So, I saw Kameron Hurley (who’s got a new book out that I really need to get to ASAP) lamenting this morning on Twitter about something familiar:
It's funny how I spent 15 years just trying to get a novel published, w/o considering how much more work would need to be done after that.
— Kameron Hurley (@KameronHurley) October 1, 2014
It’s the thing they don’t really tell you in Pro-Author-Wannabe school: getting published is just the beginning. Or maybe they said it and I just didn’t want to hear it — because after all the effort most of us go through to learn the craft, make the connections, find the agent, and/or sell the book, who’s really ready to hear, “Okay! Now it gets hard“? But the thing is, despite the manuscript deadlines and the page proofs that have to be done yesterday and the interviews and the conventions and the blog maintenance oh and the day job most of us won’t be able to afford to quit, we also have to make sure we’re continuing to improve our craft. Becoming good enough to publish doesn’t mean you’ve crossed some artistic finish line; it means you’ve qualified for the real race. It means you’ve reached a minimum level of readability — and I can’t speak for other authors, but I’m not satisfied with minimum anything. I need to be the best writer I can possibly be. That means I need to not only “stay in shape” writing-skill-wise, I also need to make an active effort to improve those skills over time — kind of like strength training when you’ve hit a fitness plateau. A few ways that I’ve done this “author strength training” include: trying to stay current with my writing group, although I’ve done a terrible job of that lately and need to try harder; attempting drastically different styles and perspectives in my writing, and forcing myself outside of my comfort zone; and reading as much as possible, which I’m pleased to say I’ve done a decent job of this year. (Except Kameron’s book. Sorry, Kameron. Soon.)
But another thing I do is look at my reviews.
I know authors who can’t bear to look at the reviews of their work. I can, though it requires a certain distancing of time and energy. I tend not to read reviews of my short stories, for example, because the turnaround time on shorts is so brief — I’d just finished Stone Hunger, relatively speaking, when it sold and then came out. From final revision to publication, everything happened in roughly a three-month span, so the story was still very “hot” in my mind. Novel turnarounds are much longer, however. I finished the first draft of The Fifth Season back in May of this year, and it won’t come out ’til August 2015. That’s plenty of time for the work to “cool off” for me, so that I can read critique of it with some emotional distance. (Then any criticism will just feel like the critic called my apartment ugly, and not my firstborn child.)
One thing I’ve rarely done, though, was closely examine reviews by people who just straight-up hated my work. I’ve seen many, of course, but I just figure eh, not all books work for all people, and anyway most reviews aren’t meant for the author. Still, every so often I make myself read them because they’re feedback, even if they aren’t meant for me, and feedback is valuable if you use it right. So today’s author strength training exercise will include taking a look at some of my one-star reviews to see what I can get out of them that’s useful. Let’s start with the Amazon reviews for 100kK. Please note: Gonna redact the reviewers’ names, though these are public so if you’ll see them if you go over there — but who the reviewers are isn’t the point, here. Do not go to Amazon or Goodreads and downvote these reviews. Do not hassle the reviewers. I’m doing this because I think all reviews are valuable, remember, even negative ones; the only thing that hurts me as a writer is apathy. These people cared enough to write a review one way or another, so don’t be assholes to them, okay? Please.
Click to enlarge.
So, I’m just posting this one as an example of the kind of review I won’t be examining much. Most one-star reviews of my work tend to be like this, expressing frustration because the story I wrote just wasn’t the story the reader expected to read. (And a lot of readers were really, really annoyed that there weren’t literally a hundred thousand kingdoms on the planet, let alone visited during the course of the story.) Nothing wrong with that, just not something I can do anything about. Let’s move on.
