How NOT to Respond to a Bad Review

Today I set up a Twitter account. Mostly because I wanted to follow my daughter (17) but the minute she found out, she made me “unfollow” her. Her exact words were, “That’s creepy, Mom. Stop following me.”

So I did. The point of all of this is to show how I found out about a new e-book called The Greek Seaman, by Jacqueline Howett. While on the Twitter site, someone tweeted something about an author (Ms. Howett)  having a “meltdown” over a bad review. Never one to speed by a car wreck, I checked it out.

Wow. The author of that tweet was being nice. Meltdown? I’d say a full-blown fit.

BigAl’s Books and Pals is a blog dedicated to book reviews. Specifically,

“Book reviews, news, commentary, and other fun stuff for readers and authors with an emphasis on the Kindle world and independent authors.”
This is a direct quote from his About page. As of today, BigAl’s Books has 145 FaceBook fans, and 216 Twitter followers. Pretty small numbers comparatively speaking. He has reviewed a lot of books though, so I assume author’s seek him out, send in their submissions, cross their fingers, and hope for a good review.
So what’s an author to do if that review is, well, not so good? I’ve heard from many seasoned writers that the best course of action is to ignore it. I’ve even heard authors say to not read ANY of your reviews. “It messes with your head,”  they say.  “The good ones and the bad ones.”  By reading J. Howett’s comments following BigAl’s review, I can definitely say that, yeah, that review really messed with her head.
BigAl begins his review with a compliment. The book was “compelling and interesting.” But then he follows up by saying that the chances of someone making it to the end of the book are “pretty slim.” Why? The spelling and grammar errors. He states that there are so many of them it makes it difficult to get into the book. Readers are jarred into reality by Ms. Howett’s many errors. Ouch!
These comments hit home for me because, quite frankly, my grammar sucks. But I know that. I’m never shock when someone tells me they found a mistake. I quickly correct it, and then I thank them.
Ms. Howett’s response was swift and petty. I have to wonder if this is the first time anyone has told her she needs the help of an editor.
Her first comment to the reviewer states that HE read the wrong copy of the manuscript (in other words, It’s your fault). She then goes on to copy and past a few 4 and 5 star reviews from Amazon; which are soon discredited and called fakes by one of the  300 or so comments that followed her internet temper tantrum. (The post went up at 8am. By 6pm there were over 300 comments. Most of them–didn’t read them all–were not favorable to the author.)
The ones I did read stated that they would not buy the book because the author was acting like a child and was “very unprofessional.”  Double ouch!
And, no one was  talking about the book. No one was talking about the characters or the plot. They were all talking about the writer and her over-the-top reaction.
Ms. Howett took a bad situation and made it badder. (I know . . . couldn’t resist.)
So, what’s a writer to do?
While getting a bad review would not make the reviewer a bully, I would say that the best thing to do would be to follow the advice our parents gave us about school yard bullies. Ignore them. Say nothing. So instead of 300+ negative comments, tweets turning her “meltdown” into entertainment, and bloggers like me spreading the word, the review would have come and gone, without anyone really noticing. 
This is really sad. We all know how much energy and time it takes to write a novel.  I truly hope this author can recover from this sad fiasco. In addition to an editor, she should seriously consider hiring a publicist One that specializes in damage control.
Or in her second book, she could try this.
Have you ever received a negative review? How did you handle it? (Please, no confessions of anything illegal.)

Dodd’s, Borders & Fast-moving Trains

There use to be an independent bookstore in my neighborhood called Dodd’s. It was on 2nd street, a very trendy shopping area here. The store was always packed and it had all the trappings of an independent book seller: knowledgeable employees, a pretty good “We recommend” section, regular author readings and signings, plenty of books by local writers and that soft, musty smell only small bookstores seem to possess. It was a great place to either go and buy a book, or just spend an hour roaming the shelves. I loved it.

