What to Do When People Don't Get Your Story

By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

Reviews are starting to roll in for my newest book, Unending Devotion, which officially released on Saturday, September 1.

I always hold my breath when I click on a blog review or other reader review sites. Because I never know what to expect. The book may resonate with some readers. But then others . . . well, not so much. In fact, sometimes the reviews are outright contradictory.

For example, one reader said this about Unending Devotion, "This was Hedlund's best book so far." Another said, "Good but not Hedlund's best."

Over the past few years, I've come to accept the contradictions and even the fact that some readers won't like my books at all. Every author gets mixed reviews. Even the very best authors of the very best books have readers who really love the book and readers who couldn't stand it.

If you've ever been involved in a critique partnership, entered a contest, or asked beta readers for input, you may have experienced the same kind of dichotomy—having some who adored your story and others who couldn't seem to find anything nice to say about it.

And your gut reaction might be a big, resounding, "HUH?!?" It's always hard to make sense of how people can view the same story with such varying opinions.

On the one hand, it's incredibly rewarding when someone really "gets" your story, when they understand the theme or the characters or the symbolism. When someone else connects to your story, you're filled with a "this is why I write" joy.

But when someone doesn't "get" our story, we can't help but wonder why? What happened? Did we really do something wrong? Or is the negative opinion just that—an opinion.

So what do we do when a critique partner, friend, or book reviewer doesn't like what we've written?

Recently a friend emailed me with that very problem. She said her critique partner (of two years) had read through her latest manuscript, and when she got the document back it was peppered with cynical, snarky comments that hurt her feelings (which is the makings of another post entirely—because anytime we critique for someone else, we need to stay as kind AND professional as possible while maintaining honesty.)

The bottom line is that my friend didn't feel like her CP "got" her story.

So who's at fault? Did the manuscript have legitimate problems? Or was the CP being too subjective and interjecting too much of herself into the reading?

I believe the answer is "a little bit of both."

1. Many times our readers DO have legitimate concerns. If something doesn't resonate with a reader or especially multiple readers, we need to ask ourselves why. If we're writing stories we hope others will enjoy (versus simply writing for our own pleasure), then we'll need to continually try to understand what our target readers like the most.

I'm still learning how to please my genre readers. I look at what seems to work for other popular authors within my genre, asking myself what they did that resonated with their readers and how I can apply that to my own unique style of writing. I'm not copying them, but I'm studying reader expectations for my genre and attempting to discover what kinds of techniques give readers the best reading experience.

2. But our readers are subjective too. We're all unique and thus have different reading tastes. Someone may like that my new book is centered around white slavery and others may be completely turned off by such a serious topic. Some readers may appreciate that my book is filled with page after page of drama, while others might want a slower pace. Some might like a feisty heroine, while some might not be able to relate to her.

One of the best ways to determine what's subjective is to have a really good grasp of our genres. We should read and study everything being published within our genres. Then we can become intimately familiar with the techniques that are essential and what things are more negotiable.

For example, romances are most satisfying when the relational tension is kept high throughout the book. Readers count on a happily-ever-after. They want to know the couple will eventually get together, but readers don't want the couple to get together too soon. They want to be kept guessing how the couple will overcome all the obstacles keeping them apart.

My Summary: We can't always please everyone with our stories. But our goal should be to reach a point where we're pleasing as many of our readers as possible.

How about you? Have you experienced contradictory feedback on your writing? How did you determine which feedback to follow?

*Photo Credit: flickr CollegeDegrees360


Want to learn some of my deepest, darkest secrets? ;-) During the month of September, I'll be sharing secrets about myself during my "Fun Secrets" Blog Tour. On each blog stop, I'll also be giving away a signed copy of my newest release, Unending Devotion:

Wednesday, Sept. 5: Secret #3: My participation in a history-making moment. Deanna Rupp’s blog

Friday, Sept. 7: Secret #4: My hardest life experience so far. Katie Ganshert’s blog

For a list of all my secrets, check out my Events Page!


  1. My first ever manuscript specializes in contradictory feedback!

    Every contest it has ever been entered it ends up with one judge who loves it and one judge who HATES it. And I really do mean hate - in one comment halfway through the entry a judge once wrote "this entry has caused me to lose the will to live" and, as far as I could tell, didn't even read the rest of the entry! Same contest another judge gave me two off a perfect score.

    The first time it happens it's devastating - especially if for some reason you seem to provoke really strong reactions in the negative sense. But after awhile it becomes easier to try and extract the constructive and leave the rest. Can make writing genuine "thank you" letters a bit of a challenge though!

