I'm a newly published author and I foolishly did the thing everyone says you shouldn't do: I read the reviews. Some of them are pretty bad, and worse, I'm not sure they're all wrong. I no longer feel like I have any perspective on what I do well as a writer and what I need to improve on. Any advice on coming back after a flop (if you've had one), and getting perspective on your own writing again?
I have a number of immediate reactions for you, not necessarily tightly associated with one another. Shuffle them around and apply them topically in whatever order feels most useful to you.
(1) “I read the reviews”: By which I assume you meant reviews on Amazon. (sigh) All of us shoot the damn Albatross at least once. Some of us do it repeatedly, but not if we’re smart. Reading Amazon reviews is like reading YouTube comments: useful critique in Amazon reviews is as thinly distributed as dust in a comet’s tail. You’d get better results from consulting a haruspex.
The problem is that we’ve all been conditioned by the nature of online life to crave instantaneous feedback, even when we know better. The truth, though, is that thoughtful critique is almost never instantaneous. Reviews from bookbloggers’ sites are a different matter: often something useful will manifest itself in such places. But Amazon? Seriously, leave those reviews alone after this.
(2) Course correction: There’s no question that some reviewers will be able to spot things about a given work that don’t work, and need fixing. Your job, at a later date, will be to look over reviews from people who know what they’re doing and see if any of the things they’re saying about the work in question really feel true.
But right now, if you’re within days or weeks of your book’s release, you have no business thinking about this. Right now you ought to be writing another book. (C.J. Cherryh taught me the salutary habit of — when we used to use typewriters — on finishing one novel, immediately, like that minute, rolling another sheet of paper into the machine and starting a new book. Go do that.)
As regards the just-published work, you’ll still be much too raw and strung out about it to be able to make accurate or useful judgments for some time — at the very least a month or so. Stick the book in one of the file drawers of your mind (as a wise writer does between drafts) and come back to it later.
(3) Are you sure you’ve really flopped? These things don’t happen instantaneously. You are in the world of, if not the Long Tail, at least the longISH one. Flops may be like a trainwreck, but they are a very very leisurely trainwreck, one that takes weeks, even months, to unfold. Don’t be too sure you’re already caught in one.
Also: Beware the false equivalence of assuming that your book is flopping because the Amazon reviewers seem to hate it. Believe it or not, not all Amazon customers pay attention to the reviews. (Though of course Amazon really wants you to believe otherwise.)
(4) The intrinsic validity of your basic accomplishment and experience as a writer is already undeniable. Even with self-publishing flowering as it is, by finishing an actual book and getting it published, you have done a thing that not even 1% of your reviewership has done. 99.999999+% of people now breathing and walking around have never managed to make it past their inertia and their own insecurities to do what you have done. And a very similar number never will.*
Of course this fact doesn’t automatically make you a good writer. Nothing will do that but time, and steady work at your craft, and good old bloody-minded persistence (and of these, the greatest is persistence, routinely overcoming in some of its practitioners even a total lack of talent). But by your efforts and your passion you have already brought yourself to a place that deserves acknowledgement — and from which you can go on to higher levels of accomplishment if you don’t panic yourself out of it right now.
So take a deep breath. Step back. Go write something else that you enjoy and which will take your attention off this for the time being, and make you feel good. Your career is not going to implode because of this unless you talk yourself into believing it will. Ten years from now you’ll laugh about it, and twenty years from now you may not even remember it. For now though, go to your writing “happy place” and wait this little squall out until enough time has passed for you to usefully evaluate it.
*This doesn’t render the opinions of those who’ll never write a book completely worthless. But the old cliché about “those who can’t…” does come up for consideration here: and one of the things about clichés is that they routinely have at least some truth buried in them — otherwise they wouldn’t become clichés.