When I worked at a supermarket, the most common topic of conversation was "customers". Everyone complained about them. Occasionally, I joined in. But some of the time, I was just standing there thinking: "These are the people that keep the shop in business and help us get paid."
A similar principle applies with writers and readers. We can complain all we like about our two star reviews, and that terrible beta reader that just didn't "get" our work, but the fact is: these are the people that are going to keep us in business. The sooner we try to impress them, the better.
I've had some rough feedback to my books. A friend, who beta read a lot of my earliest stuff when I was as young as eleven, told me one of my characters appeared schizophrenic, one was completely spineless, and one acted like he had come straight off a soap opera. This wasn't particularly flattering, and at eleven, I remember being completely outraged. For heaven's sake, I had written a 50,000 word novel. And a 95,000 word one the following year. Give me a break.
I'm so glad that my critics - even the ones who read my earliest work, written at a tender age - did not go easy on me. If they had, I would never have become the writer that I am today - and that's not brilliant, mind, but it was enough to land a couple of contracts.
It's crucial that we keep our ears open to what people have to say to us.
Here's a few thoughts about dealing with criticism.
1. Check the person's history.
Does this person read a lot of books? Are they an experienced reader, with a good literary founding? Do they know the genre they're talking about? Do they write? Have they been received well at university, in their work environment, and in the literary world in general? Have they had experience in the publishing market?
They don't have to qualify on all of these accounts, but if they qualify on at least two, I would give them a chance. Sometimes, I listen to what someone has to say simply because they are a reader. That's it; that's all they have to be. If they had a hard time reading my book - if it wasn't fun - then maybe something has to change.
2. Are a few people saying the same thing?
If you have a lot of people saying the plot of your book is hard to follow, then ... maybe it's hard to follow. That could be a possibility. When I hear two people give the same criticism, I get out my red pen. It's just not worth upsetting several readers because you're too proud to change.
My Dad has read so much of my work from the moment go. I used to not take him that seriously. Then I got a literary agency, and for two years of rejections from international publishers, I heard pretty much the same things Dad had said, from different mouths. Guess I should have listened.
3. Listen to yourself as you respond to criticism.
Are you endlessly justifying yourself? Are you offering explanation after explanation, to supplement the text? Are you thinking to yourself: "What a shame; they didn't really understand my book."
If you can say "yes" to any of these questions, you've got work to do.
Recently, I beta read another author's work. This author asked for feedback, and I gave it freely. The author in question then proceeded to say that they were "glad you got some enjoyment out of this book, even if you didn't really connect with it". The feedback I had given had nothing to do with "connecting". The character development was very poor, and the plot made little sense on a first reading. A reader just shouldn't have to work that hard.
But I guess I should have just tried connecting a bit better. Next time, I suppose.
Criticism is never easy. I get so depressed every time my Dad gives me another batch of it. But I get depressed because I know he's right. I know I have to listen. I know I have to work. Without criticism, we cannot grow as writers. We should never just write off criticism as "oh, those stupid publishers" or "man, that reader was dumb". We should always have one ear open, just to check if maybe, maybe it's really true.