Go Home: When to Soldier On

As a regular on a certain forum (I don’t want to mention which one for fear of unduly hurting another author – you’ll understand why very soon), I recently stumbled across a thread at first devoted to mocking a specific indie author’s book, then expanding to bashing self-published books in general and targeting specific other authors. All of this contributed to some very confused feelings on my part. I admit with some shame to having participated in such threads about musicians and filmmakers before, but being on the other side this time made me realize just how much of it comes across as sour grapes, especially from certain writers in the thread that acted like they were above such writing.

So I learned a valuable lesson about being mean-spirited, and I’ll talk some about that some day, but my main focus lie more in the criticisms themselves. Sure, the book could have used some work. Sure, it’s the kind of thing that in the old days likely would have either been more polished or fallen by the wayside in the writer’s pursuit of something that would be picked up in the traditional publishing model. But here’s the thing: the woman has talent. Most of the issues that got nitpicked were issues that I think a lot of us end up struggling with in our formative years: liberal use of adverbs, flowery adjectives, not really thinking through some of the plot contrivances to the end, and some wonky sentence structure. In short, all things that can be taught or learned through trial and error. The biggest difference, of course, is that her shortcomings have gone on display for the whole world, rather than being stored in a trunk somewhere.

This is where I really am of two minds. As mean-spirited as some of the comments may have been (and believe me, they were), they could have provided valuable feedback for her. In some ways, it’s the criticism that some of us hope for, giving her a lot of things to specifically target in our works. On the other hand, again, so much of it was mean-spirited that you hope it doesn’t discourage her long-term. Some people literally said that she didn’t have any talent and that she should pursue other works, which isn’t fair at all – she had some great ideas, she just needed some work.

What this comes down to, for me, is whether the mean comments warrant the helpful feedback. If I were in her shoes, I’m not sure how I would feel. I know that I would try to take the good from the bad, but it would be very hard not to feel discouraged. Self-publishing is already a tough road, with lots of encouragement to quite along the way. Something like that could feel devastating if you weren’t already very set in wanting to write, no matter what. I hope that she continues to soldier on, though, and grows from the experience.

That brings me to another issue: the lack of respect that so many self-publishers receive. I mean, I get it. If you haven’t been in touch with the publishing industry in the last few years, I can see how the self-pubbed route seems like the easy road out, the last refuge of those who have no talent and want to push out what they can in the name of vanity. To be fair, some work is exactly that. But I think that someone who goes with that attitude also misses out on some great work that is coming out of the indie publishing scene.

It’s cliché, but yes, haters gonna hate. There will always be someone waiting to tear you (or your overall approach) down. In my down moments, I dwell on that fact and feel like I’m obviously just not good enough, and it’s best for everyone involved if I just back away. Thankfully, those moods don’t last for long, and I’m soon back to writing and doing what I do best. It’s easy to tell others to do the same – to keep their chin up and don’t let the dark days last for long, so I’m not going to do that. Instead, I’d just like to say that we’re all on different phases of this journey, and the only real “competition” we face is from within. A big percentage of becoming successful at anything is beating back those voices and realizing that you have worth. That’s what we all need sometimes, and I thank God that there are other writers out there in my dark times, who offer a pat on the back and a few words to keep going.

So what I would say to that woman is to hang in there, even if the haters are circling. Ignore their judgments of your overall skill and sooner or later, they’ll lose interest. When they’re gone, you’ll be left with the nuggets of good information to pick up and improve your craft. That is where the real iron of our souls is forged.

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  1. Hi

    I really enjoyed this post and it got me thinking. I think most people would take feedback as a useful tool – well, constructive feedback certainly. It’s when your work is being mercilessly pulled to pieces and it isn’t clear why that it’s so hard to take. One thing’s for sure, though: in the internet, everything is out in the open, so if you wouldn’t say it to the person’s face, don’t write it online. That way, you’ll never have to look back in five year’s time and see the nasty post you wrote about a newbie-turned-bestseller splashed on someone else’s forum!

