Monday, October 6, 2014

Beware of Trolls

photo by Jlhopgood, via Flickr 
When I first started this journey of writing for publication many years ago, I had one major fear that loomed large above all of the others. I wasn’t afraid of meeting deadlines, I wasn’t afraid of having my work evaluated and edited by a professional, and I wasn’t afraid that my work wasn’t good enough. Nope. What I really feared was that someday, someone would come along and publically trash my baby.

Because I knew it was going to happen at some point. I knew it.

I think it’s physically impossible not to have someone at some point give you a really, really bad review. I mean, J.K. Rowling has 1-star reviews for Harry Potter. Heck, The Goldfinch, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, had 1,604 1-star reviews when I checked for this post. Not everybody likes every book, and books don’t come with a mind-meld sensor that warns the reader that what they’re about to read really isn’t for them. Bad reviews are a fact of life as a writer.

I told myself this time and time again. I steeled myself for bad reviews every time I popped on Amazon or B & N to check. I knew they would come, so I was prepared.

And then came The Review Which Shall Not Be Spoken Of.

It was my first book, The Loyal Heart. The review came about six months after it had been published. I had had other less-than-enthusiastic reviews, and while I wasn’t happy with them, I was able to take them in stride. For this one, I saw the one star, cringed, and prepared myself to swallow a bitter pill and move on.

Nothing could have prepared me for that review. It was long. Like, essay long. It was vicious. We’re talking spiteful, cruel, and personal. The reviewer accused me of plagiarism (not understanding the actual meaning of the term, mind you). They picked the book apart bullet-point by bullet-point and ripped every comparison between my story and Robin Hood to shreds. And then, to pour salt on my writer wounds, they said the book was terribly written on top of all that.

So two weeks later, once I’d stopped crying and thinking my career was over and that the literary police would come cart me off to prison based on someone’s cry of plagiarism, I awoke to a bitter truth. The Review Which Shall Not Be Spoken Of was written by a troll. Not only that, the troll won. I started to second-guess that story, wondering if I’d let my collection of inspirations leak too sharply into my work. I doubted my originality and my skill. And, yes, to this day I have lost interest in promoting that book or even remembering that I wrote it. All hail the troll!

It’s a sad story. It’s also a cautionary tale. My greatest fear in writing was realized to a level that I couldn’t and didn’t want to imagine. But it also taught me the single most valuable lesson I’ve learned in my pursuit of a full-on writing career: Trolls are out there. They are horrible. They thrive on destroying the light that drives us to pour our hearts out into our work. Sometimes they win. And you cannot avoid them.

So how do you deal with these inevitable black moments in your career as a writer? How can you face that deep, personal fear that someone with malicious intent will flay you in public? Because you can’t stop it from happening.

The best advice I can offer on that score is to forewarn you that it’s going to hurt. Take a deep breath and accept that. You will cry bitter tears and/or rage against the trolls. No, it’s not fair or right or just, it just is. The only way to get through it is to accept the battles you can fight and the ones you can’t. That review, when it comes, is not going to go away. The trolls are not going to suddenly feel bad and apologize.

But you know what? You’re not going to stop writing. Bittersweet as it may be, there will be another book and another and another. That awful troll review might hold nothing of any value for you, but there will be other reviews that are constructive in their criticisms. The very thing that scares you can also be a tool for improvement if you can take away the emotion of the criticism and judge the validity of the reviewer’s complaints. And there will be great reviews to balance out the bad ones. No writer’s career is the frozen point in time of a single review.

I wish I could have a better attitude about my bruised and battered baby. Honestly, the key thing that I learned from that nightmarish experience was to not read my reviews. That’s much harder than it sounds, by the way, but these days I honestly don’t read reviews. In the end, that may be the best way to fight the trolls, by ignoring them.

Merry Farmer is a history nerd, a hopeless romantic, and an award-winning author of thirteen novels. She is passionate about blogging and knitting, and lives in suburban Philadelphia with her two cats, Butterfly and Torpedo. Connect with Merry at her Facebook Author Page and Twitter.