    1. Oh wow, Kara. Sounds like that judge was really unprofessional. I think someone like that needs to be reported. That kind of feedback can be crushing to a really new writer and is completely inappropriate. I that case I wouldn't think of writing a thank you letter!

  2. My second book, Lakeside Family, released in August. I received a "Google Alert" and followed it to a review that was well-written, but the writer of the review hated my heroine. She blasted the novel. Her words stung, but I looked for a teachable moment. I admit to having my confidence shaken, but I rallied my writing support team (mentors, prayer partners, agent, editor) to help me stay focused.

    When I receive feedback from my craft partner that contradicts my vision for the story, I weigh her suggestions against my vision and see if her feedback will make the story stronger. Sometimes it does, and sometimes I stay with my original thoughts.

    1. Lisa,

      I've gotten some really stinging reviews at times too. In fact, I'm pretty sure one of my one star reviews was from a client repped by Rachelle. I happened to see her name on the review before she changed it. I was disappointed that another writer felt the need to attack my story so publicly. But, I chalked it up to jealousy or immaturity or whatever. And moved on. :-)

  3. When the comment comes from someone I don't know, it's fairly easy to shrug it off, or see if there's a general consensus I agree with. I'm rather hard on myself as a writer, so often times I can at least understand why the other person would think that way, even if I don't particularly agree with them. I think that goes a really long way in life (not just with book reviews). If we can understand why the other side believes or thinks or acts the way they do, we tend to take things less personally and perhaps even have a philosophical discussion.

    On a different note, I've read all three of your books. And I've definitely got a favorite heroine and a favorite hero of the three. The hero and heroine come from two different stories. Does that mean that the other two heroes and heroines were bad or worthless or whatever? I don't think so in the least. But certain characters are going to resonate with me more than others, just like certain settings and plots will resonate with me more than others.

    Oh, and my crit partner and I NEVER get snarky with each other. :-)

    1. Hi Naomi,

      We do have to be able to distance ourselves from our stories and not take things too personally. But I think it's hard with our first book. I'm getting better at it with each book that comes out.

      I think you actually open yourself up to more criticism from readers the more books you publish. I've noticed that readers are comparing my current release to my other ones more so than before. And of course, some really like the book better than my others. And some don't! But that's okay. It just reinforces even more that everyone is so different in what they like!

    2. Naomi and Jody,

      "I think you actually open yourself up to more criticism from readers the more books you publish."

      As a reader, I find that the more books an author publishes, the less careful I am about how I critique or review it - as though the more you publish, the thicker your skin automatically becomes???!!!

      I think this is a good reminder to us readers that what proceeds from our mouths (or pens) can empower or wound, period. It doesn't matter how many books an author has published, how many albums a musician has produced, how many paintings an artist has created, each one is still a piece of that person's HEART.

      Proverbs 12:18
      "There is one who speaks rashly like the thrusts of a sword, But the tongue of the wise brings healing."


  4. Oh, how I wish I had this post a few months ago! :) I had the same problem with my editing partner back in May: I got back her notes and they were cynical, snarky, and very hurtful. She absolutely didn't 'get' the story or the characters.

    I stepped back, took a few-day breather, and then she and I got together via phone and discussed where I was coming from, where the story and the characters were coming from, and then she told me why she said what she did, and then we ended up brainstorming a bit. I only kept about 20% of her suggestions/notes on what to change, and the other 80% was adjusted - minimally - and now she 'gets' it and I haven't heard anything near as snarky or cynical as those comments since then. :)

    Thanks for another amazing post, Jody!

  5. This exact thing happened with my last critique. Two individuals came from unique perspectives about a major issue. I had to wrestle with where I wanted to go with the work.

    I ended up doing what I felt was best for the story and my characters--what would communicate the story best. But it took time, discernment, and experience to go with my gut.

    ~ Wendy

  6. Perfect timing, Jody. I sent out my first MS to six beta readers and the responses were astounding! Three have said something to the effect of: I love the vibrant setting, you're so talented at storyworld! But, one said: I didn't see any colors, the setting is so black & white. Um, huh? Since this is my first experience with ANYONE reading my story, it's been such a rollercoaster! When the negative review came back I was close to tears and I wondered - who am I kidding? Do other writers go through this? Or is it just me? Of course, I knew the answer, but after devoting so much of my heart and time into that story, I couldn't help but feel terrible! Thank you for showing me this experience is "normal" as far as writing goes!

  7. I'm reminded of the time, a few years ago, when I asked a friend to critique a couple of poems I had written.

    She gave me plenty of feedback...all negative.

    Not only did she not have one good thing to say about either poem, but her comments made it clear that she had also not understood either poem...she didn't "get it."

