Oct 28, 2014

Psychology of a Writer's Mind

First, let me state that I'm not making any claims about writer instability or anything like that. I'm mostly indulging my own curiosity and looking for input into a question that has been eating me up since the Guardian article ran.

One more disclaimer, I am using the phrase 'negative review' to mean anything critical even though that's not really the way I look at them. It's shorthand, though I think we need a better term.

When we hear about author-on-reviewer misconduct of any kind, the first thing you think(after OMG, is the reviewer okay!?) is:

What in the world was that author THINKING?

So down that rabbit hole I went. I want to understand... well,everything, but especially things I could never see myself doing. (I also am fascinated by serial killer and true crime documentaries... But that's another post.)

Everyone tells authors not to read reviews, which I do understand. Baby writers(and probably writers who are all grown up too) have muses that are like turtles: They retreat into their shells when anything startles or scares them. A muse that's in full-on turtle mode makes it harder to write your next book well. Or in a timely manner. Or at all. So as a muse-prophylactic, not reading your reviews makes excellent sense. 

But personally, I do read my reviews. (At least for now, it doesn't take much time to read them, there aren't that many.) And sometimes while eating chocolate.

I don't do it because I want to hear that I'm awesome (When people say that? I never believe them anyway.).

I don't do this because I can't stand not knowing (Though I do have an epic case of InstantGratification-itis, and basically want to know/do/be everything right NOW.).

I do it because I want to improve my craft.

Not so much the way I write. Not structure, or really anything to do with the mechanics of writing. I do it because I want to know what story elements, plots, and characters resonate the most with people who read my genre(category romance, medical series).

I fully accept that my books are a product. And without writing another whole post on why I don't think it's selling out to say this: I want to give the customer what they want. Or at least understand so I can make that coincide with my own desires to give others that happy sigh at the end of a book.

But even though I like to think I have a pretty good understanding of reader expectations, I'm probably more like 80/20 than 100% on the understanding. Reviews, especially negative reviews, offer insight and help me become not just a better writer, but to build the career I want to have.

So that's my goal when I read my own reviews. And it probably matters that I go into reading them with that mindset(Years of art school taught me how to take a critique too, but that is yet another post).

But I'm still stuck on: What was that(or that, or THAT...) author thinking!?

And more specifically: What in that particular review started them down the yellow brick road to Crazytown?

Obviously, in the case of Kathleen Hale, one review stuck with her(that book has loads of 1star reviews, and only one reviewer was terrorized that we know of). So it must have triggered some kind of emotional response. That's not Miss Harris's fault or responsibility, but something about her words earwigged into Hale's brain, and I want to understand. Not to excuse--I'm still horrified by the situation--but just to comprehend the thought processes on that downward spiral.

As I only have myself to compare with(and I've never hunted down a reviewer... that I know of o.O) , the questions I asked myself when pursuing that elusive understanding:
  • What negative review stung the most?
  • What ones didn't bother me? 
  • When I was bothered, how exactly did the review bother?
  • What made the difference between this 2-star review and that 2-star review...
The conclusion I've come to?
Negative reviews that actually stung, were the reviews that 
said something I secretly agreed with/feared...

So that's my Q to other authors out there. With negative reviews you've gotten, have there been equally written/snarky negative reviews that didn't bother you, but the one that did said something true about your book/writing/whatever that you just really don't want to think about in order to keep your muse turtle-free?


Other theories are welcome too. This reasoning might just be particular to my own special neuroses.


  1. I am not a published author (but I will be one day!) but I can say that when I'm reading the reviews of an author's books, the ones that I genuinely loathe, are those that say nothing constructive about about the book in question. I don't mean that they need to say something positive, I just mean that they should say something constructive, even if it's all negative.

    Does that make sense?

    I think that even harsh reviews, if concise and well thought out, can be helpful in some way. The ones that say things like 'I didn't like the main character. She annoyed me and did stupid things, and who actually eats cheetos with peanut butter anyway? Lame. One star.' are the reviews that I can't stand. They serve no functional purpose - even in condemning the book, as they fail to legitimately condemn it for any particular reason - and thus, I hate them.

    1. It does make sense.

      I think I am that way when I'm reading reviews for someone else's work. I get THE CRANKY when it's just mean for the sake of being mean. But when I get those comments myself, I can discard them easily. Not that I've had any really mean ones... but the ones I don't see merit in are easy to forget. I can put that down to different strokes, or put down to skimming and missing info...

      It's the ones that I agree with that end up being the gut punches.

