Weathering Reviews and Taking Criticism

As a kid, I read a ton (a TON) of horse stories. It's a genre that I don't believe will ever go out of style, so I'm happy to have Jennifer Lyne here to post at The Bookshelf Muse. Her new book, Catch Rider, has recently been released, and she's here to talk about reviews and criticism—a topic she's well versed to discuss due to her experience as a writer and producer.

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The idea that we writers are supposed to be perceptive and empathetic, yet also have hides like iguanas, has never made any sense to me. We’re trying to tell stories to entertain people, and when they attack us for it, it feels like failure. This is becoming more of an issue since everyone with internet access can post a review, and every writer can find that review after ten seconds of Googling.

When my first film came out, we got a great review in the Village Voice, and we were the happiest filmmakers in the world. Then Time Out wrote a vicious review, and I felt like I was going to die of humiliation. Not only was it devastating, it was infuriating, because they didn’t appreciate what we were trying to do or what we’d accomplished. After that experience, I made the conscious decision to not let someone else’s pen, or their bad mood, or their good mood, or their level of understanding or appreciation of what I’d done determine how I felt about my own work. That lasted until my second film, Loudmouth Soup. When, ironically, the Village Voice tore into my cast, I felt like a protective producer and actually wrote them a letter (which they printed), reminding them how experienced my actors are. Although I came out of it okay, and I really love the movie the way it is, it made me think of that old, unattributable quote, “Never pick a fight with a man who buys ink by the barrel.”

The lesson I learned from both experiences is that if you get a nasty, unhelpful review, don’t read it more than once. Neither of my films is for everyone – they’re both visceral and gritty - and some people will never want to watch them. Just read the good reviews over and over until you’re convinced that you’re Orson Wells and write another one! There is one thing that we need in place before we sit down and write, and that is some self-delusion.

Three years ago, I spent a morning talking to one of my idols, an iconic Hollywood screenwriter, at his house in Los Angeles. I was waiting for him to tell me some kind of secret, to reveal some strength or genius that I’d remember forever. But he said that after one of his films, he was terribly depressed because of the negative critical reaction. I started laughing. I actually put my head in my hands. “I’m serious!” he scolded. I could tell that he still hadn’t gotten over it.

Photo Credit: LMRitchie at WANA Commons
So here are my personal rules about reviews: If I think the reader/critic didn’t understand what I was trying to do, I forget about it immediately. If I think they did, and they thought I failed, I think about why, file it away, and move on.

On the other hand, the most valuable thing a writer can get is good feedback on a work-in-progress from a friend or another writer. When you’re starting out, this is very hard. Your work is at its weakest, and you need the criticism the most. It’s a combustible proposition, asking a friend to read your work and give you feedback, and it’s something we all struggle with, at all levels.

I was thinking about this topic today, and I asked my writer/producer/director husband and our friend, a TV writer/producer (who just created the top rated show on a major cable channel!) for their advice for giving and getting criticism. Is it – as I believe – to help people do what they are trying to do without weighing in on the content? The TV producer immediately said that he’d been having this problem with executives. They’ll want to fire a director or re-edit a show, but they won’t be able to say why. Or they’ll make general negative comments about something, but when pressed, they can't back it up. It’s clear that this is the biggest day-to-day problem he faces – dealing with people who don’t know how to give specific, helpful feedback to the writers and directors.

It would help if the person giving feedback knew the goal of a project; is it a short story you want to get published? If so, where? Is it a script you want to make yourself, or submit to a studio, or use as a writing sample? Is it a novel you want to use to get an agent, or get into an MFA program? You’re not asking for someone’s opinion on your skill as a writer – you’re asking them to help you make the story more effective. My husband’s two cents is that often people will tell him how they would tell the story if it were their story. But it isn’t. Every writer has a unique point of view. You are expressing your point of view, and others should help you say what you want to say.

So how do you solicit badly needed advice? Develop a list of people in your life who “know how to give criticism.” I have my list; I know who understands how to give criticism in a positive and supportive way that helps me become a better writer. Writing is hard work, and you are exposing yourself so much; the last thing you need is anyone discouraging you from doing it. You can do that to yourself!

