Ed. Note: In our spring/summer series – “The Tough Times, and How I Wrote Through Them” – one of this site’s regular contributors will write about a complication they’ve faced in writing and/or publishing, a complication you’re likely to experience someday, and they’ll disclose how they got past it (alcohol may be part of the answer but, no, it’s not the whole answer).
Bad reviews are the equivalent of dirty little secrets. All writers get them – or will, eventually – and when they happen, we do most of our crying and raging in private, away from the public eye. Rarely do we post anything publicly about them, and for those writers who slip and complain about a negative review on social media, a lesson is quickly learned: Don’t bitch about your bad reviews. It makes you look like a whiny ass who can’t handle the feedback and criticism that is part and parcel of your job.
I’ve had my share of bad reviews, and when I think about them (as I’m forced to right now), there are three that instantly come to mind as being the most deeply wounding.
Bad Review #1, for FREAK (my second book):
I remember exactly where I was when I read this review. It was June 2012. I was sitting in the bar at Boston Pizza with my best friend, Annie. Our husbands had gone to a bachelor party for a friend of ours, and she and I had decided to spend the evening watching the UFC fight. I got a Google alert on my phone, back when I was still dumb enough to have them set up. The very first trade review for FREAK, due to be released a month later, was in, and Publisher’s Weekly didn’t like it.
“Efforts at humor do little to enhance a familiar serial killer story line.”
I was so horrified by this review, published for all the world to see, that I didn’t notice Annie wasn’t drinking. My mind went into overdrive. What would everyone say? What did this mean for sales? Oh God, book two was going to flop. (Yes, I was extremely sensitive back then, because in hindsight this review wasn’t even that bad). Clearly, I was a terrible writer, and in that moment I couldn’t think of a single reason why I’d wanted to write a book – let alone two – in the first place. I showed Annie the review, and then said, very dramatically but with complete sincerity, “I think I’m done. I can’t do this anymore. I’ve written two books, and that’s good enough, right? I can move on now.”
And she said, “Of course you’re not done. And of course you’ll write another book. By the way, I’m pregnant.”
Bad Review #2, also for FREAK:
First, let me just say that I didn’t think FREAK would be the kind of book reviewed by the Romantic Times. I was naïve back then. Second, I learned about their negative review from a reader I’d never met in person who subscribed to the actual RT print magazine, and who had taken the time to take a photo of the review and send it to me via Facebook Messenger. I like to think she meant well, but for any readers who are contemplating sending authors screenshots of their bad reviews: PLEASE DO NOT DO THIS.
“Hi Jennifer,” her note read. “Thought you would want to see this review for FREAK. Don’t worry, I’ll still read it.”
Heart pounding, I clicked on the thumbnail attached to the message.
“Clunky exposition, awkward dialogue and obvious plot twists make Freak a difficult read. 2 out of 5 stars.”
I pretty much wanted to die. I ordered another drink. Across from me, Annie sipped her water and kept her eyes focused on the TV screen where UFC was still playing. I don’t remember who was on the fight card. Because yes, this was the SAME DAMN NIGHT, a mere hour after I’d gotten the Google alert from Publisher’s Weekly.
“You okay?” Annie asked, noticing I’d gone quiet.
“All good,” I said, near tears. I swallowed hard and took a giant swig of my margarita. “So, have you thought of baby names at all?”
Bad Review #3, for THE BUTCHER (my third book):
I don’t remember exactly where I was when I read this one. By book three, I had learned that my kind publicist would only ever send me the good reviews, leaving the bad ones out there for me to seek out on my own. I was slowly learning not to . . . except for the trade reviews, which I felt obligated to read because I knew everybody else would be reading them, anyway.
Once again, Publisher’s Weekly didn’t like my new book. Only this time, they didn’t dislike it only a little bit. They really fucking hated it.
“Hillier squanders an intriguing premise with poor plotting and lackluster characterization in this disappointing psychological thriller.”
