Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Benefit of a Bad Review

In February of this year, I had my first ever Publisher's Weekly Review. Not only was it a good review of "A Heart Revealed", it was a starred review--a week later I got a starred Kirkus review too! I blogged about these awesome reviews HERE and I was over the moon! I was writing a new genre and I so wanted the reception to be a good one. And it was. 


Life is Good!

I have arrived!

But in the back of my mind was that niggling creature of doubt. Did I just get lucky in the reviewer who happened to get my book on their desk? Was this book the best thing I'll ever write? Will the book I'm working on be equal to it? Will it be a one hit wonder? Will the industry reviews translate the way my publisher hopes it will?

I didn't move these doubts to center stage--advice I would give to anyone--but I never forgot they were there. They gave me both encouragement to do my best work and validation that, in this book, it seems that I had. 

My next regency, "Lord Fenton's Folly" came out in the fall and I eagerly/anxiously waited for the PW and Kirkus reviews. Would they also be starred reviews? 

They were not. 
In fact, Kirkus said this: "Occasionally slow-moving, but an interesting take on respect and respectability and the choices a noble family must make when things go awry."

And then PW said this: "There’s something tawdry about putting “I believe romances are for silly girls or homely ones” in the mouth of a romantic heroine. A book would have to be a comic gem or a profound character exploration to recover from that slap to the reader’s face, and Kilpack’s second Regency (after A Heart Revealed) is merely a solid piece of genre writing, with no particular feel for its period but some nice imaginative touches."

And this: "There’s good stuff here, but it takes 100 pages to find it."

Umm ... well ... ouch.

There were other good reviews--Foreward, for instance, said "This novel will be a joy for any lover of true romance."

But I think most people agree with me in that the negative ones are the reviews that stick in your craw. They sap your creative energy like siphoned gas from your tank. Whatever you're working on is suddenly the enemy--it could bring this same experience again. You're embarrassed, you're discouraged, and it is very, very hard to pull yourself out of the funk that a few words throw you in to. To say nothing about those "few words" being on the internet and therefore eternal. I absolutely felt all of those things. I limped to some friends with my tail between my legs. I wallowed and felt like a loser. 

And then. 

I sat very still and realized that there was a new feeling--something I hadn't noticed amid the shame I felt. 


The fact is, I know I'm not all that. I love to write and I love my stories and I am beyond grateful when professionals validate that, but I'm not The Great American Novelist. I still have learning to do, and a bad review confirms that. It proves to me that I can't rest upon my laurels. It reminds me that I grow personally as I face challenges in my craft, and I need that personal growth. It gives me new goals to set and spurs me to be more objective about my work. I need that objectivity--every writer I know needs it--and a bad review is kind of a scraped knee in the pursuit of balance and skill necessary toward improvement. Sometimes we need people to tell us we can do better.

On the flip side of needed humility, I also need to love my work outside of what other people might say. That doesn't mean I'm not writing to an audience, I am, but I need to have my own separate relationship with my stories. "I" need to be their biggest fan, rather than waiting to see if other people like it before I make my own decision. In regard to the PW review where the reviewer highlighted one sentence that she felt offensive toward readers--we got the review before my publisher had sent the final edit to the printer. They gave me the option of changing that line if I wanted to. I spent hours redrafting that scene, anxious to avoid offending my readers, but some good friends encouraged me to think twice and my publisher was not asking me to change it. I again had to sit very still and look closely at that line. What was its purpose? Why did I have that particular sentence there in the first place? I was able to remember that the reason I wrote that line was to define an aspect of my character--a girl who was not false or cruel, but who makes a false and cruel comment because she wants the boy to like her. Who hasn't done that before? In the course of the story, while Alice never reflects on that line again, she comes to hide herself in similar things as a form of protecting herself. Her protection becomes much more extreme than an off hand remark--but that remark was the first of her falseness. I kept the line in the book. I owned it. And, quite frankly, I love it. I loved what that one sentence did for a story. I feel a kind of healing in the stories I write, a redemption of some small part of my own life or past that, through my characters, I get to relive and conquer. And that story healed something important for me regardless of what that reviewer thought. That doesn't mean that I can be wiley niley about the words I use, and I need to be wise, but I do not need to dispose of my love or healing simply because someone else didn't feel something the way I did.

I did not link my book to the poor reviews the way I linked "A Heart Revealed" to its starred reviews. I did not post the reviews on Facebook and I kind of held my breath when the book came out, wondering if other readers and reviewers would find the line offensive and the story weak. I was glad to have rediscovered my own love of that story, but I also need to sell books and if this book was a commercial flop I could be in trouble. However, the reviews began to come in and although not everyone loved it, most people did. A few people went out of their way to tell me is was their favorite book I had written. What I realized is that everyone, including myself, "gets" to have a different experience. Some people will be put off by something, other people will be drawn in by something else. For some people any book will be a waste of time, for other's it will make for a cozy afternoon, for others it will leave them thinking on something for days afterward. Just last week a reader sent me a link to a blog post she did about part of the book. It was beautiful, and allowed me to look more deeply at something I had written. You would think I would have the greatest insight, but I didn't, she did. You can read her blog HERE

In the bible it says that God can make "Beauty for ashes" and work evil "For our good." A bad review is certainly not evil, nor is it ashes, but it did compute to embarrassment and self doubt that, once I took the time to ponder and think, became something beautiful for me. It's made me think of other negatives in my life and how, between God and I, we might make them be for good. The tragic death of my brother has helped me to value life and try to be more attentive to those who find themselves in dark corners. A toxic friend has helped me mind my own tongue better. A difficult vice has turned me to God for help and grown sympathy towards others I have judged harshly. And, because of poor reviews, I have the motivation to be objective about my work and improve my craft, they have helped me to find my own love for a thing outside of anyone else's, and to cherish and appreciate those who see what I wanted them to see. I can be better for a bad review so long as I don't allow myself to stay in the "Molasses Swamp" of regret and shame for too long. I can also be better at sharing my enjoyment of someone else's work, so that the author gets to feel the validation we all need. There are critics everywhere, and we need them, but we also need cheerleaders and I very much hope to be a cheerleader for others rather than a critical voice (unless they specifically ask me to be critical, which some people do :-) )

There is relief in having someone else say that there is room for improvement--I would be very disappointed to learn I'll never be better than I am right now. 

