Friday, May 04, 2007

Trolls, Snarks and Critics: A Writer's Bestiary

A good writer is a strip-tease artist. In the process of telling her story, she reveals a great deal about herself: what makes her laugh, what makes her cry, what turns her on. That's why the toughest skill for writers to learn is the ruthless objectivity of the craftsman: does this do what I want it to do? Does this have the effect I intend? After all, I'm revealing so much of myself. If it doesn't work, does that mean I myself am flawed?

Well, no. It just means you missed. Not even the best marksman hits the target every time. At the same time, though, if you can't force yourself to look at the target objectively, you won't know if you hit it or not.

Sometimes other people are a better judge of whether you hit your objective. They don't have as much invested in the effort, after all. It's probably taken you a good six months to write this particular book -- days of spilling your guts on the page, of laying it all out with every detail you can imagine as you struggle to create the emotional effect you want. No wonder being objective is so difficult.

That's why online criticism can be either invaluable or incredibly damaging to the artist. If it's truly objective, it can be a golden opportunity to see your work as another sees it and determine if it had the effect you intended.

The trouble is, online criticism is often far from objective, even when it pretends to be. The author of online criticism is frequently grinding an ax of one kind or another. Writers must decide if the criticism is legitimate and should be heeded, or is the product of some kind of agenda. A writer who listens to the wrong criticism can cripple herself with self-doubt and depression. At the same time, though, the writer who automatically rejects all criticism deprives herself of the chance to make her work better.


In one sense, trolls are the easiest creature in the writer's bestiary to spot, but that doesn't make them any easier to take. Like the troll under the bridge in the fairy tale, this kind of online critic springs out at unsuspecting artists with vicious attacks. Often it's because the artist has unintentionally written something that hits the troll's hot buttons.

For example, erotic romance writers tend to attract a species of troll who simply don't like highly sexual content. The romances the troll could once count on for a certain safe content are becoming increasingly sexual, and she finds this threatening. "Smut!" the troll shrieks. "Page after page of smut! Why can't you write like (insert author name here.)”

Because this kind of troll tends to sound just like your maiden aunt, she can trigger all kinds of guilt and anger in the writer. She’s telling you sex is bad, and you’re a slut for writing it. Since erotic romance authors tend to struggle with these feelings anyway, it’s very hard not to explode at the troll.

That’s when it’s time to walk away from the computer. Do not feed the troll. You’re not going to convince her that your books don’t contain too much sex or that you’re not a slut, so don’t even try. In fact, responding to her at all simply validates her opinion by telling her that you care what she thinks. You’ll find yourself in a flame war quicker than you can say “Billy Goat Gruff.”

And you won’t win. Don’t answer her e-mails, don’t respond to her posts. The less time spent on her, the less damage she gets to do to your productivity as an artist. Don’t give her what she wants – which is you, feeling like the slut she’s branded you.


Snarks are those online critics who pride themselves on using humor to puncture artists and writers. Mrs. Giggles is a good example.

Snarks are in many ways more troubling than trolls for a number of reasons. For one thing, they may actually have a legitimate artistic point, whereas a troll is simply irrational and shrill. What’s more, because they use humor to poke fun at the book, they tend to bring out a writer’s inner twelve-year-old, who remembers getting laughed at for wearing something goofy-looking to school.

Anytime a point is made in a biting, clever way, it gains power.

But that still doesn’t mean it’s right. Sometimes Snarks go for an obvious joke just because it’s funny, not because the book really doesn’t work. The Snark’s objective is to attract web-traffic to her site, and humor is an effective way to do that. What’s more, if an oversensitive writer shows up to rail at her, she’s got the opportunity of a lifetime. The writer’s fans will also make an appearance, along with various enemies looking to see the writer get her comeuppance. All of which means lots and lots of glorious hits.

Which is exactly why writers should never, ever show up at a Snark site to bitch about a review. One, you’re handing her hits, and two, you’re giving her another opportunity to humiliate you. Which she’s going to do. Even if you feel you’re more than up to out-Snarking her, you’re validating her by admitting her dig hurt. Don’t do that.

On the other hand, sometimes a Snark is also a legitimate critic, and that’s when you need to take her a little more seriously.


As I've said, no writer hits the mark every single time with every single scene. Writers must handle a vast number of difficult tasks in writing a book: beautiful description, gripping conflict, pacing that flows, characterization that makes readers believe absolutely in imaginary people. It’s tough. Sometimes, scenes or lines or perhaps even entire books miss the mark. Our objective as writers is to identify the point at which a book misses and figure out how to avoid that mistake on the next one.

You want people to say of you, “She gets better with every book she writes.”

