Writers and Reviews

A fellow Dreamspinner author, Helen Pattskyn (“Heart’s Home“), recently took up a fascinating project:  to review several books as a means to becoming a better writer.  I totally agree with the premise, although I freely admit that it scares me to death that my recent release, “Blue Notes,” is one of the books on her list! Which got me to thinking about reviews, in general, and the uneasy relationship writers have with them.  Do writers read reviews?  You bet.  Do they take them to heart?  Probably more than you’d guess.  But then what?

I once made the mistake of responding to a review.  Well, sort of.  I knew better than to challenge a reviewer’s opinion.  In fact, I took a good deal of what this reviewer said to heart.  So I decided to let her know that, in the reissued release of that book, I had made changes as a result of her criticism.  I figured she’d be pleased to hear that authors do really listen to their readers.  Bad idea.  I got a relatively terse response to the effect that she “had read the revised version of the book and found it still lacking.”  After kicking myself (several times, mind you!) for having attempted the contact, I filed the experience away under “lessons learned” and promptly tried to forget about it.

So when my latest book, “Blue Notes,” was released a few weeks ago, I vowed to take what I could learn from reviewers and “move on” to the next project without sweating the what-could-have-beens.  Not such an easy thing to do.  Don’t let anyone fool you:  writers do care what reviewers have to say about their works.  Some are better than others at letting go of criticism (and praise), but none of us are completely immune to the sting of a “bad” review or the warm fuzzy we get with a “good” review.  How am I doing at the letting go part?  It depends on the day.

I recently mentioned to my husband that I was filing away some of the reviewers’ comments for “Blue Notes” and using them to craft my current WIP.  I also mentioned my interaction with the reviewer on that previous book, and my disappointment with her response.  He said something that blew me away: that readers see any work of art as a static, unchanging thing, and that art is held to a higher standard.  An ideal.  A snapshot in time that shouldn’t be tampered with, regardless of its flaws.

My first response was to say that my books aren’t “art.”  But I realize that’s not true.  All books are artistic, human creations, regardless of whether they are a “fun read” or deserving of a Pulitzer Prize.   By implying that art can change, my husband argued, you take away some of the mystery of artistic creation.  That’s not to say that writers don’t issue later editions of works that differ from the original.  Stephen King’s, “The Stand,” comes to mind as an example.  But how many readers who didn’t like “The Stand” went back to read the “author’s cut” version?  I’m guessing very few.  I’d bet that most readers of the new version were like me—diehard fans of the original who wanted to read the book again.

King received a lot of criticism for reworking the novel, by the way, and many of the reviews of the new version were downright scathing.  Why?  I’d argue, at least in part, that it’s because King dared to tamper with the original creation, and not necessarily because the revised version was less praiseworthy than the original.

So where does this leave the writer?  Back to square one:  moving on to the next creation with an eye to becoming a better writer.  So will I smile when I read a review full of praise?  Definitely.  Will I cringe the next time I get a critical review?  Yep.  No doubt about it.  Then I’ll take a deep breath and look at the review and what I can learn from it.  And I’ll move on.

Peace,

Shira

8 comments

  1. Bonnie Bliss (@Bonnie_Bliss) - Reply

    This is a fantastic blog posting! I have been SOOOOO tempted to respond to reviews, good or bad, a few times. I usually just post the link to the good ones on my facebook and twitter as a show that I read it. The bad ones don’t bother me as much anymore. I have learned to see in my brain that ‘I am just not their target audience’. I know, I know! I’m full of crap right.

    I did get one review from a fellow author that threw me into nearly a rage. Took me a few days to get over that mess. lol

    • Shira Anthony - Reply

      Thanks, Bonnie! I think we writers are pretty much doomed to an eternal love/hate relationship with reviews. It was the same for me when I was singing opera. It’s sort of like when we were kids and didn’t get invited to someone’s party – some people are going to like us, and some aren’t. We need take the constructive stuff for the next WIP, then take a deep breath and do our best to move on. Easier said than done sometimes! XD

  2. Hayley B. James - Reply

    I think reviews are helpful to authors to do just what you’re doing–using those comments to shape the next WIP. I know I’ve learned a few lessons after my first novel and the readers comments. But only if you pick the helpful comments. Some are really just aimed to rage and have no real signification to the review.

    Luckily I’ve heard the horror stories of other authors replying to reviews and have kept my distance–even if I’ve wanted very much so to reply. You guys scared me….lol

    • Shira Anthony - Reply

      I think we’ve all been tempted, at one point or other. Mostly, I’ve wanted to ask “why?” Why did a reviewer only give the story 2 stars (or even one – ack!)? Why did the reviewer not “connect” with the characters? Why did you think a certain plot device didn’t work? Etc… I think it all gets back to wanting to improve our craft.

  3. teronangel - Reply

    Interesting, Shira, and a good point by your husband! I would say that, of the changes I’ve made in style (and I have–I always want to perfect my craft a little more!) many of them have been made because I spotted things in reading older works that I didn’t like. But it’s more than that–I’ve been inspired by other works (paintings, movies, television shows, novels, short stories, things in the news) to define and redefine the things I believe about literature and it’s impact on the human heart. Once that belief begins to crystalize, I find that A. My style works to support this, and B. I can deal with the bad reviews with a little more grace. I wrote the story I wanted to write, and I’ll stand by it in front of any critic. It helps, knowing that–it takes some of the fluidity out of the published work.

    • Shira Anthony - Reply

      Excellent point, Amy! And I agree that, with each work I write, I become more comfortable in my writer’s “skin.” The more comfort (and confidence) I gain in that skin, the better I’ll be at not looking back, but always looking forward!

  4. lorraineulrich - Reply

    Reviews terrify me and my book isn’t even out yet. Mainly because criticism is hard for me, and I know I’m going to have to get over that eventually. Its just going to be a hard thing because I get anxious having people I know and trust read my work, let alone people I’m not familiar with. My thick skin I think will be awhile in coming. Thankfully I have people who have volunteered to read reviews for me.

    • Shira Anthony - Reply

      That’s a good “buffer” between you and the reviews. I’ve been asking folks to read my stuff for years, and I also still get nervous. I don’t know if you ever lose that. When I was performing, someone said that some kind of anxiety is a good thing, because it keeps you focused and engaged in what you’re doing. If you were totally confident and relaxed, would the entire creative process be so exciting? Just a thought. XD

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