bad book reviews

A Love Letter to (Some) Critics

For maximum effect, be sure to read this entire post with Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” blaring in the background.

Image result for not amused gif

Few people understand how difficult it is to write a novel, let alone edit it to an acceptable degree. To iron out the awkward phrases, the misspellings, the dangling clauses. An abnormally low amount of people are capable of doing so without professional editing help. The amount of people who can successfully hook an agent is even lower. At this point we’re getting into the split-hairs category of percentages. Most people either drop out here or decide to self-publish their book. (This is not to say I look down upon self-published authors, seeing as I’ve self-published a book or two in the past). But the point stands—most people will, statistically, NEVER land an agent, let alone get that agent to hook a publisher’s attention and make them read your work and send an offer and pay you for words that you’ve plopped onto the virtual page. There’s a rush of ecstasy associated with each stage of the process, and a sense of fear greater than anything you’ve ever known. Feel free to Google the odds of (traditionally) publishing a novel sometime, if you ever want to go insane.

For most people, landing that traditional publishing deal and putting out a novel is the culmination of a lifetime’s worth of work. A lifetime of slaving over a keyboard, waiting with bated breath for every email that invariably takes 6-8 months to arrive, working until the early hours of dawn, giving up, starting over, losing faith, gaining it. All so you can hold a paperback copy of your book or an advance check, knowing that SOMEBODY thought it was good enough to mass produce it and share it with the world.

I know I wanted that. I wanted it so badly that I gave up everything else to get it. And guess what? I did. I landed a trilogy deal with Kensington and sold the audio rights, the foreign rights, the whole shebang. I put in the work, and I succeeded. I hope to God my next series will sell. In fact, I’m confident it will.

But somewhere along the way, a handful of Goodreads e-critics decided to enter an ARC giveaway (seemingly without reading what the book was about) and snag a copy of my book. What they got was a slow, literary exploration of a young girl’s struggle to exist and grow up in a barbaric world. It’s not Game of Thrones, nor is it the Hunger Games. Judging by the critics’ past reads, however, they were into urban fantasy, werewolf romance, YA fantasy, and maybe a dash of sci-fi lite here and there. All good and well. What is not good and well, however, is how lazy and narrow-minded most of these people were in their critiques. Some of their reviews deserve to be in a hall of shame for the mind-boggling nonsense they include. Questions about what happened to the dog from the first chapter (pro tip: there is no dog in the entire book). Complaints about a lack of justice (pro tip: justice is seldom served in life). Babbling about the dark tone of the writing (pro tip: grimdark is dark).

This is not to say that there weren’t GOOD “bad” reviews, of course. This post is not about reviewers with genuinely insightful reviews (Carol Chu’s two-and-a-half-star review, if you’re so inclined to look it up, is a perfect example of this). In fact, I was aided tremendously by the constructive feedback embedded in several of the negative reviews. I don’t think any writer works to get ONLY five-star reviews, as this would go against the spirit of self-improvement and suggest that humans have a hive mind. What set these quality reviews apart from the riff-raff was their emphasis on identifying what DID work for them alongside what didn’t. They wrote a review that told fellow readers what aspects might appeal to a different set of eyes.

Now, compare that to the Hallowed Haters club. Many of these reviewers (as stated by themselves) only read a chapter or two before awarding the book a one-star rating. Others read the entire thing and felt genuine emotions, such as sorrow, frustration, or a pit in their stomach, but they still felt it barely scraped past two stars for one reason or another, usually related to not having a fun time. Most of the five-star Goodreads reviews the book received never carried over to Amazon, but fear not, for the one-star ranting crowd (which received the book for free, mind you) was sure to take the time to leave their drivel on the sales page.

The majority of these shame-listed e-critics read books to have “fun,” not to think or feel any sort of unpleasant emotion (in contrast, tragedies are some of my favorite novels—go figure). They like popcorn books, not literature. And that’s fine. Nobody is entitled to like or love a book. They probably didn’t even think much of their reviews. To them it was a chance to express an opinion and feel worthwhile, seeing as the vast majority of those who gave the book a low rating had never written anything in their lives, and had certainly never published a sentence of that nonexistent writing. It’s ironic, then, that those who have published actual books—including Andre Dubus III, my mentor and author of a little-known book called House of Sand and Fog (a goddamn Oprah’s Book Club choice with a film adaptation)—had high praise for what they read.

I’m not dismayed with the fact that every human has an internet connection and the ability to rant about what they like and dislike. What I take umbrage with, fundamentally, is the cavalier, ignorant nature of critics who cast lightning bolts down from their great Mountain of Unachieving. The critics who disparage books simply because they can, because they know that somebody will read their words and maybe think they have thoughts worth listening to.

