Bouquets and Barbed Wire: Writing and Bad Reviews

Ever since I was little, I’ve been obsessed with writing stories. I’d be embarrassed to show you the number of half-finished, terrible novels I have languishing in drawers and on my hard drives. When I finished university I was determined to go straight into writing or become a journalist.

Then my granddad, who was a teacher, reminded me that I was rubbish with money and said teaching offered a great pension. ‘You can write in the holidays!’ he said.

So off I went to get my teaching qualification, taking on a masters in literature as well to keep me out of the real world for as long as possible.

Whenever I could, I would write. Poems, novels, short stories and one truly awful screenplay. I never did anything with it as I just thought it was all dreadful. I had absolutely no confidence in my writing.

Time passed, much more quickly than I was expecting, and after marriage and two children I suddenly realised my fiftieth birthday was looming over the horizon. If I don’t write a proper novel now, I thought, when will I? It’s now or never!

So I sat down to write. I wrote and wrote and wrote until I finished a dark comedy caper about an unpleasant teacher being found murdered in a classroom that looked very like mine – they said write what you know!

It wasn’t very good and I think five people bought it. Then lockdown happened and I embarked on my next book – The Woman and the Witch.

It was hard work. At one stage I had to dump 60,000 words because I hadn’t planned it and it went completely wrong so had to start again. Eventually, after nearly three years I got it finished.

This one was much more popular and I started to get people contacting me on Facebook or Instagram saying how much they enjoyed my characters. Honestly, it was better than heroin (not, I hasten to add I know what heroin feels like but you know what I mean) to hear people talking with such affection about the characters I’d created.

Writing is a funny old thing. For me, it’s a bit of a compulsion. It’s how I switch off from the stresses of the day and I love disappearing into a world I’ve created over which I have absolute control.  A world where fat, middle-aged women like me have super powers, or thrillers where the bad guy always gets his come-uppance.

The trouble is you go from thinking your writing is the best thing ever written since Shakespeare to wanting to throw everything out the window because every word is utter rubbish. I’ve gone from one to the other within two hours.

Writing is such a personal thing it’s hard not to take it personally when readers review your books with the heading ‘Rubbish. Did Not Finish’.

I wonder if people realise the impact it has when they write how much they hated the book you spent a year writing – and only charging a couple of quid for! I’m guilty of it myself, I’ve written negative reviews. But since becoming a writer myself I’m much kinder than I used to be!

I have been lucky enough to have some really lovely reviews and I bless every single one of them for taking the time to recommend my books. But I’m afraid I only remember the bad ones – isn’t that true for all of us?

I have received the odd compliment in my life, but I tend not to remember them. I do, however, clearly remember Melanie Horsham calling me ‘a moonpig’ in 1987.

Goodreads is well known for its membership of keen readers who aren’t going to hold back if they think a book is rubbish. One woman registered her account in 2020, only read three books. They are all mine. She has given each of them ONE STAR. Why keep reading them? One wonders.

Here are some of my favourite negative reviews that thankfully made me laugh rather than screaming into the void and vowing never to write a word again. (I’ve got plenty of those too)

Some reviews focus on a very specific aspect of the book they didn’t like.

I loved the spellbinding story and the finding of magical gifts, but the OTT gushing middle aged woman in love felt fake & nauseating. If that element was more relevant & less sickly, I’d have 5 starred. Put me off reading more.

This one made me a bit defensive – what’s wrong with a fifty-year-old falling in love?

Here’s another

Disappointed. The first 50% I quite enjoyed and found it original…but the rest was boring  Not very good literature I’m afraid.

This next one I like to imagine was written by a very pompous man.

‘Surprisingly enjoyable story.’

Why is he surprised by my story being enjoyable?

He goes on.

‘Where it stuck to the local and the quotidian it was fine’

I have three degrees and teach English to A level but I am ashamed to say I didn’t know what ‘the quotidian’ meant and had to look it up – it means ‘the everyday.’ But wait – there’s more!

‘but the episode in Twenties’ Germany was comical in its awfulness’

Comical in its awfulness! Oh dear!

Finally:

‘the scenes of violence just a bit too creaky. The main characters were strong and sympathetic and well done.’

Phew!

And last but not least is a one star given to my thriller.

‘The story of a charming husband who isolates a woman and makes her doubt herself, isn’t new or original. Give this read a miss, unless you suffer from insomnia’.

OUCH!

I was moaning about this to my brother, and he told me to go and look up the one-star reviews for ‘Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The results made me feel much more cheerful

Of one the greatest most experimental albums written by the Beatles, people had said.

‘A totally bubblegum and cotton candy melange of garish fantasy and narcissism’

and

‘Mesmerizingly awful. A bad idea, badly executed’

It inspired me to have a look at how some classic novels had been rated …

James Joyce’s Ulysses ‘This book not only ruined a week at the beach, but also damaged my self-esteem.’

1984 by George Orwell ‘Load of rubbish. My rabbit could have written a better book.’

And my absolute favourite.

Tess of the d’Urbervilles – ‘I hated the book then and hate it now. My only revenge for being forced to read Tess as a kid, is to write a negative review as an adult. So there. That’s done.’

Even the greatest, most celebrated of writers get terrible reviews. And really, I should write because I love it, not so that I get nice people saying they enjoy my books – although that is always lovely! I also need to grow a tough skin because not everybody is going to love what you create. And bad reviews shouldn’t make you want to give up completely – still struggling with that one…

So if you read a book and you really enjoyed it, write a nice review. You have no idea how much it means, even to the most successful of authors. And if you hated the book, maybe just not mention it. And don’t do what one of my readers did and tag me in a post in which he describes, in detail, every single thing he hated from beginning to end – I really didn’t need to know!

But the main thing is to keep buying books – whether you like ebooks, paperbacks, hardbacks or listening to audiobooks – keep reading. There are so many fabulous books out there, something for everyone. And if you want to know my favourite book – it’s Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, by Louis de Bernieres

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3 thoughts on “Bouquets and Barbed Wire: Writing and Bad Reviews

  1. Unfortunately criticism is part of life. Yes it hurts. And sometimes people say nasty things even if they haven’t read/seen something, and some critique isn’t really critique. But it’s the nature of the beast. I only write quick reviews when I do my month in review, and I admit I am brutally honest with what I say. My intention is not to hurt the feelings of the artist but to let someone know what I thought. I get that critique hurts, and maybe snarky isn’t the right way for a critic to be, but we live in a world filled with reviewers…

    Liked by 2 people

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