Dealing with Criticism: Authors Share Their Stories

Dealing with Criticism

Back when Cultured Vultures was but a hatchling in the big bad world of online publishing, I was personally guilty of some very lazy writing. Following the lead of much larger outfits, my output would often be way below the quality I would even expect of my colleagues; unforgivable considering I was supposed to be setting an example for burgeoning writers.

Needless to say, readers weren’t happy. After a particularly awful “article” which saw me frantically scrambling around on Valentine’s Day morning to appease some hugely negative forum members, I realised that I was accomplishing nothing. The negative comments implored me to try another career, to hang my head in shame and to insert various parts of my body into other parts.

The criticism really stung, leaving me tossing and turning for nights on end. I’m fully aware that I’m, not the most accomplished of writers (even on my best days), but the absolute dissection left me smarting and stopped me from even approaching a keyboard for almost a week.

If I had already heard the advice of many of these accomplished authors below, it might not have been such a slap in the face. Should you too be struggling with dealing with criticism, take a look at what the people who have been there and heard that have to say.

 

What’s the harshest thing anyone’s said about your work?

LYNN HOUSTON: I have been lucky to escape negative criticism of my writing, although I know at times when I writing autobiographically I have to be careful to avoid becoming overly sentimental. I think the difficult aspect to writing poetry is not dealing with negative reviews; it’s getting any attention paid to your work. These days, for writers, even negative publicity can be good.

C.L. HERNANDEZ: “Didn’t like at all!” That was the review, complete with a single star, left by a troll on one of my self-published books. I know who it was, but I won’t get into that here. The harshest thing anyone else has said—so far—is that my books aren’t long enough! I know there will be more criticism in the future. It’s inevitable. I’m working on my “rhino hide” so I’m fully prepared to deal with it when the time comes.

LAURA LEE: The one that upset me most was the only local media review of my first novel, Angel, which was otherwise quite well-received. I don’t remember the entire review but I recall that it made it sound as if it were a self-published, amateur kind of production. It needed editing was one of the comments. I find that I am most sensitive to this kind of criticism because I have put in so many years and so much work to be a full-time professional writer. With so much self-publishing and so much variation in quality and intention it becomes hard to have a professional identity as a writer. And I do take the craft quite seriously. I suppose you could say most of my self-worth eggs are in the writer basket.

CODY WILLIAMS: Probably something along the lines of “Do you let your mother read this? How could you be such a sick and twisted pervert?”

A.L. MENGEL: It happened twice. A reviewer once said that Ashes was extremely disjointed, and that she was swearing off the series. I so wanted to reply to her, and let her know, “I wrote it that way on purpose! Read to the end! It will all come together, I promise!” But I didn’t respond. I just brushed her off. Which is what a new writer has to do. There will be those out there that don’t like your story, or your writing style.

The second time was from my editor. It was during the edit of my novel The Blood Decanter. And she told me that a passage that I wrote might be upsetting to (a large number of people). I was thinking in my mind, who? But she won, and the edit stood. I knew that I was pushing the envelope with The Blood Decanter. But still…

Every writer needs an editor, and all writing will eventually be criticized.

DAVE EISENSTARK: Actually, there’s a review of The Video Killer on Amazon that says: “JUST OK,” and nothing else, in caps no less! Hey, thanks “Amazon Customer #414,965!” Oh well, he gave it 3 stars—that’s cool. I’ve had some truly vicious things said about my screenplays and films and there was this play I wrote once…next question?

KENYA MOSS-DYME: I can’t think of anything I would call “harsh” but someone referred to one of my shorts as a “weird little story” that they just didn’t get, LOL. I know that everyone won’t necessarily LIKE everything I write but when someone doesn’t GET it, I wonder if I should have done things differently. As a training developer myself, our goal is to make sure that everyone “gets it” and if they don’t, it’s our fault. They may not be good at it when training is finished, but they should still “get it”. As a writer, I feel the same way.

BRANDON TIETZ: A reviewer called me a rabid cunt and wrote a total takedown piece of my first book. This was done anonymously, of course.

CHASTITY NICOLE: I’ve been told several harsh things about my work. At some point in school I was told by a teacher that my writings would never amount to anything and that I’d never be a good writer. I went on to make straight A’s in college and released a book and several short stories. As far as on my actual work that is out there, I’ve been told that my story sucked and I took it hard at first, then it was a drive to make it better and to make the next pieces better. It helped me see that not everyone is going to like what you write, so just write. Some will love it, some will hate it, but you never know unless you do it. And use the harsh stuff as your drive to do better and prove those people wrong.

