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Oh, God, step AWAY from the Internet!

I usually walk into these Internet dustups after the fact, but this morning in one of my usual Internet haunts I encountered a discussion about Jacqueline Howett and her reaction to a review.

I'm not going to link, and you've probably heard all about it already anyway.

Let's all say it together: dudes. Do not respond to reviews. (Actually, come to think of it the reviewer might have been wise not to respond to the author, either--maybe letting her post that first blast of crazy, replying to it once, and then locking the thread would have been best for everyone.)

It's self-evident that this poor woman is mighty crazy, but here's the thing: she's not alone. The forum where I found the link to her escapades has, over the years, shown me links to numerous instances of authors doing things that were every bit as deluded and self-destructive, often on Amazon.

I find it puzzling that authors seem to have so much faith in the power of reviews, and so little in the power of PEOPLE READING YOUR CRAZY, CRAZY RESPONSES. The book blog where Howett went nuts? I'd never heard of it before. Lots of us had never heard of it before. Obviously, lots of us had never heard of JH either, but I guess that's the problem: she may have thought that, with a profile as low as hers was already, she couldn't afford a single bad review, no matter how obscure.

What, but she could afford to turn herself into a laughingstock on the Internet? Really?

Folks, going batshit crazy over a bad review, or worse yet a middling review (or even better, a pretty good review--which I have seen, and the attacked reviewer was an online friend of mine, and I bet I am not the only person who's put that author on the Don't Ever Read Just 'Cause I'm Like That list)

Ahem. Lost in parentheses. You don't help your cause by freaking out over a review. Really. And obviously some authors are too self-invested and self-deluded and just really really sad to get this message, so let's also address the less frankly bonkers way stations on the downward slide:

Replying directly to reviews is probably a bad idea. It's mostly okay to say, "Thanks!" but leave it at that. I've seen authors start off by thanking the reviewer, then respond to points in the review, beg for further feedback, and basically behave as if they've been starved of human contact for weeks. Please, don't do that. It's uncomfortable to read and it must be awkward as hell for the reviewer, who if they're anything like me will never risk reviewing another of your books ever again.

Complaining about bad reviews in your blog? Also a bad idea. Really. The only time I can see responding is if there is an actual, plot-pertinent factual error in the review, and even at that you're better off sucking it up and letting it go. (As a natural pedant and someone who can't rest when Someone On the Internet Is Wrong, I'm posting this mostly for myself.) No good can come of it. At best you look like you're too fragile for this planet. At worst--and on the Internet, it's usually worst sooner or later--you look like a nightmare. Locked posts are your friend if you need to vent, as are specific, trusted-souls-only friend filters. Best of all is our old pal the telephone, where there is no written record of your petty-looking venting to come back and bite you in the ass.

Getting back to the original author and her original book--the actual review was very generous, saying the story was good but the mechanical errors were deeply distracting. Having found and read a free sample of the first few chapters, I would describe the writing as trite at best (and I do mean "at best," because based on the two chapters I later read online, at worst it was really bad), and I was given no reason to think the plot was going to be fascinating enough to save the day.

Which leads me to another point, and one that's occurred to me before in my sallies around the Internet: where do authors get off thinking that one or another element of writing "doesn't count." Oh, you think up cool story ideas, so that should get you a pass on being unable to construct a comprehensible sentence or spell your way out of third grade? Oh, you know lots of words and your sentences are grammatical, so that should excuse your inability to create a lively character or construct an interesting plot?

That's like saying you're a really good rider, except for the part where you constantly fall off your horse.

You need both. You need both.

And yes, I know writing a story is hard, and finishing a full draft of a novel is a big accomplishment that most people won't ever match. But that's a personal, internal accomplishment. It doesn't mean your draft is objectively good, or in any way finished, or that the very best you can do will ever deserve praise by a third party, in the form of publication or reviews. It's a major reason most writing advice tells you to finish the draft and set it aside until you have some hope of being objective yourself. It's a major reason many self-published books do and will always suck: nobody but the writer has ever seen them up until publication, and the writer hasn't learned to tell the difference between a personal achievement and one that's ready for others to see.