Then Border’s came to town, followed closely by Barnes & Nobel. I soon found myself going there instead of Dodd’s because, well, everyone else did. (Note: this was before I discovered the writer in me and my esteem of all things literary.) I loved the newness of it, the clean carpets, the fancy displays, the self-help kiosks, the Starbucks.

 When Dodd’s decided to close, it made the front page of our local paper. I read the article and felt a sharp pang of guilt when I came to a quote by the owner. It went something like this:

“We were doing okay until Border’s opened up.”

 I gulped and winced as the realization came to me: I KILLED DODD’S BOOKS!

Well, not me alone. There were plenty others who abandoned the old favorite for the new and shiny mega-store. But that didn’t make me feel any better, so I did what any guilt-laden capitalist would do. I went back to Dodd’s and bought books. Lots of them because my guilt was fueled by a 50% off sale.

Flash forward 15 years.

Borders Announces Bankruptcy

Unlike my guilt-ridden feelings over the independent bookstore, my reaction to this news was pretty indifferent. To say I was surprised would be an exaggeration. I shopped at Borders, bought many books there, and even used it as a reading, socializing and writing spot. But after a while, it just didn’t feel right. The corporate, we’re only here to make money atmosphere seemed to squash my muse, so I stopped going there regularly. Instead I found a few local coffee shops in town that I can write in, hang out, or meet with other writers. I either get my books on Amazon, or the library.

 Do I feel guilty about Borders closing? Not in the least. Yeah, folks losing their jobs and hundreds of empty buildings in cities does depress me, but as a writer, what worries me the most is how rapidly the book business is changing, a business I hope to soon be a part of. I imagine it will be like trying to jump onto a fast-moving train, and all signs indicate that the train will not be slowing down anytime soon.

After researching, talking to other writers, going to workshops, panel discussions and reading every “How to Get Published (or an Agent) article in P & W and Writers Digest, I’m pretty confused. Writers have too many choices. In the “old days” the steps seemed pretty clear: Write a fantastic manuscript, get an agent, get published. Of course there were exceptions, like Stephen King, but they were just that–exceptions.

But in the year 2011, has the exception now become the rule? Self-publishing has gained a lot of momentum from both new and established writers. Once called “vanity books,” self publishing now seems the brave and bold way to go.

 Brave, bold and, scary as hell. Building platforms, marketing, blogging, tweeting, FaceBook-ing, and everything else are all the things a self-published author must do—on their own. Those who don’t will surely get squashed under the rails and end up with cases of unsold books cluttering their living room. Even the E-book route is not guaranteed. No one likes clicking on to their site and seeing the “Books Sold” counter remain stubbornly in the double digits. And those, you know, where the ones your mother bought to give to her bridge club friends.

 So, here I am, like many of my friends, at a crucial point in our writerly journeys. To self-publish or not? To endure months, and months of queries and rejections. To have a publisher keep your manuscript for eight months (true story) only to return it with the sad news that they, just like Borders, are going out of business. “Good-luck placing your manuscript with another publisher.”

One thing the bankruptcy of Borders does not portend is the death of  books and readers who buy them. Experts have a lot of opinions as to why Borders failed, and most of them have nothing to do with the lack of book sales, and there are winners and losers  in this turn of events.

I want to be one of the winners. Although the chance of seeing my book on the shelves of the local Borders is now dead, I need to focus on the many other opportunities out there. [cliché warning] When one door closes, another door opens, and writers today have many, many doors to choose from. But deciding which is best for you, for your particular manuscript, that seems like the hardest part of it all. Maybe even harder than writing the damn book in the first place.

True Grit and Cat Throwing

A few days after Christmas, the 1969 version of True Grit was on TV. I watched it with my mom. About five minutes into  the move, right before Mattie’s pa goes off with the shifty Tom Chaney, Mattie’s mother looks at her daughter and says, “You can still throw a cat through the south wall.” She was trying to illustrate the sorry state of Chaney’s living quarters, and also hoping to get her daughter to feel a little sympathy for poor old Chaney, which turns out to be a bad judgment call on the mother’s part.