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WESLEY THOMAS: Oh God, someone critiqued everything from my book, me as an author, my writing style, lack of experience. You name it, they hacked me to pieces. And as an author I took it to hard and was really upset. As a writer’s work is their baby. They spent months writing, re-writing, editing and coming up with the final manuscript. Then they financially invested into marketing, cover design, editing and perhaps formatting. So for someone to trash their book is hurtful. Productive criticism is fine by me, but when it is personal and abuse, I don’t agree with that at all.

CORBIN NEWCOMB: The harshest thing anyone has said about my work was that it was “creepy”. I love using metaphors for life, and I think this person didn’t understand the analogy I was using, or perhaps they just simply didn’t like it.

KAYTI NIKA RAET: That it was unoriginal and plagiarised a book I had never read.

VALARIE KINNEY: There are a couple of reviews on my first book that say it is boring. That’s kind of a throat punch.

GABRIEL RICARD: Christ. Probably the rejection letter that simply said “No. Nice try. But no.”

KEVIN R. DOYLE: I sent a query on a novel to an agent, who then asked me for the full manuscript. Excited, eager and sure I’d gotten my big break, I sent it off. About a month later I got a note that said, “I didn’t even want to finish reading it.”

 

How did you cope with it?

C.L. HERNANDEZ: When I saw the troll’s comment, the first thing I did was laugh. Although most authors advise not to, I did reply, politely asking what it was she didn’t like. There was never a response. This was over a year ago, but I still look at that review from time to time—usually when I need a laugh. As far as my books not being long enough, I agree. My traditionally published books are from 45,000 to 60,000 words. I will be starting work on a much longer manuscript of at least 80,000 words after Halloween.

LAURA LEE: The more you write, and the more your work is written about, the more you are able to detach and to see it in a larger context. There are reviews that annoy me, but only for a day or so. I just get on with the work.

CODY WILLIAMS: I try not to let it get me down. I just keep writing. Really, that’s all you can do.

A.L. MENGEL: I popped a few beers and watched some sci-fi documentaries on YouTube. I am starting to research my next novel, and the criticism will always be there. Just roll with it. That’s all an author can do. Move to the next project, keep producing.

DAVE EISENSTARK: By remaining angry and bitter into my old age—thank you for reminding me.

KENYA MOSS-DYME: I just laughed at it but this was also before I started using beta readers, so that’s going to help in the future. Maybe I can catch something in the story that might be confusing to readers.

BRANDON TIETZ: The person who wrote it let their identity slip and it turned out to be a struggling writer who had a personal problem with me. Also, this guy made so many fake accounts so that he could anonymously bash on authors it was a little concerning. I’m more worried about this person finding out where I live than I am what he writes about me in a review. There are shades of Ed Champion in him.

CHASTITY NICOLE: I used the criticism as a way to make it better. Yeah, I moped for a few days and just wanted to give it all up and quit. But I wasn’t raised to be a quitter. I decided then that some people aren’t going to like it, that doesn’t mean others won’t. And some people may be jealous that you get published before they do, because you’re not afraid to take the next step. Those people will be quick to put you down and diss your work, because you did something they were too afraid to do. So grab yourself a snack and a drink and sit back down and do it. Don’t wallow in the criticism, because if you do, you’ll never get back on the horse and try again.

WESLEY THOMAS: So at first I used to become very depressed and doubt my ability. I would spend hours wasting time analyzing their harsh remarks. Now I have matured and just come to the understanding that not everyone likes the same thing. Which sounds simple in theory, but as a new author, it does little to appease you. You need to build a thick skin, a tough gut and just face the facts that every writer gets bad reviews. From Stephen King to J.K.Rowling. Go on Amazon and look at the one star reviews trashing their books, a little tip my proofreader gave me. I just take in what they have said. If it has some tips and is helpful in anyway, I will absorb and take from it. If it is just resentful and hateful people, I ignore and move on. If a review really starts to get me down, I exercise, or write a great short story to prove to myself I am a good writer. Or I look at everything I have achieved. But mostly I just ignore mean remarks. Main thing is, if most reviews of your book are positive, you have nothing to worry about. Oh and don’t stalk reviews! Leave it alone.

CORBIN NEWCOMB: It was definitely a little tough to hear anything bad said about something I have worked so hard on, but I realize that every author is going to have someone who doesn’t like what they write, and that’s okay.