Remember, above all, that every writer, no matter how successful they are, has to accept criticism every time they hand their work over to someone else. It doesn’t matter who it is; whether they just won the National Book Award or an Academy Award or have a bestseller, they’re terrified to get feedback from first readers. Choose your readers carefully, and then listen, really listen, to what they have to say.



Jennifer H. Lyne grew up in Richmond Virginia, riding horses. She took a job after college in a livery barn in Hot Springs, Virginia, and eventually managed the lesson and boarding barn at the Homestead Resort. At 23, she decided to sell her horses and her Jeep and and move to Manhattan’s East Village, where she eventually location-scouted on more than fourteen feature films in New York City. Jennifer is co-founder of Sharpshooter Pictures, a video content production company, and has written and produced two feature films. She lives in New York City with her husband and their two sons. Catch Rider is her first novel.

25 comments:

Huntress, aka CD Coffelt said...

This reminds me of the story about Clint Eastwood. When he started his acting career, he was told that he talked too slowly and his Adam's apple was too big.

Strangely he didn't quit.
CD Coffelt ponders at Spirit Called
And critiques at UnicornBell

JeffO said...

Excellent advice. And hold on to those critiquers, too; they're worth their weight in gold.

Lisa Gail Green said...

I LOVE this line: "Just read the good reviews over and over until you’re convinced that you’re Orson Wells and write another one!" Ha ha! Awesome advice.

Madam Sharpshooter said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Madam Sharpshooter said...

Those critiquers are, indeed, worth their weight in gold. You don't need many - maybe five or so - and make sure you return the favor when they need it.

Sometimes the best notes in the margins are things like "unclear" or "tell me more" or "nice!" And sometimes the hardest things to figure out as a writer are mechanical things like time, pronouns, etc. I struggle with time, and my editor and copy editor made a lot of notes like this: "When is this? You just said it was morning but now the sun is setting." Or "Who said that?" Often the best note in the margin is a simple check mark. - Jennifer

Natalie Aguirre said...

Loved the advice to read a bad review only once but the good ones over and over again. This is great advice on how to deal with reviews. Thanks so much for your perspective with both films and now books. Good luck with your book.

Angela Ackerman said...

This is great advice. I know many people say they don't read reviews, but I wonder about that. I think most of us do. The bad ones hurt, but I have been critiquing so long that I am able to let go of them very quickly. When it comes to the ET, as you suggest, I dismiss the ones who don't get it. These ones are clear by the comments that they don't understand it is a brainstorming tool when they were looking for something else. The ones who have other criticisms, I analyze to see if they have merit, because at the end of the day for me it is about providing the most helpful products I can. I don't shy from criticism. If there's something there that helps me strengthen a book, or keep in mind for future books, I'll file it away.

If the criticism is rude and unhelpful, I ignore them. These people are just about the sound of their own voice when they don't respect the writer or their work. Whether a person likes something or not, they should always respect the writer and their effort. There's way to deliver criticism and still be diplomatic.

Thanks for your visit, Jennifer!

cleemckenziebooks said...

Here's a review I keep posted over my desk. It helps sometimes.

"Brahms evidently lacks the breadth and power of invention eminently necessary for the production of truly great symphonic work." Musical Courier, 1887

Becca Puglisi said...

I'm not hugely effected by reviews. If someone doesn't like my book, that's fine. From the reviews I've seen, they're in the minority. What bothers me is when people leave bad reviews when they just didn't get the book. I've been the reader in that scenario. Sometimes a story just doesn't resonate with me; I know there's nothing wrong with the story and it just wasn't the right one for me. In those cases, I don't leave reviews. I wish that everyone could take that into consideration because it's frustrating to receive a negative review from someone who clearly didn't get the point of your story.

This is why I love the advice to read the unhelpful reviews once, then let them go. It does no good to obsess over someone's negative comments when they can't help you in any way. Great advice :).

M Pax said...

I keep all of my fan mail and read it when I need to. These days I tend to try not to read reviews anymore.

Most of them don't even read what they're reviewing. So, I found it's best for my sanity and my husband's to stay away.

