sometimes, bad reviews hurt like hell

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Somewhere in the tender, aching place where your skin isn’t tough enough, where your practical shields failed to protect the vulnerable creativity of your writing heart, bad reviews will always hurt. Disappointment crushes you small and all the introverted cells crowded into your body send you staring out your bedroom window for hours at a time, cringing for such an open display of all your failures. It won’t last forever, though I do suspect these days teach us lessons we may not recognize for months or years or decades.

We’re not ‘supposed’ to have these moments. Showing vulnerability is a liability in the shark-infested waters of marketing and promoting ourselves as writers. But of course it’s there, human skin is never tough until a callus earns its place after a lengthy period of pain and sensitivity. We’re not elephants or wee armored pangolins. It’s all right if it hurts.

This vulnerability is the same one which enables us to catch our readers by their heart strings and we do ourselves a disservice to ignore it. Acknowledge it. Protect it. Build shields of logic around it.

Hide pieces of your own creative strength in your places, tucked into books, in folders of past successes, in the ivory space between letters on a page. It will be safe there until the day comes you need to remember what it was like to believe in yourself again. Then retrieve it, use it, hold on to it. Just. Don’t. Give. Up. Nothing, even bad reviews, are written in stone.  Or on stone, as it were. This is how we grow.

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the myth of the scathing review

Discouragement. It comes to us all. Few things kill creativity like discouragement can, and it shows up like a pterodactyl to snap at your latest project and fly off with its entrails hanging from its beak. There you are, wondering what happened and why you were so convinced pterodactyls were extinct all this time.

I know if I want to succeed as a writer, bad reviews are going to happen. I’m supposed to stand tough and learn from them. If I start taking it to heart and crawling under rocks now I’ll never have the guts to keep going. The tricky part is I see this best when I’m not discouraged.

The first scathing review I received came from an editor I submitted a piece of flash fiction to. This was maybe the second or third time I’d ever submitted anything. By scathing I don’t mean the editor declined to publish my work and scrawled ‘this sucks’ over my manuscript. No, they launched into a three-page tirade of everything they hated about my half page piece. When I read it, I was stunned. Not just because, hey, I liked that piece, but because the hate steamed off of their words like Pigpen’s stink waves in a Charlie Brown comic.

How did my tiny story evoke that much hate? I still don’t know. Sometimes I pull out the review and the original piece and re-read them, my sleuthing cap on and my magnifying glass in hand, trying to figure it out. You know what? I still like that piece.

I moped for about a day before I realized something in there must have touched a chord to make that editor so passionate about it. This tiny thought got me through the worst of it. You probably don’t want to hear this, but it taught me something too.

I wish I could say it taught me about plot structure or character development, that those three pages of hate were hiding useful feedback, but this is not the case. What it did teach me was that I’d prefer to get scathing reviews from my peers than an editor. It was the catalyst that made me sign up for several online critique groups. I didn’t want to give up submitting, but I didn’t want to feel humiliated like that again if I could help it.

Critique groups have changed everything. They give me extra confidence in my best stories, and they let me know the ones which need to be laid to rest. They’ve taught me that while I may enjoy writing adult fiction once in a while, it’s not where I’m at my best. I don’t get the same feeling of absolute delight writing for adults as I do for children, and it comes out in my work.

I still get the occasional poor review, but they come from a constructive place. They may still discourage me, but it doesn’t feel as devastating. I know I’m growing, and I can mark my progress now. Critique groups are safe places that have made my skin tougher, which writers need, especially when submitting and publishing. The odds are someone is going to reject our story-children, and we need to be ready for that. Even the greats get bad reviews.

Last week I received another scathing review, this time from a new-to-me critique partner. With a familiar sinking feeling I felt their hatred of my short story emanate from the screen. I felt gutted, again. This story, too, I believed in, labored over, rewrote and revised, because it was worth the effort. This reviewer eviscerated every last detail of my story, scattering its entrails to the wind. It marked the first review of this story, and I felt shattered.

A few days later, another reviewer from a different critique group sent me her review of the same story. I put off reading it. This woman is a damn good writer and she minces no words telling a fellow writer what is wrong with their story. She doesn’t care about how that makes the writer feel, she’s out to improve stories, not hold hands. In other words, she’s the best possible critique partner you can find IF you can handle it. I’ve been working with her long enough to respect her opinions and be terrified of them all at once.

At last I opened it. “Great story, well-written, made a few notes to clean up a few phrases,” she wrote. My jaw hit the floor. Positive remarks from this woman do not happen often. This is a major personal milestone and this is the exact story which received the soul-crushing review a few days previous.

Negative reviews happen, and they’re bound to discourage, but a bad review is just one person’s opinion. If the one can make a writer question their career choices, why can’t the other re-affirm them?

I went back to that scathing reviewer and tried to look at it with a greater personal distance. Truth is, I didn’t and don’t agree with most of their comments, but surely they must be an expert if they reviewed my work, right? Nope. They specialize in writing kink. Why they were reviewing children’s fiction is beyond me. So why did I put so much stock in their opinion?

Why do we, as writers, believe the worst even when we feel, deep down inside, our story is good? Argh. The stereotype of the neurotic writer. I wouldn’t let myself get away with that on paper, so you can bet I’m not going to get carried away with it in real life. Writing is fun. I’m here for the fun, the hard work, and those blissful moments of creative birth. These things come with the occasional, inevitable discouragement. The discouragement doesn’t get to take over, it gets one day. One. Day. Then we’re moving on, me and my imagination full of stories. Come with me, there’s fun to be had.

While we’re at it, why haven’t I brushed off my flash fiction piece the editor ranted about for three pages and made it into something awesome? The pterodactyls must be done with it by now…

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