Never look back

Becoming a pillar of salt may be a pleasant fate. Seriously, one of the problems that many good authors suffer from is that of looking back — because they want to know how they’re doing. This is a little like stopping running to see if the leopard is closer or not. Of course, for the author, that’s looking at the reviews of your previous books. You want to be told it was loved and enjoyed, and they ‘got it’ – because there is always a niggle of doubt. Here’s the thing, once a reader buys your book… they decide what you wrote about about, what you meant by it, and how good it was. They may decide they hated it but obviously missed the point. Or almost worse, they may have decided they loved it, and obviously missed the point. And you can make the point (which you plainly failed to do, at least for them, the first time) but you are exceptionally unlikely to make it to them. Like those ships that pass in the night, the opportunity is gone.

I checked in to see how GEORGINA was doing, star-wise, and happened to notice that someone had ‘also bought’ SHAMAN OF KARRES. Now, I should have left it at that, but I went and looked at the reviews. One complained the authors had used up all their good ideas in the previous books and this was just rehash and all the ideas that weren’t up to it. Now I was taken aback by this because I thought the use of a parasite that alters the behavior of the host – a situation known from half a dozen earth species, where they may even alter brain chemistry to change behavior was, well, fascinating, odd and full of really interesting knock-on ideas. The idea was that the de facto parasite was also a beloved pet, because what it did was to make the host happy to care for it. The situation bordered on symbiotic as the happiness might be induced by chemical changes, but the host WAS happy to serve. In the story the ability of ‘pet’ was perverted into making slaves – slaves who adored their masters, and who were enslaved by the sheer pleasure of serving, and love of that master. They were happy and content, as slaves. They would rather die than be freed — rather like addiction to some drugs affects some people. To me, anyway, it was a particularly vile form of enslavement. But… it raised all sorts of dilemmas and questions for my characters.

There were a bunch of other ideas -from the tumbleweed species and its reproduction, which I thought I’d never read anywhere else, let alone in sf which was intended to be entertaining light space-opera. I was rather proud of it, and thought the tide of the dead scene was one of the finest I have written… and plainly, at least for that reader, I failed completely.

Therein lies the problem for the writer. You can likely never reach that specific person. They read your book, wrote their review, and you can get as mad as a cut snake about their interpretation – it’s done. You can get as mad as you like, but you can’t reach them. No point in looking back. Look forward. I will write better. And that, it seems to me is an excellent way of approaching the year ahead.

And the picture is something I am looking forward to.

21 thoughts on “Never look back

  1. The picture makes me want to head up to Pictured Rocks on Lake Superior, or any number of places out the shore there. Also a bit like Door County Wisconsin (The pinky finger bit. I can see it from my side of Green Bay). My side of the shoreline is mostly trees, what isn’t houses or the cities.

  2. Due to my very minor contribution to Georgina curiosity got the better of me so I went and looked at the Amazon reviews, 29 at current count, all either 4 or 5 stars except for one 3 which was a full paragraph praising the book and ending with “a very enjoyable read.” I cannot fathom why someone would say that and still only award 3 stars, but there is no explaining what quirks live in the minds of the readers.

        1. I tried to leave a review of my own as in all fairness I did read the bloody thing, but Amazon in its infinite wisdom apparently blocked it.

          1. Yeah, they wouldn’t take mine either. Sometimes I think they disallow facebook friends or something. Stupid, it’s the chinese bots that are an issue, not the author’s sister liking it.

          2. Both my and Pam’s reviews are now up. Just took them several days to get approved. Further proof that Amazon’s ways are dark and mysterious.

  3. People get different things out of stories– heaven knows there’s enough classics of sighfi which is an insufficient coffee error that I am totally leaving in because oh my gosh am I not getting whatever made it classic, it reads like a lecture. Sometimes I’ll suggest a story to someone because it just hauls you along and is great and– huh. They are bored, or bounce off of it hard.

    Maybe the person was a hard-core Harry Potter fan and had battled to death on the internet forums about the morality of free the house elves? It’s super niche, but I can see that making someone tired of the flavor of thinking about the morality of slavery and self-will of the slave.

