I’ve leveled up as an author. Today I received my first bad review. It’s not to be unexpected. It’s part of the game. Do bad reviews hurt? Yes. Am I upset about it? Not really.
That wasn’t always the case.
Any sort of creative work means that we’re putting ourselves out there for others to weigh and judge. Writing is no different. I’m not new to the hustle, and I spent my early years doing the short fiction jig. If you’ve been a part of that, you know that it can be an often soul-crushing experience. You toil over a piece of work, polish it to what you think is the best possible version you can give, and send it off to a slush-reader somewhere who decides if an editor ever gets to put eyes on your baby. The short fiction market is oversaturated and full of wickedly talented and hard-working writers in varying stages of their careers. Rejections are far more common than not, and with some of those (not all) comes feedback.
I used to let the feedback slowly destroy me. I’d get a piece back, look at the feedback, and then take the piece out and try to “fix” it according to the comments I received. Then I’d send it out again, get another rejection, with another bit of feedback. Sometimes it was the same feedback, which can be a valid thing to address, depending on the author and the story. Sometimes, though, that feedback wound up contradicting the last feedback. What I found myself doing was writing in circles, trying to make everyone happy in the hopes of clearing some invisible bar. I quit writing for awhile after a particularly brutal piece of feedback, which is unfortunately also not uncommon—sometimes someone just cannot say they dislike something without being mean—because I just could not endure the cycle.
When I wrote The Hole in the World, I edited it and revised it within an inch of its life before I ever dared sending it out. I made sure that it was exactly the story I wanted to tell exactly the way I wanted to tell it. Ultimately I made the decision to go the indie route because the story was too short for traditional routes. Sure, I could have padded the story out, but everything felt tight and in place, and every time I tried it felt like the narrative just bloated and got lost. I revised until I didn’t find anything I wanted to change.
It was working with my editor at Atmosphere that helped me get my confidence back. The developmental process taught me so much, and it was a joy to work with someone who loved my story as much as I did. Who understood it the way I had written it. She compared it to other stories that tried to do similar things, and pointed out what she thought worked and what didn’t. Some of those other works I enjoyed, and I was pleased to be compared, but I understood her criticism.
That’s when it really hit home that taste is subjective.
I mean, I knew that, but that had been the key to soothing the nicks to my thin skin, and ultimately toughening it up. Rejection by one person does not mean that it is objectively good or bad. It means that the person who put their eyes on it did not enjoy it. Those are two different things. I’ve read many stories, watched many films/plays/shows that were well-crafted but which did not turn out to be enjoyable to me. It happened recently with Good Omens, which has exploded all around me, but I couldn’t manage to finish the book, even though I enjoyed the miniseries. A farcical religion-based apocalypse about a mixup with the anti-Christ is very much in the center of my entertainment interests, and modern fantasy is obviously a thing I enjoy. I just did not like the book.
Fantasy is a tough genre with a variety of readers with varying tastes and differing expectations even within those subcategories. Some people love a quick-paced, character-driven urban fantasy, others won’t tolerate anything that doesn’t have mages blowing things up or at least one dragon. Tolkien has been considered the standard for some time, and while fantasy exists separate from that niche, some just don’t go for other types. Personally I loathe Tolkien’s style, but it’s impossible to argue that what he did isn’t good to some people. It’s popular for a reason, even if long, wandery, verbose fiction is not my thing. I really do not want to read six pages describing a tree, even if those are six amazing pages of the prettiest prose in existence.
I write character-driven fantasy which leans on magical realism. The journey of the MC(s) is the story. It’s a conceit of the genre. The fantasy elements are meant to be subtle in a realistic world and that’s not going to be everyone’s cuppa. What matters is that it was the story I wanted to put out and I took the steps to put out the best version possible. A lot of people enjoyed it. Some didn’t. At least those who didn’t enjoy it took a chance on it. It’s out there in the world for them to have that option.
At the end of the day, reviews are for the reader, not the author. I can’t exhaust myself writing to everyone’s taste and taking every bit of feedback to heart. My voice or my story will get lost, and I’ll give up altogether. Unfortunately, as an indie author, I depend on reviews to get my book seen by algorithms. That doesn’t mean they all need to be good, and there’s something to be said for bad reviews because they show that the readership isn’t just people who like the author a whole bunch and don’t want to hurt their feelings. I like to read bad reviews of media I enjoyed to see what it was someone didn’t like. I recommend it, as an author (and even as a reader!), because it affirms the fact that taste is subjective. That has helped me endure even the most hurtful criticism in my work, and has kept me going forward. Now I have a second novel on the way out, and a third in draft.
So, thank you for the honest review! I genuinely mean that. I am sorry you did not like my story or the world I’ve built, but I’m flattered you gave it a chance. You’ve given me a growing moment, and I intend to make the best of it. I intend to use it as a pushing off point to be bolder in asking for honest reviews. I intend to use it to better myself.