by Julie Coulter Bellon
"I really hated your book."
The sentence that every writer dreads hearing. Or even small shades of that. "I thought your book was boring." Or maybe, "I just couldn’t get into your book."
Almost every writer I know has received criticism on their books. Whether it was something small like, "well, your book dragged in the middle," or "I predicted the ending in the first chapter, but I liked the story anyway," type of comments all the way to, "I hated your book."
It’s hard, as writers, not to take criticism of any sort, personally. We’ve poured our heart and soul into this book, hoping to entertain people, to share some tidbit of knowledge or some story that was inside of us dying to be told. And then it seems like it is under-appreciated or hated. What’s an author to do?
Some authors probably crawl back into bed, watch a movie like Beaches and cry it out. Others probably look for the name of the reviewer and write them into the next book as an incompetent villain or a hapless victim of some kind. But what is a productive response to criticism?
My friend who is a professional referee takes a lot of criticism and her job is actually quite relatable to the writing profession. She is very vulnerable standing up in front of literally hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people, depending on the venue. She said, "I am out there for all to see and it’s very personal because it is my judgment and my personal knowledge that I have to rely on 100% of the time." Doesn’t that sound like a writer?
Yet, even on her best day as a referee, there is usually one side of the gym that hates her at any given time, depending on which team she made the call against. She’s been yelled at, sworn at, and slapped, and she still puts on that black and white striped shirt to do it again the next night. Is she a glutton for punishment? No. She is able to put it behind her, and she knows that, in the end, these people don’t hate her personally. They can’t, because they don’t know her. They hate the referee, the position she holds. Interestingly enough, though, without exception, even after the most difficult games, people will tell her what a good job she did and that she was a good ref.
I think that is similar to what authors go through. With our books, we receive criticism, but we don’t give up. We put it behind us and go on with our next project, because even during difficult times, there are people out there who think we’re doing a good job. We keep going because we know, in the end, the criticism generally isn’t about us as people, because they don’t know us. It’s about our story and our craft. As hard as it is, we can't take it personally.
There is a place for criticism however. Feedback can be very helpful to a writer. But how do you know what is helpful and what is not?
A referee has some tools to keep the criticism under control and I think as writers we can figuratively use the same ones. A referee carries two cards with them—a yellow warning card and a red penalty card. I think a writer should also carry two cards with them as well, when it comes to "feedback."
Let’s say you have received some criticism. As a writer, we should always in our minds, give the feedback a yellow card. Yellow, of course, can mean to yield. So, let’s take another look before we continue. You go back and read the review or comment again. Ask yourself, is it constructive? Can you use it to better your writing?
If it will help you improve your writing, or spotlights a weakness that you can strengthen, then go ahead and work on that. For example, if someone comments that your character of the grandmother seemed stereotypical and one-dimensional, you can flesh it out and fix that. If the comment was, I hated all the characters in your book, well, there’s not much you can do with that type of feedback.
That’s when you pull out your red card. After you have evaluated the criticism, if it is not constructive and does not help you, then red card it. Of course the red card would mean to stop thinking about it. Stop and Discard, if you will.
Feedback can be a wonderful thing. Even negative feedback can help you as an author, but sometimes it comes in forms that may be hurtful or seemingly unkind. That is why I think we, as writers, could pull out the yellow and red cards to evaluate it and see if there are improvements that can really be made or not.
But even with that, a writer also needs to remember that not everyone is going to love your story. Just like my friend the referee, half of the gym hates her at any given time. Yet, she gets up and does it again the next day. That is similar to life as a writer. No matter what criticisms we have felt, we will get up and do it again the next day. Because we know, if we play our cards right, we are winners, and victory can and will be ours.