    Really thought provoking post – thanks!

    • Jonathan D Allen

      Hi Donna!
      Definitely agree. I think sometimes people get mean-spirited and don’t necessarily mean to be that way, too. They get caught up in the way a group reacts to something, and begin to push the line between constructive feedback and just nitpicking things to keep the ball rolling, justifying it to themselves in lots of different ways. I’ve seen the dynamic over and over again. Your advice is really good, though. I can’t imagine having to grow up with the Internet; we all make those sort of mistakes growing up, it’s just that it stays out there now.

      Thanks for the comment. Have a great day!

  2. Thanks for this post. It’s a good reminder that we are all here to support each other in our writing. There’s a time and place for constructive criticism, but what’s more important is that we encourage each other as we persevere in our writing. Also, I agree that it’s time authors stop apologizing for self-publishing. I’ve read some atrocious examples of writing put out by traditional publishers so I wouldn’t say they hold the keys to the realm of quality literature. Not always, but often, their bottom line is “will it sell and make money for us?” Regardless of which route we go with publishing, we are putting ourselves out there in front of the firing squad, hoping for bouquets, not bullets.

    • Jonathan D Allen

      Definitely agreed. Reviews are a great place for that sort of feedback, but a mob mentality beatdown doesn’t really accomplish much other than making the target feel bad and participants feel better about themselves.

      As for the self-publishing thing, I try to remind myself that music has a long tradition of people starting up their own labels, so that approach in music has quite a lead on what we’re trying to do now. Maybe in a few years things will start to get better on that front.

  3. I received a very long one star review on Barnes and Noble. The writer was furious with my characters and never said a word about my style. He read the book straight through in six hours which he said he wanted back. He must have been engrossed. I feel quite flattered that he found them all so real as to actually judge them and suggest ways they could better their lives. I gave his review five stars.

  4. So right on, Jonathon. Mean-spiritedness is always wrong–criticism meant to be helpful is an entirely different beast. I have noticed a certain disdain for self-publishing–got a comment just today, as a matter of fact–had to clarify that my book has been professionally edited-twice-I’ve read several traditionally published books lately that were so bad I had to stop reading–mixed up pov’s, typos, you name it–

    • Jonathan D Allen

      You make a good point. I think we need something that lies in between “self-published” and traditionally published. Something that indicates that we’ve paid for the editing and done the hard work of getting our work reviewed prior to publication. I’m not sure how we would do that just yet, though.

      • maybe we just need a new name–since there are so many of us now I’m sure that we could come up with something that differentiates from those who write something and stick it immediately up on smashwords–(not trying to dis smashwords–it’s a great place to avoid spending a huge amount of money to get read) I thought Indie Publishing was pretty good..I’ll be thinking about it.

  5. Excellent post. I completely agree with you.

    If people TRULY don’t have talent, they will work their way out of the system on their own, without any help from others being jerks. It goes back to what we’ve all been told at one point or another, if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. And if you decide to give a critique, be kind about it and private. No need to splash it across the internet.

    Thanks for this reminder. 🙂

    • Jonathan D Allen

      Really good point, and one that I tend to forget about in some of my darker moments. I’m not sure if I entirely believe that quality will eventually win out (there are some pretty lousy popular writers out there), but the glut of writers will probably solve itself over time. In the meantime, peoples’ attempts to smother dreams are just mean and flashy.

  6. I’m glad you posted this, Jonathan. First, we don’t want to sit in front of that window in our golden years, wishing that we might have tried harder. That’s what got me dusting off that first novel after 20 years, and I’m so grateful to everyone in these past two years for their support and encouragement.
    Secondly, you are absolutely right about the indie work that is out there. I have read some really brilliant novels in the past year or so. Stuff that blows some of the “mainstream” novels away. Seriously!
    Take care and keep at it, my friend.


