Back Away from the Review: why authors should stay out of it

Another day, another Goodreads meltdown. In the latest ‘oh dear’ moment, an author and her friends (or possibly alternate personalities) is/are going nuts on anyone rating her book less than an enthusiastic 4+ stars. This includes attacking someone for leaving a DNF review (without star rating) and someone else for saying ‘I’m not reading this because the blurb is terrible’* (again without a star rating).

* As annoying as it may be for authors to have someone say ‘I’m not reading this because X’ where X is a factor unrelated to the book itself… the blurb in question is terrible. It’s one ADJECTIVE IN CAPITALS away from achieving sentient life and eating your soul. As a blurbwriter of many years’ experience, I want to give the person who wrote this blurb an hour’s remedial intensive coaching, and a slap. I’m not reading this book because the blurb is terrible. Please click here for how to write a good blurb. But I digress.

I’m not linking to the book because publicity, and also because getting into internet slap fights is right up there on my to-do list next to flossing with barbed wire and listening to the Collected Speeches of Michael Gove at 33rpm. However, I am blogging on this sorry business because it’s a good opportunity to remind myself, and other authors, of a few salient facts about reviews.

Negative reviews aren’t always a bad thing.

I disagree violently with certain reviewers (in my head, obviously), therefore anything they slag gets extra interest from me. I’m much more likely to believe in a book with 30 5* ratings if it has a bunch of 2* or 3* ratings to suggest that the reviews aren’t all by sock puppets. And a review that feels like a murderous knife attack to the author may well read as a mild ‘meh’ to anyone not personally involved.

You don’t have to read reviews, and you probably shouldn’t.

This is not to say I don’t appreciate reviews – I do. Any success I’ve had as an author is down to the enthusiasm and energy of people, mostly on Goodreads, reading and sharing and discussing books. It’s incredibly valuable to any author. I love people who give their time to books.

But, as I have blogged elsewhere, reviews of my books are none of my business. The review is a conversation between the reader and the book. It is not the author’s place to stick her nose in, unless specifically invited. Reviews are for readers, not authors. They are not for you.

Don’t expect yourself to be thick-skinned.

Authors are people. Our books are personal and precious to us. We get upset by negative reviews, especially when they’re spiteful, inaccurate or point-scoring. It is not much fun to have your work made the object of a comedy slating or hate screed. (Or even of mild and justified criticism, to be perfectly honest.) But the solution is not to go in all guns blazing and tell that reviewer why they were completely wrong about your book. It is not to read the reviews in the first place because – all together, now – they are not for you.

Remember that book you didn’t like? 

Some people didn’t like your book. Live with it.

 

If you want to bask in all the lovely comments, or learn something from the critical ones, or profit from the fact that people are talking about your book at all, you have to accept there will be negative responses too. If you can’t take the negatives (and there is no shame in that, you’re only human), you need to stay away from the whole thing.

But you can’t pick and choose, and you really can’t tell readers what they ought to think and say about your book. It doesn’t work that way.

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(Not) Writing a Book

So I went to a party recently and I had The Book Conversation. There’s always one.

Woman: You’re KJ, you’re the writer, yeah? I’m writing a book too.

KJ: Really, what’s it about?

Woman: Oh…well, I mean, I haven’t actually started it yet. I’m really keen to do it, but I think I need more  experience of life before I start the writing.

KJ: Do you think that your stories and ideas might come now if you started actual writing? I find that I need to get down to it to see the ideas and the characters develop—

Woman [cutting that right off]: No. I definitely need to understand life more first. To have deeper experience, do you see?

KJ: Well, to be honest, I write gay paranormal Victorian romance, so I mostly use my imagination.

Woman [with just a smidge of condescension]: My book is rather different to that. A bit more weighty.

KJ [in my head]: And a lot less written.

I have had a lot of variants on this conversation. It’s my fault, of course. 95% of the time, the correct answer to the party statement ‘I’m writing a book,’ is ‘Wonderful, congratulations,’ and then nodding until you’ve finished your drink. (The perfect response is what the late great Peter Cook apparently used to say: ‘Oh, you’re writing a novel? Neither am I.’) But I love talking about writing and I tend to take what people say at face value, so I always say damn fool unwelcome things like ‘How much have you written?’ that presuppose the person is actually writing a book.

There is nothing wrong with not writing a book. Lots of people don’t write books. There’s a great deal to be said for more people not writing books, in fact, especially if I get to choose which ones. And there’s nothing wrong with liking the idea of being an author, or indulging in a bit of fantasy. I clearly spoiled my fellow partygoer’s fun by talking about writing as a thing she could do, rather than a thing that she was prevented from doing by her own artistic dedication. Sorry.

But it is a bit weird how many people seem to go from ‘I’d like to be a writer’ to ‘I’d be a writer if only I wrote’ to ‘I am a writer’. I mean, I occasionally daydream of doing a plumbing qualification and becoming vaguely competent around the house, but that doesn’t mean I tell people I’m a plumber. Still less that I would be a plumber, but I’m waiting for the Plumbing Fairy to magically turn me into a plumber with no effort on my part. (Which is what I am doing, of course.)

The problem is, basically, that people confuse ‘I want to write a book’ with ‘I want to have written a book.’