So when a critique points out a flaw in a book in a rational, objective way – and I’m not talking about, “This book sux!” – you need to pay attention. Think about the comment, even if it stings. Does it resonate internally? I’ve had Amazon reviewers dismiss my books as boring, which is one criticism I’ve never taken seriously. On the other hand, I’ve had others who say my weird universe incorporates everything but the kitchen sink, which makes it hard to take seriously. I admit, I think about remarks like that, wondering if I should simplify just a bit in the next universe I create.

You should also take a criticism more seriously if you hear the same thing from a number of people. I’ve had Amazon reviewers complain about Jane’s Warlord because I didn’t make clear that Jane’s father murdered her mother. I didn’t really tie up that particular loose end, a problem I’m going to keep an eye on in the future.

On the other hand, just because a legitimate reviewer makes a comment about a book, that doesn’t mean she’s right. It could be that she simply doesn’t like that particular kind of book, or even that she’d had a really rotten day when she sat down to write the review.

But whether you’re dealing with legitimate critics, Snarks or Trolls, never let anyone’s words keep you from writing or make you feel inadequate. Writing is a learning process. Remember: you may write the book, but you are not the book. The book is a piece of craft, no different from a coffee table. If the legs are a little crooked this time, make them straighter the next. Learn from your mistakes, and incorporate what you’ve learned in the next one.

That’s what truly separates a professional writer from a wannabe.


Robin L. Rotham said...

Thank you for posting this, Angela. As a new author preparing to face her first reviews, I really needed to hear it. Not that I'd have bearded a troll or snark in her den, of course, but I would probably have let her destroy me for a while. I think I'm going to have my CP screen my reviews and only let me see the ones with useful feedback.

Who am I kidding? I don't have that kind of self-control. I'll read every word in every review and howl over the rotten ones. But then I'll read this post again, suck it up, and carry on.

Jenna Leigh said...

My problem is sometimes in the wee dark hours when I'm writing I start to think. "Oh crap, what if *insert appropriate relative here* reads this?" Just my luck I have Critics, Snarks and Trolls in my family tree which puts me deep within the belly of that Bestiary. Lucky me, huh?

Monica Burns said...

Well said! I couldn't agree more, particularly the part about if more than ONE critic points out the same thing. The rest is all opinion.


Julia Templeton said...

What an excellent and timely post, Angela. Sometimes it's tough to walk away from a troll, snark or critic, but I've learned to do just that.

Deb said...

having LOVED everything of yours I can get my hands on (bring on Kel's book !!), I would just like to ask you to please ignore the trolls and snarks. The critics may or may not have a point, which is up to you as an author to decide.
But just so you're aware, there are lots of us out there who don't think you need to get any better, you started off fantastic !

Diana Holquist said...

This blog post sux!

No, just kidding. Good stuff.

I got a review once on B& from a reader that I moaned over for weeks. Then one morning, I woke up and realized the woman was absolutely right. Spot on. Damn her.

I went straight to the scene I was writing and fixed what she hated, and the scene was ten times better.

In so many ways, it was the best review I've ever gotten.

But I still think she's a troll :-)


L.K. Campbell said...

Thank you for having the guts to post this. I think you've said everything that needed to be said.

Bernadette Gardner and Jennifer Colgan said...

Excellent post! This should be the first day's lesson in Writing for Publication 101.

Angela Knight said...

Thanks for the kind words, ladies. The relative thing is tough, Jenna. I used to go through that all the time with my mother, who is a Born Again Christian who thinks I should be writing Inspys. I've had to tell her she's delusional. Fortunately, she was thrilled when I got my Berkley contract. She buys my books -- she doesn't read them, but she buys them. This is just as well. I don't think either of us would survive her reading my books!

Diana -- Yeah, I hate it when that happens. But like I said, when you learn from a mistake, that's all that counts. Think "chair" instead of "piece of my soul," and you'll find criticism less painful. :)

Jolie Mathis said...

Great post, Angela. I couldn't agree more, on all counts. As an author, I crave objective criticism -- we all want to continue improving, don't we? There have been times when I've read a criticism of my work in a review, and thought: I agree completely. I'm going to work on that.

But as a reader, it's clear to me when I don't like something because of my own personal taste. That doesn't make a book "a waste" or a "wall-banger". It simply means the book isn't for me. We all have different sensibilities and hot buttons, and thank goodness the publishers give us variety.

mandymroth said...

Great post! Thanks for sharing this. As it turns out, I'm going through one of those moments right now... you know... when you want to toss your hands up and hang a white flag just to keep the trolls and snarks away.

Thanks again! I needed a pick me up!