Angela Brown said...

I'm not sure what to feel regarding reviews these days. I want them for my book but I fear getting tons of great reviews could hurt just as too many bad ones could hurt. Then lots of bad ones could help in making people curious about what's so "bad" about it.

So back to square one about how to even feel about them.

Johanna Garth said...

Great advice. I try to skim bad reviews to see if they're constructive. If they are I'll read them again, if not I write them off to the person just not getting what I'm writing AND that's okay because I'm not writing for everyone. Some people will love it and some people will hate it. I've kinda, sorta, hopefully, made my peace with that.

Shelley Munro said...

This is such great advice. We have to remember we're never going to please everyone and just do the best job we can with OUR vision.

Madam Sharpshooter said...

Most people are familiar with Teddy Roosevelt's Man in the Arena quote, to the point that it's lost some of it's power. It shouldn't. I first saw it when I was working for Barry Diller. It's in a frame in his very spare Los Angeles office, in a prominent place. He's not really a creative person (Mr. Burns was, indeed, based on him!) but he is rather fearless and does not let other people define him.

When you're feeling beaten up, re-read that quote.

- Jennifer

shirley richey said...

I have the most wonderful Critique group in the world! We started out together, taking a Creative Writing class. Together we learned to appreciate and understand each other's strengths and weaknesses and writing style. We learned the proper way of giving and accepting critisism. Their kindness, honesty, and their sincere desire to help each other succeed is what keeps me writing. They're uber patient with all my English-as-a-second-language mistakes. When the writing blues pay me a visit, which is often, or the writer's block sets in, I have them to bolster me. If I ever get published it will be in great part because of them. Thank you for reminding me how lucky I am!

2unpublishedgirls.com said...

I find it best when I read a critique of my work to let it sit in my head for a few days and then tackle the issue or ignore it. -RB Austin

Diane Carlisle said...

The more my writing improves, the more I appreciate the really good feedback. But, I've also learned to recognize when feedback isn't really feedback, just purely an elitist's ego in over-drive.

:)

You sound like you're filtering correctly.

Rosi said...

Terrific post. Thanks.

Daveler said...

My problem is that I often don't get why they find something so important, and I have a hard time asking them why without it sounding like I'm disagreeing with them. There are a lot of times where I really don't see what is wrong with it (usually how I phrased a sentence), but I believe that they really do have a reason that would be useful to me once I get it.

I once had three different people each select the same exact phrase and change it in different ways. I took the feedback to other people and then asked them what they thought the critics thought was wrong with it. No one liked the way the sentence was put (I, though enjoying it, didn't have a particular investment in it), yet they all disagreed as to WHY they didn't like it. Some people loved what other people hated.

My problem with feedback is I get fixated on it because I don't know what the issue they were trying to solve was, and then I feel like I won't be able to recognize it on my own. While, of course, I get offended by negative feedback, the reason I can't let it go is because I want to come to some sort of epiphany as to how to prevent that reaction in the future. I can't stop questioning it.

Dean Mayes said...

I have fallen into the trap of fretting over the bad reviews I have received but I am getting better at filing them away.

I now look for those indicators of whether the reviewer has understood what I was trying to achieve or whether it was a simple take down

This post reinforces the attitude I am now taking towards reviews is the right one.

vozey said...

I'm finding it hard to find reviewers. I'm suspecting that I probably won't find those additional reviewers I need online.

On the other hand, several times I've gone into details in a review of another's work, and they just didn't care or appreciate it. Guess some people want a simple like it or don't like it. I want to know, and tell, why it is not liked or is liked.

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Cynthia Chapman Willis said...

Wonderful advice and a great post. No film or novel is going to please everyone, but negative reviews can be tough. It's important that a writer create from the heart, I think, and not let anything hinder that. On the other hand, much can be learned from an insightful review.

Sharon K. Mayhew said...

Super post! Feedback is important, but you have to "know" where the comments are coming from. I try to have critique partners that I believe are stronger writers than I am. Even then, something going on in their lives might affect the feedback they give you. This is why you should have multiple partners...

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