Vulnerable, Vexed, and Vitalized

Lily with the letter VOn this Willy-nilly Wednesday for the letter V, I had a completely different post planned for today.  But then yesterday happened – pretty much the worst day so far in my life as a writer. Yesterday was the day Amazon announced the people moving on to the semi-finals of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award (ABNA). This is my fourth year with this contest, and if you’re interested, you can read about my previous experiences here and here.  Since this is the exact same version of the novel that got me booted at this point two years ago, I was disappointed, but not at all surprised when my name was not listed among the semi-finalists.  

The real shocker came a few hours later when we got our Publishers Weekly reviews.  Mine was devastating.  Two years ago, I got a glowing PW review.  It was so positive I actually went back and double-checked to make sure my name wasn’t on the semi-final list.  It only had one minor negative thing to say, and I completely agreed with the reviewer that it was a weakness.  This year was the exact opposite.  The reviewer shredded my novel.  There was only one slightly positive thing, “To be fair, some of it is actually funny, though…” followed by more brutalization of my story and main character.  I know this business is extremely subjective, but it’s hard to believe these two people read the exact same manuscript.

My body actually went cold as I read it.  I sat there a few minutes in shock unable to move.  Then I read it again, thinking it was one of those things where my mind interpreted it as much worse than it actually was.  Nope, it was terrible.  I actually held up pretty well for about ten minutes.  Then I decided to email the review to my family members, and as I pressed send, I completely fell apart.

I enter a lot of contests where feedback is part of the package, so it’s not like all I’ve ever heard are reviews from loved ones telling me my writing is so wonderful rainbow-colored butterflies fly out of my butt.  I’ve had critiques that made me nod my head in agreement about my missteps, I’ve had critiques that made me defensive, I’ve had critiques where I thought the reviewer was an idiot, I’ve had critiques that opened my eyes to new ways of looking at my writing.  I’ve never before had a critique that made me cry.  Until now.  And not just teary eyes.  Full on ugly crying. It’s been hours since it happened, but I’m still tearing up as I write this post.

I thought about pasting the review here, but 1. It gives away plot points that are spoilers.  2. I never posted my positive one from two years ago either: since neither one will be based on the final version I submit to agents/editors, I don’t think I want them floating around on the interwebs.  3. It still hurts too much.

But having a supportive family is awesome.  Here’s what my dad sent back to me after he read it: “Well, what F*ck Knuckle wrote that piece of sh*t” except he didn’t use asterisks (although he did use bold plus a giant font for the... uh, important words). My mom wrote back, “What an A-hole.” But she doesn’t curse, so she did use the dash.  My brother and sister were similarly supportive about not letting one person get to me.  And I know they’re right - it’s part of the business, and a thick skin is required.  


However, this guy wasn’t constructive in his review, he was just mean.  It was like he fancied himself the Simon Cowell of novels.  But there was just enough in his pithy insults that resonated with the feedback I’ve gotten from some awesome critique partners (who have been honest, yet supportive – you know who you are, and I adore you!) that made it all the more devastating.  If his comments had been off the wall, I could have easily dismissed him, but there were enough nuggets of truth in the review to jab straight at the heart of my writerly ego.  I’ve felt vulnerable and emotional all day, and a big part of me wants to curl into a ball and never write again.  It’s hard and it hurts.  

But then there’s the part of me that’s vexed that I’ve let this one person have this much power over me.  So what if this one guy didn’t get it?  Plenty of other people have and loved it.  And I know there are weaknesses, but I’m planning to fix them. And now, I’m feeling the life come back to me.  I’ve needed to do this rewrite since I got to this point with ABNA two years ago.  I have a few really exciting opportunities I might miss if I don’t get on the ball.  And yet, I’ve still been procrastinating.  But this one negative, hurtful person has lit a fire under me in a way none of the other positive possibilities have done so far.  I won’t let him be right.  I won’t let him win.

I am reVitalized.  

How do you deal with mean-spirited feedback, especially when it has a ring of truth? Any advice as I prepare to get back up on the horse?  How Vivacious is Lily with her letter V?


Cynthia Robertson's picture

Gosh I'm really sorry to hear you had this painful experience, Jocelyn. That sucks.

But I'm so glad you didn't post the review here...why perpetuate something so awful? Especially since he was so mean. I think you should have posted the GOOD reviews. And you need to ignore that bad one. Your parents are correct. There's just no reason to be so nasty when doing a review, even if one doesn't like the novel.

It's great that you are using this energy to get you motivated to do those rewrites. That's the spirit!

