Friday, May 15, 2009

What To Do With a Bad Review by Robert W. Walker

Laughter is the best medicine but it may take a while and some distance after you read a nasty or awful or even a mildly critical review of your brainchild….your Baby….the one you watched being produced over nine months, and this after you oversaw the creation for some two years or more previous, and your Baby is now in the world on wobbly legs, and it is getting hard knocks and bottles and knives thrown at it. Whataya gonna do? Who you gonna call? I sometimes call Joe Konrath, a writer friend, and he calms me down, and I do the same for him. That helps. A comfort group. Friends, family….they all come to the funeral.

I have been maligned and have had some of the most awful reviews on record alongside of the most glowing blush-inducing reviews of my career written about the same book—same characters, setting, same story—but opposing (re)views. What can a writer do about bad reviews? Look the other way? Read them and try desperately to figure out the thinking that is so opposite to one’s own view? Get angry? Get upset? Get over it? Get even? Get drunk? Get to the container of ice cream in the freezer?

It’s been my experience that none of the above works. What do we do when we hear some Senator say from Minnesota speak of a clear and present danger and a clear and present NEED for a clear and present Witch Hunt that needs be done in the House of Representatives and the Senate to weed out “socialists”? Do we ponder what we might do with such “socialists” and perhaps hang them on the nearest American flagpole? OR do we ignore it and go on with our lives and trust that such Witch Hunt Mentality and McCarthyistic thinking no longer attracts or attaches to the human psyche the way a rhinovirus attaches to our noses? We can only pray or put it in our books as I am doing with my current work in progress – Children of Salem (intrigue and love in the time of Witch Trials circa 1692).

But let us return to that tricky question for a new writer we began with: this question of what to do with a bad review aside from the obvious—or a review that seems to be critical of someone else’s book because the review sounds as if this person has read another book altogether, and s/he has gotten yours confused with the other, and then the question comes up about the reviewer’s state of mind and the amount of meds he or she is on, and so it goes. And sometimes one can read between the lines and realize that the reviewer has a personal bone to pick with this author, which has nothing to do with the quality of the work. Sometimes it becomes obvious the person who penned this review is a jealous back-biting neophyte unpublished author herself! Truth be told, the same can be said of some rejection letters that come out of editorial houses.

Ever wonder why so many rejection letters are so cold and calculated to say as little as possible and most often nothing? These are in fact more professional than some rejection letters I have had over the years. Most competent editors are a lot more cautious of offending authors, and they are also typically “burned” earlier by some author that they did find something in the work they call praiseworthy. They are then inundated with questions or more of the same from the author. So they have developed form responses to “protect” themselves from all contingencies. To some degree reviewers are even more insulated from “responses” or “attacks” or counter-attacks from authors who may very well have good reason to be upset with something a reviewer says—which may be an inaccuracy that will be sitting there on forever. Again nothing author Rob Walker, you, or your friends can do about it. It just is.

For things that are “Just Is” in this world, there really are no helpful steps to take and brooding over a review—any review—is both counter-productive and living under a negative cloud, expending negative energy, as my son would say. It hurts only me…or in your case, you. The person who lets a review get under her skin or stuck in his craw.

In the end, in the larger scheme of things, a bad review is not so bad as no review—and frankly, I have had readers who have written to me that they HAD to read this or that title after having read this horrid, putrid review that dragged me through the mud and stomped me into a hole because the book was that bad, one saying “Read any other book on the planet before wasting your time with this bleep_______bleep.” The reader always ends with, “But I LOVED your book, man! Keep on writing!” To that I say, do you recall how horrible the critics were to Stephen Spielberg in his early years? Now that I am sixty and have written a few books, I think I know better what I am doing today than I did in 1979.

When Dickens wrote “These are the times that try men’s souls” – okay if it wasn’t Dickens – whoever wrote the line, s/he had to be writing about a book review. I am on pins and needles right now as ARC’s for DEAD ON have gone forth, not to mention several hastily got up homemade galleys to some who needed it six months in advance. I am certain I will get the full “arc” of opinions: The good, the bad, and the ugly but the name of the game is to GET REVIEWED these days as everyone with “half a mind” to write a book nowadays HAS! The swamp waters out there have become extremely crowded and getting serious reviewers to pay serious attention to one’s baby has only gotten harder and more difficult since my first book came into publishing-being in 1979.

But final word on reviews is that you can’t STEW over them, and you can’t wallow in them, and you can’t look back or pity yourself for the poor or even vicious review. Your final fall back plan it not to kick the reviewer but to protect your own psyche. Never take any review – even the most glowing too seriously as in the end when you begin to believe your own press you might begin to sound like a certain Senator from Minnesota.

Cheers and Happy Reading
Robert - what ever happened to your dreams of an online course you missed taking with Stephen King before he left teaching? Why not take Write to Sell online with Robert W. Walker (who knows more than King and Kipling and Twain).

--For a peek at Children of Salem, contact me at with query line COS.
--For an ebook ARC of Dead ON go to


L. Diane Wolfe said...

You're right - can't let a bad review bother you!

