Author Interview: Alexa Young on Dealing with Criticism

At some point in your life, you will realize that unlike your mother, everyone in the world does NOT think you are simply fantabulous. You’ll figure it out in school, in sports, at work and most certainly in the writing world. Alexa Young, author of the Frenemies series, knows exactly how it feels to endure the sting of reader’s criticism and what do after the wound heals. In fact, she created a whole blog about nasty criticism called The Worst Review Ever, which invites the all published writers to share and respond to their worst reviews in a supportive environment. She was gracious enough to do an interview to share her words of wisdom.

Y&W: What made you decide to start The Worst Review Ever blog?

AY: My insatiable need for revenge! No, in all seriousness, it was somewhat inspired by my less-than-mature reaction to a scathing review my debut young adult novel, FRENEMIES, received from a teen book blogger. Of course I *wanted* to handle it gracefully, to see the humor in it—and I tried (I really did!)—but when I attempted to respond (both on my own blog and in the comments on this reviewer’s blog), I just kept digging myself into a deeper, whinier hole. That’s when I began to understand why so many of my fellow authors insist you should NEVER, EVER respond to reviews—good, bad or indifferent—because even if you *are* gracious, someone’s bound to misinterpret your words, effort, intent. However, I still couldn’t reconcile that with the fact that a lot of authors—and really, anybody who creates something and puts it out there for public consumption—are deeply affected by how their work is received, and desperately want to respond in some way. I also think that responding is therapeutic. We all need to process the pain, and when a review is public, why shouldn’t we be able to respond in public? I figured creating a space where it’s acceptable to do that could be interesting… entertaining… educational… and enlightening.

Y&W: I know you posted your WRE, but do you have a best one?

AY:There were several nice reviews of FRENEMIES, including this one from another teen blogger known as REVIEWER X: http://reviewerx.blogspot.com/2008/05/frenemies-by-alexa-young_28.html. I think the best reviews, though, have come from the readers who’ve gone out and bought the books and enjoyed them enough to email me and shower me with praise. That’s one of the most rewarding things about writing for teens—they take the time to get in touch! Some of their messages can be found on my website here: http://alexayoung.com/BestFansForever.html

Y&W: Has the blog helped or changed your response to criticism at all?

AY:Oh, definitely. I always thought I was pretty good at taking criticism, but I realized I had a long way to go in achieving the proper perspective. I also rarely, if ever, respond to reviews publicly. Honestly, after I processed the pain of that first awful one it was pretty easy to take them all in stride—to appreciate the kind words and look for nuggets of wisdom in the, er, less kind ones.

Y&W: How is rejection from publishers or agents different from readers?

AY:That’s a great question. To me, it all feels about the same when you first experience it: CRAPPY! That said, if the rejection comes with some honest and useful feedback, it can be incredibly valuable. On the other hand, some opinions—whether from publishers, agents or readers—might just reinforce the fact that not everyone is going to love what you do and, as crappy as that might feel, it also forces you to home in on exactly who you’re writing for: Yourself and the people who DO get it.

Y&W:What are some tips you have for handling criticism?

AY:Keep your ego in check. Consider the source. Disregard the destructive detractors—but then look for the genuine and legitimate points and use them to improve your craft.

Y&W: How can young writers learn how to give good, constructive criticism?

AY:It’s almost the same advice I gave for handling criticism! Set your ego aside, consider the intended audience, look for genuine and legitimate flaws in the writing. If something isn’t working, clearly state why it isn’t and how it could be improved.

Y&W:Do you think the anonymity of the Internet has made people more vicious than necessary with criticism whether on blog, video and news comments?

AY:Oh, absolutely. It’s horrible. All of these media that were supposed to bring people closer together, more often than not, wind up tearing us apart. In fact, to add to my answer to the previous question, if you’re criticizing something or someone online, ask yourself if you would say what you’re about to say without the protective veil of anonymity. If you wouldn’t, perhaps you shouldn’t.

Y&W: Another form of criticism writers have to deal with is self criticism. Do you experience that when writing and how do you overcome that?

AY:I am most definitely my own worst critic. I’m insanely hard on myself and sometimes it’s a real struggle to overcome it. That’s one of the many reasons editors and critique partners are so invaluable: Not only do they tell you what isn’t working, they also point out your strengths and help you to improve so you won’t beat yourself up quite so much.

Y&W: Do you believe in writer’s block? Why or why not?

AY:I don’t know if I’d call it writer’s block, but I do believe there are times when it’s damn-near impossible to write anything you believe is worthy of being read. A lot of writers say you should just write anyway—even if every word sounds like crap to you. I think that’s great advice but I also think there are times when you just need to take a mental health day, accept that you’re not in the right headspace, and return to the manuscript when you’re feeling better about your focus and abilities.

Y&W:Has writing gotten easier for you after publishing several books?

AY:It’s become slightly easier, in that I understand how I want a lot of the pieces of the puzzle fit together. In regards to fiction, I think I’ve gotten a bit better at things like character development, dialogue, pacing and setting and all the technical details. But I don’t know that it will ever be easy. There are always new challenges and hurdles to overcome whenever you’re trying to create a compelling story that will resonate with people and move them in some way.

Y&W: Some actors say they can’t watch themselves in films because they just see mistakes. Do you feel that way about your reading your books?

AY:I don’t generally read my books cover-to-cover once they’re released, but not necessarily because of the mistakes (which are inevitably there and do make me cringe!). It’s more because I’ve spent so much time with the manuscript during the writing and revising stages that, to be honest, I’m a little bit tired of reading it and am ready to move on to the next project.

Y&W:Do you have any good quotes or philosophies that inspire or motive you to keep writing no matter what?

AY:Um, I think it’s more the fear of returning to an office job that keeps me going! As long as I’m continuing to learn and (mostly) enjoy it, I’ll keep doing it. I also met the fabulous Melissa de la Cruz right after FRENEMIES came out, and I’ll always remember the simple, to-the-point advice she gave me: “Keep doing what you do and don’t listen to the ‘no’s’ and the haters.”

Y&W:And lastly, any advice for young writers who want to become more professional and standout in the competitive world of YA writing?

AY:I guess I could yammer on about writing the story you want to write, reading everything you can, developing your voice, blah, blah, blah. But since we’re talking about The Worst Review Ever, and you didn’t ask about the craft of writing but about professionalism and standing out, I guess I’d like to stress the importance of dealing with all members of the industry—reviewers, bloggers, publishers, agents, fellow authors—with dignity and respect. It’s something most of us tend to forget from time to time (no matter how old and mature we’re supposed to be!), but if we could all just be constructive in our opinions and dealings with each other, I think we’ll probably be better writers, better readers, better reviewers, and better people.

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