It’s fabulous if you have written a book. Congratulations! There it is, done, with all the characters worked out and the plot beautifully resolved. A huge great undeniable achievement, ready for the world to buy and read and leave 5* reviews for. Your publisher sells the foreign rights in twenty countries. There’s a movie deal. I think Michael Fassbender would be perfect for the hero, don’t you?

Writing a book, on the other hand, involves typing, swearing, getting the cat off the keyboard, junking 30K words over which you’ve wept blood because you made a stupid plotting error, your family getting annoyed you’re always writing, working for three solid hours at a stretch till your neck is killing you and discovering that you only achieved 800 words, not selling the book, and writing another one. (And a lot of good stuff too, of course—that feeling when the words are singing, the joy of bringing your characters to life, the plot clicking into place—but it is neither quick nor easy to earn the good stuff.)

I have written five published/to be published books. It’s amazing.

I am writing my sixth book now. It sucks.

_________

KJ Charles loves it really. A Case of Possession is out now. Non-Stop till Tokyo and Think of England are freshly up on Amazon for inspection.

Valentine’s Day: There’s No Such Thing as a Happy Ever After

I read a couple of interesting things on happy endings recently, and Valentine’s Day seemed like an appropriate time to reflect on them in a really negative way.

Romance writers and readers use HEA (‘happy ever after’) and HFN (‘happy for now’) as shorthand for endings. If a book ends with a wedding or similar level of commitment, that tends to be an HEA – obstacles conquered, commitment made. A less definite ending counts as an HFN, and may suggest a sequel might be on the cards to take our heroes/heroines to the ultimate HEA.

But, if you’ve ever actually been to a wedding, you’ll have noticed that the celebrant spends half his or her time explaining that a wedding is a beginning, not an end. It’s worth noting that 42% of marriages in England and Wales now end in divorce. Happy Valentine’s Day!

Charlie Cochrane wrote thoughtfully on whether you can give your characters a HEA with any plausibility at all in gay historical romance. Personally, I think that’s still a valid question if you take the words ‘gay historical’ out .

Basically, in any relationship, you can conquer the misunderstandings, the communication problems, the dragons/warlocks/albino monk terrorists trying to kill you, the issue that he’s a cat shifter and you’re a honey badger, whatever, and get to the point of a serious mutual commitment. But the real work starts after the thank-you notes are written/blood cleared up/novel ends. It starts as you squabble over towel choices, and get irritated, with each other’s parents, and realise that apparently you’ve tied yourself for life to someone who can’t grasp that the bins go out on Wednesday night, so you have to do it every single bloody week. Wednesday. Is that really so hard?

I was struck by an observation in this terrific post on sex scenes by Joanna Chambers.

When I re-read old and much-loved Georgette Heyer novels, I occasionally worry that the whole relationship’s going to go south as soon as the MCs try to consummate it. I loved Friday’s Child when I was 15, but now I can’t imagine Hero and Sherry having sex. (Actually, that is a lie, but I do have a vivid imagination).

I wholeheartedly disagree with this particular example (I’m convinced they’d be at it like rabbits as soon as they worked out what goes where, which in fairness might take some time because they’re both idiots). But it started me thinking about the ‘after the book’ endings, which I’ve written on previously so I’m just going to copy/paste and save effort:

Consider possibly the greatest romance ever written: These Old Shades by Georgette Heyer. If you haven’t read this, a) do, and b) spoilers follow.

Avon, a really nasty dissolute 45-year-old rake, falls for Léonie, a 17-year-old spitfire. At last, he vows he will be worthy of her, and we fade out on Léonie dancing on a table, whooping up the newly discovered joys of the marital bed. Happy Ever After.

Then Heyer wrote Devil’s Cub, featuring Avon and Léonie’s grown son Dominic. Dominic is a dissolute disappointment to his parents. They have fought about him. They have been unhappy. And now Avon is an old, old man, and soon Léonie will be a widow, and even when Dominic marries the right woman, Léonie doesn’t like her. And then, even worse, there’s An Infamous Army, where we learn that Dominic’s kids are horrible and he was obviously as rotten a husband as anyone would have guessed.

I wish I’d never read the second two books. Avon and Léonie’s story should end with her dancing on the table while he laughs.

Nobody would read These Old Shades and call it an HFN ending, but it is. Avon and Léonie get their happy ever after only if we close down their story there. And that’s not just because of the two subsequent books; it’s because nobody gets a happy ending once you think beyond the big moment. People get old, and sick. They argue. They die. I don’t just dislike An Infamous Army for the above reasons; I dislike it because in its world Avon and Léonie are long dead and forgotten and nobody cares about them any more.

You know what the most HEA Heyer wrote is? A Civil Contract, where the hero spends most of the book in love with another woman, not his unwanted financial-transaction wife, and finally comes to realise that his wife is the one he wants to live with. Not a fantasy image, not a beautiful goddess, but a quietly contented partnership with the mother of his child, bobbing along. It’s the most plausible HEA she ever wrote, and the least romantic romance.

So: my name is KJ and I’m a romance author who doesn’t believe in happy ever after. I believe in happy for now. I believe in working hard for happy for now, I live in hope that you can sustain ‘now’ for a pretty long time. And I think that’s fine, actually, because ‘now’, the present moment that you’re living in, is all any of us actually have. The rest is hope.

Do you want an HEA and damn the plausibility, or will an HFN do you fine? Have at it in the comments!