    In the end, I took what I could learn from her critique and decided it didn't matter that she didn't "get it." It also taught me the difference between a critic and a target audience...they're not necessarily the same...

  8. It's true that the best books seem to get the really strong reactions, both pro and con. I guess we all should aim to stay out of solid three star territory--where all readers find our work to be "meh." The reviewing "system" is very subjective. I personally wish it were a wider scale--one to ten perhaps, and also on several aspects, like plot, characterization, style, personal impact.

    And at the critique stage, weighing the advice is so important. To humbly learn, to shrug off misreadings, to not be crushed by tougher crits--this takes practice. An aspect of craft in itself.

  9. I think it is all in the attitude. I threw out an entire crit from a person, just because of the here-I'll-write-it-for-you attitude. She wanted to rewrite passages to show me what would be better. It was a bit condescending.

    I agreed with some of the flaws that she saw in the work but couldn't connect with the crit at all because of attitude.

    I keep trying to add to my crit circle, because I like to get fresh feedback, but I have found that I keep going back to my trusted small circle of wonderful, insightful, honest critters. (Who tell it like they see it, in a respectful manner.)

    I don't know how I will deal with reviews when I get to that stage. I hear some writers don't read the bad reviews, while others inspect them to see if there is truth and a good reason to grow from the feedback.

    It sounds like you have a very healthy attitude to the reviews. :)

  10. Great post! Reviews seem to be on everyone's mind these days (my latest blog post is about surviving bad reviews), but we have to remember that honest reviews -- and the vast majority of them out there are honest -- are just opinions. So while reviews are important, they're not everything. As I said in my post, take pride in the good ones, and try to learn something from the bad ones. And if you can't, well then just remember that you can't win 'em all, or should we try to.

  11. I can't imagine getting a bad review. I absolutely love to write, but I'm hesitant to make it a career because of the negative response. I guess I'll have to keep looking to God for the answer to that.

    But I was wondering...what do you prefer most? A surface reader or someone who looks deeper? I have to admit that I'm not anything close to a surface reader, I'm always looking for a deeper meaning to everything. That can be a curse in some situations, but I'm certain it's important in reading. I feel like you miss out on so much when you don't delve deeper into the story.

    1. Emily,

      I can't answer your question about readers, since I'm not yet published.

      But I can tell you what I prefer when it comes to a crit partner. I'm not much interested in warm fuzzy crits that seem to find nothing to change even when I know there are problems.

      Much better a crit partner who can evaluate the basics (structure, pace, dialogue, etc.), even if there are a lot of problems. Even comments that seem harsh have value if they're offered in a constructive manner.

      In other words, I'm doing something wrong, tell me. Don't sugarcoat it.

      I suppose that reviews would fall into the same category. It pays to be able to glean the grains of truth from the chaff, whether the chaff is positive or negative.

    2. I think the big difference between a reviewer and a crit partner (or editor) is that the reviews are for readers, while critiques are for authors.

      What do I mean by this? As a reviewer, I am not trying to tell the author how he or she could improve the book. I'm trying to say why I enjoyed it (or not) and give other readers an idea of whether or not this book is worth their investment of time and money to read. And this is pretty subjective - while I like feisty, intelligent heroines, not everyone does. While I like a heated (but clean) romance, others consider that too 'edgy'. While I prefer Christian fiction, others prefer steamy.

      A critique is feedback given with the author in mind. The crit partner or editor or beta reader is trying to make the book better. Some of this feedback is still subjective (e.g. whether or not they like the heroine), but good feedback is also objective where possible (e.g. the prologue makes the book sound like romantic suspense, but it's not; or the author uses too many creative dialogue tags; or there is headhopping in Chapter x).

      This is what I'm trying to do when I critique or edit a book: make it better. I try to reinforce the positive, but that's not what needs work, is it? So, a critique will often focus on the negative, on what needs improving, but trying to do it in a positive way, without snark or sarcasm.

    3. Hi Emily,

      I personally like a variety of reviews. I think it gives readers a good flavor of the subjective views of the book, when some readers leave deeper thoughts and others give a lighter impression.

      And I wouldn't let the idea of bad reviews scare you away from a writing career! I've found that the joy of the writing process itself far supersedes the frustrations!

    4. Hi Iola,

      LOVE your orderly breakdown of the kinds of reviewers. And I agree. A review on an online bookstore is meant for other readers, to help them decide whether the book is something they'd like to read. So the varying reviews can help meet the needs of the various readers. But as a writer, it's still interesting to see the wide spectrum of responses our stories elicit, whether from a reader or a fellow writer! :-)

  12. Oh yes, I've received contradictory feedback. It can be mind spinning. A few of my friends who read it thought it was great. One friend, who is a lot more critical in general, blasted it. And I mean BLASTED it. She didn't say one nice thing about it except "I admire you for actually writing a book." Yep.

