Rolling with the Punches

[April 2006] My day job is with a company that sells scientific instruments to universities, pharmaceutical companies and other industries. During my 17 years working here, I’ve held several different positions. I started out doing contract research, moved into software development, established our company’s web presence back in the days when the ‘net was little more than a novelty, managed technical documentation, and am now part of the marketing group, where I manage the corporate web presence and help write and proof ads, brochures, presentations, and application notes.

I remember the thrill I felt the first time I visited a lab in Japan and saw a program I developed being used as part of their daily routine. Walking into that office and seeing the fruits of my labors up on several computer screens as scientists toiled to solve the structures of important chemical compounds . . . that was the first time I understood what it would be like to be published, even though I already had a couple of dozen articles in scientific journals by then.

In these positions I’ve never had to worry that someday I’d pick up the newspaper, read a magazine or go online and find an in-depth critique of my job performance. I have a semi-annual review with my supervisor, and occasionally get feedback from coworkers on certain projects, but that’s it. When I was in software development, I fielded complaints and bug reports from customers around the world, but always in a one-on-one situation.

Now that I dabble in the arts, I expose myself to the possibility that critics and readers will express opinions in public forums about what I do. My first book was reviewed in Booklist, Publishers Weekly, Locus and a number of other magazines. I find people discussing my work on message boards and blogs. To date, twenty people have posted their thoughts about the book at Amazon.

My first experience with impersonal commentary about my writing came several months after I started writing a column for Cemetery Dance. Not the sort of gig apt to garner reviews, I thought. However, TTA Press launched a magazine called The Fix that reviews other magazines, CD among them. I discovered some people had strong feelings about my column they didn’t mind sharing in print. They made pointed comments about the necessity—or lack thereof—for my column. It wasn’t personal. The reviewers didn’t know me from Adam. Nonetheless, I felt my hackles rising and it took me a while to rebound from the criticism.

Without readers, my writing has little importance. I’m not journaling, I’m writing and publishing. I’m presenting something I’ve created and saying, “Here it is. I hope you like it.” And the inescapable truth is: not everyone will. If I don’t learn to roll with the punches, to take each criticism as the opinion of one person whose tastes aren’t the same as mine, if I don’t develop thick skin in the face of criticism, I’m not going to last very long in this business.

What do we do with criticism, though? Some writers refuse to read reviews, period. Some shrug off the negative ones without giving them a second thought. Some vigorously defend themselves against highly critical reviews, and others take each criticism like a bullet to the soul, allowing themselves to be weighed down by negativity.

Others take to heart the bits of specific criticism that seem applicable and look for ways to improve perceived shortcomings in the future. The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ, Moves on. We don’t often get the chance to fix things once they’re in print. All we can do is try harder the next time.

To argue with a critic is a losing proposition, especially if the debate takes place in a public forum. A famous author recently challenged her critics on Amazon, telling them they just weren’t getting the point of a certain book. The subtext was that said readers shouldn’t criticize things they clearly didn’t understand. Bad move. As the CEO of one company says, a disgruntled customer is a terrorist in the marketplace. Thanks to the internet, ordinary people have a wide reach. A few pissed off readers probably won’t ruin your career, but they aren’t going to be spreading the love and we need all the support we can get.

That’s an extreme case, though. Do we respond to critics at all? We’re not going to change their opinions. Even if by some miracle we did, they aren’t going to post an amended review. So what do we gain? Nothing occurs to me. One person reviewing The Road to the Dark Tower said he hoped I would correct misstatements about certain literary references in a future edition. The comments weren’t specific enough for me to identify what he meant, so I e-mailed him for clarification. I didn’t get a response. Though I was willing to examine his criticisms and, if valid, fix things, I can’t.

Do we shrug off negative reviews as immaterial, or not read them at all? It’s never going to be possible to completely avoid criticism. Editors will point out things they don’t like, and we’re going to have to deal with these critics, either by defending ourselves or accepting their suggestions and revising. Our agents might look at book proposals (or completed manuscripts) and tell us they don’t think the work is up to our previous standards. Readers will approach us at signings and tell us exactly what they think about our work.

Some negative comments aren’t pertinent. Readers may come to my work with expectations and not find them met. If they expect to find Stephen King in my first novel, they’re going to be disappointed, but that’s not on me. However, if a reader (or critic) thinks my writing is boring or tedious, believes a character is two-dimensional or unmotivated, that’s a different story. If that complaint is a common enough theme, there may be some truth in it, and I’d better pay attention. I’ll probably always undergo an initial period of reticence and will have to swallow the urge to lash out defensively, but then it will be time to separate emotion from the equation as much as humanly possible and try to learn.

This business is more complicated than any “day job” I can imagine. Except for celebrities like Bill Gates or Jeffrey Skilling, non-artistic work rarely gets close public scrutiny. By the very act of submitting something for publication, we’re inviting criticism. How we learn to handle it may determine how happy we are at this chosen profession.

Here’s something I wrote—a short story called Therapy that won the most recent Hellnotes Wee Small Hours contest. I hope you like it. Feel free to post your criticisms and comments here.

I can take it.

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