To read the full PW review, go HERE
To read the full Kirkus review, go HERE
To read the Foreward review, which I appreciated SO much, go HERE

To share snippets of your own poor reviews, or experiences where ashes turned to beauty, please comment!


Heather Justesen said...

I do my level best NOT to read my reviews because they can be soul sucking like you mentioned, but once in a while I stumble across one and read a bit of it--either because I can't help it, or because my eye inadvertently picks up a line as my eye moves across the page. Recently I read the first line of a review for the 4th book in my series. She started out saying how much she loved the other books and so this should have been a no brainer to love this one too, but that it didn't have the fun dialogue or as many quirky character traits as she expected.

I stopped there because it was only like a two star review and that was enough for me, but notice I still think about it. It didn't matter that she loved the other books, I got stuck on that one. And yes, that particular book in the series has a little less banter, and a lot more self reflection than some of the others in the series. It still has a lot of good reviews and good sales, so I can accept that it didn't speak to her the way it speaks to me. But it was also a good reminder to watch my dialogue more closely, and to remember that not every reader is picking up my books for the same reason or the same experiences.

Any by the way, I completely loved A Heart Revealed. It was an absolutely fantastic read. I can't wait to pick up Lord Fenton's Folly.

rebecca h jamison said...

I loved reading this! You are so right. I'm going to have to remember this post for when my next book comes out. And I still plan to read Lord Fenton's Folly whatever the reviewers say.

Carolyn Twede Frank said...

This was a very insightful post. I'm glad I stumbled upon it and read it. Thanks for sharing. I read A Heart Revealed and loved it. It's time I pick up a copy of Lord Fenton and read it too. )

stanalei said...

Thank you, Josi, for an enlightening and healthy take on reviews. Wishing the best of success for your stories in the New Year!

Unknown said...

Think of reviews as learning opportunities. Don't let the great ones go to your head nor let the bad ones funk up your writing. Readers typically have their favored genres with preference for a specific POV as well as where in a book they prefer the climax to take place. When an author alters course (which often happens in a series) it can disrupt readers who truly stand by their requirements. You end up with half a dozen readers who love the book and half a dozen readers demanding their time back and verbally.

I edit an average of 250 reviews each month and one of the hardest things I encounter is posting a poor review from one of our reviewers when I would have given the same book high marks, or vice versa. I have reviewed so many books professionally and academically that I have noticed one of two things tend to happen to reviewers the longer they review: they either become more broadminded and take the time to analyze why an author did this or that or if--for example--the pov that first sounded awful now all of the sudden makes sense (but a normal reader might never pick up on this and thus the pov will never make sense) or they become more close minded with even higher expectations (kind of like the more you make the more you spend theory). Both can lead to unfair reviews. And even worse yet are authors who gather large support and praise from their close friends and family, but then when it gets to me, the book is just so-so or really needs several more rounds of editing to polish the story. No matter how honest someone says they are, friends and family will never tell you the 100% truth, and if they say any of these phrases, "I wouldn't lie to you," "I love it," "I'm being totally honest," "I'm serious," ...chances are, they're lying to you to some extent even if they don't realize they're sugarcoating their own feelings. It's human nature to not hurt the ones we love or have built relationships with and why strangers can often be your strongest ally for feedback.

And don't discredit yourself as a writer. A lot of famous authors are only so-so but hailed as all-stars because they are the poster child of one of the Big 5. A great example is Chuck Palahnuik. Everyone knows him as the author of Fight Club and the success he generated AFTER the movie became a box office sensation. However, many of his books are just so-so. Pygmy, for example, is the only book I've ever not finished on purpose (it was that bad), though Damned was a phenomenal read. Amazon reviewers agree with an average star rating of 3.1. But this isn't an isolated case. Snuff has a 3.2 star rating. Tell-All is 2.9. Beautiful You is 3.0. Haunted: A Novel 3.4. In fact, out of 29 books, only 14 (less than half) of his books score over 4 stars... and barely. Whereas author Laurell K Hamilton averages 4-4.5 for the majority of her books despite her continued recycling of the same storyline for well over 10 years.

I could write forever from the viewpoint of a book review company and reviewer, but my point is to read the reviews and look for specifics; avoid friends and family's input; and use all of the information and feedback you collect along the way to build upon and become better, because even the greatest (Chuck) wouldn't be where they are had they not been sucked up by the Big 5.

Unknown said...

I am very grateful to you for all of the effort & thought you put into your books! They have helped bring some light into my life- your style is clean, thought-provoking, and- humorous! All 3 qualities are vital, yet rare!

The themes in Lord Fenton's Folly were more unique, so maybe not as universally appreciated. I am the mother of a disabled child, so to me it was very poignant.

-Jocie M

Unknown said...

I am very grateful to you for all of the effort & thought you put into your books! They have helped bring some light into my life- your style is clean, thought-provoking, and- humorous! All 3 qualities are vital, yet rare!

The themes in Lord Fenton's Folly were more unique, so maybe not as universally appreciated. I am the mother of a disabled child, so to me it was very poignant.

-Jocie M