We’re so pleased to welcome author Steve Milton back to TNA today to chat a bit about something near and dear to my heart—reviews.
Dealing with Bad Reviews
It’s a rite of passage for a starting author: a scathing Amazon (or Goodreads) review that announces that you lack talent, you couldn’t write your way out of a goat pen, you need to re-learn elementary-school spelling, your characters are flatter than flat, your sex scenes can cure nymphomania, your action scenes can cure insomnia, your cover is ugly, your paper is cheap, and by the way, your mom’s not too great looking. And that’s just the beginning.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that negative reviews are the biggest dropout point for new writers. That’s unfortunate. Many new writers feel ganged-up on, attacked, even personally attacked. I’m here to tell you not to feel that way at all.
I was fortunate in that I previously worked in academia. It inured me to being told over and over that what I wrote sucks donkey balls. Academic research is a venue for you and your friends to get paid to spend all day viciously destroying one another’s articles and books, then laugh about it and go out for pizza together afterward. Scathing reviews are the point of academia. Nobody made a name for themselves in academia by saying that their predecessors did a good job and were absolutely correct.
When I got my first scathing review for my fiction published on Amazon—not long after I started writing—it was pretty much like getting scathing reviews back in academia. The only difference was that this time the review came from Wichita_Manlove_Lovr (or something like that) and not from Professor Professory McProfessorface PhD. But pretty much the same idea and the same experience. But for those who’ve never had the review pen aimed at them, it can be jarring.
When you get that review, your career is not over. It’s just part of the writing game, just as it’s part of the academia game. You pick yourself up and go on.
Remember: the person who wrote your review spent their time and effort to download and read your book. Maybe they even paid good money for it. They devoted some portion of their lives, and perhaps their finances, to sitting there letting your words flow through their head. They’ve just handed you an enormous amount of trust. They’ve let you inject anything you want into them. And just as much as they’ve let you say whatever you want and they’ve read it, now they’re talking back to you, or to other readers, with the review. Let them talk, just like they let you talk.
They’re not even being asked to be paid for their words—unlike you, Writer Person, who demands to be paid for their words—and they’re not even demanding that you read their review—unlike you, Writer Person, who demands that your review be read. And Amazon will print a lot more in a book than they’ll print in a review. Maybe a reviewer has wanted to use in their review some of the words I use in my books, but Amazon wouldn’t allow it. The author is, yet again, at a tremendous advantage.
A lot of reviews can be tremendously educational. You can learn what your readers want and don’t want. If you’re writing for the public—and you don’t have to be writing for the public, but I don’t see much point of putting your books up on Amazon if you’re not writing for the public—you’ll get to see their reactions and criticisms.
You’ll learn that even if you love some plot device, some sentence structure, some character trait, your readers hate it. Knowing that at least lets you choose between keeping that aspect of your books or keeping your readers, instead of flying blind, writing as you’ve always written, and wondering why your readers aren’t into you.
Do your readers seem to misunderstand some aspect of your plot? That doesn’t mean they’re idiots. It just means that you haven’t explained it clearly enough. In reviews for my book The Mechanic and the Surgeon, several reviews point out the “continuity error” of Alissa having known Joshua when he was a young kid, even though he was her mechanic for only a few years. It was clearly stated in the book that Alissa had known Joshua’s father, and Joshua had hung around the shop as a child. But what I considered clearly stated obviously wasn’t clear enough for my readers. That’s all that matters. And it was my fault that I confused my readers, even if a perfectly comprehending reader with infinite time and energy to devote to my book—which is no real reader ever—would have understood that Joshua had hung around the shop with his father long before he worked there as a mechanic. Point taken.
In another one of my books, reviewers complain that I misuse the word affect and that affect can’t be used as a noun, much less a noun meaning emotional state. Check your dictionary or your Google and you’ll see that affect does indeed have that meaning as a noun. But that doesn’t matter. I now know not to use that word that way, because readers don’t get it. It doesn’t matter that they’re “wrong” when they say I misuse the word.
