Before I start, though, I really want to clarify-- I am, at the moment, flying sort of high. Behind the Curtain is out, and so far, people seem to have really taken to Dawson and Jared-- and I'm glad. But I need people to know (because so many of my readers are sweet and wonderful and kind and don't want me to feel badly about my writing and, in fact, would like me to do more of it) that I'm not looking for sympathy or anger-- particularly not on my behalf. I just thought maybe I should revisit the topic, that's all!
Okay-- so to begin, the surge of concern comes in waves.
You know when a whack of new authors has had work hit the airwaves when your e-mail box and FB are suddenly filled with that painful, pitiful cry of the freshly wounded:
Why. Why don't they like my story? Why are they so mean about it? Why?
I have probably addressed this a zillion times in the past (oh God!) nearly ten years, and the best time was probably HERE, in a post that I still give new writers because it helped me so much to write.
But I feel badly-- that post is old, and just because I've managed (barely) to deal with my own emotions regarding reviews doesn't mean that the pain isn't still fresh and the blood still flowing for the newer writers. I sort of feel like they deserve a fresh post, if nothing else, because if you've been with me from the beginning, you know that I've been just as wounded, just as puzzled, and just as angry about reviews as anyone else on the internet.
Having more reviews has not made the bad ones hurt any less-- but it has given me some perspective on why they happen with a perfectly wonderful book. So this post is going to be about that. For me, figuring out why the book didn't hit the spot does a lot to alleviate the crushing sense of failure I get when someone tells me that it didn't!
So here we go-- several reasons why a reader might not like a perfectly wonderful book:
Hype alone did you a disservice--
Do you all remember the movie The Departed? Everybody loved that frickin' movie. It had hotties, guns, violence, and Martin Scorsese. So Mate and I decided that, in spite of an acknowledged distaste for Scorsese's sensibility, we would watch it. After all, it was brilliant, it caused the stars to align, caused automatic weight loss, and solved the marshmallow shortage in four out of five households, right? Well, all of that hype, and I can tell you one thing--
It was called The Departed for a reason.
But here's the thing-- hype can screw you over. If the whole known world goes READ THIS IT'S AWESOME, it sheds divine light on the accursed, it opens the flood gates of purgatory, and it cures herpes, and then people read it, one of three things will happen:
A. People will read it and they'll think it's awesome, it sheds divine light on the accursed, it opens the flood gates of purgatory, and it cures herpes. Lucky you. That's a four or five star review!
B. People will read it and they'll think they never should have read it because it's exactly as horrible as they knew it would be because it's angst or comedy or drama or m-preg or whatever and they never read angst or comedy or drama or m-preg or whatever and goddammit it is all the author's fault, and even if it isn't the author's fault, the world needs to be warned!
C. People will read it and they'll think, "My herpes has not gone away, and I'm pretty sure my Uncle Herbert is still in hell because he was a bastard. People lied, this book is meh, and fuck you all!"
See--I watched The Departed, I'm still fat, the stars are still scattered, and we have no marshmallows, and so the movie must have sucked! It's not rational, (but it feels rational) and it's basic human nature. No book or movie is ever as good as the expectations/buzz/hype that can be generated about it on the internet.
And if you ever do find a book that causes automatic weight loss, by all means e-mail me, I really need to know!
And if it's not hype, well, chances could be--
Genre and sub-genre biases were against you!
There are some unacknowledged trends in reviews that are seldom mentioned, but they exist. Now, these things are not true for everybody-- I'm sure people will read this and point out several people who have managed to beat these trends, but as a rule of thumb here are some things that happen to ratings that writers cannot control
A. Short novels got no reason to live.
You think I'm kidding? Go look at an author with a number of works out-- you will notice that, for the most part, novellas and short stories have lower ratings than full length novels. Now, as writers, this can make us want to bang our heads against the wall, but as the reader, you've got to think. Especially in this era where an electronic "book" can take you anywhere from an hour to a week to read, there are some skewed expectations when someone opens a book. A novel has a different plot arc from a novella which has a different plot arc from a short story, but a reader doesn't see this. All the reader sees is that the work ends. Again-- this is not the reader's fault. They're not supposed to be English majors, setting the story on Frey's pyramid and making sure it tracks-- they get to the end and think, "Wait…" So an exquisitely crafted, word-smithed confection of a novella is going to get lower marks. It's not fair-- it could be an A+ novella, but it's getting judged against the big boys, so really, it's like throwing a middle-school basketball player into a college game and going, "Poor little fucker-- but he tried!"--but, again, it's human nature. Sometimes size really does satisfy, and that's not the reader's fault--but as an author, it's good to know, and not to take too personally.