This one immediately intrigued me because it was so long (although a lot of that is due to short line-lengths). The whole point of writing is to stir a reaction in people, and when you make people upset enough that they put a lot of effort into writing the review, then clearly you got a reaction. :) Some of it is the same as the previous review; this person really just wanted to read a book that I didn’t write, and further seems to have made some odd assumptions about what I did write. I’m guessing they’ve heard (as I’ve mentioned in a few interviews) that the original title of 100kK would’ve been The Sky-God’s Lover, and they’re just misremembering it — or maybe that one of my favorite authors is Tanith Lee, and her book Night’s Master was one of my inspirations? Hard to say. Not sure what they mean by “if this book was traditionally marketed”, either; AFAIK Orbit did nothing for my book that they haven’t done for every other book they publish. The reviewer also seems to think that publishers are in the business of buying books they don’t think they can sell except by tricking readers, which is… well, not how publishing works, let’s just say. So there’s a lot of chaff here to sift through.
But there’s some wheat amid the chaff. “It starts out okay” seems to be a common thread among the one-star reviews; okay, good, that means my opening for that novel was enough of a “hook” to get people interested in the whole story quickly. But then the review notes “terrible pacing”, which suggests that after the initial hook the pace slowed down and lost them, or maybe the pace just felt uneven throughout. That’s something I can try and be more alert to in future books. Since the review doesn’t specify what felt gratuitous or “rape-y” about the sex scenes, or what was illogical about the plotting or wince-inducing about the ending, I don’t really know what to do with that. Never watched Scandal so I’m not sure what to do with that analogy, either. But hey, at least there was something useful in it.
Now let’s skip over to Goodreads. Lots more “the author didn’t write the book I wanted”-type reviews, but here’s a standout:
Again, the beginning of the book hooked this reader, not just for its pace but for its protagonist; they liked Yeine. They also liked the narrative voice, and picked up on the stylistic “chaos” that was meant to depict Yeine’s attempts to integrate her two souls… but I don’t think the reviewer realized this was intentional. Okay, then I need to be more obvious about when I’m trying to convey altered mental states. That’s a tricky thing to do, but it’s something I explore often in my fiction (hey, psychologist), so hopefully I’ll improve with practice. What the reviewer didn’t like was the plot structure, but again this seems to be a case of “not the book they wanted” — they wanted political drama, and got a mystery inspired by ancient epics instead. This is actually a great review in that it gives a lot of helpful information to people who don’t want yet another political drama in their epic fantasy. This review probably sold some books for me.
It’s clear, though, that this reviewer really didn’t like the sort of character Yeine ultimately turned out to be, and unlike the previous review, this one explains why. I could quibble over the hyperbole — not every “good guy” loves Yeine in the book, and not every “bad guy” hates her — but what matters is that the reader perceived Yeine as some sort of idealized/wish-fulfillment cliche. There’s been a lot written about the horrors of the “Mary Sue”-type character in fiction, though I tend to take a very different view of the whole thing. This excellent essay by “LadyLoveAndJustice” on Tumblr gets at a lot of my feelings about the trope, and the reaction to it, though the essay focuses only on the gendered implications of “Mary Sue policing,” while I tend to think more intersectionally. So, yeah, I wrote a novel in which the disempowered brown woman gets the hot guy, punches or stabs all the things, and changes the universe. I’ve now written several novels like this (and readers are always harder on my female protagonists than my male ones, interestingly… but that’s for another blog post). In this case it wasn’t what the reviewer wanted to read… but again, consider the reader who’s looking for something different from the standard white male power fantasy that abounds in this genre. For that kind of reader, this is an incredibly useful review.
So what I get out of this one is: a) be more obvious, b) get better at nonlinear narratives and my use of frame technique, and c) people are getting out of my novels precisely what I’ve been trying to put into them. That tells me I’m on the right track as a writer, so for the most part I should try to refine what I’m doing, not make a complete about-face. (The fact that not everyone likes what I’ve been doing is no reason to change, after all. It just means those people aren’t my audience.)
I’ll stop here, because you probably get the gist now of what I mean by “author strength training”. If you’re reading this and you’re a writer, embrace all of your reviews! There’s good stuff even in the harsh ones. If you’re a reader, write reviews! And be honest, because honesty helps everybody.