Author strength training: Reading reviews

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 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.

Review text reads: "Terrible book, I read it completely because I kept hoping it would get better but it didn't. I was hoping for another amazing series like Game of Thrones but this is no where near the caliber of that series. Disappointing. I felt very confused with the characters, the point of the story, etc. As the other reviewers said, where were the other kingdoms??? I think we only heard about 3-4."

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.

Text reads, "Have you ever watched "Scandal"? Imagine "Scandal" with gods in a fantasy world, but not nearly as clever, logically plotted, or good. Okay, the first thing you want to do before you read this book is: IGNORE ALL THE MARKETING FOR THIS BOOK!!! The cover art, the title of the book, and the blurbs and descriptions of this book are totally marketed in a way to appeal to lovers of the major high fantasy epics. Every expectation you have built up, hoping you are going to be reading "Malazan Book of the Fallen" meets "House of Cards" will be deflated. Abandon any thoughts you have about reading a story about awesome mega gods and a hundred thousand kingdoms at war wrapped in a gripping, edge of your seat political maelstrom. Cast them off now. Having those expectations will really screw with your reading of this book. The marketing for this book is outright deceptive and disingenuous. So what is it? Simple. It's a Mary Sue/bodice-ripper/Harlequin Romance in a badly constructed fantasy world. If this book was traditionally marketed, it would have had a bare-chested, dark-haired Fabio with glowing Urban Fantasy eyes, embracing a woman in barbarian hides clutching a hunting knife, above the title: The Night God's Lover And it would not have sold. Because it would have been buried under a mountain of other such books. Instead they cleverly pushed it in another market and hoped to fool enough of a different demographic to pick it up. Regardless, once I realized what I was reading I decided to give it a try and see if it was good anyway. It starts out okay, and then it quickly collapses under its own weight of bad world building, shallow and unlikable characters, laughable gratuitous sex (some of which were kind of rape-y; which I found out from a friend is apparently kind of common in "bodice-rippers"), illogical plotting, terrible pacing, and an ending that had me wincing to finish. Then I realized what I had read when I finished. "Scandal" with gods in a fantasy world, but not nearly as clever, logically plotted, or good. The one thing I can say in the book's favor is that it is very different than the vast majority of books in the fantasy genre. But different doesn't automatically equal good. And this book was not good."

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:

Text reads: "The beginning was promising, with a vivid world and an absorbing, if chaotic, narrative voice. Yeine, a heroine initially easy to root for, is summoned to the capitol of a multi-nation kingdom and suspiciously named heir to the birthright her mother gave up a generation before. But the political intrigue never goes much of anywhere. The feel of the story is different (why, I'm guessing, it's won acclaim. But a Hugo nominee? Really?), but it's just not strong enough to keep from sinking under it's own weight. The entire plot consists of Yeine gathering information from sources she's not supposed to trust (which always turns out to be correct) to piece together the mystery of her mother's past and how she might maneuver to stay alive. That, when she's not lusting for super-sex with a seductive god. Which is supposed to kill her, by the way, but somehow doesn't. Every good guy loves Yeine even though she's supposedly plain and barbaric, while all the bad guys hate her for simply existing. I liked her ruthlessness, but the barbaric cruelty of the supposedly civilized culture-in-power was also taken too far. In all, too much going on without going anywhere interesting (I definitely could've done without the juvenile sexual fantasies). If I hadn't been on a long flight with no other book, I might not have finished it. "

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.

24 thoughts on “Author strength training: Reading reviews”

  1. This is a really useful and mature perspective. Thanks for that.

    I’m only just starting out with this writing thing, and have had only one short story published, and the thought of the eventual bad reviews makes me want to shrink away. But you’ve made me look at it differently.

  2. Yes, go go go Mary Sue! We had about 10.000 years of idealized menz stories so a few „wishfulfillment“ characters that are female will be nice.

  3. Thanks for this. I don’t have a lot of reviews for my original fiction yet, and the negative-ish one didn’t like the main character. I’ll try to learn from all of them, following your example.

    When I had a look at the stuff written (in German) about The 100k Kingdoms, it struck me that either people got what you were doing, or they disliked it because they didn’t get you and expected something different anyhow … Probably not used to fantasy having a plot that I consider to be drama, as opposed to an action plot.

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  5. This was really helpful and illuminating… it’s something I hope to be able to do someday, when my books are published, to “strength train” like this.

  6. I seriously cringed reading those, and I’m just a reader who liked this particular book, so even with relative distance, it must really not be an easy task for you.
    But even as a reader, your analysis was interesting.

  7. “This review probably sold some books for me.”

    You got that right. I have based more purchasing decisions on 1 star reviews than I have on 5 star reviews.

    I remember Iain Banks’ first novel The Wasp Factory had many extracts from negative reviews at the beginning of the book so obviously his publishers had faith in the selling power of a bad review too.

  8. I dunno, q_q, I don’t really like Gary Stus either. They make me grumpy. Yeine didn’t strike me as too-perfect in that way.

