Now before you click away this isn’t going to be some post about how I don’t give a shit, nor is it going to be me sobbing and looking for validation.
No this post is going to be about how I learned to measure my response to disappointing reviews and ratings. Spoiler alert; the answer is experience and time.
I check the goodreads and amazon pages for my novel with rarity. Reviews aren’t really for me. They’re by readers for readers. Every now and then though curiosity wriggles in and I head off to check, 9 reviews a piece now – 4.6 star rating overall. Which is not bad.
The other day curiosity niggled at me and I checked. There it was, in the goldy yellow of the amazon ratings bars.
The first one star rating of The Chronicles of Silverdeer.
Anyone who says they don’t get the flicker of panic and disappointment when they see that 1 star is lying. Even the toughest of us, the ones of us who constantly go against the grain feel it. It hurts, it wounds. It usually hurts more if words accompany a rating. Just a rating makes you ask why – words probably tell you and force you to face a lot of things your inner critic might have already said to you.
Luckily I’m no stranger to a bad review.
I first started posting my work online, god, I might have been 14. I was the nerd that was on the internet all the time. I had websites, I was on message boards, I had blogs and I knew HTML. Despite being in the fandom sphere I don’t think I had much of a foray into fanfiction. I read it and I engaged in some fandom stuff but most of the writing I posted was original work.
My first foray into fanfiction was a disaster. I wrote 2 terrible chapters, got a few reviews saying they wanted to see more (as is often the case on fanfic sites), intended to write many more chapters and then made the mistake of googling my username and the fic title. My heart dropped into my throat. Someone was mocking not only the idea but the title. This was real mean. It was a gut punch and that day I just put everything to bed and decided that I could read these stories but writing them, writing them I had to do in secret notebooks buried under my bed.
Years later I ended up on tumblr – I think through twitter – my tumblr was a fangirls dream. It was full of edited images and videos and fun interviews. Eventually I made my way to writing on there and that led me back to fanfic.net. With people telling me they enjoyed my things on tumblr I decided to start posting again. Original Characters – at the time, doesn’t seem to be the case so much now – were the absolute worst thing you could write in fanfiction. Much better to write about two canon characters (especially males) fucking, than bring in a character of your own creation.
If I’d have known the minefield I was about to step into I might not have. In fact I might have run the other way. Fans, especially those whose dedication goes beyond the odd piece of merch and to cosplaying/fanfic/RPG levels can be volatile. Generally speaking it’s not malicious in intent, it’s just passion. It’s just passion because you care about this fictional world and the characters who reside in it and when it looks like someone is getting something wrong, you suddenly turn into Alan Partridge.
Did I say you? I meant them, definitely them. I never cared so much about a fictional character that I actively criticised fellow people writing them because my version was correct. Never. Never ever…… okay maybe once, or twice….
I mostly remember the praise. There were a lot of people who enjoyed my writing, who enjoyed the character and story I’d created. They were of course terrible in terms of structure, spelling, grammar and even to some degree character creation. The ideas behind them were solid though.
I started to write fanfiction for pretty much every new piece of fiction I became obsessed with, and some old longstanding ones. Novel length pieces, filled with romance and adventures with original characters (crafted specifically to not be Mary Sue – after a bad experience). I couldn’t avoid the flamers, the negative reviews, or the critical ones forever though.
I had what they called flamers – mostly trolls who take a dislike to you or your work, or generally are just out to make someone feel bad and comment on your fics with ‘trash’, ‘leave the site’, ‘this is the worst’. Those made me angry, reactive, definitely defensive.
I had people shouting at me because they were fans of another ship, people annoyed because I hadn’t taken the story in a direction they wanted, annoyed because I chose canon over fanon. People who didn’t like my writing for the simple act of creating a character for the universes.
Bizarrely I even had one person go on a tirade against a character. As in they were shouting at a character and not in a ‘don’t go in there type of way’.
I also got crucial and critical feedback though. I got people pointing out problems, mentioning over and over spelling and grammar problems.
Initially I reacted to all of these the same. Defensively.
Despite all of the above I joined the RPG community on tumblr and found that things weren’t much different there. If people didn’t like the portrayal of a canon character and that caught fire, you could be alienated from communities of people you just wanted to write with. – There was also an epidemic of male RPGers trying to coerce what were mainly female rpgers into writing explicit threads with them but that’s another post entirely.