Sela Carsen said...

Great post -- and fwiw, it didn't bother me that you didn't tie up that loose end in Jane's Warlord.

I haven't been in this game that long and have only been published for less than a year, but I'm slowly learning.

After being an actress, I thought I had a thick skin. Being a writer is harder. And it's good that I'm learning now, because I foresee it's only going to get harder from here on out.

Eva Gale said...

Since erotic romance authors tend to struggle with these feelings anyway, it’s very hard not to explode at the troll.

I know you didn't mean it in a realistic eviscera spreading way, but that's the way I saw it in my head as I read, and I just about laughed myself into a fit of hiccups. Like authors have some sort of button we can push and *splat* the troll is wiping author out of their hair.

I'd say this post was so good, that I could lick you again, but that's a bit old now. *g*

J.C. Wilder said...


I have told you how much I adore you? You've hit the nail on the head and I'm applauding wildly. :)

JC Wilder

Janet/Cricket said...

Very well said, Angela. For most of us we can get a dozen great reviews but it will be the one reviewer who had something negative to say that we'll give too much power to.

Oh, my mom used to suggest I write children's books but that was because she saw how much the Harry Potter books were earning. She's fine with reading my Cricket books (go figure!)

Janet Miller / Cricket Starr

Janet/Cricket said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sabrina Luna said...

Well-done, Angela! Thx!

Sam said...

Great post!

As Kipling said, 'If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same'...

That can refer to reviews too, I think.


Brenda Williamson said...

Great post Angela :-)

PS: My mother has all my books too, but doesn't read them and she's a big romance reader. She just doesn't like erotic.

Anonymous said...

This is right on. Thanks, Angela.
~ Lise Fuller

Ashlyn Chase said...

HI Angela,

Boy, I wish I had read this yesterday when I really needed it.

A snarky reviewer bashed my book in such a bizarre way, I couldn't believe what I was reading! I recognised a hidden agenda, but it didn't take away the sting.

I have a long list of creative people who've either committed or attempted suicide. I wonder if some of them were reacting to destructive criticism.

Good thing my belief system won't allow that sort of thing!


Angela Knight said...

Creative people are very vulnerable to depression, I'm afraid. We're emotional people -- it's what gives our work its power. I've had some very rough times with depression myself. The key is to recognize when you need help -- and GET IT. Right then. And don't give up, even though it may take time for the treatment to kick in. Recognize that when you're feeling suicidal, it's not real. It's a product of neurochemicals in the brain. Hold on and get treated!

Angela Knight

Shiloh Walker said...

Do not feed the troll.

lol... this was cute, AK. And absolutely, if it's somebody tearing down whatever genre you right... ignore it. It won't change the situation, period.

About legit reviews, snarky or not, I hate bad reviews as much as any other person~they make the writer in me cringe. However, I try not to take it personal, whatever or whoever is saying it. Not everybody is going to like what I write. It's a fact~I'll deal.

I've actually seen some things mentioned in reviews of my books that make a bell go off and I realize I needed to fix something.

And as weird as this might sound, I'll take a snarky, critical review that's honest over a glowing, not so honest one anyday. I can learn from criticism and get better. I can't learn from glowy.

Dragonmoon said...

Gawd i love you LOLOLOL its true, this post was a total classic, Dont feed the Troll *snort*

i could picture the perfect reviews for each of these cases, in some reviews im left wondering if they had even read the book??

its certainly not the same book i read...

im doing a writing course and one of my mini assignments was i had to judge the next 10 books i read, i had to make a note of what i like and what i didnt like about that particular book...

i then had to put down reasons why i didnt like certain scenes/styles etc and it really made me aware of the plot and made me REALLY appreciate some writers gifts :)

im rambling so im off,

Michelle said...

Great, great post! I'm keeping this one. Getting uncomplimentary reviews was a rude awakening, and I've slowly come to accept them as a fact of the writer's life. In the beginning, I truly thought that a bad review would screw up my "career." Now I know that's not the case. They still sting, but it's true...there are some pearls of wisdom to be found amongst the poop.

swenholt2 said...

-- and fwiw, it didn't bother me that you didn't tie up that loose end in Jane's Warlord.

Ditto! I thought it added a really nice touch of tension. After all, what often happens in Real Life domestic abuse cases like that. Solid answers? Heck, no!

In the few fan letters I've sent, I've always tried to balance any criticism with praise of something the author did that I particularly enjoyed, and I always let the author know how much I appreciate all their hard work.

Thank you very much for yours! It is an absolute pleasure to read your works.

Angela Knight said...

Thank you for the kind comments, Swenholt. It means a lot to me to know people enjoy my work.