Embracing Negative Reviews

Why would you want to embrace a negative review of your book? Because understanding and respecting another’s point-of-view is possibly the most essential skill of a serious writer. Once you learn to absorb and apply the information from someone else’s feedback, you can push yourself to grow and improve as an artist. I’m not saying all feedback is useful. As a writer, you have to learn to distinguish between the helpful and not-so-helpful comments. This comes with time and experience. It’s easy to use helpful comments to your advantage, but remember that sometimes unfavorable feedback is worth embracing, too.

Let’s use my Kirkus Review for “Sea Horse, run!” as an exampleRather than ask the reviewer why he didn’t like the story, I simply thanked him for his time and begged him NOT to publish the review on the Kirkus website. After further reflection, I’m publishing the full review here as an example to other writers of what can happen when you ask someone to generate an unbiased review of your book.

Here are five simple steps that may help fellow writers extract the positive from a negative review:

1) Respect the reviewer’s opinion. In other words, do not write back to the reviewer and explain why they are wrong. Do not ask the reviewer why they did not like your book. It will not change the review, and ultimately it is unprofessional. Just remember every review is subjective. Accept the review, as it is, and move on.

2) Be objective. Decide whether or not the comments are ‘helpful’ or ‘not-so-helpful.’ The best way to do this is to set the review aside for a few hours or even a few days. This allows you time to calm down and think rationally when you reread your ‘negative’ review.

3) Dig. Extract as many helpful quotes as you can. All you need is one positive word. Many dust jackets boast powerful one-word reviews: “Stunning…” or “Beautiful…” are both positive words that can be extracted from my Kirkus review. I use this phrase from Kirkus to describe my book on tear sheets:

“…the pictures are a delight; children will love looking at the vast array of beautifully detailed, softly colored sea creatures that are bestowed with endearingly expressive qualities…A Beautiful Book…”

4) Focus on the positive. Don’t punish yourself by reading and rereading negative comments over and over again. If there is nothing positive in your review, set that review aside and focus on the positive feedback you receive from other people.

5) Have an attitude of gratitude. This is a lesson I embedded in my first picture book, Tiny Snail, and although I meant it for children, this lesson has served me well as a serious writer. If a reviewer takes the time to read your book and write about it, thank them.

Now with all this said, here is the full review of “Sea Horse, run!” provided to me by Kirkus:

An undersea tale about a brave sea horse, illustrated with lovely, lush watercolor and pencil pictures.

Coral loves to sing, but for reasons unexplained Sea Horse is the only animal who can hear her. One day when Sea Horse is next to Coral, several sharks dart past and Coral sings “Sea Horse, run far, far away.” But Sea Horse merely hugs Coral, stops the shark and asks why he is fleeing. The shark trembles with fear and announces that a sea dragon is coming, explaining that they are “fearsome, terrible beasts.” Next, a large slithering eel with pointed teeth approaches Sea Horse with the same warning of impending doom. And a gigantic octopus with an eye half the size of Sea Horse hovers menacingly above and tells Sea Horse that the sea dragon’s tentacles will engulf the entire reef and “crunch Coral.” Each time a threatening creature approaches, Coral repeats her warning. But loyal Sea Horse refuses to budge, telling Coral “I will protect you…I will save you from the dragon!” But the reader is left to puzzle exactly how that would be possible. The story lacks a foundation that could clarify and define the relationships; an early explanation of how the other creatures came to their conclusions about the threat posed by a sea dragon, or some exploration of the general dynamics of this particular undersea world would help readers understand and enjoy the story more. Unfortunately, because of Coral’s lack of varied dialogue and visual individualization, her character as well as her relationship with Sea Horse wants for an emotional connection. But the pictures are a delight; children will love looking at the vast array of beautifully detailed, softly colored sea creatures that are bestowed with endearingly expressive qualities. At the back of the book is a two-page spread illustrating the various undersea animals of the Australian coral reef. Also included are facts about sea horses and sea dragons, and a map showing the locations of coral reefs around the world. A well-furnished website supplements the book, including a teacher’s guide and a host of downloadable activities for children.

A beautiful book that’s more fun to look at than to read.

*******************

I received this review in May 2011 and within a matter of weeks I won my first award for “Sea Horse, run!”:  the 2011 Next Generation Indie Book Award for Best Picture Book. I focus on the award, but if not for my feedback from Kirkus, I would not have written the sequel to “Sea Horse, run!” entitled Three Little Dragons (Due for publication in 2013). That makes my Kirkus Review invaluable. Thank you, Kirkus, for inspiring my next book!

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One response

  1. You know, I mostly think they liked it. They were confused on a couple points, but I wouldn’t say they hated it or even disliked it. I think you’re exactly right to take the review as is and glean the nuggets of useful wisdom. It was constructive instead of mean, and showcases how subjective the reviewing (and publishing) world is. The award you won is proof that while picture books can be seen in many different ways. I applaud you for sharing!

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