13 comments :

  1. You're right, Merry, trolls are everywhere. They're destructive untalented morons whose only purpose is to bully anonymously. Sick minds of cowards. And your decision not to read them makes the most sense.
    So far, I've managed to avoid them. But, amongst my 5 star reviews for one book, lurked a 2 star one that I read. It quickly became clear that the writer wasn't a troll, merely a reader who had layered their own fantasies on top of my fiction. I have a rape scene in the book: it's most decidedly a crime and something very disgusting and foul, and the writing avoids any suggestion of eroticism. But this reviewer accused me of making the scene erotic. As this was the only one of the many readers, most of them women, who saw it this way, I knew that the fault lay not in my writing but in the mind of the reviewer. Still an unpleasant experience for a writer who is passionately against sexual exploitation but one that I can live with, fortunately.
    Thanks for sharing your experience, Merry: it should help others to overcome or, better still, avoid such morons in the future.

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  2. Very helpful post, Merry. It is so hard for us to adjust emotionally when we have been slammed like that. I do read all my reviews and try to respond to them, even the one or two star ones that are more of a rant than a review. I thank the person for reading my book and taking the time to write a review, and then I move on. I don't enter into any kind of debate with them, and I don't try to defend myself. The review still stings, but I can at least console myself with the knowledge that I did not stoop to their level.

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    1. Meant to add that you make an excellent point about how a story can resonate with some folks and not others.

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    2. Absolutely spot-on, Maryann - never, ever, fall into the trap of initiating a conversation with a reviewer. It will always end badly.

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    3. That's funny, because I was always told to never respond to a review, positive or negative. The advice I was given was that reviews are for other readers, not you, the author, so it really isn't your place to comment on them. Although I did reply nicely to that horrid review.

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    4. I was also advised against responding to reviewers (unless they're corresponding with you directly), because readers prefer to feel that they can "speak their minds" without thinking about the author. I do read mine, but after 14 books, I've learned to let the less than glowing ones go. It does take a while, but I trust those who look at reviews are picking up whether it's relevant or simply nasty.

      Reviews are a necessary evil if you want to promote your book; too many advertising/promotion sites require X number of 4 and 5 star reviews.

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  3. It also helps to keep in mind that tastes differ and the point of a review is to tell readers WHY they might enjoy or not enjoy the book - not to help the author improve an already-published book. Not every 1- or 2-star review is written by a "troll" or by someone reading something into the work that isn't there. (Some certainly are - and those are the ones that focus an unhealthy amount of attention on the writer, personally, or are written in a hostile, insulting tone rather than a critical one.) But we all need to develop thicker skins, and not reading reviews is probably a GREAT idea until that happens! Reviews are not for the author, anyway - they're for other book buyers. If your work is published - SOMEBODY liked it.

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    1. Agreed, Holly. I review everything I read, unless it isn't possible to be positive about it, in which case I simply don't review.

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  4. I had my run in with trolls early on. I don't mind an honest critique and can actually laugh at other people's visions for what my book should have been. But the trolls, alas, they are everywhere and usually cannot spell or articulate a cohesive sentence. That is the main reason I quit Goodreads. Too many immature people who lurved books I couldn't stand, giving one star reviews to books I loved. It's an ego-trip on speed for trolls. For once they feel mighty and important, if illiterate. If I read a book and don't like it, I don't comment, or review, or promote it. I let the silence speak for itself. I also rarely agree with critics. The books that rise to the top of the NYT sellers list rarely interest me. There are some genres I will never like. But like my granny taught me, if I can't say anything nice, I don't say anything at all. But if I love a book, I will tell everyone!

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    1. Sorry to hear of your poor experience with Goodreads, Diana. I've not suffered there; in fact, I find it a very useful site with many really keen readers. Perhaps it was just the genres you engaged with? I know what you mean about some genres you'll never like. And I had a father who believed the same as your granny.

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  5. Not reading reviews sounds like good prevention to me. I have noticed that the most popular books tend to have mid-range ratings because so many people hop on board that bad reviews and troll reviews pull the average down. So I always tell myself to look forward to the day when my average stars are no longer in the five-ish range, because that may mean I've arrived.

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  6. As a tech writer, one of my favorite reviews ever read, "This one paragraph reads as smoothly as a pig walks on stilts." Granted, that was a pre-publication comment and quite fixable, but it was fair and humorous and for some reason still makes me giggle, a decade later. If the criticism's fair, you take your knocks with good grace. If it's not, then just remember it's not about YOU - it's about the reviewer. I think MOST potential buyers can see through the average troll.

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  7. I believe it was Abraham Lincoln who said, "You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time." By extension, you cannot please all the people all the time. Bottom line: some folks just plain won't like what we write. Unfortunately, it seems the complainers are a bit more prone to comment than are those who love our work.

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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