Monday, October 20, 2014

How to engage your critics (if you must) in a safe and productive way

Here's a thing about me--I hate hurting people's feelings. I hate it even worse than having my own feelings hurt. This isn't because I'm a super speshul snowflake or anything. It's just how I'm wired--overactive conscience, conflict-avoidant, poor ability to deal with guilt. Because of all that, I'll admit it--I struggle to understand people who write mean-spirited book reviews. What I don't struggle to understand, is that they have the right to do so.

If you have a twitter account, you've seen at least fifty tweets from authors and bloggers in the past couple of days saying that the correct response to a negative review is to just keep rolling, brush it off, write more books. They're right, and this is what I do most of the time. However, I have responded to critics on multiple occasions--four that I can remember--and all of those interactions produced positive outcomes where both parties walked away with a greater respect and understanding for each other. So a friend asked me to blog about how I do it, and I thought I'd give a few tips. NOTE: I still believe the best response is usually to shut the review window and write more books, so please do not take this blog post as a recommendation to engage your critics.

Also, I am paraphrasing review quotes and actual correspondence with reviewers out of respect for privacy, but the people I'm talking about are more than free to elaborate in the comments section and share their links.

Tip #1: Utilize a cooling off period.
I recommend at least three days. You might need longer. You need to wait long enough that you've stopped physically shaking. You need to be able to fall asleep at night without obsessing for hours. A writer-friend once pointed out a blog post about book packagers and work-for-hire writing. This blogger had only just discovered the concept and to her it was kind of suspect. "Why would anyone want to develop someone else's ideas?" she wondered. "Don't these writers have their own ideas?" [paraphrased] This article went on to mention my work-for-hire pseudonym by name, like "How does Fiona Paul feel about [this] or [that?]" My immediate response was rage, because all I could see was someone calling me out in a blog post without bothering to try to contact me, and then presuming that I was a lesser writer because I opted to write for a book development company. After I calmed down a little (okay, a lot) I realized the article wasn't accusing me of anything--it was asking questions. I didn't like what it was asking, but they were legitimate questions from someone who wanted to know. And if she wanted to know then other people wanted to know. And people think all kinds of bad things about book packaging, but a lot of them aren't true. So with the blessings of Paper Lantern Lit, I contacted her and offered an interview. I ended up writing a three-part series about WFH in general and my experiences in particular. And even though my books are probably never going to make this blogger's favorites list, she has made my favorites list as an unflinchingly honest voice in a sometimes all-too-fake world. I like to think she feels similarly about me.

Tip #2: Recognize it's not all about you.
Even if a review calls you racist, sexist, homophobic, intolerant, unintelligent, etc., it's not a review of you because this person does not know you. They are often incorrectly attributing your character's words and actions to you. Even if your villain says something reprehensible and ten characters call him/her out on it, some people will still take offense to particular words or actions, and that's their prerogative. I tend to agree with what Stephen King says in On Writing, [paraphrased] that my characters do and say offensive things because that's who they are and I'm merely transcribing their words and thoughts. But many reviewers have "hot button issues" so if you included violence against women, violence against animals, two much swearing, a love triangle, etc., they are going to hate your book on principle. I am not saying you are "right" or that reviewers who hate your book are "wrong." There is no right and wrong. You can write about anything you want, but unless you write about a glass of water sitting on a table, chances are your work is going to offend some people.

Tip #3: Recognize it might not even be about your book.
It might be 100% about your particular writing and story. Or it might be about the ten love triangle books someone read before yours, and yours just happened to be the one that made them snap. It might be because they're sick or currently suffering and your character is being a whiny baby about problems that pale in comparison. It might be because your main character reminds them of a girl who tormented them in high school. It could be a whole lot of things that they may or may not even realize. We don't read books in vacuums.

Tip #4: Figure out why you want to contact them.
Wrong answers:
--To yell at them.
--To tell them they hurt your sensitive feelings.
--To tell them they have gotten a fact, or plot point, or theme wrong.
--To explain to them how they missed your point and clarify the awesomeness that is your book.

Possible right answers:
--To thank them for spending time reading and reviewing your book, IF you mean it.
--To clarify a point, IF they asked for clarification in their review.
--To apologize if they pointed out something that personally offended them, and after careful consideration you agree with them and wish you hadn't written it. I would tread carefully here though, because as I mentioned, it's really hard to write an authentic book without anything that could be construed as offensive. Books are usually about people. People say and think and do offensive things sometimes. Such is life.

Tip #5: Recognize and strive to reduce the perceived power differential.
This one is hard for me because I feel like I'm about as intimidating as Mary Poppins. I'm just one single chick holed up in a tiny apartment cranking out stories on a kitchen table that is actually patio furniture. But bloggers don't intuitively know who's a well-connected, high-powered NYC writer and who's not. Bloggers might not even know that some writers are paid $250 for their first book and others are paid $250,000, even though when you set the books side-by-side you can't necessarily tell the difference. But even though I'm not a super-successful Manhattan hotshot, I'm still an author with books on shelves and access to publicists/industry insiders. And that means seeing a Goodreads response or email from me in an inbox after a negative review could cause some anxiety. [NOTE: Never engage publicly on twitter or in a comment thread--that will always feel aggressive.] I personally strive to treat reviewers as equals. I'm not a better person because I'm an author. I'm not necessarily even a better writer. And in many cases, I'm less informed about the publishing industry. I'm not embarrassed to admit that and I'm grateful to bloggers and reviewers for what they've taught me.