I have my own critiques of my work, but the one thing nobody can take away from the novels is that they were PUBLISHED. A team of people, including agents, editors, marketing assistants, publishers, and promoters, believed in the books and put them into the world on good faith. Because of them, people will be able to read, enjoy, hate, and puzzle over my words for the foreseeable future, long after my death. And that’s ten times—no, perhaps a trillion times—more valuable than any word that a critic can muster against my work, or the work of any other published author. But I get it. It’s a simple thing to sit behind a keyboard and tear apart somebody’s work when you’re unwilling or unable to create something yourself, and it’s a herculean task to identify what you enjoy about the work of somebody who has ripped out their mind and heart and set it on a plate for you to destroy.

It’s fortunate, then, that us authors have minds and hearts that will survive World War 3. Cockroaches have nothing on us, baby. The masses can say what they like about our work, but an undeniable truth will ring through eternity. A truth that few are privileged enough to say, and a truth that will never be known by those who get their kicks from tearing down others:

I’ve published a novel.

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Your Book is Published Now! (And People Hate It); Or, On Bad Reviews

Greetings, lovely people. It has been a fair while since I’ve posted anything here, largely because of working full time as a teacher (aka soaking up Winter Break in all its glory), but also because of general holiday food comas. At this hour I am composing my posts at a rate of four words per minute; the doctors assure me I will eventually move out of my Cheesecake Inebriation Phase (CIP).

That business aside, I wanted to touch on a topic that many writers may not consider when they’re knee-deep in the mud and guts of the writing trenches, expending both their time and energy on a project that may never see the light of (published) day. That topic is, on a philosophical level, something that speaks to the very nature of happiness, of fulfillment, of seeking and craving in all its forms. But that’s heavy territory, and while we may wander there someday, I’d prefer to boil it down to a microcosm for this blog:

People are going to HATE your book.

I don’t just mean that they’ll shrug and put it down, perhaps shelving it as DNF on Goodreads if they’re feeling ferocious. I mean they will hate itdespise itwish misery upon it and its kin. Media reviews often bring out the most vicious elements in a person’s arsenal of linguistic devastation, and those who frequent Amazon, Goodreads, and IMDB will find a cornucopia of examples to demonstrate this point.

As many of you know, my debut fantasy novel, SCRIBES, is set to drop a month from today. It will be the culmination of nearly three years of writing, rewriting, editing, missing sleep, querying, doubting, loathing, calling, e-mailing, wishing, begging. I got a wonderful agent (Lindsay Mealing!), a hell of a lot of experience, and a keen sense of patience out of it. That being said, the entire process has been a reminder that joy and excitement are temporary states, and that we as writers need to remember to slug on through the peaks and valleys of the journey, never becoming too attached to the elevation.

But more pertinent to today’s topic is the fact that the readers of your book will not know anything about the process of creating this work. They will not judge your book based upon the effort or love that you invested in it; after all, there are plenty of McWriters who churn out 5-10 new novels every year (often with the help of ghost writers), largely using recycled plot lines and cliches to truck their way into the Best Seller list. This isn’t to knock those writers—this is simply to state that the background work of composing and preparing your book is not relevant to the reader.

And because of that, your book will get shredded.

Yes, many people will praise your book and offer it full stars and tell their friends about it, but many, many others will take their time to eviscerate your book simply because they can. It’s their right, after all. Everybody has reasons and preferences when judging a book, and I have no authority to sway them, nor do I want it.

The reviews you remember, of course, are not the praising sort. They’re the soul-ripping, face-melting, one-star disembowelings.

As of the time of this post, my book has received a motley assortment of reviews on Goodreads. I must admit that SCRIBES is not a book for everybody. It’s a bit of a genre orphan, in some ways. I never wrote the book with an audience in mind, and I don’t regret that. But here’s the cliffnotes story of its birth, for you, the wonderful readers:

SCRIBES was conceived as a capstone project in my university, largely written in the apprenticeship (for lack of a better term) of Andre Dubus III, who you may know as the author of The House of Sand and Fog. It was written in equal parts during months of pure, ecstatic happiness, months of dealing with my first break-up, and months of moving to new countries and reshaping my entire life. It was a time when ideas and guiding principles were in flux, perhaps free-fall, and the book served as something of an anchor for rebuilding my path in life. Acquiring my agent was a wild process that deserves its own post, but rest assured, it was yet another explosion of emotions.

With that in mind, the book is a reflection of myself, of all the things that are important and worth sharing in my mind:

Occasional moments of depressing nuance straight from literary fiction; graphic, unsettling violence; elements of spirituality; the power and tenacity of the human spirit.

Whatever reviews the book receives are more than fine by me. If the ultimate goal of any art is to communicate something, to make somebody feel something when they engage with your work, then I’d say getting them to leave a review, any review at all, is a triumph. As long as the book reached inside and sparked something, what’s there to complain about?

To make it short and sweet, you (and every other writer) have a worldview and a philosophy worth sharing with the world. I urge everybody to look beyond the fear or disappointment of critical reviews, and to devote all of your energy into conveying your message as skillfully, earnestly, and deeply as possible.

Love and peace, my friends.