by Laura Crum
Reading reader reviews of one’s own book on Amazon can be interesting, cheering, and frustrating—all at once. Obviously positive reviews are a joy for the author and outright negative reviews are pretty crushing (fortunately I haven’t had too many of this last sort). Some reviews are mixed, with the reviewer stating what he/she did and did not like about the book. A lot of the time I understand exactly why the reviewer had a certain objection; sometimes it concerns a fault that I can easily see and acknowledge. What I find very frustrating is the reviews in which I think the reviewer is just plain wrong. So today I’d like to bring up some of the negative things that have been said about my books by readers, and respond to them.
Let’s take Cutter, my first mystery novel, set in the world of cutting horses. Cutter has a four star rating on Amazon, so obviously it has been pretty well liked by readers overall. But…there is one very negative review in which the reviewer states that my glaring lack of knowledge about horses ruins the book. She says she owns and raises horses and that I “need to do more research.” I will admit that looking at this particular review makes my blood boil, so I try not to go there. But here is what I would like to say to this reviewer.
“Lady, I don’t care how many horses you have, or if your horse keeping practices are vastly different from mine. I dare you to show me ONE place in the book where I am inaccurate in what I say about horses. Everything in my books (regarding horses) is modeled on things I have actually seen and done, with the exception of some dastardly deeds, and these are also as accurate as my long career with horses (and checking with my vet) can make them. You may not like my writing style, you may disapprove of the way horses are treated in the western horse world, you may just not like my tone, and that’s all fine. But you are 100% dead wrong about my information being inaccurate.”
Very satisfying to write that out and post it here. But very frustrating to think that potential readers are being told something negative about my books that is simply not true. I’m not sure what was in this reviewer’s mind when she wrote this comment, because she fails to give any specific point where she thinks I am inaccurate. And, of course, I can’t know if she really has horses or knows anything about horses at all. But there her review sits, among all the others that attest to the fact that the book is very accurate in all its horse background. Grrr…
Then there are the criticisms that I actually agree with. Several people have said that they really liked Cutter and Hoofprints (my first two novels, rated four stars and four 1/2 stars respectively on Amazon), but did not like my excessive use of dashes. To these people I would like to say that I am sorry for this fault, and give an explanation.
When I put Cutter and Hoofprints up as Kindle editions, I had no electronic copies of the manuscripts. At the time I wrote them, the publishing company that bought them worked strictly on paper copies. Thus the editing and the final editions did not exist in digital form. So I had to have the actual hard copy books scanned in and then go through the resulting digital copies trying to take all the scanner errors out. This was not easy. Certain scanner errors just weren’t that obvious, though I went over the books many times. The hardest thing turned out to be the fact that I literally could not tell that a dash which appeared to be a needed hyphen at the end of a line would end up being an unneeded dash in the text when it finally appeared on the Kindle. Thus the books ended up having a lot of extra dashes as Kindle editions.
I apologize for those dashes. I know I should return to the books and edit them some more and try to get the extra dashes out. The truth is that I have been overwhelmed with other projects, and getting the books edited and put up on Kindle was a six month project that took ALL of my time and I just can’t face going back to it…yet. Some readers have assured me that the remaining scanner errors (dashes and such) do not detract from the books, and some readers obviously feel differently. So this is a very legitimate criticism.
And then there are those criticisms that seem particular to the critic. For instance, I have been criticized for deviating from the plot stream (too often) to describe details of the landscape and weather. This “fault” has annoyed a few readers. However, some readers praise my books for just this reason. They say I do a great job of evoking the places I write about through accurate detail. “I felt like I was right there with Gail as she rode those trails,” is a frequent response to my books. So it’s hard for me to say if this trait in my writing (which I freely admit to—I love describing landscape and weather and trying to create through words the feeling these things give you) is a strength or a weakness. Maybe both?
There are those who just don’t consider my protagonist “likable enough,” and there are those who think she is just like a best friend. I have to guess that’s a reflection of personality style on the part of the reader. I’d venture to say that chatty, outgoing extroverts are likely to find Gail a bit of a cold fish, and quiet, introspective introverts who are something of a loner in real life will like Gail and relate well to her.