Over the weekend I discovered that some self-published writers are co-opting the term "indie" to describe their work. (Which must really please the many actual indie presses out there.) The old "why is indie music cool, but indie writers are beyond the pale?" argument is still out there--I've seen it crop up again fairly recently--and my reply to that one is still,

"An indie band is a band, which generally consists of more than one person, who perform their music in the presence of more than one person, and record it with the assistance of more than one person. (Generally different more than one persons.) So the indie band--which incidentally may still be deluded and suck--has at least gotten some input on the quality of their output at some point. Music is, by its nature, collaborative. Writing--not so much."

[Yes, sure, thanks to various computer programs, digital recorders, and the Internet it's possible for an individual to produce their own music in the same kind of vacuum that some writers produce their self-published books, and there is such a thing as a vanity record label... but I'm pretty sure the argument cited above is trying to compare the self-published writer to Arcade Fire, not Rebecca Black. (Whose song, incidentally, I have never listened to so that comment might be unfair.)]

I've since concluded my response takes more syllables than I'm willing to spend on the argument, so I've trimmed it down to,

"The difference between an indie band and a self-published writer is, the self-published writer doesn't have a bass player to tell them when they are full of shit."

I actually think I should be saying "drummer," because I am told that even Bono, for the love of God, has to explain himself to Larry Mullen Jr, who is by all accounts very tough and fortunately also very sane.

So, in summation: if you have no inner Larry Mullen Jr, you are not best qualified to speak on the quality of your own work. So try not to over react when someone else does.

Also, I know starving artists hang out in garrets, but coming out occasionally and interacting with other humans is a good idea, and may save you from a horrid shock when you learn that not everyone views the world, and your work, through your same rose-coloured glasses. I mean--the classic cautionary-tale wannabe writer is self-centred and delusional. I'd be willing to bet a lot of these people are far more self-absorbed and pleased with themselves than Bono (who, as I've noted before, I like, so go with me.) Well, that's because their entire career takes place inside their own heads. And it's a helluva shock when they finally encounter a reaction to their work that comes from outside their own heads and doesn't mirror the reality they've created for themselves.

I hope Jacqueline Howett has actual in-person friends who can explain this to her. Or possibly just unplug her Internet connection for a while.

And, oh yes--feel free to remind me of all this, should I ever find myself in a similar situation. When you release a piece of art into the wild, it's going to interact with other people, and they will form their own opinions about it. That's kind of the point.


( 12 comments — Leave a comment )
29th Mar, 2011 16:04 (UTC)
This reminds me of a few weeks ago when Becca Fitzpatrick (author of the YA paranormal romance Hush, Hush, which has been repeatedly criticized as anti-feminist and just plain creepy on a lot of levels) wrote a blog on Goodreads that not so subtly told reviewers to "be nice" in their reviews, otherwise if those same reviewers happened to be, I don't know, aspiring authors in her genre, she would BLACKLIST THEM and she would convince the clique of YA writers out there to do the same.

This gave rise to a firestorm of controversy. The term "YA Mafia" was thrown around. Some agents and authors more or less agreed (to a point). Some authors said it was the most ridiculous thing they'd ever heard. Some reviewers went so far as to make their Goodreads accounts private, or delete their book review blogs all together. Others went the total opposite route and tore into Becca Fitzpatrick's work with gleeful vigor. Lots of people ruminated on what "be nice" even means to a reviewer...does it mean five stars, period? Does it mean somehow knowing what would upset the author, and therefore not mentioning those specific things? Does it mean not calling the author a stupid nitwit? Granted, Becca Fitzpatrick can hold all the grudges she wants, and aspiring authors probably shouldn't query the agents of authors they seriously don't like, since that seems counterproductive.

I'm still pretty put off by the whole thing. This blatant attempt to push reviewers around bothers me, especially when it comes to threatening their possible career moves all over a couple of negative reviews (which are justifiable in many cases, especially when it comes to the ridiculous anti-feminist, abusive bullshit in about 80% of YA).
29th Mar, 2011 16:07 (UTC)
Is THAT where the YA Mafia thing started? I'd seen it referenced but couldn't track it back!

Wow, it's enough to make me wish I read Becca Fitzpatrick just so I could publicly stop!

Seriously, are authors more badly-behaved than other creative people, or do I just pay more attention to them?
29th Mar, 2011 16:25 (UTC)
Yup. This is the blog that started it: http://www.goodreads.com/author_blog_posts/973516-be-nice

Apparently Fitzpatrick already outright refused to give a blurb to an author who had written a "scathing" review of her book. How she is so positive about this I wouldn't know, since I don't know anyone who gives their full name under reviews. If Fitzpatrick is correct, the negative reviewer/new author is lying to her editor about loving Hush, Hush enough to want Fitzpatrick's blurb.

