how to fix. Even then, incorporating the advice that resonates with you into your next project and moving forward is all you can do.
What one person particularly liked about a work is probably the same element that another person hated. It has awful worldbuilding; it has great worldbuilding. Someone likes the way the characters are named; someone doesn’t like the way the characters are named. Someone likes the use of magic; someone else thinks there’s too much of it, or too little, or that it ‘doesn’t work that way.’ All you can do with those sorts of reviews are chalk them up to personal taste and let them roll off of you.
Or, someone loves the book but gives it a kiss-of-death single star just because it isn’t available in hardcover, or because the online store they bought it from messed up their order and didn’t deliver it. Yes, your overall rating can be lowered over issues that have nothing to do with your book at all. You have to let that roll off you, too.
Look up opinions of any classic and you’ll see a mix of good and bad reviews. In fact, do that: look up Amazon reviews (since they’re nicely collected) for some of your favorites, and for some classics, and for some books you hate. People will disagree with you, they’ll agree with you, and they’ll be on the fence. Some of them will have gotten something completely different out of the same book or movie; they’ll have missed the point by such a wide margin that they’ll make you laugh. (One review of This Is Spinal Tap complains, “If you’re going to make such an excellent documentary, why make it about about a band that nobody has ever heard of?”)
Here are a few posts to get you started. Click on them, shake your head, roll your eyes, and laugh. You’ve earned a good laugh. It’s okay — I’ll wait.
Now look at your own reviews, and you’ll be able to take the voices of dissent a lot less seriously. And you have to. Creative taste is subjective and you’ll never be able to produce something that everyone in the world will like.
I know it probably sounds like it’s easy for me to say, since I’m not the one putting my name and my words out there for the masses. Even as an editor and a publisher, though, my ego gets wrapped up a little in the books that I work with — and a little more than that when I’m the one who’s made the decision to offer a contract and champion a manuscript.
I think it’s useful for all us writers to remember no one work pleases everyone, and you can’t make anyone like it if they don’t, and you can’t keep them from telling other people what they think of it, even if they hate it… and that’s fine. Learn to deal with it. Otherwise it doesn’t matter how much success or praise or satisfaction you earn through your writing, you’ll still obsess over those one-star reviews and it will eat away at your joy. That’s no way to live.
So: own your one star reviews, don’t let them own you. And once you own them, let ‘em go. You’ll feel better, and you’ll worry less about them going forward. Try it for yourself. You’ll see.