Rules of Engagement (Dealing with Criticism).

It’s been a *long* time since I discussed criticism and engaging with it. I still hold the view of ‘Thou Shalt Not Read the Reviews’ but I think it’s time to explore the subject in a bit more depth, given that I have a little more experience with it now than I did then.

My first post on the subject was light on actual anecdotal evidence, as I said then, talking about/engaging with criticism leaves you open to more criticism. I’m not James Blunt, responding to mean Tweets with pithy comebacks and cool detachment, but I’m going to share a couple of instances and my thoughts around them. I’ll not identify anyone, and not just because I don’t know actual identities but because the purpose of this post is not to shame critics but help you address the way you think about any criticism you receive.

Back at the beginning I released Camelot 2050: Black Knight and, to coincide with it becoming available online (bear in mind I didn’t publish via Amazon, I’ll come back to that) I booked a trade table at an event that same weekend. It was a small affair, a fantasy convention in a school sports hall run by someone I knew through LARP. It was a good weekend, I saw some friends, sold some books, packed up with me partner and we headed home. During the drive I pulled up my new Amazon listing, two reviews, both One-Star. I read them, I was hurt and angry. During the three-hour drive home I was bolstered by the righteous outrage of my partner and urged not to reply. I stewed for a while but, in checking the profiles of the ‘reviewers’ it turned out one had never reviewed anything else, and the other was a fan of erotica (90% of their other reviews where erotic fiction, perhaps a case of a mistaken purchase).

I can’t say for sure if those reviews were genuine disgruntlement, personal attacks or, (as I have often entertained) posts from some Amazon-owned troll-farm designed to put people off Indi Writers who don’t publish via Amazon itself. What I can say is, within a few more days I had a slew of Four and Five-Star reviews behind me and I felt a good deal better about the whole affair. Later that year I was at a convention and a professional editor commented, on-panel, that they wouldn’t read any book that had all Five-Star reviews. They’d read a book with a slew of One and Five Star reviews, they said they’d read the shit out of it to find out what the contention was all about. Again, as a lecturer of mine stated, Media is about provoking a reaction, whether it’s ‘good’ or ‘bad’, as long as it isn’t indifferent.

I can tell you what else those Amazon reviews weren’t, they weren’t the people who came up to me at convention around the UK to tell me how much they enjoyed the book and could they have the next one, please? They weren’t the one reader at a London con who bought the first book mid-morning and came back about 2 o’clock to buy the whole series.

Since that weekend I’ve completed the Camelot and a couple of shorts, I’ve written under contract for known and highly-popular RPG titles and the project leaders have come back and asked me to do it again. Most Amazon reviews aren’t event reviews, they aren’t critiques, they’re opinions and people have a right to share them. You have an equal right to ignore them. An Amazon Review isn’t an editors critique, those should already have happened, and in confidentiality and, having been edited I can share that a good editor will point out the stronger sections, to encourage them, as well as the points they feel could be reworded/worked to improve the whole.

I’m going to share a more recent account, not strictly linked to any of my works but it’s an example nonetheless.

Back Story: A writer I may be but anyone close to me who has read the raw draft will agree that my command of grammar (although much improved from way back) is still akin to someone loading punctuation int a scatter-gun and firing it at the page. Also my fingers sometimes struggle to keep up with my mind, so typo’s are common and *that* translates to my social media postings. This led to a meme, I took the Colossus ‘Moments’ speech from ‘DeadPool’ (2016) and switched out ‘Hero’ with ‘Author’.

I figure other writers would get a chuckle from it so I shared it to a writers group I’m a part of and, low and behold, a comment.

“Wouldnt know, I cant read the font and the color is horrible lol”

This, right here, is a perfect example of an opinion as opposed to a review. The poster has identified what they don’t like (font and colour) and focused on that. They *don’t* know that I created this (and that I’m not a graphic designer) so they perhaps don’t realise that this could be read as kinda mean (under the current climate with everyone struggling so much), they’ve just dropped their immediate thoughts and carried on about their day. They haven’t contributed to a discussion or even taken in the message.

Yes, this is recent. Yes, I’m still mentally formulating comebacks for ‘the Meme Critique’ but, that’s the same mindset I employ to my dialogue and prose, it’s what leads me to go back a rewrite, to sculpt and craft those lines. The very thing that causes me to fixate on criticism is the same thing I rely on the help me write the best, most compelling stories that I can. The difference is this, after a few days I’ll leave the ‘criticism’ behind but I’ll go back to my WiP again and again until it’s perfect (re: ‘Good Enough For Release’). We can learn to leave that negativity behind, none of us need to be carrying anymore of it around than we have to and, as creatives, we are going to draw criticism at some time, from some sector.

I know my work is good, I live with my biggest fan, I’m surrounded (at a socially responsible distance) by people who do like my work and, hey, I’m about to be published. So don’t let a little negativity, a few voices in the void (or on Amazon) get you down. Stick with it, be kind to yourself (and others) and you’ll get there.

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