KAYTI NIKA RAET: Felt a little bummed then immediately went to watch the movie version and ranted with a good friend.

VALARIE KINNEY: It stung at first. But I have to remember there are plenty of people who enjoy the way I write, and my style isn’t going to be for everyone. There are lots of books out there that some people rave about that just aren’t my cup of tea. Doesn’t mean they are bad books. They just aren’t my style. It’s not personal.

GABRIEL RICARD: Heroin. No, I’m kidding. I probably just sulked, drank a bottle of scotch, and watched The Golden Girls.

KEVIN R. DOYLE: Moped and groaned for a while, then began learning as much as I could.

 

Does criticism matter less to you now than it used to?

C.L. HERNANDEZ: Definitely. I don’t even worry about it.

LAURA LEE: Way less. When you get to the point where you can’t keep track of how many books you’ve written you can’t really let one review sink you entirely because you know that you’re skilled. One of the things you notice as well, and this is true of reviews and also of feedback from agents and editors– the very thing one person hates is the thing another person loves. So you can’t just take all feedback and try to incorporate it. Otherwise you’ll be bashed around like a ping pong ball. If you hear the same criticism a lot then you have to take it seriously. The more you’ve written the better you become at being detached from your work. Your entire identity as a writer doesn’t rest on any one work. Often you have to interpret the feedback you’re given. If someone tells you that she doesn’t understand something you’ve written, it behooves you not to assume that she is dense but rather to ask yourself if there is something you didn’t set up well enough. Someone might say that she doesn’t like a particular character but it may not be the character at all, rather you might not have set up a situation well enough early on to make the context understandable. The more you do, the better you become at knowing what feedback to take in and what is just a matter of taste.

CODY WILLIAMS: Yeah. I mean, it has its place. If it is helpful criticism, I welcome it. If it will help me tone my craft, lay it on me. But it is important to realize that you won’t please everyone. Especially if you don’t write what they call “literary fiction”. They tend to be harsher with genre writers.

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A.L. MENGEL: I read every review, and I consider what the reviewer said. If it’s a negative review, I really try to think how I failed that reader. The whole “why don’t you like me?!”. But I never respond to them. I just take the criticism and move on.

DAVE EISENSTARK: Nobody dares anymore since I acquired certain supernatural powers.

KENYA MOSS-DYME: Criticism should always matter. I hope I never get to a point where I just don’t care, because I’ve known artists of all types who have gotten to that point exactly.

BRANDON TIETZ: Criticism is an odd bird. Some of it isn’t even about the book itself; it’s about you as a person. The most recent example of this would probably be the rash of one-stars Chuck Wendig got because of all that GamerGate bullshit. I think that’s the first thing an author needs to learn when it comes to reviews: discerning the personal ones from the objective ones. You can wipe your ass with the personal ones. The objective ones, however, can reveal something about your work you’re not seeing. That can be highly valuable.

CHASTITY NICOLE: Yes and no. I like being told where I lack in my writing. I’m a human, I’m not perfect. I know I make mistakes and sometimes I don’t fully convey what I meant or assume too much from my readers. So I like being told where I need work because that helps me improve. However, I don’t like being torn down and told that it just sucks and that I suck as a writer and that I should give up. This isn’t criticism that is being rude. I know a few author friends who have experienced this, and it’s not the way to go about it, especially from another indie author. So tell me where I need work, but also tell me where I did well (this is what my team of beta readers do.) Harshness is NEVER needed.

WESLEY THOMAS: Absolutely. As I mentioned in the previous question, you develop a thicker skin and let comments and negative remarks wash over you. It is crucial, when being placed in a vulnerable position such as putting your work out there to the world, that you build a shield. One that allows only positive or helpful feedback to penetrate it.

CORBIN NEWCOMB: I think over time, I’ve learned that criticism is not always bad. It helps you to become both stronger, and a better writer. Although I don’t take criticism too personally, I think sometimes it’s important to hear.

KAYTI NIKA RAET: Criticism is merely an opinion. It’s not fact. If it’s useful, I’ll use it. If it’s not, I’ll ignore it.

VALARIE KINNEY: Like most writers, I’m growing a thicker skin. What might have made my eyes smart a year and a half ago has now become just a quick, stabbing pain that I move on past. Diana Gabaldon, Stephen King, every writer has someone who doesn’t like their work. It’s just part of the gig.

