Aphelion Issue 274, Volume 26
July 2022
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Thoughts on Writing

#38: It Isn't Good Just Because It's Bad.

by Seanan McGuire

You may remember that the previous essay, number thirty-seven, was all about hype, and not believing everything that you hear. Now, I'm going to contradict myself a bit, because I said in that essay that there was no such thing as bad hype. Which I still hold that to be technically correct, I'm going to use the word "hype" to describe the flip-side of the "believing too much good press" problem, because it's easier. Today's thought expands to:

At the same time, don't sit around telling yourself how horrible you are, and don't let a few bad reviews shatter your sense of self. Look at the negative feedback as critically as you can, and if everyone is saying the same things, try to figure out whether that's something you can fix—and whether it's something you're willing to fix. I'm not going to stop writing horror just because there will always be people who hate horror. At the same time, if multiple horror reviewers are going "zombies, you're doin' it wrong," I should probably reassess. Don't buy the bad hype any more unreservedly than you buy the good.

It is human nature to believe the bad more than we believe the good. It is hammered into us, practically from birth, that listening to the bad makes us "responsive to criticism" and "realistic," while listening to the good makes us "vain" and "self-absorbed." So how do we find the balance between the two without losing our minds or sinking into the mire? Where is the line between buying our own press and becoming lost in the negativity? You're going to need to remember everything you know about balance and not believing everything you hear, and the sooner you start, the better. Let's take a good look at bad press, what purpose it serves, and how to keep yourself from falling under its sway. Ready? Good. Let's begin.

The Ten Percent Rule.

Here's a fun (and horrible) fact about the human psyche: for most of us, one negative is equal to, if not greater than, ten equally weighted positives. Think back. How many times have you stopped wearing a shirt you loved, or stopped eating something you enjoyed, or even stopped inviting a friend to the movies because of the negative feedback which you received from others? One "you're so ugly" can balance out ten or more "aren't you looking lovely today," and since the current social model involves expressing the negative much more reliably than the positive, it's likely to take you a long time to gather those ten "lovely" comments. (This ties into the concept of "fishing for compliments," which assumes that any time you ask someone to say something nice, you are doing something wrong. Because of this social construct, many of us won't ask for reassurance even when it's sorely needed, since the last thing you want when you're trying to recover from a negative is another negative.)

How do you change this about yourself? Well, sad to say, you probably don't. No amount of saying "this time, I won't take it personally" is likely to make you stop taking it personally, and at the end of the day, that's okay. Totally blocking out the negative would actually be bad for you, since it would make it difficult, if not impossible, to take legitimate critique. We need negative reinforcement to keep us from becoming totally unbearable. All you can really do is work on becoming a little less sensitive, and remembering that nothing, ever, has been universally liked by everyone. My bedroom walls are orange. I regularly get people walking into my room and announcing that they would never be able to sleep there, because it's "just too loud." This does nothing to dampen my love for my walls. They may not be a positive for everyone, but they're anything but a negative to me.

This may be the most important thing to remember when faced with negative feedback: nothing is perfect to everyone. If ten people say something is great, and one person says it's terrible, you should still consider the eleventh person's feedback...but you probably shouldn't stick that pencil in your ear. Your brains won't like it.

Filtering the Ashes.

It can be extremely difficult to mine through negative critique looking for the things that you should actually take under consideration. Difficult, and painful. If at all possible, I recommend you find someone you trust and ask them to go through the bad reviews, picking out the pieces that have relevance and summarizing the rest. You'll still know the bad stuff is out there, but at least you'll be getting it through a filter of someone who gives a damn.

If you can't do that, be sure to keep reminding yourself that one negative does not eliminate all the positives—or even one of them. Just as a thousand positives can't wipe out that one negative, that one negative does not wipe out all those positives. They still count. Now, if you have a thousand negatives to one positive, it may be time to reassess what you're doing...but again, it's the balance you're looking at. One of each is breaking even. It's when things start to skew one way or the other that you may need to consider a new approach.

Remember the Source.

Someone I love dearly, but who doesn't really care for fairy tales, had this to say about Rosemary and Rue:

"You didn't tell me there would be fairies in this."

Full stop. From the tone—disgust, not pleased surprise—I know that he wasn't pleased, but beyond that, I just need to figure out how to take things. Since I know he doesn't like fairy tales, I can say "well, this wasn't his thing," and move on. If I didn't know him, this would be a lot harder to do. Sometimes you'll get negative reviews like that. Sites like Goodreads allow people to post ratings without any context; if I want to give your book a single star, I can, and you'll have no way of knowing why I did that, save for comparing the rating I gave your book to the ratings I gave to everybody else. Context is never a guarantee, and that's a real pity. Try not to let the ones you'll never understand gnaw at you too much. That's a good way of going quickly crazy.

When you do encounter critique with context, be sure to consider the context as objectively as possible. For example: I don't really like the Beatles very much. Why not? They're a great band, they did incredible, foundational things for modern rock-and-roll. Liking the Beatles should come naturally to someone who likes music as much as I do. But when I was a kid, the Monkees had their own television show, and they were my first exposure that particular "style." Objectively, I know that they were a Beatles knock-off, and that they were not as great as I remember them being. Emotionally, I don't like the Beatles. There will always be people for whom you are the Beatles, in both senses of the word. You'll be the best thing ever invented...and you'll be a pale imitation of something that they already love. I'd tell you not to take it personally, but you will, because we all do. Instead, I'll tell you that it really does happen to everybody. Promise.

The Need For Negativity.

Perfection is impossible for mortal hands and a mortal heart to achieve. I look at my own work and I want to edit it. Hell, sometimes I look at the work of other people and want to edit that. If no one said anything negative about your work, it wouldn't mean the flaws weren't there. It would just mean that they weren't interested enough to care. Take the negative feedback as a sign that you're doing at least one thing right: you're getting people engaged.

Fixing the rest is up to you.
© 2012 Seanan McGuire

Seanan McGuire is an author, poet, and musician who lives in the San Francisco Bay area with three cats and a small army of plush dinosaurs. She has recorded three albums, and published several novels. In 2010, she was awarded the John W. Campbell Award for best new writer in the field of science fiction and fantasy. She is nominated for four Hugo awards in 2012, including Best Related Work for her music album, "Wicked Girls".

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