Four or five years into the game I still reacted to most critical/bad reviews with anger, with defensiveness. I didn’t stop to think what the people commenting were actually trying to tell me. How it might actually improve my craft. These people were taking the time out to say, hey this story is great but it needs work and I couldn’t see that.
Then in a quiet fandom, I was writing a multi-chaptered fic when a user made some comments about aspects being unbelievable. My initial reaction was angry and defensive. I replied quickly. The whole thing is unbelievable damnit, it’s not supposed to be realistic. – What they meant was it didn’t track with the story and world that had been set up. I was seething – because when I’m hurt I don’t get sad I get angry.
I don’t know what happened that night but something clicked.
By morning I realised that this person, and those before them, were trying to help me. They weren’t attacking me, they were giving feedback which I’d already said I welcomed. It really hit home to me that day as I read back over the comments that there is a big difference between helpful, honest feedback and empty feedback (which a lot of the good reviews were). I apologised to the user and even asked her for advice which I’m sure was incredibly useful.
When I got that one star review the other day I went through a series of emotions and thoughts;
Firstly I wondered who I’d pissed off – I had to give myself a mental slap here because that assumes only the people who know me, follow me on social media, or have seen me in passing have read the book. It also assumes and this is the big one malicious intent. A personal attack on me.
Secondly I wondered what I’d done wrong. I immediately started looking for solutions. There was no review left with the rating so I was left to explore the why questions. Did I need to rewrite the whole thing? Maybe I should? Maybe they just hated chunks, maybe those chunks were the exact ones I’d been uncertain of? Had I left a typo in the first pages? Had I said something massively offensive without realising.
Thirdly I wondered if I could track down who had left that 1 star rating. You can’t, obviously with reviews people leave a name but with ratings there’s no tracking. If it was someone I knew I could ask them why they hated it….. if it was someone I knew who already hated me well….
Then I realised how ridiculous I was being.
The fact is – yes it could be someone I’ve annoyed, it could have been done with malicious intent. It could be they disagreed with me on description, didn’t like my style or didn’t find the story intriguing. It could have been any of those things or it could just be nothing. It could be they just weren’t feeling it. The fact is, that rating came without review or comment and it makes it slightly empty and hollow. It makes it as hollow as ‘Brilliant’ or ‘Terrible’.
Reviews take time, they take energy, they take crafting. Ratings take the click of a button. Reviews show that you’ve been moved one way or another. That you care, not necessarily about the book (especially if you hated it), but about other people reading it. Bad reviews are generally meant to give feedback and dissuade others from falling trap to the thing in question.
So that 1 star rating could be a flame – because I can be very controversial, I’m not afraid to fight for what I believe in and I also share a lot online. I’m very much like marmite and tend to be a bit polarising.
That 1 star though could just be nothing, nothing fixable anyway. Sometimes people just don’t like what you do. Sometimes people give you 1 star. It’s not personal, it’s not anything really. It just is what it is.
When we see a 1 star rating or a bad review, we should take note, acknowledge, feel the twinge of disappointment but then we should appreciate it. We should appreciate the fact we made someone feel so strongly they rated it, because there are people who read and don’t rate.
If there is a critical review we should read, we should step away from it and come back the next day. We take what we need from it and then we move on. Continue writing, reading, creating, designing.
I’m not going to sit here and tell you ratings and reviews aren’t personal, because sometimes they are and a lot of the time they feel that way. You only have to scour any review site to see that.
I’m not going to sit here and tell you they don’t matter. They do matter, especially to indie authors, to small businesses, for algorithm reasons.
What I am going to tell you though is there are (according to google) 4.66 billion internet users worldwide and any single one of them could have left that rating. Anyone of them could have stumbled onto that book and for a never-ending list of reasons given it 1 star. We’ll never know who it is, and we’ll never know why and that’s perfectly okay.
Experience and time is how you get to a level of acceptance about ratings, and reviews. The more you throw yourself out there the more feedback you get and the better equipped you are to deal with disappointments. What I’ve learnt in the fifteen plus years I’ve been throwing writing up on the internet is that we shouldn’t fear the 1 stars, we should embrace them. We should look them in the eye and say – okay, thank you for reading.