GABRIEL RICARD: When it’s constructive, it’s intensely valuable. I have to be careful about who I trust, and I have a hard time trusting people, so the whole process of finding people whose advice I’ll consider is problematic for miles. Matthew Guerruckey of Drunk Monkeys is someone I trust. It goes without saying that I trust Frankie Met. My girlfriend is another.

In terms of pointless, vicious criticism, it doesn’t bother me too much anymore. It depends on the source, really.

KEVIN R. DOYLE: I’m not sure how to address that. I don’t take it as personal as when I first started out, but I pay more attention to it. By paying attention to it, what I mean is that I take what people say and examine my work as objectively as possible. So I guess you could say that I use it better now than I did in the past.

 

Has it ever held you back from writing more?

LYNN HOUSTON: I look at both criticism and rejection as learning opportunities. Criticism, if delivered properly, can be good data about how a reader experiences a work. It’s not something to be avoided, but it is something that you should try to ensure you are getting in ways that won’t shut you down or take too heavy of an emotional toll. I have a family member who, when I was younger, used to always tell me that I couldn’t take criticism. I thought a lot about what that meant, and I could see that there were lots of times when I was able to take criticism and make some key changes. So what was the difference? The difference was in the way the criticism was delivered. We seem to always place the burden on the person receiving the criticism—it’s his or her fault if the exchange goes badly. We never talk about the unsuccessful and hurtful ways a lot of criticism is delivered. I hope that thinking about this as a larger cultural problem might help some writers who have been victims of people who are poor critics.

LAURA LEE: No. It has spurred me on if anything. If I get upset by a proposal being rejected or a bad review I give myself a day to be miserable about it– if that– and then I get back to work because I am really not myself at this point when I’m not writing.

C.L. HERNANDEZ: Absolutely not. If anything, it’s strengthened my resolve to keep writing.

CODY WILLIAMS: At first. I still to this day struggle with self-doubt. But in all honesty, I need to write. It is the only way that I can really express myself. And you can really tell what kind of mood I’m in with my writing. If I’m writing a really gruesome horror story, I’m having the time of my life. If it is something a little more serious I’m trying to make a point, sometimes a political point. If it is more of a tragedy and there are no supernatural elements and a lot of booze in the story, I was probably dealing with some personal demons. I need to write. It is therapeutic.

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A.L. MENGEL: No, I feel compelled to write. Something draws me to it. I will write and produce books for the rest of my life.

DAVE EISENSTARK: Nope. You gotta be brave. You gotta have thick skin. You gotta get out there and do what you do. You gotta have certain supernatural powers.

KENYA MOSS-DYME: No. Criticism should never make you stop, it should make you want to get better – unless you’re doing something that you really didn’t want to do in the first place.

BRANDON TIETZ: God no. If anything, it’s motivated me to keep going.

CHASTITY NICOLE: Yes. When I first sent my novel to beta readers I was nervous I’d get bad comments—and I did. I had a few that were trying to help, they just worded things the wrong way. Then I had those that meant to be mean and break me down, like the one that said it sucked. I quit writing for a little bit, and gave up. My heart shattered that day and eventually I said, you know what I don’t care what they say, I enjoy writing and others love what I write, one or two critics shouldn’t make me stop. In other words, I put my big girl panties on and got back to work and used the harsh words to publish my works.

WESLEY THOMAS: In the early days, when overly-harsh and aggressive criticism was received, yes, it would give me pause and reduce my normally very present motivation and unstoppable will. But now, I can spot the helpful from a reviewer who’s just resentful, angry or has another ulterior motive besides giving an honest but tactful and respectful review.

CORBIN NEWCOMB: Honestly, criticism has not held me back from writing more. It would be so easy to hear something bad about your writing, and just stop. I have had that fear of “What if no one understands what I’m saying?”, but I know I cannot write solely to please others. Sometimes that backfires. Write completely from your heart, and people will find that very refreshing. When people can relate to what you write, they gravitate towards that. It just has to be genuine.

KAYTI NIKA RAET: It’ll wreck my writing mojo for a couple of hours, but as long as I keep in mind that it’s just their opinion it doesn’t stop me from writing more.

VALARIE KINNEY: No. I can’t even stop myself from writing. When I’ve got a story going and it’s playing in my mind like a movie, it has to come out no matter what.

GABRIEL RICARD: Never.

KEVIN R. DOYLE: For a day or two, maybe. But then I fall back on the attitude of “I’ll show them.” And I’m pounding on the keys again.