  4. I love having friends who are Other-Continent Rednecks! They say things like :
    “This is a little like stopping running to see if the leopard is closer or not.”
    One of my New Year Resolutions (the only one, so far) is to use that sentence in a conversation.

  5. It’s complicated, what one hopes for from readers.

    I didn’t get into writing 10 years ago for the money (it was a leap into the dark), but to communicate, to tell people a story. Now, there’s the craft side of it (building a well-formed novel that sufficiently (if never perfectly) satisfies issues of quality) — that’s hard enough, and the indie publishing part makes the learning curve a bit deeper — but that’s just the price of entry. After all, you have to produce an adequate pot if you want people to use if for anything, even an ashtray.

    More importantly, I’ve built these… bubbles, these little sub-worlds of people and events, and I care about them. I wish my heroes well and my villains ill, and I want others to do the same. I want them to spark real emotions in the minds of strangers, reactions to the premises I present. I don’t mind so much when someone disagrees with me about a person or an event; I’m delighted they were engaged enough to give it that much thought. (I could never be a works-for-hire fiction writer — wouldn’t be able to care enough about arbitrary sub-worlds to find it rewarding.)

    But I do wish I heard from more of my readers, even if just as a rating if not a review. It’s easy enough to discount the random minority who don’t seem to “get it” or have some sort of orthogonal game going about competitive bad reviews, but one can only judge the larger audience reaction by dividing the sales into the proportions of “good/adequate reviews” percentage vs “bad/irrelevant reviews” percentage. That’s a hard way to measure success for my own goals.

    Nothing makes me happier than a reader who reviews (or even contacts me!) and demonstrates that they perceived and approved of something I stuck in a story, or puzzled over something, or wish I’d done something a little different. I smile all day long, and then some. It’s not the attention I seek, nor the specific approval (I’m stubborn enough not to let disapproval stop me), but the interest they took in the little bubble I’ve made that didn’t exist before. “See, here’s a little world for you — so glad that you found it interesting.”

  6. Thanks to a two star (IIRC) review, I realized that while readers of the Merchant books also read Familiars, the reverse is less common. The reader wanted a fun, easy, light novel. He or she bounced hard off the first Merchant book, because there is so much world building and the story moves slowly. All true, and I’m grateful that the reader took the time to leave the review. It helps me make recommendations and market things.

  7. Goodreads and Amazon assigning different meanings to numbers of stars has to create some of the odd ratings we see. I’ve noticed that readers who rate/review in both places always choose the same number of stars, even though they mean different things in the two places.

    1 star=disliked it
    2 stars=okay
    3 stars=liked it
    4 stars=really good
    5 stars=awesome!

    1 star=hated it
    2 stars=disliked it
    3 stars=okay
    4 stars=liked it
    5 stars=loved it

    I think a fair number of Goodreads reviewers use the Amazon stars as though they were Goodreads stars.

  8. I don’t let negative reviews bother me (unless there is something substantively correct about their criticism, such as a statement of fact I got wrong). I remember a one-star review I got about my book on Rabaul where the reviewer said he gave it because I didn’t mention his dad’s unit. When I checked, I discovered that unit had not been involved in the Rabaul campaign, but rather was fighting in New Guinea. Of course i didn’t mention that unit!

    Most of the one-star reviews seem to fall in that category. The reviewers are obsessed with some errant fact.

  9. “…and plainly, at least for that reader, I failed completely.”

    At some point, if a reader missed the boat that hard, one must ask if there was was ever any hope of success with that guy.

    The one bad review I got on Unfair Advantage was the semi-professional reviewer who couldn’t stand it that the nerd got the (robot) girl, and couldn’t stand it that the MC’s girlfriend didn’t instantly dump him when he turned into a troll. Thereby missing the whole point of the book.

    I didn’t write the book he wanted. Which is fine, after looking at his other reviews. He likes all the crap I can’t stand. I’m -never- going to write what he wants, in fact I probably can’t. It would drive me into a depression.

    So no Dave, you didn’t fail. SHAMAN OF KARRES is a great book and that reviewer was never going to be happy. F- it, drive on.

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