Lessons Learned from a Bad Review
Written by
Sheryl Sorrentino
November 2013
Written by
Sheryl Sorrentino
November 2013

Many people don’t realize that authors solicit reviews from readers, or that finding willing reviewers to generate “buzz” is no small feat; it takes time, research, and courage. Of course, there’s always friends and family, but they quickly tire of our requests, and it can be extremely awkward for both parties when they don’t happen to like our work. But make no mistake—when you see only five-star reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, you should rightly suspect that they came primarily (if not exclusively) from people who know the author personally.

Those of us who welcome honest, less-than-stellar commentary (or simply don’t have 100+ close friends and family members to hit up for reviews) take to the Internet and “cold call” bloggers and Goodreads members. This can feel horrifically like querying indifferent literary agents even after a book has been published. But worse than that, requesting reviews from total strangers is a dicey proposition.  For one thing, some readers readily accept the free book, but then don’t post any comments (for shame—you know who you are!). And even when a reader actually follows through and writes a review, that is no guaranty it will be favorable.

Case in point, my latest request for Stage Daughter reviews produced these comments:

“Stage Daughter is [a] . . . disputatious novel. This is a story of a very dysfunctional group of people – one family in particular.  It is a story of a mother trying to live her failed fantasy through her young daughter . . . What transpires is a totally heinous turn of events.

“The writing was good but very crude with a lot of profanity. The story line was very dragged out and was more like a case study of totally dysfunctional lives rather than a relaxing novel. The ending was quite weak.”

Ouch!! Luckily, the author of this review was a sensitive grandma who emailed it to me first with an offer not to post it (which I readily accepted!). So why, you might ask, am I sharing it now? Because those less-than-glowing remarks got me thinking: Do I want to be a delicate flower who cannot take the good with the bad? Or am I willing to accept honest criticism about my work and learn from it when it’s constructive? While I didn’t want this unfavorable review to dissuade potential buyers on Amazon, there are valuable lessons I can take away from it.

Lesson #1: When requesting reviews from strangers, I should give fair warning that my books contain profanity. Most people don’t mind, but others hate it.

Lesson #2: Different reviewers will sometimes say the exact opposite thing about some facet of my work. For instance, while a couple of reviewers have commented on Stage Daughter’s “perfect pacing,” one or two others felt the story moves too slowly. This is but one example of how tastes and preferences can vary widely. Writers must learn to accept subjective opinions with a grain of salt, or at a minimum not take them too personally.

Lesson #3 (a/k/a the “aha” moment): Understand what you are and what you aren't. This reviewer's observation that Stage Daughter is not a “relaxing novel” made me realize that I am not a writer of "soothing stories"—darkly humorous, perhaps, but never purely entertaining. My fiction is deliberately loud, emotionally (and often sexually) “in your face,” and meant to make you squirm a little. I am far more interested in waking people up (or at least giving them something to think about) than lulling them to sleep.

There is nothing more empowering than understanding your unique purpose and intention, and presenting it forthrightly to those who want and appreciate what you have to offer. To read my books is to accept an open-door invitation into my characters’ wounded psyches. These fictional folk are never on their “best behavior;” no, they act like family when you're around. Once you step over the threshold into their dysfunctional lives, you become an “insider” to their sometimes unpleasant drama. The hair comes down; the makeup is off; the dentures are soaking in the bedside glass. For those of you old enough to remember when women wore slips, that pesky lace fringe will always be showing.And, as is true in real life, my stories end with an ambiguous (if hopeful), "We shall see; it all depends on what these fools do from here."

If you happen to enjoy this type of realism in your fiction (what this particular reviewer labeled “crude”), you will love my books. If, on the other hand, you prefer people who chew with their mouths closed and keep their elbows off the table (and their true thoughts and feelings to themselves), you will not like my stories or my often unsympathetic characters because you will view them from the critical vantage point of an “outsider.” Either way, I can't get too upset when readers tell me that my beloved eccentrics have spinach between their teeth.

I am thrilled to have learned so much from this review; it tells me my skin has grown appropriately thick. Just as a guitarist develops callouses to ease the pain of play, so, too, must writers lose their hypersensitivity in order to thrive in a public forum where criticism and negative feedback go hand-in-hand with baring our souls to the masses (or a measly few).

As an added bonus, I picked up a pretentious new word (“disputatious”)! Who knew a negative review could leave me feeling so positive?

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