Jocelyn Rish's picture

Thanks, Cynthia!  Although it hurt, I think this was just what I needed kick myself back into gear.

Brittany's picture

How awful!!! I can only imagine that I'd want to do the same thing - curl up in a ball and just bawl my eyes out. But I think you're on the right track. Don't let that jerk face win. You can't sell your book to every person on the planet. But you can make it the best it could possibly be for the people who love and relate to your genre, writing style, etc.

Don't let this bully ruin the whole rest of your day!

Jocelyn Rish's picture

You're so right - I can't make everyone love it, I can just do my part to make it the best if can be for the people who would be inclined to like.  Thank you, Brittany!

K.T. Hanna's picture

Ouch. The non constructive part is what gets to me. I don't understand how someone doing a PW review could be so unprofessional. That's how it sounds to me anyway.
I'm happy to see you'll pick yourself up again and dust yourself off. Remember - subjectivity. And it's only highlighted by the two completely different reviews from the same MS.
*hugs* Stay tough hon

Jocelyn Rish's picture

Thanks, KT.  Your cheerleading is always a boost to writers in need!

Rachael Dunlop's picture

My heart sinks just reading that. I know exactly how I would feel - and yes, there would be tears. Sounds like the guy is a bully. You and I both know how to critique. This guy - not so much. It is so, so hard to let these things go, but by writing this blog you've taken the first step. Now stop procrastinating and start revising, so that this time next year you are telling us how you just made the semi-finals.

Jocelyn Rish's picture

Thanks, Rachael!  It was very cathartic writing the post - I was crying at the start, but fuming by the end.  And thanks for the kick in the pants, too.  :-)

Leah Rhyne's picture

Aw! I'm so sorry you had that experience - because you're right - it's supposed to be your prize, right? Your congrats! But the guy sounds like he had a bad day or his shoes were too tight or yeah, he wants to be Simon Cowell. Keep your chin up, and know that we're all going to get bad reviews sometimes. :)


Jocelyn Rish's picture

Thanks, Leah.  And it''s good to start developing my thick skin now, although I hope there won't be too many like this in the future.  

Damyanti's picture

Hugs, Jocelyn.

All I can say is hang in there-- as writers we all have to go through stuff like this, though in majority of the cases, it is undeserved.

I hope you feel better very, very soon.

Jocelyn Rish's picture

Thanks, Damyanti!  I thought I already had a pretty thick skin, but this is a reminder that we need freakin' teflon armor if we want to survive in this industry.  

Rebecca Enzor's picture

I'm sorry that reviewer was such a jerk. You would think someone who was picked to review for such a huge contest would at least understand that feedback needs to be constructive, not damaging. But I'm glad he lit a fire under your butt! Now you can show him by fixing the weaknesses and becoming the next bestseller. You can send him a signed copy ;)

Jocelyn Rish's picture

Thanks, Becka!  That's my plan - now you'll have to help me stay on track! :-)

Jamie Dement (LadyJai)'s picture

Oh, Jocelyn I'm so sorry about that. But please, don't use one bad review to spoil the whole lot! Find the positive in all this. Brush it off and continue onward. Seems some people don't have a talent for being tactful or helpful. (((HUGS))) Here's some Zombie flavored dino cookies to help kick start your motivation.

Jocelyn Rish's picture

Zombie flavored dino cookies are always appreciated.  Thanks, Jamie!

Ed Varga's picture

Tell you what, I got a lackluster review on mine (Vanity) as well. A couple of things stuck out, namely the vine reviews were much more positive, and it seemed like the reviewer skimmed my work as their summary was off target.

My sister in law has a book coming out next year. She has a great agent whom she secured with her 2011 ABNA novel which only made it to quarter finals.

I am now editing Vanity based on the vine comments mostly and have sights set on getting an agent, well, that and more children's book manuscripts.

Keep writing!

Jocelyn Rish's picture

I'm sorry to hear your review wasn't what you were hoping for either.  Thanks for the encouraging story about your sister in law.  Best of luck to you as you start your edits!

Bonnie Rae's picture

Keep you chin up. I just released my first book via Amazon and when I got my first bad review I balled. And I knew it was coming, I set myself up to expect it. But, the person wasn't constructive, like your reviewer, and just down right cruel with her words. Luckily, I have a good support group in family and friends, as well as other writers.

It's okay to take a moment or two to get upset, but then brush the harsh words away and hold your head up high! =)

Jocelyn Rish's picture

I'm sorry about your bad review.  I guess as writers we just have to accept that not everyone is going to love our books.   Thanks for the support!