There are a few who resent what they describe as a sudden dramatic wrap-up in some of my books that presents them with an unexpected villain, and there are many who praise my books because they never figure out who-dun-it ahead of time. I’m here to tell you that the “surprise” villain is/was a real thorn in my side as an author. I never realized that this was an expected feature of a mystery until my books were bought by a major NY publisher and my editor made it clear to me that the reader must always be surprised by the ending. They don’t call mysteries “who-dun-its” for nothing. You are not allowed to build up to an inevitable conclusion in a strong logical manner through clear character development, as you might do in a thriller, or sci-fi or whatever. No, you must somehow disguise the killer’s motivation thoroughly enough that the reader is surprised when the villain is revealed at the end.
Needless to say this isn’t easy to do, and DOES result in a story where the killer’s true purpose and character must be hidden—resulting in a rather sudden revelation and wrap-up—in order to create that sense of surprise which the mystery reader expects. I sometimes find this frustrating myself as a writer, so I can understand why a reader might critique me for it. But perhaps it helps to understand the trap the mystery author is in? Give too much info about the villain and his/her motivation and everyone will guess who it is before the “surprise” ending. But giving very little info ahead of time results in that sudden wrap-up/revelation that often seems a bit contrived and not-so-believable.
And finally there is the thing which has drawn the most criticism (and the most hostile criticism) of all. I had the nerve to turn my equine vet into a mom in the ninth book in the series. Even more, a stay-at-home mom who practices attachment parenting (or natural parenting). God forbid.
Quite a few readers who absolutely LOVED my books when Gail was a single veterinarian were very unhappy when I gave her a baby. Childless women themselves, they found the topic of motherhood boring, and the idea that Gail would actually stay at home to take care of her baby rather than go back to work as a vet was repulsive to them. All I can say to this is oh well. Before I was a mother, I found the topic of motherhood boring, too, so I get it.
To explain why I transformed my busy, dedicated horse vet into a mom (Gail still has horses, and the later mysteries in the series are all very horse-themed, by the way), well, I wanted to write about motherhood because it has been a huge and fascinating part of the last fifteen years of my life. I had said all that I had to say about the life of a veterinarian (and more than a few horse vets have told me that I was writing their lives, so I think I did a decent job on that subject), and I decided to write about a topic that interested me now, in order to keep myself engaged with the series after turning out eight previous books. The fact that not everybody was going to like this motherhood theme was absolutely something I understood going in. I found I was less interested in pleasing people than in portraying small truths and insights about life that I have learned over the years, through/in my fiction. If some don’t like my last four books because of the “mama” theme, so be it. Lots of people do like these books—and I am guessing that other moms are probably more likely to like the stories than non-moms. However, judging by the reviews, there are exceptions to this rule. One of my absolute favorite reader reviews of Chasing Cans (which is the book in which Gail has a nursing baby to deal with as she solves a mystery at the barrel racing trainer’s ranch next door) is as follows:
I was prepared to not like this book so much based on previous reviews. People have pretty harshly judged this story because of the new mom theme running throughout the book. So I read it, and to the Neigh-sayers, I say, "SO WHAT." We have read about Dr. Gail McCarthy throughout many ages and stages of her life, and becoming a new mom is just another one of her ages and stages. It's one of the things that apparently makes Gail, Gail. In the meantime, the author still weaves a credible mystery and an interesting story, and no matter what, the author's writing style always wins me over because her dialogue is so well crafted. I feel like I really know her characters and their personalities, and the same cannot be said for very many authors I have read recently. I hope Laura Crum continues to write, and I will continue to read them, even if Dr. Gail McCarthy (or any other character she conjures up) goes into pre-menopausal nervous breakdowns, joins religious cults, and just sits in corners and drools and babbles. Yes, Laura Crum's writing is skillful enough to make even that into a mystery and make it interesting as well.
Now that is a review that makes me smile. She gave the book 5 stars, too.
Anyway, I know all authors deal with this issue (surely there isn’t anyone who gets ALL good reviews)—anyone have any insights on your own experiences dealing with negative reader reviews?