    But I decided to look past the hurt at what she was actually saying, and there were some things I tweaked.

    I think we just have to accept, like you said, that some will love it, some will hate it. I think we need to surround ourselves with supportive people and those who like our writing (not that they won't still examine things with a critical eye and tell you when something doesn't work).

  13. Oh yes. Gave a chapter to five beta readers. Four were positive and gave similar suggestions. The fifth gave comments SO off the mark, I wondered if she actually read the whole thing, and not just the first paragraph!

  14. Over the weekend, I sent a finished first draft to a handful of beta readers. The first review on Monday confirmed my doubts about the manuscript (I am my own worst critic). The second review today and was as opposite the first review as it's possible to get.

    I've been an artist a lot longer than I've been writing seriously, so I've learned how differently people respond to things. Learning how to deal with those divergent responses is probably the best lesson a writer (or an artist!) can ever learn.

  15. Amen! Once more, excellent points, Jody! The paragraph that begins with 'romances are most satisfying..' is VERY true!
    Speaking of opinions concerning a book, I've often been shocked- and I mean shocked!- at what some reviewers would say. Very unkind things. :-( But praise God for the readers who are ready to encourage the authors.

    God bless you all! Authors, pre-published, published... and readers!
    Best wishes on your journeys. :-)

  16. Great blog - but more importantly I can't believe I missed the launch. I'll be Kindling it up TODAY!

    1. Aw, thank you so much, Jane! I hope you'll enjoy it!

  17. I agree, Jody, we need to know what readers expect of certain genres. I'm currently going through a genre crisis--I can't figure out if my work is more historical or YA, so I am deep in study. You're post confirms that this is a wise move. Bless you! :-)

  18. I recently read another great blog post similar to yours, Jody, at the Killzone on this same topic by Joe Moore.

    I want readers to love my books, but I know not everyone will and that's to be expected. I do the best I can and remember the lyrics to Garden Party. "ya can't please everyone, so ya got to please yourself." I think there's more to pleasing ourselves than is perhaps popular.

    After all the talk about John Locke paying for reviews I don't think we should be overly concerned. It doesn't sound like many readers are going to put a lot of stock in reviews and perhaps haven't for some time.

  19. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on taking feedback, Jody. It's comforting to hear that even very successful authors still wrestle with some of the same challenges that first-time novelists encounter. I did a really bad job of taking feedback from my "alpha beta reader", my lovely wife, Linda. Fortunately for me, she is very patient and a great coach, so she helped me learn how to take feedback more gracefully. It was one of many learning curves I struggled up on the way to writing my first novel. For myself, the main points on taking feedback boiled down to:

    - The most painful critiques were usually the most valuable in helping me improve the writing.

    - Beta readers and reviewers saw the story through the lens of their own lives, and their feedback was shaped by it.

    - Often, the best response to a critique or suggestion is to simply smile, and say thank you. Nothing more.

    - Ultimately, it is always the writer's decision how, and if, he or she will utilize each bit of input received.

    I wrote a short post on this topic, titled 'Taking Feedback (Gracefully)'. Here's a link to it, in case you or your readers are interested.

    At the very least, there's a cute puppy picture at the top of the post!

    All the best,

    PS: Commenting using my WordPress username previewed me as "Anonymous", so I went with the name / URL option instead.

    1. Hi Rob,

      Thank you for your input on this discussion. I've found some of my harshest, most painful critiques have also been some of the ones that have helped me improve. They're hard to take at the time, but in hindsight, I can see how beneficial they were!

      Thanks for stopping by and for the link!


  20. I go with my gut, check in with my trusted readers, and must have that I-just-ate-a-gooey-dessert feeling when done. :)

    1. Sounds like a great plan, Angie! Especially the gooey dessert part! :-)

  21. Absolutely, I've experienced contradictory thoughts about my writing. I've learned to set it aside for a while, think it over, and then come back to it.

  22. There's truth in all that's been in Jodi's post and replies to it before me.

    But I do think it's VITAL to have at least ONE person who actually LIKES your genre.

    As much as I see the value in opening one's self to feedback from all walks of life (As shared by Jodi above), there's just NOTHING like hearing from a reader who just "gets" it. Period.

    No matter what they advise you change. What NOT to do. Regardless of how many times they nag at POV (Point of View) glitches and punctuation errors.

    They still "Get it."

    No writer should go through life deprived of that feeling. I'd have quit years ago otherwise.


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