Because nobody buys or reads books based on the experience they should have had reading your past work. They only buy or read based on the actual experience they had. Yes, it’s entirely possible, even probable that someone gave you a bad review only because they had a headache that day, or it was raining, or their Kindle was malfunctioning. Well, welcome to the real world. Professional reviewers of anything do the exact same thing. And it makes perfect sense, because even when people aren’t reviewing something, their experience with your product might depend on factors entirely out of your control. Again, welcome to the real world.
I hope you realize that in the old days of writing and publishing, you had to be well connected or well-funded to get a salon of crisp-munchers to review your work. Even twenty-some years ago, before Amazon, it was exceedingly difficult for a small-time author to get anybody to review their book, unless that reviewer was paid very well, and even then, it might not have been automatic.
Can you imagine being a pre-Amazon author, an unheard-of name, and setting out to get even ten reviews written of your book? Pipe dream, unless you were willing to pay those reviewers by the hour for their time, and even then, they might not want to work with an unknown. And many of those crisp-munchers would refuse to read about guys putting their willies in other guys.
The other amazing thing is that no matter how many bad reviews you get on Amazon, you’re welcome to come back and publish another book! Let old acquaintance be forgot! Can you imagine that in the pre-Amazon publishing world? Having everybody at the publisher eviscerate your book, but invite you to write another one, and another, which they’ll graciously show to all their customers? Unthinkable. But it’s the reality today. Get a thousand bad reviews, and you’re still warmly welcomed back to publish again and again. So why the long face?
I welcome bad reviews because many of them help me improve my work, as with the examples above of the “continuity error” and the “misused word” that my reviewers perceived in my books. Other bad reviews are from people who simply didn’t like the book. And that is utterly, completely fine. I’ll keep writing what I write, and nothing is for everybody. Don’t be hurt because some people don’t like what you’ve cooked up.
If you need some reassurance, go on Amazon and read some of the one-star reviews for Harry Potter, Moby Dick, Madame Bovary, Wool, or Twilight. Look at all those one-stars. Look at all those eviscerating barbs about horrible plot, flat characters, jumbled grammar, nonexistent continuity: all the same stuff that you, the beginning self-published author, just got slapped for.
If you think you’ve got nothing in common with JK Rowling, Herman Melville, Gustave Flaubert, Hugh Howey, or Stephenie Meyer—well, there’s one big thing you’ve got in common. Bad reviews. Lots of them. Some of them fair, some of them likely very unfair. Welcome to the club. Now that you’ve got the first point of similarity between you and those authors taken care of, now it’s time to start working on the rest.
Reviews, even bad ones, are a gift. They’re guidance that was impossible for a small-time author to find just a few decades ago. Read them. Or, even if you don’t read them, accept them. You put a few hundred pages of your words in the reader’s head. Allow that reader to answer with a few lines of their own.
About Pretend Like You Mean It
“I’ll have the spatchcock. A big spatchcock. I’m gay.”
Rex is a 35-year-old rich boy trying to spice up his reality TV career by pretending to be gay. His pretending doesn’t leave anything to the imagination.
“And a dozen raw oysters. For power.”
On the stage, Rex is teaching career actor Jordan how to look straight when he kisses a woman. Even if the “lesson” consists of Rex grabbing Jordan on stage, hyperventilating, then sauntering off with stained underpants.
“We also need two straws. That’s for later.”
Rex’s family isn’t into his gay act, and Rex takes it out on his fake boyfriend, Jordan. But it’s only Jordan who accepts him. And pretending can become real.
Pretend Like You Mean It is a straight-to-gay romantic comedy with stage whispers, Costco food courts, sticks rubbing to make fire, and two gorgeous hunks getting a well-deserved HEA. No cheating, no cliffhanger.
About Steve Milton
Steve Milton writes gay romances with sweet love, good humor, and hot sex. His stories tend toward the sweet and sexy, with not much angst and definitely no downers. Steve crafts feel-good stories with complex characters and interesting settings. He is a South Florida native, and when he’s not writing, he likes cats, cars, music, and coffee.
He is happy to correspond with his readers one-on-one by email, whether about his books or about life in general. Email email@example.com.