Taking it on the chin: A guest post from Liz Webb

To celebrate the publication of Liz Webb’s The Daughter in paperback this week, we asked Liz to reflect on her experience as a debut author.

Taking it on the chin: even in a sea of 5-star reviews, a 1-star review still stings!

If you look up any book you love, there will be 5-star reviews, 1-star reviews and everything in between. I’m not in any way comparing myself to the many brilliant classics which have 1-star reviews online, but I am saying that no book is universally liked: one man’s classic is another man’s tosh.

The bulk of the online reviews of my psychological crime book THE DAUGHTER have been 5-star but I’ve had a few 1-star ones. When my book has occasionally been criticised by 1-star reviewers, the main criticism is that my lead character is ‘dislikeable’. Now I’ve had loads of very positive praise for my dark, quirky, funny protagonist Hannah: ‘a wicked sense of humour and a strong, self-mocking narrative voice’, ‘a relatable four-dimensional character’, ‘a female hero, who is no side-kick to any man, but herself the beating heart of the book’. I think Hannah is flawed, relatable and darkly funny. But then I would say that because, while her story isn’t mine, the way she uses dark humour to cope with traumas is totally me. So, when people don’t like Hannah, they’re kind of ‘not liking me’. And that can sting. But not for long.

The thing about using a darkly comedic voice is that while it is authentic for a certain kind of messed-up individual who uses humour to protect herself from pain, it can occasionally make the character appear dislikeable to some people.

In my book THE DAUGHTER, my protagonist Hannah is a thirty-seven-year-old woman who has recently lost weight and cut her hair and when she catches sight of her reflection in a shop window, she realises that she’s the spitting image of her glamorous mother Jen. Jen died in very suspicious circumstances in the woods behind the family house at exactly the same age Hannah is now and when she returns to that same house to care for her dementia-suffering dad, he starts talking to her as if she actually is Jen. When he grips her arm and begs for her forgiveness, Hannah asks him: ‘Dad, did you kill Mum?’ She’s never let herself believe this before, despite her estranged brother’s accusations, but now she’s driven to try to find out what really happened. She uses her uncanny similarity to her mother to elicit revelations from all who knew her and unknowingly puts herself on a collision course with the killer. How could I not use a darkly quirky voice for this story? Poor Hannah only survives the suspicious death of her mother, the alienation of her brother and the constant lying by everyone around her, by having a sarcastic self-deprecating inner monologue.

I used to be a stand-up comic and have always used humour to deal with difficult things. So, I try to be funny about the odd negative comment about my writing. If I gave in to the initial sting, I’d experience a hollowed-out deadening; be ashamed of my writing; and have to fake a brittle smile to hide how horribly crushed I was. It’s so much less painful to be funny and flippant, to put up a strong sarky wall of not caring and get on with working hard to do the best I can. Which is exactly how my protagonist Hannah deals with things she finds difficult in THE DAUGHTER.

I’m so glad that I’m getting predominantly great press and lovely online comments as I approach the paperback release of THE DAUGHTER. And the rare negative comment won’t worry me – after its initial sting. However, those stings do leave a faint mark. When I was at university, I performed a sold-out theatre show which was Time Out’s Choice of the Week for three weeks running and had rave 5-star reviews across the board in all the major papers. But I can’t quote from any of them. The only one I still have seared onto my heart is the one bad one: ‘This was the worst hour and a half I’ve ever spent in the theatre – or indeed ever.’ Ever! So, it was worse than his personal humiliations, worse than when he received crushing news and worse than the deaths of his loved ones. Oh come on!

So I will enjoy all the lovely reviews and great comments and occasionally I’ll squeeze the sting out of the rare negative comment by using humour. Re the 1-star reviewer who hated my main character so much they wished her ‘to die in a fire’, I wish for the tea bag in their next mug of tea to split.

Click here to buy The Daughter in paperback.

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