by Dusty Grein
They All Love Me!
When I first published my book, The Sleeping Giant, I anticipated the glowing reviews that I was sure would happen. After all, I loved my story, how could anyone not feel the same?
Ah, the naiveté of the beginning novelist.
Let me preface this by saying that in all fairness, my book has been very well received. It has been purchased and/or read by thousands of customers, and most of them have been extremely satisfied with the story, the characters and the style with which I wrote it. After thirty reviews, it has a solid and respectable 4.4 star average, and of the thirty, over two thirds have been of the five star variety.
Those aren’t the ones I want to talk about here though. I learned far more about myself, and my writing, from the bad reviews, and I’d like to express my gratitude for the negative ones — even the lone 1-star thrashing of my endeavor.
When I got my first 3-star review, I felt like I had actually made it.
I had arrived!
The reviewer said “This is a good read, However the focus of the story, a soon to erupt volcano, ends up with only a few pages at the end. Needs a part 2.” It made me smile – my first critical review was that I needed to write another book!
My next 3-star said simply “needed more character development,” and was countered soon after by a pair of 5-stars that said “It’s interesting, the characters are well created” and “The characters were developed and the plot moved at a rapid pace.”
Different strokes and all that. The truth is you just can’t please everyone, so you have to just grin and shake your head. Then it happened.
The Bad News
Someone gave me a 1-star BAD review!
They not only gave it a single star, but in the review subject line, they said
“SAVE YOUR MONEY… PASS ON THIS BOOK!”
I was shocked!
I felt like I had been sucker-punched and immediately became defensive. I had to walk away from the computer. It hurt that someone felt compelled to not only attack my little story, but to tell others not to bother reading it! After I calmed down, I sat down and read the review in earnest – and I’m glad I did. Here is what this reviewer wrote:
“Poorly written attempt at a first novel. First couple of chapters are an absolute non-stop info dump, which totally stalls the story. The author hasn’t yet learned how to work this info into the story in a way that it doesn’t bring everything to an absolute standstill. It turned me off as a reader. Author started his novel too far before from the beginning of the actual action and takes way too long to get there to hold the reader’s interest when encountering the huge info dump they must stumble through. Author hasn’t yet learned how to eliminate the words “that” and “just” from his writer’s vocabulary, as they should be. A non-educated casual reader might read over the many occurrences of those two empty words—which add nothing to the meaning of the sentences—without noticing them, but they pulled me back to reality every time I encountered them and made the book unreadable for me. My guess is this book has never seen a paid professional edit, as it would have caught all these errors before publication and probably made the story much more readable.”
The first thing I noticed was that I had obviously made this reader feel something–and feel it strongly enough to write a very lengthy and scathing review. Then I started working on figuring out why it had happened, by removing the opinions and just dealing with the substantive issues. In doing so, I made a few discoveries.
I found that part of this was just about my writing style. The infamous “info-dump” accusation was to be expected. In truth, I had written this book quickly, and I did spend a bit too much time in chapter one, setting the stage for my characters. The fact that the story started “too far before from the beginning of the actual action and takes way too long to get there” was one that I had expected to find from some people. I wrote a story that was mainly about the people, not just about the action they went through.
I also discovered that I DID have a tendency to over-use the word THAT. I used this insight to go back into my manuscript, and I did a complete revision, removing over forty instances of the “filler” word. I then released edition 2.0, and in my opinion the story is better for the edit.
Finally, I learned the hard way that being able to edit someone else’s work, is not the same as being able to edit your own. The book is now at edition 4.0 (this last edition change was made necessary due to a print size change) and thanks in large part to its one bad review, it is a much finer book than it was when I first released it.
They continue to be good – and bad.
Since that time, I have received an additional eight 5-star reviews, and another critical one. This latest review (the one and only 2-star it has received) stated that “virtually the entire work is character development.”
In this case, I gladly accept and endorse the statement. Even in my blurb, I invite folks to accompany my characters during the week leading up to the eruption. For twenty-five of the thirty reviewers, this approach to story telling was what they enjoyed.
Keep This In Mind
In the end, no matter how popular you are with your readers, there will be those who dislike your story, your characters or the way you write. You can’t let these obstacles stand in your way. Instead, learn what you can from them, and then move on.
My one hope, is that if you have read a book that you enjoyed, be sure to leave a review for the author. If it has issues, you shouldn’t hesitate to let them know it as well — although you don’t have to scream for others not to waste their money.
Dusty Grein is the Director of Production and Design and a Managing Editor for RhetAskew Publishing. He is also a novelist, ACP accredited poet, and regular writer for the Society of Classical Poets website. Some of his favorite messages can also be found on his personal blog, From Grandpa’s Heart…