 

What would you say to your haters right now if you could?

C.L. HERNANDEZ: Not much. I’d just smile and wave. Haters hate that.

LAURA LEE: Nothing. No one in the history of literature has ever written something that everyone loved.

CODY WILLIAMS: Keep on hating me if you want. I’m going to keep doing this because I like doing it.

A.L. MENGEL: Keep hating. And I will keep writing.

DAVE EISENSTARK: “Get your affairs in order.” (See above re: certain powers.)

KENYA MOSS-DYME: LOL, I hate that word – haters. I won’t even acknowledge them, whoever they are. Acknowledgement is validation.

BRANDON TIETZ: Sorry I authored inside of you.

CHASTITY NICOLE: Thanks for hating. I don’t have to make everyone happy with what I write, but if I touch at least one person and make a difference in their life, then I’ve done my job. So haters, keep on hating. I’m not turning back now.

WESLEY THOMAS: As funny as it may sound, I would thank them. I would say ‘thanks to your awful and out-of-order and not at all helpful reviews, I have produced a way of coping and developed a keen eye for separating the constructive-criticism from the useless and offensive. Also, I now have three bestsellers!’ just to rub it in a little. But I am grateful to them. It is always an amazing feeling when your book is so well received and gets incredible reviews, it reminds you why you do what you do. But negative reviews make you stronger, which also helps in your life in general.

CORBIN NEWCOMB: I would just say, “Look where I am now.”

VALARIE KINNEY: Not many people can physically hold in their hands evidence that they’ve followed their dreams, but I can. That’s a sort of satisfaction no childish, petty people can take from me.

GABRIEL RICARD: You were probably half-right.

KEVIN R. DOYLE: If you don’t like my stuff, don’t read it and move on.

AUTHORS

CORBIN NEWCOMB: “I am a young woman who has an intense passion for writing. I’ve self-published my first book about a year ago, and am working on my second. I also enjoy blogging about a wide variety of topics.” Read her book here.

VALARIE KINNEY: A writer, fiber artist and Renaissance Festival junkie with a wicked caffeine addiction. She is the author of Slither and Just Hold On. Narrator for Dragons of Faith. Pick up her book here

DAVE EISENSTARK: Dave Eisenstark is a professional screenwriter who has recently turned to novels: The Video Killer from Spanking Pulp Press, and Bleeding Kansas from World Castle Publishing. Read his work here.

A.L. MENGEL: He has created a “sub-brand” to connect with his readers called The Writing Studio. There, everyone is a Beloved Friend, and writing, music, art and inspiration are shared and discussed, as well as trending topics. Join it here

GABRIEL RICARD: An accomplished poet, writer and spoken word performer, Ricard is a long-time collaborator with CV and the author of Clouds of Hungry Dogs. Pick it up here

CODY WILLIAMS: Cody Williams is the author of over 200 short stories, a novelist, and the author of a few poems. During the summer of 2013, Cody founded TRUE TERROR PUBLICATIONS, an indie printing press dedicated to publishing ebooks. Visit his website.

WESLEY THOMAS: “I am a multi-published bestselling horror author of 6 books, with three more on the way.” Buy his work here.

KEVIN R. DOYLE: Kevin R. Doyle is a high school teacher and fiction writer from the Midwest. His newest book, The Litter, is a horror novel released this year by Night to Dawn Magazine and Books. Like him on Facebook.

KAYTI NIKA RAET: She is the author of the Outsider Chronicles, a five book series starting with NIKO and set in a world where the rain burns like acid and flesh eating monsters roam. Catch her work on Amazon.

LAURA LEE: The author of 15 books, both fiction and non-fiction. Visit her website.

C. L. HERNANDEZ: C. L. Hernandez is a writer of horror, dark fiction, urban fantasy, and occasional poetry. She is the author of the series The Complicated Life of Deegie Tibbs (Winlock Press), and the novel The Curious Case of the Tuscan Plague Doctor (Barking Rain Press) which will be released in 2016. Visit her Amazon page.

LYNN MARIE HOUSTON: Lynn Marie Houston has a Ph.D. in literature from Arizona State University. Her first poetry book, The Clever Dream of Man, came out from Aldrich Press in August 2015. Visit her website.

KENYA MOSS-DYME: Author Kenya Moss–Dyme originally hails from Chicago but now resides in Michigan – land of the subzero winters and nuclear summers. She began writing short–form horror in her teens and won several scholastic writing awards for her creative work. Visit her website.

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