      Doesn't make much sense, does it? On one hand I'm like... I'm self-confident enough to ignore the ones I know are crap... And then on the other it's like having my negative thoughts validated are the ones that stick with me and cause those chocolate-demanding anxiety flares.

      And just to be clear, I have never sold a book that I didn't love At. The. Time. But hindsight? Changes the way I view my own work...

  2. Prefacing all this with "I often read reviews and I feel people have the right to write whatever reviews they want", I'll bite.

    Definitely the ones I secretly fear are true (or in some cases wholeheartedly agree with after the fact) hurt more than most of the ones I completely disagree with. Sometimes when I disagree with someone's opinion, I'll click on their profile to see their favorite books and it'susually validating because they'll often have a completely different favorites list than I do.

    Super-snarky GIF laden ones hurt more, like how someone totally going off on your clothes or your in-class presentation or you tennis serve hurts worse than someone just saying "I don't like empire waistlines" or "Maybe you need to learn some topspin."

    I have reviews where I feel like reviewers have excerpted things out of context to paint my book as anti-feminist, racist, or derogatory toward people who live alternative lifestyles--those reviews hurt me a lot even though I don't fear they're true at all, because I have to choose between accepting that my writing made a reviewer honestly think that, or that reviewers know better and are painting my book in that way to hurt it/me on purpose. I'm not sure which of those is worst honestly :/

    Finally, I had one review that was so scornful and dismissive of me as a person that it basically made me feel like I was back in high school and the "cool kids" (who for me were the burnouts and punk rockers) were telling me that I wasn't good enough to write about them and how dare I reference their music or clothing or tattoos because no matter how hard I tried I would never be anything but a poseur. Note: this isn't what it said, though it did heavily imply many of those things, but this is how I felt. So yeah, reviews that attack me as a person sometimes get to me, even though my logical brain is like "You are not your main character. This reviewer does not know you and therefore cannot judge you."

    I read reviews to strengthen my craft, for marketing purposes (if I see a big blogger liked my book, that's someone I'll approach for a guest post or giveaway), and really early ARC reviews in case someone catches a plot hole that got missed. There are points when I'm not tough enough to take criticism, and during those times I don't read reviews at all. Hope that helps.

    1. I completely agree, everyone has the right to write whatever they feel in a review. If their emotions are screaming happy at them, write happy. If they're screaming that the book needs some fire applied to it, then that should go into the review too. But I'm still curious about the kind of reviews that affect the author the most. (And kind of relieved that the ones you agree with are more sting-y)

      I've never had one of the animated gif reviews. And I haven't really had one of those that paint the story in a negative and inaccurate light. I can see how that would bother you a lot. It would really upset me to think that someone might be offended and hurt by ideas in my books. Like, I grew up in and live in Appalachia. I make kooky hillbilly jokes all the time(and I think I can get away with it because it's tongue-in-cheek and said with fondness), but if someone used those jokes to actually paint the area in a bad light... or make people think that I actually support that false interpretation, I can see how that would be upsetting. And it's not about the writing at all. It becomes about who you are as a person, and the kind of person you want to be.

      Kinda like the personal ones you talk about. That's just rude...

      I think we're mostly on the same page(though I'm thinking you've had a lot more reviews than I have, so you have more data to draw from!). Thank you for your thoughts.

      I always want to understand. Everything. Especially what is foreign to me. And I guess that's kind of rooted in a hope that I'm not as weird as I think(or I know) I am :)

  3. I can so relate to your need to understand why people do what they do. In my opinion, some people (and sadly some are authors) fall under the category of having "mental issues".

    These people don't have the ability to react in a civilized manner, no matter what they are doing, or where they are. Sure, they may have a valid point, but unless they can learn to deliver the message properly, I don't listen.

    Imagine a person in a restaurant screaming. "My food's cold. Why is my food cold? Is the cook taking a break when he's supposed to be fixing my burrito?"

    That person, for whatever reason never learned to say, "I'm sorry, this is cold. Would you mind asking the cook to heat it for me?"

    The delivery of the message speaks to the mindset of the deliverer, not the recipient.

    Read the review to find a message that is valuable to YOU. If there isn't one, then move on.

    FYI My one published story has only received 4 star reviews. If I ever get a 1 star, and I'm sure if I write long enough I'll get one, then my humble opinion may change. I could go Bad A$$ and ninja someone. :)

    1. That's pretty much my motto, read to find the message that is valuable and discard the rest. (Just so happens that the one review that stuck with me I saw way too much value in for a Perfectionist Wackadoo like me :)


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