While I wasn’t nearly as sensitive to bad reviews at this point, this review stung big time. Of course it did. I’m not a robot. I loved writing THE BUTCHER. I took some chances with it, tried to do something different than what I’d been doing before, took a few risks. By now it was 2014. I’d been published for three years, and I was getting used to being in a job where criticism of my work was immediate, public, and forever preserved on the internet for everyone to see. Still, the review knocked me on my ass. I went back to bed. And stayed there for the day. And later that evening, when my husband got home from work, I put on the only pair of leggings that still fit me – because by that time I was five months pregnant with our own child – and we went out for dinner.
As writers, we’re never not going to be hurt when someone doesn’t like our work. I can’t imagine ever getting to a point where I truly don’t care what readers think, whether they’re professional reviewers or the book-buying public. How can I not care? It takes me a year and a half, on average, to write, edit, and publish a novel. That’s a lot of time and energy I’ve invested in something I do by choice, because it makes me feel whole. Of course I’m going to care.
But I’ve learned over the years than I can choose to care a little less, and that caring a little less is healthier and more productive, because taking it down a notch allows to me to live to write another day. Caring too much makes me self-conscious. It makes me second guess everything I write, which is about the worst thing a writer can do when working on a new book. It makes the words feel forced and stilted, and so carefully crafted to not piss anybody off that the story becomes unpalatable anyway due to blandness. I believe you need to be uninhibited to write well, and if you worry too much about what people will think, it will debilitate you.
But bad reviews are tough to handle. Hell, they’re downright embarrassing! Sometimes my non-writer friends don’t grasp just how mortifying they can be, and I try to explain it like this: Imagine, at your current job, you just had your annual performance review. And you didn’t do very well. There are things your boss thinks you need to work on, and maybe you even dropped the ball completely on a specific project. Not great, right? And then imagine this review is published not just on the company website for all your co-workers to see, but also on a public website for your friends and family to read. Imagine it’s on the internet forever, where future employers/co-workers/friends/neighbors/landlords/Tinder dates/guy- who-checks-your-ID-at-the-liquor-store can read it, and judge you.
That’s how it feels.
It’s not all horrible, though. Because for every bad review, there are good reviews, and most writers will agree that their good reviews far outweigh the bad. And I’ve been fortunate to have my share of great reviews. Indulge me while I post a few of my favorites here (because I think I’ve earned it – sharing bad reviews of my books is like sharing naked photos of myself with you, and I’m feeling very vulnerable right now):
“A brilliant debut.” ~ Suspense Magazine, CREEP
“Taut and fraught with surprise twists, Hillier’s thriller is addictive.” ~ Kirkus Reviews, FREAK
“A tense, suspenseful, thoroughly creepy thriller.” ~ Booklist, THE BUTCHER
“Outstanding suspense and a shocking ending.” ~ RT Book Reviews, WONDERLAND
Bottom line? Care a little. Work a lot. And write like nobody’s watching.
JENNIFER HILLIER writes about dark, twisted people who do dark, twisted things. She’s the author of the thrillers Creep (2011), Freak (2012), The Butcher (2014), and Wonderland (2015). She loves her husband, her son, her cat Kobe, Stephen King, and the Seahawks. Not equally, but close. Born and raised in Toronto, she currently lives in the Seattle area with her family. Find her on the web at jenniferhillier.ca.
To learn more about Wonderland, click on the cover below:
Previously in The Tough Times (And How I Wrote Through Them):
Parting Ways – DDWID (Don’t Do What I Did), by Gwen Florio
The Tough Times, by Tom Sweterlitsch
Writing Through Rejection, by Elizabeth Heiter
Writing Against Deadlines, by Rob Brunet
Facing Your Personal “issues” and “Issues,” by Shannon Kirk
Shutting Down Places Like Eliot Ness, by J.J. Hensley
On Time Management, by Mark Pryor