I think authors are in general a pretty eccentric bunch, and since we're both writers we pay attention to them when they really go nuts. ;) Although, I think authors tend to be too close to work that is meant for mass consumption. It's easy to say "release it into the wild and don't think about it," but in the end the author is usually the sole creator of that piece of work that's then open to the scrutiny of the unwashed masses in ways I think other artists don't have to deal with (there's no Amazon for sculptors, last I checked!). And thanks to the internet, that scrutiny is so much easier to find.
29th Mar, 2011 16:31 (UTC)
I do think "release it into the wild and let it have its own adventures" is the only way to stay sane, though. Either that or make a pact with friends, that when you have the urge to respond to a review or whatever you call them first and let them talk you down.

Because man, I've been all up inside my own head about stuff before, and it would not be pretty for that stuff to get out!
29th Mar, 2011 16:36 (UTC)
I agree with you completely. When the work is sold and printed and in stores, that's when you let it go because how is it even logical to get upset over everyone who doesn't like your book? Like you said, there are plenty of people out there that just won't like it (maybe for the stupidest reasons!), and no amount of persuasion or foot stomping in public is going to make them see the light.

Now, venting in private is totally acceptable. We're all human! It's just that a computer should never be within striking distance when that happens.
29th Mar, 2011 16:39 (UTC)
Seriously, there is a time when the phone is your dearest friend. Vent vent vent, and then hang up. Done. The dear friend on the other end can even put it down, go about their business, and just pick it up to go "uh huh," and "you poor dear!' occasionally.

I can't imagine anyone having the strength to NOT look up their own reviews, but going berserk and having it spread all over Twitter is going to hurt you far worse than a bad review!
29th Mar, 2011 17:16 (UTC)
Having been in a crit group for years, I well know that gut reaction when someone 'disses' your work. Most times I completely let it waft over my head while singing lalala. Only if it is completely unjust to I get incensed.

The pathetic thing about the JH fiasco is that she couldn't see how grammatically wrong her own sentences were. We all make mistakes unless we are grammar mavens but it looks like because she could 'read' them out loud, she presumed they were correct. British grammar *is* slightly different but not so much as all that. We don't use half as many commas as far as I can make out, but, still.

Yes, please shoot me, if I haven't already shot myself in the foot, if I *ever* behave like that. Mind you, if that had been me I would have been quietly burying myself in a hole out of embarrassment not telling folk to F orf.
29th Mar, 2011 17:48 (UTC)
Yeah, her written communication style can't be explained by her being British. I have encountered people who just can't express themselves in writing. It's very weird.

I promise I'll sit on you if you do anything rash, as long as you promise to return the favour!
29th Mar, 2011 18:48 (UTC)
I <3 you so much.

(Also, WOW. I missed the crazy bus first time around, but I've tracked down some of the original links and GOOD GRIEF. If I *ever* even consider behaving that badly, please reach through my computer screen and throttle me, okay?)
29th Mar, 2011 19:28 (UTC)
I'm pretty sure you're incapable of getting that wild about something like this, but I promise. She has to be someone with all her emotional eggs in this one basket, or something like that. Perspective: it's not just for landscape painters...
30th Mar, 2011 08:48 (UTC)
Perspective: it's not just for landscape painters...


The correct reaction to that review would have been 'my grammar? What's wrong with my grammar? Hey, trusted friends, this person just said there's something wrong with my grammar - can you please point out what he means, because I can't see it', followed by 'oh' some time later.

She carried her body down the stairs... if you can't see what's wrong with that, go away until you *can*. Go straight to the library, do not press 'publish'.
30th Mar, 2011 10:37 (UTC)
The only way "She carried her body down the stairs" et cetera is even possible from a writing perspective is if she started using her thesaurus function and never stopped to think about whether the words she chose made sense.

Incidentally, there is footage on YouTube of her reading from her novel, and she has a British-English accent. So it appears the problem is not that she's trying to write in her second or third language. I've met the occasional English-speaker whose spoken English was quite normal, but who could not translate that into anything approaching standard written English. It's a pretty serious handicap for someone who wants to be a writer, and it does not help to get angry at the readers who point it out!
( 12 comments — Leave a comment )


Shelley McKibbon


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