If you write and publish, you know that thick skin is required. Writers, all of us, are an insecure lot. Even the most talented and prolific writers I coach and edit crave validation, need to hear those magic words: "Yes, it's good." But even when it's good, if you're exposing any experiences, thoughts, beliefs, and ideas that may potentially rub people the wrong way, you may still be facing your vulnerability head-on when you publish. And because people are easily rubbed the wrong way, about 90 percent of the authors I work with encounter some form of criticism on their publishing journey.
When I worked at Seal Press, I learned that courting controversy is a marketing strategy. Posting provocative stuff online to make a play for people's extremely divided attention works. The bloggers I read most regularly are pretty provocative folks: The Bloggess, Chuck Wendig, and David Gaughran. Yes, even publishing people can court controversy. I've done it myself.
But sometimes you find controversy when you're not courting it all. Sometimes it's your truth, your honesty, and the very facts of your life story that provoke people. I've worked with authors who've been lambasted in online forums for writing about being gay, having an abortion, championing women's issues, recovery, seeking out alternative ways to get pregnant, and mental illness. That writers are routinely attacked for being brave enough to put their truth out there is one of the most tragic ramifications of our fast-flying Internet culture, where there's no accountability (and no shame) from people who troll sites looking for outlets for their self-righteousness.
So writers beware, and keep your armor on hand. She Writes Press author Kelly Kittel published a beautiful memoir, Breathe, in which she wrote about the loss of two of her children--one a baby who died as the result of medical malpractice, and the other a toddler who was run over by her then-sixteen-year-old niece. Critics--family members included--called her memoir a vendetta. Like many memoirists, however, Kittel could not not write this book, and she had to tap into her inner compass every day, knowing that there would likely be fallout from the writing of her book.
About this idea of having a thick skin, Kittel said:
"As the time for publication drew near and I gave voice to the worries waking me up in the middle of the night, my daughter reminded me, 'Mom, you've had the strength to get this far, to live your story, I know you have the strength to see this through.' Another night my son said, 'Mom, be a warrior, not a worrier!'"
Kittel wrote her book to tell the story of her sons and to help others. Her story presents an extreme example of a challenge many writers face: Tell the truth, or protect others?
Another author I've had the honor to work with on three books during my time at Seal Press is Jessica Valenti, author of Why Have Kids? and Full Frontal Feminism, and one of the most beloved and routinely attacked authors I know. I asked her how she deals with the harassers--especially because I know how feisty she is, and how passionate she is about championing women and promoting a feminist message--the very issues she writes about that make her a lightning rod. Jessica told me:
"Every person has a different way of handling haters, and I like to take a multipronged approach! On days when I'm feeling up to it, I take them on, usually making them look foolish in the process. Some might say don't feed the trolls, but bringing attention to their behavior shows others what the consequences are for women who dare speak their mind. On other days, I just ignore them and hug my kid. At the end of the day I remember that for someone to spend so much time hating and harassing other people, it must mean that their own life isn't very full or happy. Having some empathy for that--while it can be hard--goes a long way."
Having been at the center of a few online shitstorms myself, here's my advice for dealing with criticism:
1. If you've written a book and you're dealing with a bad review online, don't engage. Never respond to a blogger who initiates a negative post about your book, your writing, or you. Don't give them the satisfaction of knowing you even found what they wrote. If someone posts a bad Amazon review, click the "No, this was not helpful to me" button and move on.
2. Prepare yourself for the criticism in advance of publishing by reminding yourself why you wrote your book in the first place--or, if it's a post, why you're putting the post out there. Kittel keeps a magnet on her fridge that says: "Be brave and do hard things." If you're writing your truth and getting slammed online for being who you are and living your experience, take the high road. Remember Jessica's advice and try to have empathy.
3. Remember that while criticism feels horrible, and it's the easiest thing in the world to be consumed by it, feeding the trolls can be dangerous. Your reaction may add fuel to the fire. You may well be shocked by people's behavior online, attacking you personally, but commenting and getting embroiled will only bring more attention to it. Remember that just because it's public doesn't mean that everyone in the world is paying attention.
4. Beware that engaging a troll can land you with a stalker. I once called someone out for the comments he was making on one of my posts and he promptly started sending me (threatening) private Facebook messages--and this was benign compared to some high-profile authors I know who've had scary stalking experiences. If you feel threatened, you can block people, obviously, but you might also want to take a little Internet hiatus to give things some space.
5. Gather support. Remember that the negative voices are always louder than the positive ones. I have seen writers post something and dwell on the one or two negative comments among fifty or sixty positive ones. You're not wrong for dwelling on the negative; we all do it. But try to see if you can give as much weight to your supporters as you do to your detractors, gaining enough strength and confidence from those virtual high-fives and hugs to dampen the impact of the naysayers.