Recently, I joined a “local” science fiction book club—a 100-mile round trip from my house—because I wanted to take the pulse of my audience for my self-published novel, Mindclone. The first meeting I attended, we discussed the novel, The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. LeGuin. I greatly enjoyed this book, which uses the concept of two worlds with opposing political and economic systems: an idealized Communism and an extreme form of Capitalism. I’ve always believed that one of the best uses of science fiction is to parody or otherwise explore our own world and human nature. That meeting revealed how far apart readers can be when assessing a given novel. Several of the members disliked the book as either too talky or too doctrinaire, with not enough “real” science fiction to satisfy their tastes. One member in particular opened the discussion by declaring, “This is not science fiction. It’s sociology set on two planets.” The discussion was thoughtful, lively and entertaining and, for me, the beginning of a real education on sci-fi readership. At the end of the session, it was time to choose a book for the next meeting, three weeks later. I proposed my own novel. There was some hesitancy, as once before, an author had offered his book for their discussion, and the results were not good. I suggested they go to the Amazon site and read the first three chapters for free and decide if they wanted to review it. We chose another book for the next session, and were to discuss my book as a possible candidate for the following one.
Three weeks later, we discussed Seed, by Rob Ziegler, his first novel, a story set in a dystopian world ruled by a living bio-city that creates seeds needed to sustain the remaining humans. I thought this was an excellent read, with some flaws, but it had some wonderful concepts and writing. Once again, the club was less enthused. After another lively discussion, it was time to decide if my book would be the selection for the following meeting. At this point, the member who had criticized the LeGuin novel and had also disliked Seed, reached into his bag and pulled out the paperback copy of Mindclone and strongly recommended we choose it for our next meeting. Several other members had also looked at the opening chapters and agreed, some with real enthusiasm. So as I drove my fifty miles home, I was flying. However, when I took a look at my Amazon page that night, I discovered that someone had just posted a terrible review. Only two stars, with some comments that bruised me in places where I was particularly vulnerable! Quite a bringdown. Almost all my previous reviews were five stars, with only a handful of four stars. But what troubled me the most was this reviewer’s accusation that I had somehow cheated, gaming the system for those glowing reviews.
I worried about this for several days. My only hope for gaining sales was those positive reviews, and this reader was undermining their legitimacy. I had to decide if I should post a comment to his review. Well, I pondered that question for an entire day. First I checked his other reviews to see if he was a troll or curmudgeon. If so, I knew it would extremely unwise to tangle with him. But his other reviews all looked quite fair and thoughtful. At this point, I knew I would have to post something that challenged his cheating claim. I worked on my response all the next day. I first thanked him for buying and reading my book, and for posting his comments. I assured him I take all criticism seriously, and if I did a revision, I would certainly take a look at the issues he raised. Then I made my case for refuting his charge. I divided my reviewers into three categories: close friends, unbiased acquaintances and complete strangers. The number of reviews my book has received remains small enough that I was easily able to do this. As it turned out, these glowing reviews divided almost exactly equally among the three groups. I then pointed out how hard it is to get ANY readership, let alone reviews when you’re a first-time author whose book is self-published. I crossed my fingers and posted my response. Within minutes, I received his reply. He actually apologized for the accusation and changed his review, removing that part but leaving the rest. And that’s fine. Negative criticism is a normal part of the writing process. That’s why I participate in a writing group. For me, at least, it’s very hard to see the flaws in my own writing, so getting the perspective of other writers is an enormous help, and quite indispensable.
I was very glad I responded to my critic the way I had. And as it turned out, when the three weeks elapsed and it was time to face the members of the science fiction club to get their responses, my critic showed up! Turns out he’s a nice guy, who actually spoke up in defense of my book against some of the other negative comments some members made. Though his opinion of its flaws remained unchanged. The verdict from the other members? I would say about two-thirds were enthusiastically positive, and one third of the members found fault with various aspects of the book. What did I do? Did I argue with them? I did not. Instead, I took my notes, went home and revised the book to correct the flaws I felt needed correcting. The new, improved edition is now live in both ebook and paperback. http://www.amazon.com/Mindclone-youre-brain-without-called-ebook/dp/B00BJWOHDE
David Wolf, San Carlos, CA
NOTE: This article first appeared on The Indie Writer’s Guide: Writing and Publishing Tips by Writers for Writers … http://indiewritenet.com/writersguide/2014/09/09/dealing-with-negative-criticism/