Tuesday, November 12, 2013

I Answer a Few Critics

                                   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?



Mindy said...

I absolutely love the review you posted for Chasing Cans. I have to say I feel exactly the same way! I've loved every one of your books and re-read the whole series every now and then.

Laura Crum said...

Thanks so much, Mindy. I appreciate your kind words more than I can ever convey. I'm really glad that you've enjoyed my stories.

Gayle Carline said...

I have two favorite negative reviews: One is from a man who was mad that my short story was a short story, so he gave it one star and said it read like it had been written by a high school sophomore. First, I kind of thought it would be obvious from the description that it was a short story (I've since put up a disclaimer that it is a "Peri Minneopa Mystery Short"). Second, it was nice to be mistaken for someone so much younger. BTW, after I got that review, my sales went up.

My second favorite negative review was a reader who loved HIT OR MISSUS, until page something-or-other, when "the plot fell completely apart" due to about 5 typos. I've since corrected the typos, but the kicker? She gave it five stars!

Which reminds me of the woman who LOVED one of my books (can't remember whether it was FREEZER BURN or HIT OR MISSUS), enjoyed the story, the characters, love-love-loved it. Gave it two stars. Tough customer.

And no, I never answer them. I've only engaged reviewers twice. Once was to agree with one that complained about Peri and her boyfriend in THE HOT MESS. Skip and Peri were having quite a bit of (nongraphic) sex and I told her I would try to get them to tone it down for the next book. She was thrilled to have the feedback and we're now Facebook friends. The other was to assure a reader that I would be returning to Peri in future books, but I was taking a brief hiatus to write a mystery with new characters. She said thanks.

I've heard that the author should never engage their reviewers, even the positive ones, so I have been careful, but so far the experiences have been positive.

Laura Crum said...

Gayle-- I have never engaged with negative reviewers directly. This post is pretty much my one blast at answering back and I'm pretty sure the negative reviewers will never read it. Since I learned how important those silly star rankings are, I, too, have been saddened by those who review my books very favorably but give three stars, for instance. I'm sure these reviewers are thinking well, this wasn't great literature, so even though I really liked it I can't give it four stars, and it's a legitimate point, but unfortunately, books are often judged simply by the "star ranking" on Amazon, so any review that is less than four stars actually hurts the book and makes it less interesting to potential future readers.

Mindy said...

I think people who expect a character in an ongoing series to stay the same are being unrealistic. I loved watching Gail evolve and, for lack of a better term, "grow up." We all change day to day, year to year. I guess a lot of people would argue that your books are fiction and it shouldn't matter that the character stays the same. I guess in a way that's true, but I loved all the changes in Gail's life and how the characters, animals and scenery are based in part on your own life. I took a long time reading Barnstorming because I had heard it was your last novel and I didn't want it to end! =)

Laura Crum said...

Thanks, Mindy. Putting Gail through some big life changes, and writing about horses, landscape and weather, were my favorite parts of writing that mystery series.

GunDiva said...

I've also heard not to engage reviewers (positive or negative) and have been lucky enough that my reviews, so far, have been good.

I did read an interesting post a couple of weeks ago about the benefits of negative reviews. It seems counter-intuitive, but the author made a couple of good points. First, that it proves that not just your friends/family are reviewing your books and second, the negative reviews can cause people to buy the book to "see if it's really that bad". It was an interesting take.

Laura Crum said...

GunDiva--Good point. I have to tell you, I went for years without one negative review, but if your books are out in the world a long time (in my case twenty years and twelve books) and get reviewed by plenty of folks and, just as you say, by people other than friends...etc, there usually will be some that don't love the book (s). I will admit that when I see a new book out with only positive reviews I DO wonder if these are all "friend/family" reviews, so I think it is a good point about the occasional negative review proving that this isn't so. And just for the record, I think only one person that I actually know in real life ever posted a review of my books on Amazon.

Val said...

I just submitted a five star review of Chasing Cans! Sorry for the delay.

I can see how the required formula of a mystery novel could be tiresome to write.

I love how your horses appear in your books. I guess that it would be unnatural not to include your own life experiences. How else could you write?

Laura Crum said...

Thank you, Val. So glad you enjoyed Chasing Cans. I really enjoy putting my own horses in my books, and describing their unique traits and quirks. I have spoken to authors who say they don't use anything from their lives in their books--that it all comes from their imagination. I will admit, this mystifies me. The thing I love most about writing is re-creating, as it were, the things/places/events/people/animals that have delighted me in life.

Laughing Orca Ranch said...

I don't think I would be upset or worried about negative reviews myself.
Writing is an art form, just like painting and drawing. And all art forms are subject to subjective views. Every art form inspires a different feeling and opinion from each individual viewing it.
Some will like it and some won't. And they are all just personal opinion based on personal feelings.
Trying to defend your artwork will make no difference to the person critiquing it because they already have an opinion about it.
Defending it will probably only make you feel better.
But that's the price you pay when you put your art out for the world to view and critique.
You have to accept the good with the bad and not take it personally.


Laura Crum said...

Good points, Lisa. I think my point was that when a reviewer is actually incorrect about something that they post on such a public forum it is rather irritating to the author. It's quite true that I can do nothing about negative reviews and such reviews WILL come along if you put your work out to the public. However, it was fun to write a post in which I explained why some things in the books are the way they are (for better or worse) and refuted a few critics I didn't agree with. I'm sure none of the negative reviewers will ever read this post, so no harm done.

White Horse Pilgrim said...

I suppose that people read for a variety of reasons. Some of those readers will exhibit what I shall call, rather clinically and somewhat for want of a better term, pathologies. Good writing makes them envious. Seeing a writer making a success of his or her vocation makes them even more envious. Then there are know-alls, who can prove quite ignorant. There are bigots waiting for one to engage history or politics. And any one of these might post a poor review. One only has to look at the comments section of even a clear factual news article to see what sorts of idiots are out there.

I have to admit that poorly written books do annoy me. A member of our writers' group locally works for a publisher and admits amazement at how writers of badly written manuscripts get deals when good literature usually doesn't. Perhaps that just reflects the semi-literacy that prevails nowadays? But I will admit that a good plot can be clumsily executed, and that doesn't make the writer a bad storyteller.

Books that wilfully misrepresent history also irritate me. However television drama is a bigger culprit in the polemic and propaganda stakes. But I don't have to buy or view.

Maybe some readers really do live vicariously through their favourite characters? So when the character breeds or has sexual encounters that shatter the myth in a reader's mind, he or she will be unhappy. At least as writers we can daydream a bit through the characters that we create, and we decide what they get up to! Yes, I have put a character or two into quirky situations that I might not have the luck or courage (or youth, looks or money!) to attain in real life!

Laura Crum said...

WHP--I recently read a novel recommended as good--about horses and set in a location I enjoy reading about (the American south). I simply could not believe how bad it was. Rambling, unfocused, confusing, the horse parts unbelievable (13 year old girl who has never ridden put first rides on abused, dangerous rescue horse and "saves" him)....this was a much touted popular novel. I couldn't finish it. So yes, I hear you. Why in the world do the very obvious faults in some books get ignored?