Right after the mom spoke,  I turned to my mom and said, “I bet they cut that line from the movie. Can you imagine the backlash if that line was still in? The Cohen Brothers would be attacked by the SPCA every other Cat Lovers  MeetUp group from Los Angeles to New York.”

Well, not that I am even sure the Cohen Brothers would actually care, but that first part of the story was cut out all together. Mattie gets the audience up to date with a thirty, and cat-throwing-free, retell of the beginning of the story. The  movie opens with Mattie and her servant viewing father in his casket. 

One of the first lessons we get as fiction writers is to “write freely” and to not censor ourselves. But what if we create a character who says, quite naturally, “You could throw a cat through the south wall”? What if our character can’t help but refer to that strange man in her building as “retarded”?  What about all those teenage characters who still use “gay” as a negative?  

I know that my fingers have halted over the keyboard whenever I sense a character going into non PC territory. I stop. I ruminate. I worry.

But then I remember something Flannery O’Connor (my hero) said. After a book review editor accused her of “scandalizing the ‘little ones,’ Flannery, a devout Catholic, sought advice from her priest. After musing over it a bit, she comes to this conclusion:

When you write a novel, if you have  been honest about it and if your conscience is clear, then it seems to me that you have to leave the rest in God’s hands. When the book leaves your hands, it belongs to God. He may use it to save a few souls or to try a few others, but I think that the writer to worry about this is to take over God’s business . . .


I’m not Catholic, so I tend to substitute “Universe” for “God.” But the meaning is still the same. When we write honestly, we have no need to censor, to worry. Let the Universe handle it.

By writing honestly I mean writing without an agenda. A few years ago I read the fiction submissions for an online journal. I often came across stories that had the writer’s personal beliefs all over it: this writer hates men; this writer is a card-carrying member of the NRA; this writer thinks global warming is a myth; this writer is pro-choice. It comes out in the characters, which are typically presented as one-dimensional.  And the plots usually conclude with these characters either happily learning from their mistakes, or suffering because they failed to learn their lesson. 

Another lesson we learn in fiction writing is to make our characters “real.” Real people are never one-dimensional. Real people are contradictory, possessing both positive and negative qualities.

Understanding the complete picture by fleshing out your characters and discovering their past, helps to create a ‘whole view of things.’ “The fact is that in order not to be scandalized, one has to have a whole view of things, which not many of us have.” (O’Connor) 

Here’s how to get a whole view of things:

  • Follow your characters around all day and take notes about what they do and how they do it.
  • Interview your character’s family members,  their coworkers and neighbors.
  • Make a list of their vital statistics: birthdate, address, income level, education, etc.
  • Fill out a job application for you character, or an E-Harmony or Match. Com profile. (Don’t actually do this–make a real page for a fictional person – they frown on that.) 

Whenever I go through this list with students, I usually hear a few groans. Yes, it is a lot of work  but if you care about the people you are writing about, it should be enjoyable, not a chore. And please don’t expect to use everything you discover in your final draft. The key is to make the reader believe that you, the writer, know more about this person than you are revealing on the page.

 So, getting back to the woman in the building and her strange neighbor, she may call him “retarded,” but she also volunteers at the homeless shelter three times a week, and spends the other four days delivering library books to the homebound. Or she was raised in a family where the term was used with endearment: “Come here you cute little re-tard!”

Mattie hires Rooster Cogburn because he has “true grit.” She wants someone who will hunt down her father’s killer with a fearless vengeance. As writers, we need to have the same sort of fearlessness when we explore our characters. What we discover will surprise, shock and delight us, and our readers too.

 Quotes from, Flannery O’Connor; Spiritual  Writings. Edited by Robert Ellsberg. Orbis Books, 2003.