  9. I think perhaps a critical distinction to keep in mind is that the overwhelming majority of user reviews (as opposed to reviews by professional book critics) aren’t actually reviews of the book as such, but rather are an explication of that reader’s experience of it. Thus no such review, by its nature, reflects the quality of the work and is inherently more about the review’s author than the book in question.

    Reading such reviews is useful and valuable, for me as a reader and, I would imagine, for an author, but always more in terms of what details of a work appeals to which readers. If all reviews are negative that’s one thing (the aggregate does say something about the work), but any healthy mix of (re)views is a validation that a work has escaped the worst fate imaginable: apathy.

    Writing reviews on Amazon or Goodreads I do try to write from a broader perspective than merely my own, but lacking the skills of a professional book critic I feel my highly subjective perspective is most of what little value I can bring to such a review. I also do try to keep in mind the relevant author’s perspective, but that quickly feels presumptious and weird (let’s face it: there is nothing I can teach a N. K. Jemisin about writing). Thus even a user review written specifically to be constructive and with aspirations of universality of perspective, will inevitably appear to the relevant work’s author as an entry on the scale that ranges from “This wasn’t the book I wanted the author write” to “The author must have written this book just for me”.

    You’ll note I carefully exempt reviews by actual book critics from the argument above. Those are a somewhat different beast than user reviews on sites like those mentioned.

  10. >Thus even a user review written specifically to be constructive and with aspirations of universality of perspective, will inevitably appear to the relevant work’s author as an entry on the scale that ranges from “This wasn’t the book I wanted the author write” to “The author must have written this book just for me”.

    I don’t think “actual book critic” status exempts a person from that at all.

  11. readers are always harder on my female protagonists than my male ones – Oh, so agreed. This was a marvellous post but I’m also very much looking forward to your thoughts on that one.

  12. Should have mentioned when this first went up what a great post it is. I do the same thing with my reviews.

  13. I just read this book in an informal book club and another member alerted us to this post. (First of all, wow and good for you for being able to look at harsh reviews and find the useful nuggets—without losing sight of what isn’t useful.)

    Two things leapt out at me when I went to read reviews of the book after I’d finished it:

    – several reviews were from writers (I assume from their use of words like “workshopped” and “craft”). Not that reviews from writers are bad! But I remember that for about a year after I started writing with intent to sell (as I call it), when I was working hard on craft, I couldn’t read a single damned book. Every time, I found myself dissecting the hook and sentence length and the use of that adjective and …. and it always threw me out of the story and into the far wall. (I am SO GLAD that phase passed. It was horrible, not being able to read for enjoyment any more.) So I assume some of what’s going on in those reviews is writer-as-critiquer rather than reader-as-critiquer. For whatever that’s worth.

    – a fair percentage of the upset was about the narrative structure, which I instantly understood—and loved. As you noted, some people apparently didn’t realize you were doing that deliberately; these are the folks who dinged the book for “craft” in the reviews I read. Others who didn’t like it are, I think, just people who like a different storytelling style. But the ones who didn’t realize the style was deliberate fascinated me.

    ANYWAY. Thanks for letting me babble here; my book club doesn’t start discussing the book until tomorrow, and I’ve been bouncing up and down with impatience. :)

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  16. This is an insightful and interesting exercise you have here. I try to take the same approach both in my writing and in my regular day-job work: there’s nothing worse than no feedback, and I find positively-constructed negative feedback is most helpful for me to improve whatever I’m doing.

    On the subject of 100K Kingdoms… I’d start by saying I enjoyed it (I gave it 4 stars on Goodreads), but I think my main criticism would be that Yeine isn’t enough of a Mary Sue, by a long shot. The mystery aspects of the book were very well done, but I still really wanted to see her kick butt on a more physical scale: I’d hoped to see more from her politically outmaneuvering her foes, and maybe a little mano-a-mano combat. I see, though, that this isn’t where you wanted to take this book, and I think it’s very well done for what it does do.

    Also, fabulous linked essay on deconstructing the Mary Sue trope.

  17. “Not a political drama” is a big plus for me. I am so tired of SF/fantasy novels where the plot revolves around the ins and outs of factional fighting. All novels of this type basically have the same plot. It seems to be a fallback for careerist writers who’ve run out of fresh ideas. It’s like lava worlds in video games: oh please, not another friggin’ lava world.

  18. I’m not published, but having had a few informal reviews from people I’m beginning to think that what people didn’t like about a piece of writing (and why) can sometimes be more useful than knowing what they did like.

  19. It’s gotta be so difficult to sift through the hurtful words to reveal what is useful in a harsh review. And some are pretty darn harsh. I think maturity and a clear head helps. But I can only imagine there’s still a sting to it. You are absolutely right when you say there’s just not a single book for every reader. That’s why there’s so many different genres and styles of books out there.

    I’ve written short stories (with one to soon be published!) as well as a ton of FF, and that garners a bunch of interesting fan-reactions; from bliss-inducing praise to down-right head scratching: ‘Wait. What?’ moments on my end. XD

    Thank you for sharing your wonderful insight. I will carry it in mind as I wade further into the daunting/thrilling land known as ‘Getting Published’!

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