Tip #6: Make sure both parties can potentially benefit from contact.
You don't know until you do it, but if your desire to reach out is all about you needing closure or answers, stop right there. Reviewers aren't spouses or bosses or family members. They don't owe you an explanation for anything. I reached out to a girl who wrote a somewhat scathing review of VENOM, my first work-for-hire book. Among other things, she detailed a lot of anachronisms, specifically with the dialogue and voice. Now some of this was what I was asked to do to make the book accessible (use contractions, etc.) but some of it was just fail on my part. Even though the book had several editors and a Renaissance expert, this reviewer brought up a lot of very solid points we all missed. My thought process went something like "Waaaaah. Poor me... Holy crap this girl is smart...I wonder if she'd be interested in reading the third book before it goes to the printer..." She was. I couldn't afford to pay her, but I sent her the very first ARC, thanked her for being a "delta-reader", and offered to write her a research reference if she ever needed. It turned out to be a win-win-win. A blogger felt heard and respected by an author. A book became better. And this girl is now my friend, supporter, and publishing colleague.

Tip #7: Recognize the potential for harm to your career.
You can do everything "right" in contacting someone and still manage to piss them off. Back when the internet was just a baby, I worked retail and restaurant work and remember my managers saying something like "A happy customer tells an average of 7 people about their experience. An unsatisfied customer tells approximately 23." Dude, I don't know what the updated figures are, but I can imagine. I still do not believe that a single person can "ruin a career" (except, perhaps, for an author ruining their own career) but there is always a risk in confronting someone, so be sure to weigh the potential costs and benefits before proceeding.

Tip #8: Err on the side of being overly polite and non-argumentative.
The first critic I ever contacted was when I was brand new to Goodreads. It was 2011. The sale of VENOM had recently been announced. And sure enough, someone gave me 2 stars before ARCs had even been printed. I didn't know back then GR permitted people to rate books based on how excited you were for their release. I didn't know anything. I had clicked "I accept the terms and conditions" without bothering to read them (we all need to stop doing this.) If I had it to do over this is one contact I would not have made, because frankly it was none of my business if she chose to rate my book without reading it. But back then my neurotic author brain was like "Who is this hater and why is she trying to sabotage my book?" and then "OMG, what if there are pirated copies of some crappy first or second draft floating around?" Either way, this 2-star rating had me panicked. (Naive, yeah, I know.) So I sent her a message like: "Hi. I'm brand new to GR and saw that you rated my debut novel. I was just wondering how you managed to read it so early. Basically I'm hoping there aren't copies of one of my old drafts floating around on the internet." She responded, very kindly, that she was a reader for a foreign publisher who had access to my latest draft. She went on to tell me her feelings about the book, including both positive and negative feedback. She ended by saying that perhaps it was wrong of her to post her rating almost a year in advance and offered to take it down until closer to publication date. I declined this offer and thanked her for responding. And I felt silly for doubting her. And then I got back to work. Can you imagine how differently that would have played out if I had been aggressive or accusatory? I could have burned a bridge with a major foreign publisher for all eternity. [ETA: a good rule of thumb is not to write anything you wouldn't be okay with the whole world reading.]

Tip #9: No answer is an answer.
If you reach out and get no response, let it go. Again, this isn't your spouse--it's a stranger. It's the equivalent of someone who viewed your profile on a dating site and clicked no thanks. You asked for a conversation and they politely declined. Who cares if that's not how you do things. The reviewer doesn't have to play by your rules. Move on, already. Don't you have a dog to walk or some laundry to catch up on or a hobby or maybe another book to write? Live your life, or seek help from a confidante or mental health professional if you can't.

Tip #10: Know when to say no.
There are some people it does not make sense to ever engage. Some reviewers are building a brand, and their review is more about their internet platform than it is about your book. People who DNF'd your book are not going to pick it back up because you tell them to (though they might pick it back up if a friend tells them to, as long as you don't act like a total psychopath first.) Most of your 1-star reviews will come from readers who either hated your plot (too late to tweak that), hated your writing style (I don't recommend changing that for 1 or 10 or even 200 people), or just deemed your book "not for them." Liking or not liking a book has an emotional component to it and even the most logical or impassioned argument in your book's favor isn't going to change someone's mind. When's the last time Fox News or the liberal media, depending on your leanings, changed your mind about something? I rest my case. Save your breath. Save your time and energy for your next book. Or better yet, why not engage with some of the people who wrote good reviews? You know, your FANS. In the end, aren't they the ones who really matter?