And you nailed the jealousy thing. I had one reviewer flay my non-fiction book, but as my editor pointed out, she was the author of a simliar title. She was jealous! (She also blasted the review copy for mispellings. Funny, that's why it's a called an unproofed review copy!)

I did have to correct one reviewer. The review was 'okay' which was no big deal - can't please everyone - but the reviewer claimed all of the books in my YA series were between 400-500 pages long. (She'd felt the book she reviewed was too long.) However, that particular book was the longest at 360 pages, so I did make a request that she correct her statement. And she did!

L. Diane Wolfe

Elizabeth McKenzie said...

The thing about opposing views, or reviews, the reader might be interested in reading to judge for her/his self. Good luck.

carl brookins said...

Key comments from Mr. Walker's blog are:
get over it. Except for possibly correcting errors, you can't do much about bad reviews. They are better than no reviews. Yelling, except in private, is a waste of energy. Better to write more.

Denying that you read reviews is also a waste and makes you look bad. OF COURSE we read our reviews! We should. Often we learn from them. As we should.

carl brookins said...

Oh, by the way, Mr. Walker. may I gently suggest you get your facts right? The "senator" from Minnesota you twice referred to isn't. A Senator. Michelle Bachman is an out of control (sometimes) member of the House of Representatives.

She may have aspirations to the upper House. Incidentally, she made the TV news in a big way with her hammer and lip lock on President Bush after his second State of the Union speech.

Anonymous said...

Since my debut novel isn't out until NEXT year, I can only speak about BAD rejections and BAD critiques from judges. I LAUGH(because I find them hilarious) and I usually find something to write back and THANK the person for.

While that might sound ludicrous, I've gained some interesting (and ultimately worthwile) relationships that way. I appreciate opinions--in any shape or form, and I'm a Rogerian at heart. Water off a duck's back. Of course that's easy to say NOW. Check back with me in March, after The Cost of Love debuts.

The Cost of Love
Five Star, March 2010

Terry Odell said...

I've had a 'good' review by one reviewer show up in two different places; once with 5 stars, once with 4, so who has a clue what a review really means. And yes, often readers are drawn to bad reviews and will get the book just to see if the reviewer was right. (We always figured we'd enjoy a movie our local critic panned),

After copious amounts of chocolate, I remind myself that 1) the book was good enough for a publisher to want, and 2) if it's really bad, then my editor should have caught it.

Beth Groundwater said...

Bad reviews? I don't have no stinkin' bad reviews! At least none that I can remember...

Jacqueline Seewald said...

No doubt about it, bad reviews hurt our feelings. But good ones that "get it" are heartening. Donald Trump says there's no such thing as bad publicity, that all publicity is good. So I guess we should look at it that way too.

Jacqueline Seewald
newest release: THE DROWNING POOL, check it out on Amazon or request it at your local library

Deb Larson said...

Bad reviews get our attention and maybe that's the reviewer's intention. I try to accept the words written, but the one bad one I got - the reviewer said, "she must have done a lot of research, she has a long bibliography!
I knew then this reviewer had not read my book. And the good that came of it - others objected to his comments. That was nice!
DL Larson

Morgan Mandel said...

In most disappointing reviews, you can usually salvage a line or two to use for promo. You can ignore the rest.

Morgan Mandel

Rob Walker said...

Hey everyone! I enjoyed your comments, finding all of them insightful and I learned a few things; I knew we had no elected a witch hunter to Congress! Thank God and thank you Carl! Eveyone else here ought to know this about a bad review-- it makes a good birdcage liner. But Morgan is right. You might get: "X's book is terrribly horrifying to read." So you take out what is necessary to quote the reviewer as stating, This book is "terribly horrifying"so people get it as a really scary book but not one to RUN from!

Keep up your sense of humor everyone!


Earl Staggs said...

As usual, Rob, you swing a heavy hammer and hit the nail square in the snoot. Even after all this time, a bad review or rejection still stings a little, but not for long. I think of them as a test of a person's determination to be a writer. If you can't step over them and keep moving forward, you might as well turn around, go home, and take up something else because you'll never make it as a writer.

win and meredith blevins said...

I speak as a guy who reviewed books (and movies, theater, and music) for major newspapers for years. When you get any review, smile or frown and forget it. Period. Forever.

What I learned as a professional critic was that artists do something and critics comment on it. It's a parasitic life. Critics remind me of the guys who spent their senior prom leaning against a wall and making wisecracks about their buddies who were dancing. Even if the critics were right, WHO GOT TO TOUCH THE GIRL?

win blevins
whose new novel ZADAYI RED appears in July (under the pen name Caleb Fox).

Maryannwrites said...

LOL, Win. You are right about what matters. Reviewing is subjective. No way around that. I know I have given books a so-so review when I find significant craft problems with the writing, and other reviewers have overlooked that and given the story a rave review. It's a matter of what a reviewer relates to.

Margot Justes said...

I agree with all the comments above-you learn from a bad review as well as a good one-if the review is not destructive you recognize the strong and weak points of your story, that is how I accept my reviews. I find value in them. If it's purely destructive, well, I accept the person had an axe to grind and move on.