What Writers Can Learn from the Great Roger Ebert

Standard

thumbs-up-down-iconsI’ve been thinking a lot about criticism since the news of Roger Ebert’s death, and about the lessons we in writing and publishing can learn from his amazing career. His passion for the films he liked inspired generations of young filmmakers to seek that “thumbs up.” He could also strike a low blow better than anyone else—he famously said of 1998’s Armaggedon: “No matter what they’re charging to get in, it’s worth more to get out.” (Read more great examples here.) That kind of witty critique is hilarious—unless it’s directed at you.

The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

When your book debuts, first will come the gushing reviews—it wouldn’t have been published, or gained popularity as a self-pubbed title, if there weren’t a lot to like. But the sad truth is that if your book is in the public realm, sooner or later you will receive a negative review. One that cuts to your very soul.

So what do you do next? I suggest framing the positive reviews and hanging them around your desk. Smile at them; give them a wink and a coy wave now and then. How you deal with the negative ones depends on your level of creativity—and hey, you’re a writer, so the sky’s the limit! Crumple them and use them as cat toys (you know how ferocious Fluffy can be), roll them up and smoke them in your incense burner, or use them to protect the carpet while toilet-training your puppy. But there are two things you should never do. The first is to respond to them publicly—even your most loyal fans will be turned off, embarrassed, or appalled, depending on the tone of your rebuttal; it’s just not professional. The second is to pretend they never happened. Use bad reviews—let them fuel your desire to become even better. The most dangerous thing that can happen to a writer is complacency.

Critics stake their reputations and their livelihoods on strong convictions. Roger Ebert knew what he had to say wouldn’t please everyone. He said it anyway, and we respected him the more for it. As an author, you must pour that same courage and brutal honesty into your work. Your ability to do that—more than any review—will be the measure of your success.

What do you do to move forward after rejection or criticism, whether to your published novel, manuscript, or query letter? Please share your advice and stories!

2 responses »

  1. The only critiques I’ve gotten thus far were feedback on my WIP, and the folks giving them were trying to be helpful. Even then, it can sting a bit to learn my work isn’t perfect. I use all these critiques as a road map for improvement. I hope in the future, when I receive criticisms on published work, that I can still view such opinions as being helpful even if that was not the intention of the reviewer.

  2. I review a lot of books on Amazon. In the last several months, I’ve been asked by writers to read and comment on various works. What a daunting request because I’m honest in my reviews.

    As a writer, I beg my critique-partners to be honest, brutal even. If what I’ve written isn’t up to par, they have to tell me from a point of helpfulness because I know that someday my novel(s) will be out there floating around getting truly unbiased reviews. Some will love me and some will hate me. I’d rather have the hate now and learn to accept it from people who care. That way when people I don’t know slam my work, I can roll with the punches.

    I’ll have to get a pet, though, so I can use the reviews for training purposes or play toys!

    Thanks, Anita!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s