  7. Being on the Internet requires a thick skin. In many ways it’s like a Mad Max movie. Sure there are Oasis’s (and wonderful ones at that) but there’s plenty of wasteland in between filled with people who want to club your head in for no other reason than you’re there.

    I used to teach at local university. One of my classes was on web design. What I would tell my students is that they can expect to get plenty of “You Suck!!” emails. My advice was to ignore the ones that just said that and nothing else. It was the ones that told you WHY you suck that needed to be read. However, even in doing so you need a fine hand to be able to sift through the poison to find the useful parts.

    • “It was the ones that told you WHY you suck that needed to be read.” Very true. Not fun to do, but useful.

      New writers should beware, though, because it is easy to fall into the trap of trusting someone else. Just because a criticism is valid, doesn’t mean you aren’t on the right track for your particular style or voice. You might not be nailing it yet, but that doesn’t imply you must scrap everything and begin again using someone else’s formula. A writer needs a skin thick enough to withstand the poison, but also needs to build a sense of self-trust. Some people aren’t good at either. That’s where editing, writing groups, and lots of reading come in handy. Writer’s boot camp!

  8. “New writers should beware, though, because it is easy to fall into the trap of trusting someone else. ”
    Too true. I like to look for multiple opinions saying the same thing. That makes them much more valid for me.

    For example: beta readers. If more than one has an issue with a part of my story that tells me maybe I should check it out. However, a lone voice of dissent (unless it’s pointing out a typo 🙂 is less likely to make me run back to my PC screaming, “I must fix this abomination of words I have cursed unto the world!” 🙂

  9. Before I finished my novel, every time I was involved in a conversation where book bashing was going on (and where I might have been tempted to join in), I would say, “Yes, but she finished the bloody thing, which is way more than I’ve been able to do.”

    Now that I’ve published my novel, if I’m in a conversation where book bashing is going on, I’m not even tempted to join in. Because I know how bloody hard it was to write, no matter how poorly it turned out.

    • absolutely! it is harder than hell to get a manuscript ready for publication–it’s taken me four years and a lot of blood, sweat and tears! everything is subjective and we are all on a continuum as we struggle to improve our writing…

  10. Jonathan, you know me pretty well, so I’ll say that while I agree that biting, mean-spirited criticism is counter-productive, I think it points to one of the biggest issues dragging the title of “self-published” through the dirt. Writers need to get their work professionally edited (with emphasis on “professionally”). I think we have come a long way since the days when self-publishing meant getting your own books published and then hawking them across the country in the back of your car.

    I remember a couple of years I went to both the Maui Writer’s Retreat and then the following Conference. It was amazing how the attendees multiplied from the Retreat to the Conference, and how many people when rejected blamed the agents or publishers. They all had the next best seller, and how dare anyone question that? Many people here have talked about the need for thick skin, but I think we also need to be realistic. I would be hard-pressed to think of many books that were perfect after the first draft (or even several more drafts, for that matter), yet the market is being flooded with authors kicking out books every month working under that belief. Just because it’s easier and more accepted to self-publish doesn’t mean more people should be doing it.

    I, too, would hope that the criticism wasn’t so harsh that the aforementioned woman stopped writing entirely, but if it got her to seek out a professional editor, the self-publishing world will be a better place for it.

    Paul D. Dail
    http://www.pauldail.com- A horror writer’s not necessarily horrific blog

  11. An excellent post. Thank you for the reminder that ‘we are all on diff stages of this journey and the only real competition we face is from within.” 2 years ago before my first book was published, my sister gave me some valuable advice. She told me that there would always be people who would hate my writing and the more exposure my book recieved, the more haters there would be. She told my children to ‘practise telling your mother everyday that her book SUCKS’ – so she will be ready to handle the haters. It was funny at the time and yes, my Fab5 really got into it with me so it became the family joke. Now, I try to remember that. “If everybody loves you – then you’re not reaching enough people.”

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