GUEST POST: Stop Criticizing Me! – by Richard Stephenson

Okay, we need to talk. Gather round my fellow indies, this is a safe place. A happy place. Relax and take a deep breath. Pull up a chair, some stale coffee is on the back table but the doughnuts are fresh.

Whether you are new to the self-publishing biz like me or have come to accept rejection and criticism like a pro after years or decades of writing, let’s be honest with each other – criticism hurts. If you’re like me, your writing is a very intimate part of your soul. You open up your very being and put pieces of yourself on the page. In the simplest terms, you make yourself very vulnerable.

I knew going into this whole thing that Collapse would not be everyone’s cup of tea. People’s tastes are particular. I know my tastes are particular. I’m a huge fan of the TV show Game of Thrones, however, I can’t stand the books. I found the first one much too difficult to follow along with the dozens of characters. I tried my best to read it but had to stop about a quarter of the way into it because I just couldn’t get into it. Martin is obviously a successful and talented writer, but I’m not a fan.

Do you remember your first negative review? I know I do. The funny thing about it – it was a three star review. The reviewer was not kind, claiming that my writing style was horrible and that my dystopian thriller was aimed at twelve year olds. Not sure how a book with graphic violence and language, a racist skinhead, and the victim of Richard Dupree’s crime was material aimed at twelve year olds. That particular review bothered me a lot. It raised my blood pressure and upset my stomach enough to warrant some pepto. Then another negative review, another three star mind you, came just minutes behind the first one. This review made the claim that Dupree’s escape from the courthouse was lifted completely out of Silence of the Lambs. This upset me even more because I couldn’t see the parallel at all. Dupree didn’t cut someone’s face off and wear it as a mask or dress up a corpse in his own clothing to confuse his captors. I chomped on some more pepto tablets and realized I had a serious problem to contend with. If three star reviews bothered me so badly, how on earth was I going to cope with one and two star reviews?

Then I got my first two star review. My stomach started churning and I could feel my heart pounding. My hand was actually shaking when I clicked the mouse to see what horrible bashing was in store. Was a grown man about to cry?

It didn’t bother me in the slightest. In fact, I had nothing but respect for the reviewer’s opinion. Collapse was just not his cup of tea. He was expecting a different type of book. He thought the book would be geared more towards survival fiction in the same vein as James Wesley Rawles Patriots. He also wasn’t fond of the main characters. I totally get that. To each his own.

As more time has gone by, I’ve collected seven two-star reviews and four one-star reviews to tarnish my combined fifty-nine four and five star reviews. Most of them didn’t bother me at all, they made claims that they didn’t enjoy the story or the format of multiple storylines was too confusing. Not a big deal. Two in particular freely admitted that they gave up after a few chapters and stuck me with a one-star review. Really? You read less than 10% of the book and think that your very limited knowledge qualifies you to leave a review? Gimme a break! This is just my own personal gripe, if you think that you can give up on a book very early on and leave a review, that’s your right to do so. I just find it to be unfair and in poor taste. If I give up on a book a few chapters in, I simply move on to something else and wouldn’t dream of leaving a review.

Over at GoodReads I got two reviews that really offended me. The two reviewers could not separate the storyteller from the story. The first reviewer directly accused me of being anti-Islam. Not the story, not one of the characters, me personally – “The author doesn’t seem to like Islam very much…” The other reviewer stated “…the writing of a man that not only has major issues with the current US Government but has little faith in the populous to fix the problem of corruption.” Let’s be clear, I wrote a piece of fiction. Actually, let’s take it a step further and point out that I wrote a piece of dystopian fiction. Clearly this reviewer doesn’t understand the definition of dystopian. Let’s take one final step further and point out that I actually work for the US government in my full-time job.

On the last page of Collapse, I included a list of contact information so that readers could interact with me via Twitter, Facebook, this blog, and by email. I understood that this decision would expose me to both glowing praise and harsh criticism. A gentlemen sent me an email all but condemning me to hell for the offensive language in the book and was shocked that I let my wife read it. (I’m guessing he believes that a woman’s delicate sensibilities couldn’t handle an F-bomb.)

Did I write this blog post to garner your sympathy? Am I fishing for your complements to boost my ego? Not at all, far from it. Well then, Mr. Stephenson, what is your point you may ask? I hope that by sharing my experience that other indies will learn the simple fact that you are going to get a lot of negative criticism. That fact might be obvious to everyone, you might even be waiting on your first negative review at this very moment confident in the fact that you are prepared for it. I thought I was prepared and ready, but I was not ready for criticism that just defied logic and reason. I was prepared for criticism about a great many things. Towards the end of the book I wrote a love scene that I knew would offend some people, I was prepared for that. I wrote several scenes containing graphic violence that I knew would offend some, I was prepared for that as well. Some portions of the book might lead you to believe I’m a hardcore liberal that hates conservatives and wishes to offend them (I’m not, by the way). Much of Collapse requires the reader to suspend belief as a lot of fiction does, I was prepared for people to not being able to make that leap.

What I was not prepared for was criticism that, in my opinion, came out of left field and just flat confused me. I had to fight the urge to leave comments on those reviews and engage the reviewer in debate, explaining my side of things and hopefully change their mind. I decided against it because in my experience, once someone has made up their mind about something, it is often an exercise in futility to make them agree with you. It often makes the situation far worse and in my opinion, is just not worth the time.

My advice, prepare yourself for anything. Get ready for criticism of all types -constructive criticism that is tactful and polite, criticism that makes you ask yourself “Did this person actually read my book?” Be ready for criticism that is harsh, rude, offensive, and even says your writing style is terrible.