B. Comedy is less important than tragedy.
Now personally I think this one is bullshit. I have multiple friends whose inner lives are scary places with unfriendly playmates and anxious dark corners-- these friends need comedy. That's the whole reason they watch television or read-- to be entertained and to be taken out of these dark corners and into the light. But--as important as comedy is, as difficult as it is to execute, there will always be an overwhelming popular sentiment that it's frivolous. Well, maybe so, but as far as many people on this planet are concerned, so is fiction, and we all know that's a crock of crap as well. So if an author has written a funny book, it doesn't matter if it's Shakespearian or Moliere level comedy-- it's going to get dinged from a flawed paradigm. Again, not the reader's fault any more than the state of the environment is the reader's fault personally-- it is through a faulty world paradigm that needs to be culturally addressed, and, well, environment, wars, economic collapse-- humanity has better things to do than fix the paradigm. However, authors should take note-- environment, wars, economic collapse are all reasons to read comedy: it gives us the strength to keep going and continue to be optimistic about a frightening world. So, you know-- screw critical paradigms, and by all means keep making us laugh!
C. Alternative Universe is easier to write and should therefore be critically shafted.
*shakes head* I'm sorry. It's true. Well, not true, but very popular in critical theory. I used to hear high school students say this all the time: "Well it's not real. It's not as good!" I used to hear people on amazon.com forums say the same thing. Now as a writer I know that crafting a good science fiction, fantasy, or urban fantasy world and then using it to stage a romance is a hideously difficult thing to do. People assume that because you create your own world, it's easy-- you don't have to subscribe to any rules. The fact is, you have to pull those rules out of your own ass and then make sure they're etched in stone or people will be falling in plot-holes and spraining their id's all over the manuscript, and that is some damned hard work. But readers don't always know that-- and given the fact that public education tends to crap all over fantasy literature--and romance literature too!-- we're just lucky they agreed to read our work and then didn't decide to burn us as witches. Someday, fantasy literature may get it's due-- but, it's not today. Still, just like comedy, it needs to be written. That Alternative Universe that an author built so particularly in his or her mind really may be the exact place that a reader needs to hide from his or her own demons.
D. Romance is for bored housewives and horny househusbands and not the stuff of real literature, so we can shit all over it.
Yes, this one makes me want to full out tackle a motherfucker-- but I still get it and I'm sure other writers do too. I have written pages and pages about how important romance is to our society, our culture, and our family unit, and I'm not going to do it again here-- but writers, just be prepared. This is a difficult preconception to fight. Don't spend your time fighting it. Spend your time writing the best romance you can, so that people who actually don't have their heads in anatomically awkward places can appreciate what you do.
So those are some of the more popular genre biases--don't try to change them, just accept them, they've been around for ages. They're sort of like that really really old, politically incorrect relative who embarrasses you in restaurants-- they're human, we should respect them for what they are, but just like when my grandmother started to rave that we were all taking her money and constipating her on purpose, we really couldn't take that too seriously, or it would really piss us off.
E. First person is really easy so it should get graded harder.
Okay-- uhm, no. And anyone who really thinks that needs to read Racing for the Sun and Christmas Kitsch back to back, and ask themselves the same question that I did as I was writing them back to back:
How does the author have both those distinct voices in her head and not go out of her frickin' mind?
Well, I sort of like to think it takes skill. Writing is not acting-- when an actor takes on a part, the physical presence, with physical limitations are still there, in the character. When writers take on character and write from first person, we are completely free of that physical boundary. We are constructing a word by word world of another human being's mind and living in that world. This is no mean feat of imagination blended with reason. This is, in fact, extremely difficult. I've written books that have different characters using different narrative techniques. Keeping the first person's voice distinct and truly individual is a really frickin' hard thing to do. Doing it more than once doesn't get easier.
But, again, like bias against AU and romance, this isn't necessarily something broached in public school, so it's a paradigm we need to fight with quality. For some people, that first person voice is what they need to set them free. For others, well, maybe free isn't where they want to be, and, again, that's something to respect.
So those aren't all the genres, but you get the general idea. And the general idea boils down to this:
Different Strokes for Different Folks
If you look over my reviews on GoodReads (and I do-- sometimes just to get a general sense of what to expect from a book coming out so I'm not shocked or slammed,) you will see the following contradictions:
* A review for Under the Rushes that claims the first part of the book was crap and the second part of the book was brilliant right over a review that claims that the first part of the book was brilliant and the second part of the book was crap.
* Reviews for Keeping Promise Rock that hate it because of the angst and wish I could stick to works like If I Must and Gambling Men.
* Reviews for If I Must and Gambling Men that are disappointed that I didn't give it my all and write another book like Keeping Promise Rock or The Locker Room.
* Reviews for Keeping Promise Rock that say it's not as good as Making Promises.
* Reviews for Making Promises that think Shane and Mickey are much better that Crick and Deacon of Keeping Promise Rock.
* 1* reviews for Chase in Shadow from the same person who gave Dex in Blue a 5* review.
* A review for It's Not Shakespeare from someone who lived in Northern California and is in a multicultural relationship who thinks I captured the racial dynamic and the location dynamic very very well.
* A review for that same book, right under the first review, from someone who thinks that the white people in the book were a cruel stereotype, but that I completely captured the Hispanic people in the book with intimacy and immediacy.
* A review for that same book, right under the second review, from someone who thinks that the Hispanic people in the book were a cruel stereotype, but that I completely captured repressed white people with both intimacy and immediacy.
* A review for Left-on-St.-Truth-be-Well that thinks the comedy and dialog were frickin' hilarious.
