Before there were writers, there were storytellers. People who wove tales around the campfire while their audiences gasped. In the days before television, movies, smart phones, and the internet, the storytellers were entertainment. Talk about a lofty responsibility! Imagine if everyone in your community depended on you to come up with something brilliant each evening to whisk them away from their daily struggles.
Every single writer is a descendant of that tradition.
I wasn’t born in the Middle Ages, but I’m willing to bet the most successful storytellers took their cues from the audience. They would quickly learn what types of stories were the most popular, what made people laugh, what made them cry. The best of the best would leave their audiences spellbound and desperate for more, and they did that by paying attention.
These days, we’re told to do the opposite. Negative review? Someone had a bad day or he’s a troll; don’t listen to him. Didn’t win the award or get in the anthology? It’s nepotism, don’t you know? And those judges have no taste. Writing teacher says your plots fall a bit flat? Clearly she’s not a writer–if she was, she’d be writing, not teaching. And on it goes.
But most of us do pay attention to our bad reviews, and we take them to heart, and for a little while, the self-doubt crushes us. Am I really good enough? What makes me think my stories are worthy? And then we feel even worse for letting the negative review get to us because that guy’s a troll–what does he know?
Being a writer is like living through a tempest in a teapot. One day a horrible review, the next someone says you’re her favourite author. One day a rejection, the next someone admires you enough to want to collaborate on their next project. Back and forth, to and fro, it never ends.
I’ve heard (and read) a lot of authors say we can’t pay any attention to this stuff, that if we’re influenced by the good feedback, we’ll be equally influenced by the bad. That what matters is the craft, the story, nothing else. But is that true? I don’t know many writers who are satisfied with creating in a vacuum. Most of us, though we may be terrified, want to share our writing with others, want to move people or make them think or entertain them, whisk them away from their daily struggles. It’s what being a storyteller is all about. Being a writer is a constant quest for excellence that is never realized–we can always improve, we can always strive to be just a bit better than our last work.
How on earth are you supposed to avoid being affected by this stuff? Do the authors who spew this advice wear a negativity-proof suit of armour I’m not aware of? Maybe you can numb yourself to the slings and arrows after awhile, but do you ever not notice them hitting you? If you can honestly say none of this stuff ever gets to you, please tell me how you manage it. I’d love to know.
A lot of bad reviews are nothing more than someone venting their vitriol for god knows what reason, and that’s not helpful. But it’s also not helpful to feel guilty if said vitriol makes you feel like shit for a while, or if a kind word puts you on top of the world. Storytellers have a long legacy of listening to their audience. The ones who paid attention survived to tell more stories. The ones who turned their backs on the crowd did not.
As for me, I’m going to stop telling my fellow writers to shrug off their bad reviews and ignore them like they mean nothing. They do mean something. They mean someone, for whatever reason, hated our work. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with feeling badly about that for a little while. I would argue that it’s natural to feel badly about that.
So feel bad. Or feel amazing when something good happens (and it will). But then dust yourself off and tell an even better story. For we were meant to tell stories. That’s what we do.
Painting credit: The Storyteller by Martin Pate
The first two books in my GhostWriters series, City of Ghosts and The Girl Who Talks to Ghosts, will both be released on May 16th. If you haven’t already signed up for my Thunderclap campaign, it’s super easy and I’d really appreciate your support.