Monthly Archives: May 2015

How to Cope with Bad Reviews

ImageBad reviews tend to bother new writers more than they do old hands.

When that first stinker slams through the shiny wall of good reviews, fledgling writers tend to get down in the dumps. Some reach for the bottle. Others threaten never to write again.

The truth is that hardly anyone escapes mean-spirited, opinionated and downright nasty reviews. They seem to come out of left field when least expected. What’s worse, they appear to get things wrong — to be fundamentally unfair to the work.

My advice to writers feeling this pain is to determine whether the review is pointing to something that needs fixing, or whether it is skewered and willfully misleading.

This is no easy task. One needs to take a step back and calmly and objectively analyse the review. Once you have extracted the truth, record useful comments down in a notebook under a heading such as Things That Need Improving — for example: tighter control of theme, more authentic characters, a more distinctive voice, and what not.

Throw the reviews that are intended to crush your spirit into the trashcan where they belong, but be careful not to mistake those with an overly defensive, head-in-the-sand attitude. It takes courage, determination and a steady hand to fish out the nuggets of truth that may be lurking under the sea of negative comments.

Remind yourself that even the most popular and respected authors have garnered bad reviews.

I’ve recently reread Paul Harding’s exquisite 2010 Pulitzer winning novel, Tinkers, and was surprised to find it had garnered a high ratio of 1 and 2 star reviews on Amazon. Although not everyone’s cup of tea, the novel is one of the most emotive evocations of old age, the act of dying, and memory I have ever read. It is the sort of writing that stays with one forever.

Writers should take strength from that: If a Pulitzer winning novel of such power and magnitude has so many detractors, who are we to moan about ours?


Salvage what is useful from a bad review and discard the rest.

You say to-may-to, I say to-mah-to — agree to disagree.

To-may-to? To-mah-to? Let’s agree to disagree.

A friend of mine recently expressed concern about a new novel he’d written—a tongue-in-cheek political satire that irreverently explored political correctness.

Did it not run the risk of being branded as too conservative, he wanted to know? This got me thinking about to-mah-tos and to-may-tos.

We live in a time of cultural, spiritual, and racial upheaval, a time where the received wisdom is being questioned by an increasing exposure to alternative beliefs and practices, fostered by social media and specialist studies championed by institutes and universities.

Religion, gender, ethnicity, the environment, are all hotly debated, and even divisive, topics. Language, too, is changing. Words no longer seem to mean what they once did and are being dropped from the common lexicon.

“Let’s agree to disagree, shall we?”

Championing one side often results in disdain from the other. Name-calling, or stereotyping, is the order of the day. Once branded, it is difficult to get rid of the mark, regardless whether it is justified or not. The idea of no-smoke-without-fire seems to hold sway. It would appear far safer to have no opinion at all than to risk soliciting the wrath of the opposition.

Yet, as writers, we don’t have a choice but to adopt a point of view. Our stories are filled with characters who stand for something. The endings we craft betray our themes and concerns. Besides, our beliefs and preferences will emerge whether we like it or not.

So, how do we avoid the misunderstanding and prejudice that our point of view may solicit?

There are many answers to this question, supported by ample research and competing opinions, but let me give you mine — the short version: We treat opposing views with dignity and respect, or failing that, with good humour, and we demand the same in return.

Which reminds me, do you have to-mah-to or to-may-to with that cheese and ham sandwich? It’s six of one, half a dozen of the other to me.


As writers we can to agree to disagree, but we should do so respectfully.

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Don’t Talk to the Hand!


Don’t talk to the hand:

Dialogue, in books and movies, sometimes gets a bad rap.

We often hear that we should show and not tell. That our dialogue is too on-the-nose. That we should say it with sub-text. Do it through action.

I’ve certainly leveled those criticisms at my students, and at myself, often enough.

Yet, dialogue is often the most efficient and powerful way to cut to the chase when defining character, stating intent, mapping philosophical or moral terrain.

Some of the most memorable moments in stories come from great lines of dialogue:

“Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn!” Rhett Butler ~ Gone with the Wind.

“Time to die.” Roy Batty ~ Blade Runner.

“You can’t have organized crime without law and order.” Don Falcone ~ Gotham.

“I’ll be back!” Terminator ~ The Terminator.

“Here’s Johnny!” Jack Torrance ~ The Shining.

These lines, and countless others like them, instantly recall the characters and stories they came from. They encapsulate some essential aspect of the story. They act as hangers upon which we hang major parts of the tale. Without them stories would be poorer and less memorable.

In my classes on storytelling I advise new writers to seek out several iconic lines that best sum up the nitty-gritty of their stories, from the get-go. This not only encourages students to think deeply about the motivation of their characters, but about how this motivation lies at the heart of all great stories, too.

Hasta la vista, baby.


Include memorable dialogue in your stories.


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Image: David Goehring