Jennifer Ripley's picture

Having been booted from a writing community for advocating for LESS bitchyness and more constructive criticism, this hits home. You have to just know that for some people, the trashing of the work IS their art. They revel in their own cleverness and feel superior only by making others feel inferior. It happens professionally and non: some people are just small.

Since you made it as far as you did, you know your work doesn't suck. You just got a reviewer who did.

People should be honest but kind, and remember that while it does the writer no good to trash their work with the rationale that "it's a tough business", it is also someone's art they are dealing with and to handle with care.

Jocelyn Rish's picture

I just don't understand people who thinks it's fun to tear down other writers.  It's hard enough as it is - honesty doesn't have to be brutal.  Thanks for the support!

Valued Visitor's picture

Why do some people feel the need to be mean? I mean, putting your writing out there takes a lot of guts. I admire every single person who does it, whether I like their writing or not. I admire you for taking this review and admitting he may have had a speck of validity in spite of his nastiness. *But there was just enough in his pithy insults that resonated with the feedback I’ve gotten* You are one up on him because of it.
And I have zero doubt you will find great success in your writing, simply because it is obvious you want to produce the very best work you can. Get back to your feet and tell the world to "bring it on!"

Jocelyn Rish's picture

Thank you so much for your support!  I'm going to do my best to show him!  :-)

Lissa Clouser's picture

Jocelyn, I'm sorry to hear you had such a scathing and hurtful review. I've dealt with a slightly snide review before, but nothing quite like that so I can't imagine how difficult it would be to read something that upsetting.

I want to congratulate you on just being willing to put your work out there in the first place. Please don't let this bring you down for too long and please don't give up on writing because one person feels the unacceptable need to be brutally unkind.

Jocelyn Rish's picture

Thanks, Lissa!  May will be my month for finally getting this sucker rewritten!  

jesstopper's picture

First off, I commend you for being able to write so succinctly about the whole experience - I don't know if I'd be able to string two sentences together to even begin to describe my emotions. You are brave and courageous to take it head on, and I can tell you've got a gift for writing, just from this post alone.

Secondly, your dad rocks. That guy IS a total f*ck knuckle! Even if there were nuggets of truth, there is no need to lambast.

You've written a book. Something that you are proud of and you believe in. You've obviously worked hard and with determination, entering it into contests. That's a heck of a lot more than many people can say!

Jocelyn Rish's picture

Thanks so much, Jess.  I actually found it very cathartic to write about it.  And my dad does indeed rock.  :-)

Joyce's picture

You never know what's behind the person doing the review. For example, I once had the first chapter of my manuscript (about a boy lost in the woods and doubting God) torn to threads with comments that I found totally ridiculous by someone who is supposed to be a respected person in the book industry. Ie., "If someone's life were in danger, they wouldn't be praying."

Later, I came to learn that the reviewer is an atheist who is totally turned off by religion. My question is, "Why did he take my money to review my work instead of passing it to another staff member at the conference who would look at it objectively?" Furthermore, his session at the writers' conference was worthless. As a result, I ignored his comments and don't think much of him. What do you know about the person who wrote your bad review?

Catch My Words

Jocelyn Rish's picture

Thank you for sharing your story.  I actually don't know anything about my reviewer.  I'm only even guessing it's a guy because no one who has ever been a teenage girl would have said some of the things he said about my protagonist.  

John Holton's picture

I say, take the valid critcism (you said there was some) and forget the rest. The reviewer is being a butthead.

Jocelyn Rish's picture

Thanks for the support, John!

Rachael Harrie's picture

Aw sweetie, I'm SOOOO sorry to hear about this!!! I wish I was there to give you the biggest hugs in the world. You know I've read your book, and you know what I think of it (positive all the way, and even more positive than I think you were expecting!), and I just hope you can get past this one awful review to carry on. I love the way it's lit a fire under you, though - and amen to your intention to find the positives and let this inspire you to get your amendments done.

I'm here if you need me, and I hope I can help in getting your lovely book finalized and out into the world (and published before you know it!) :)

More hugs,


Jocelyn Rish's picture

Thanks so much, Rachael!  It's really helped to be reminded by other people who have read it that it does not actually suck.

Sheenah Freitas's picture

Awww, I'm so sorry that happened to you. Negative reviews sting every time you get one. I recently got this terrible review that just devastated me, but someone told me not to listen to them and listen to all the other good reviews I have.

Jocelyn Rish's picture

I'm sorry you had experience with a bad review, too.  But you're right we have keep reminding ourselves about the good ones to keep up going.

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