* A review for Left-on-St.-Truth-be-Well that didn't know what in the fuck I was talking about for most of the book.
* Reviews for Christmas Kitsch that hate Rusty for his low self-esteem.
* Reviews for Christmas Kitsch that love Rusty for being just like they were.
And so on…
My point in all of this?
We as writers are working on our own perception of the world We expand our sensitivities and try desperately to capture humanity with dignity and, (if we're writing romance) redemption, but even with three dimensional vision, we can still only see from one set of eyes. The reader is another set of eyes. The belief that all writers can write a book that all readers adore is preposterous and flawed. It implies that we all have the same neighborhood, the same childhood, the same vision, the same mind. The fact is that the simple act of writing fiction to be read by someone else is a tremendous, intimate act of communication.
Odds are good, there's going to be a breakdown in vision somewhere, because one of humanities greatest tragedies and biggest gifts is that we don't all share the same brain.
That being said, there are some things to keep in mind when you're getting criticism that baffles you:
* If you're writing a series of spin-offs-- you are writing different people in the same world. Odds are, no two couples in the same room have the same beginning story. Some of those stories are going to resonate more with some people than others. So some people may like Deacon and Crick more than Shane and Mickey, and some people may love Jeff and Collin the most. There is not a think in the world I can do about that. It is simply the way we are.
* If you watch the news or John Stewart, you will see that nobody understands race relations in this country-- and only the brave try. If you have written a book with multicultural roots, congratulations! But prepared to be hammered on all sides for everything from accuracy to perception. This is one of those paradigm things that we--especially in America-- can not change. When I taught, many of my African-American students would go to school in the south, hoping that they would fit in better at an all-black school than in Sacramento, where the mix was so very eclectic. Some of these students would write back, and one of the most heartbreaking e-mails I got talked about coming home because--in the student's words, she was not "black" enough for the people at her college. That is race in America-- it is a painful tangle of perception and region, and if the world had a handle on it, we wouldn't see news stories about racial profiling in department stores and people getting pulled over for no reason at all. (I've been in the car with a friend when this has happened. It was infuriating.) If you attempt to tackle this in a story, and you are not one of the ethnicities in your story, you need to be prepared. And you need to make sure you wrote that story with those characters in the purest, most unblemished faith possible, that you were presenting all characters with dignity, strength, and compassion. Sometimes, that's the only knowledge that will get you through what follows.
* If you're writing comedy remember that people who loved Seinfeld often hated Friends, were indifferent about Frasier, and couldn't be bothered with Everybody Loves Raymond. Comedy, particularly regional comedy, is a tough sell. That's why comedians like Fluffy, Eddie Izzard, and Bill Cosby are a gift to all of us-- they tell universal stories with universal themes, and are generally loved. But there's always someone who will hate them. It doesn't matter how funny you are, someone out there will not get you, and be bitter.
* And that brings me, in a roundabout way, to an ephemeral thing: regional differences are not alway easy to spot. If you point them out in a story, people may not get them in the story-- it's something you have to be attuned to, and it's sort of an individual way of looking at the world. People who lived in Florida loved Left on ST. Truth-be-Well. People who lived in Chicago loved it. People who had never been to either region were lost, because a lot of the conflict depended on where the two heroes hailed from. Again--human nature. Doesn't mean that story didn't need to be told, just meant not everybody is going to hear it with your ears.
* Everything I just said about comedy and regional stories and racial perception goes double for Alternative Universe stories. Steampunk, paranormal romance, science fiction, fantasy-- everyone has their own AU paradigm perfectly assembled in their gray matter. If you want to start a riot, walk into a convention of romance writers and ask them about weight conversion in a shape-shifting romance. People will draw blood over whether or not a possum shifter is really physically possible. Once people embrace AU, they tend to be very very very picky about ratio of world building to romance to storyline, and walking that tightrope can be very tricky. Your best failsafe is a net of the most perfect world building you can muster-- and a belief that you wrote the AU story you would have wanted to read. Sometimes that's all you have.
And that brings us to…
The final conclusion--
Reviews are tough to ignore-- we crave feedback! But we cannot pick and choose who will give us that feedback-- we hope it's someone who gets us, gets the way we view the world, gets what our characters are trying to accomplish. What we get is a very different assortment of people who just want to be entertained, and glory hallelujah who can blame them?
The most important thing to remember is that somewhere out there, somebody loved your book. Your publisher thought it was good enough to publish, there are reviews out there from delighted readers, and as for the not-so-delighted ones? Well… it's like I told myself with the people who hated Rusty for having low self-esteem. Would I really want them near my children? My children would drive them batshit in about two minutes-- and that's nobody's fault. That's just basic personality incompatibility. It's not personal-- it's just how people are.
And that's the thing. Most bad reviews are not personal. It's just how people are. The important thing to remember is that you created your masterpiece, and that somewhere out there another human being read it and embraced it-- it became, for a moment, their world built with words. Congratulations! That's a terrific human accomplishment.
I know that I am proud, humble, and frickin' thrilled every time-- every goddamned time--that it happens.