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One-Starred: The Importance of Criticism and Why You Should Take It

Flickr Creative Commons: Marco Ghitti [1]
Flickr Creative Commons: Marco Ghitti

As some of those of you who attended the fabulous Un-conference last year know, I read all my Amazon reviews, positive and negative. And while this might sound like a bad idea—in fact, I’ve had many people tell me not to do it—there’s a method to my madness.

I admit, I began to do it because my scattergun approach to review reading wasn’t working. For instance, when my first novel, Spin, came out and I learned that my first major review was going to appear in The Globe and Mail, I had someone read it for me first to let me know if I should read it. I figuratively held my hands over my eyes until I got the thumbs up because if my book was going to be trashed in a national newspaper, I kind of didn’t want to know.

Then there were the reviews I read by accident. Well, not entirely by accident, but you read your Google alerts, don’t you? (Please, tell me I am not alone here.) Anywho, I got a couple of those, late at night it seems, when my capacity was diminished, and without thinking, clicked through to read them. And yeah, that didn’t always turn out so well. For instance, when a reviewer for the Montreal Gazette—my hometown newspaper—wrote that he thought my second novel, Arranged, was perfectly fine, “if you liked mindless pieces of fluff,” I was left pretty low, much more so than the praise the book had received from other quarters. It was like how a one-star rating needs a multiple of 5-star ratings to be overcome; the praise bounced off me, the negativity stuck.

So I felt like I had two choices: become a more disciplined person (fat chance), or find a way to deflect the bad reviews that I couldn’t help myself from looking at. And that’s when I started reading everything. Because if I read everything, I reasoned, no one review would have much of an effect. They would all cancel each other out, blunt their sharp edges by bumping against one another, and I would be immune.

[pullquote]If I read everything, I reasoned, no one review would have much of an effect. They would all cancel each other out, blunt their sharp edges by bumping against one another, and I would be immune.[/pullquote]

That’s the theory anyway, and it mostly works. But an added benefit was that I learned things from reading my negative reviews, much more than from the positive ones. Seriously, I did.

To take an easy example, my last novel, Hidden, is told from three points of view. As an exercise for myself, I’d refused to put the character names at the beginning of each chapter, to force myself to make their voices distinct enough that it wasn’t required. When the book was done, I suggested the names be put back in, but, interestingly, neither my agent nor my editor wanted to do that. And what’s the most common complaint in my negative reviews? People are confused by who’s narrating what and it would be so much easier if the names were there. Did I need to work harder at making my characters distinct? Probably. But could I make a simple change that would increase reader’s enjoyment. Of course I could. And so I have. My next novel, Smoke, which is releasing in October, has two points of view, and the names are there, right up front at the top of each chapter. (Plus, I also worked even harder at making their voices distinct.)

But I also think all this has a wider point to it, too. One that, having just spent time at the fantastic Jackson Hole Writers’ Conference, is clearly in my mind because part of that conference involves reading the participants work and giving them feedback. And what I’m reminded of every year, what I long to say to some of the participants who seem more in search of praise than suggestions for improvement is: if you put something out in the world, you’re going to get criticized. And that’s okay. Here’s why.

Book writing is a lonely undertaking (I am not the first one to say this). Depending on your process, you might be the only one to even know what you’re working on until you have a complete draft. And while I’m sure it all makes sense in your head (that’s why I tell myself, anyway), that doesn’t mean it makes sense to someone who doesn’t live in your head. Or that it can’t be improved by another perspective. In fact, in my opinion, every book can be improved by outside input. Haven’t we all read books by “big” authors who just aren’t being edited as well anymore? How does that happen? Are people afraid to criticize someone who’s sold millions of books? Do they no longer want the criticism? A combination of both?

I hope I never find out. Because praise is great, but praise doesn’t push you. Praise doesn’t take you to new places. Praise doesn’t get your creative juices flowing, trying to find solutions, trying to make your work better. Unfortunately, only a critical eye can do that, whether it’s your own and/or someone further away from your work than your immediate family.

So if you want to be your best writer self, then you need to accept criticism. You need to seek it out. You need to embrace it.

Even if it comes in the form a one-star review.

About Catherine McKenzie [2]

A graduate of McGill University in History and Law, Catherine McKenzie practices law in Montreal, where she was born and raised. An avid skier and runner, Catherine is the author of 11 bestselling novels, including HIDDEN, THE GOOD LIAR, I’LL NEVER TELL and YOU CAN’T CATCH ME. Her most recent novel, SIX WEEKS TO LIVE, releases in Canada April 20 and the US May 4, 2021.