Even better, if you can resist the temptation, don’t even click on the ones and twos.

Richard Stephenson is the author of best selling dystopian thriller, Collapse.

Click here to view Richard’s blog.

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Writing: An Unhealthy Obsession

Early December, 2009, I lost my job through redundancy. Instead of considering the impact this was going to have on my life, or worrying about how I would get another job in the middle of a recession, my first thought was: ‘at last – some time to write my book’. Having lived with the seeds of a plot for a science fiction thriller rattling around in my head for well over a decade, I was really looking forward to planting those seeds and watching them grow. Little else mattered.

In the run-up to Christmas, I took time out to relax, unwind, and to allow my book’s basic plot to flesh out a little and its main characters to introduce themselves to me. For the first two months of the New Year, I then thoroughly researched some of the key topics and locations that would feature in the book. And finally, at the start of the last week of February, I began writing my first novel, ORIGINS.

Initially, I only told immediate family and close friends that I was writing a book – partly to put an end to questions about job searching and applications, but mostly because I was afraid that, despite my best intentions, I might not be cut out for creative writing, and didn’t want to spread the word too far afield in case my efforts amounted to little more than a few pages of unintelligible gibberish. Fortunately, after penning my first tentative paragraph, my fears were allayed, and I knew that I at least had the ability within me to get the story in my head down on paper. But, better still, I knew that no matter how long it took me I would finish my book – because, despite having completed just a couple of hundred words, I was well and truly hooked. And so began my obsession with writing.

Writing, for me, is a disjointed process. Prior to starting ORIGINS, I’d had a very stereotypical image of authors: sitting in front of their typewriters or computers, tapping away at the keys and, almost magically, producing a perfect, unbroken string of prose and dialogue on the page or screen. That’s not me. I write a sentence or two, go back and change a few words. Write another, change a few more words. Then, maybe, I’ll chop the sentences up and reorder them, or even delete one entirely … I find myself continually drafting and redrafting until I’m one hundred percent happy with the way a paragraph reads, and then I move on to the next one. Obsessive, yes; unconventional, perhaps – but hey, it works for me.

Treating my writing as a full-time job, on average, I clocked up eight to ten hours a day, five or six days a week. Most days I only churned out a couple of pages, some days as many as six – but whatever the day’s page count, they were pages I was happy with and proud to have written.

With only a basic, provisional plot to work from, I let my story carve out its own path, and, little by little, watched it unfold through the eyes of its main characters. And as those characters developed – and I learned more about their lives, their loves, and their fates – I grew increasingly attached to them. Whether I was writing about them, or not, I found myself thinking about them: wondering what joys or perils tomorrow would bestow upon them – and worrying about how they would cope. They became my constant companions … my new extended family … my close friends. So much so that when, reluctantly (for the sake of the plot), I was forced to kill off one of them, their loss, to me, felt every bit as painful and distressing as a real bereavement.

Eight months in, I reached the arbitrary target length, for my book, that I’d set myself when I first began writing it: 300 pages … and my story was still only half-told. I was ecstatic. I’d obsessed about that target (far more than I cared to admit) – worrying I’d run out of ideas or words long before reaching it, and be forced to downsize the novel I so wanted to write, to a novella or, worse still, a short story. Now though, at last, I could stop fretting over how my book would physically stack up to the others on my bookshelves, and spend some quality time with my fictional friends. And I enjoyed every minute of it.

Seven months (and 326 pages) later, with the first draft of ORIGINS finally complete, I bid my new friends a sad, fond farewell, and we went our separate ways. But my obsession with them, and their adventures, was far from done – editing and proofreading allowed me to relive the amazing time we’d spent together, over and over again.

If I’d considered writing an obsessive pursuit, I found editing and proofreading doubly so. Despite having initially been one hundred percent happy with each paragraph I’d penned, on re-reading them I now spotted numerous typos I’d previously missed, plot inconsistencies I would need to rectify, sloppy dialogue that required tightening up … my manuscript was far from polished. So I set about obsessively polishing it – eight to ten hours a day, five or six days a week – trying to make it shine as best I could.

After months of editing, and no fewer than three cover-to-cover proofreads, I had to force myself to stop – afraid that if I didn’t, not only was I going to lose what was left of my sanity, but my book was never going to get published. So, I printed out a copy of my ‘completed’ manuscript and proudly handed it over to a good friend (and avid reader or all things sci-fi) for one final, independent proofread. On its return – many minor edits and corrected typos later – I decided, albeit reluctantly, that my book was now ready for release … only then to be faced with two more obsessive tasks: formatting the book for Kindle, and trying to market it – but those are, perhaps, topics for another post.

If I’m truly honest, writing my first novel caused me to doubt myself and my abilities far more than most of the challenges I’ve faced in my life to date. And I’m certain that, at times, the obsessive nature of the authoring process threatened both my mental and physical wellbeing – I lost over ten pounds whilst working on ORIGINS, and I was far from overweight to begin with. However, writing my book has also been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life so far. It gave me something new and exciting to focus my energy and efforts on, following my redundancy. It introduced me to new realities, new possibilities, and new friends. And it is the single most enjoyable thing I have ever done that, in some people’s eyes, would be classified as ‘work’. I am immensely proud of ORIGINS – and will remain so, even if it only ever sells a handful of copies.

It saddens me that my fictional friends are no longer with me. But I’m writing my second novel now, featuring a couple of the minor characters from ORIGINS. So I have some new friends – and I’m really looking forward to getting to know them a little better.

Posted in Writing | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments