[GUEST POST] Jeff Carlson on Bad Reviews
Guest blogging for us today is Jeff Carlson. Jeff is best known for the Plague Year series and his bestselling Kindle novella “The Frozen Sky,” which is also available on Nook and will soon appear on iBooks. As a working pro, Jeff lives on the other side of the author-reader connection. He promised to give us a look behind the curtain, which he calls…
For me and many writers, one of the most eye-opening changes since the e-revolution has been the rise and importance of book reviews on personal blogs and corporate sites like Goodreads, Amazon, and B&N.
To writers, strong word-of-mouth is catnip. Even bad reviews can be useful in honing your craft.
I spend a lot of time alone in a room with a laptop listening to the voices in my head. That sounds like a joke, but it’s a large part of my job description. There’s no one to hang out with at the water cooler in my office. Heck, there’s no water cooler! That’s why it’s especially cool to get fan mail or to have my Google minions find reviews such as: “This novella was so fast paced and action packed from the very first line that I was sucked in like a two by four in a F5 twister!”
Reading that, I thought, Fantastic. She gets it.
Capturing you is exactly what I want – to connect, to entertain, to make you a 2×4 in my tornado.
When eight people say the ending is abrupt, that’s useful, too. My brain says to me, Okay, you thought you had every element in place, but you’d better add at least another paragraph to wrap things up. Readers want to walk away with a feeling of completion. Sometimes I move too fast, so I’m learning to take it down a notch.
Even the people who hate a story are right. No writer reaches everybody, and it’s perfectly fair for someone to leave a low-starred review if he doesn’t feel like he got his money’s worth. That’s expected.
But in today’s brave new world of e-media, my inbox is also peppered with a steady dose of diehard political outrage, accusations, and messages from weird alternate realities.
When I swap emails with my writer friends or when we meet up at cons, the new game is Who’s Been Burned The Worst. It’s almost funny.
We all view the world through the lenses of our personal life experiences. Sometimes the world is rose-colored. Sometimes we’re not even aware of how thoroughly our own demons shape our perceptions, so let me share some of the over-the-top experiences I’ve had with folks from the fringe.
- The Illinois Nazi.
More than once I’ve received hate mail or nasty Amazon reviews for Plague Year because two of the main heroes are a Latino and a genius Jew. Worse, two of the villains are white guys. Obviously I’ve either turned on my own kind (I’m a white guy) or I’ve been so indoctrinated by the sinister liberal media that I don’t even realize what I’m doing…
Here’s the thing. The opening chapters of Plague Year are set in post-apocalyptic California. I don’t know where our white supremacist friends live, but the West Coast is one of the most ethnically diverse areas on the planet. If everyone was forced into the mountains to escape a runaway nanotech plague, there’s zero chance it would be only sparkly blond Caucasians who survived. More to the point, among my best friends growing up were Hispanic and Jewish families. I knew I could pull off those backgrounds competently, and a diverse cast added a bit of texture to what’s ultimately just a rock-’em sock-’em sci fi thriller.
- The One-Winger and The Classic Old Knee.
As a writer, it’s both frustrating and hilarious to have the same novel condemned as a subversive socialist pinko screed and as a right-wing manifesto. Yeah, it’s nice to strike such a chord. Every writer wants their work to resonate. But reading is a subjective experience. People bring a lot of themselves to the experience… sometimes too much.
The One-Wingers are careful not to mention race like the Illinois Nazis, but they don’t appreciate how the conservative remnants of the government are perceived by the heroes. By the same token, The Classic Old Knees are certain I must be a big fat Republican because the government is enforcing martial law and the tough Special Forces guys keep pushing the scientists around. It’s crude symbolism, isn’t it!?!?
Uh, no. Plague Year is an end of the world novel, man. The new U.S. capital, a Colorado town meant for 3,000 people, has been swamped by 600,000 refugees. There’s no food, no shelter, and if I was in charge I’d darn well have the few remaining supplies surrounded by Army units. That doesn’t mean I’m a liberal or a fascist or a purple polka dot Martian.
I think it’s a very human phenomenon that individuals on far, opposite ends of the political spectrum are able to interpret the same story in different ways, seeing exactly what they want to see in order to support their beliefs.
Sometimes the smallest minds make the biggest noise. That’s because feeling angry is pleasant. It makes you feel important. Condemning a book as dangerous and shouting your warnings from the rooftops… let’s call that the Revere Complex. Each of our archetypes the Nazi, the Winger and the Knee fall into this same category, a truth which might outrage them all over again if they realized it.
- The Nutcake.
Alas, these folks are even easier to explain. They’re nutty. Three times I’ve received emails or comments insisting that Plague Year was penned by someone else, namely the person contacting me, and that I stole the book before he or she could publish it. Unfortunately, other writers tell me this isn’t uncommon, nor are personal threats. Welcome to my FBI file.
Slightly less bizarre but more fun, let me introduce you to the Owner Of Katie The Dog. Not long after my sequel Plague War hit stores, I received an email with two jpg attachments. Hmmm. All right. Let’s read it…
A woman had felt compelled to say she liked the concept behind Plague Year, but (insert sneer) “it was written in a grocery-store thriller style.”
Aha HA ha ha! First of all, the cover has an ominous red tagline that shouts The Next Breath You Take Will Kill You. Plus the title letters are on fire. If you’re looking for a cozy literary novel, this ain’t it. Second, having my books racked in grocery stores and big box outlets like Wal-Mart and CostCo is my goal! That’s what I’m striving for!
Yet she was so offended she’d spent $7.99 on this trash, she added that she’d fed Plague Year to her dog and snapped pictures of Katie eating it.
Wow. That’s wrong, isn’t it? I mean, that takes effort.
I had no intention of opening her jpgs. Remember, I’d barely published my second novel. Being in stores still felt new and daunting. But my writer friends insisted I see what Katie had done. One accomplished old vet said, “You know you’ve arrived when you’re making people that crazy.”
Conventional wisdom holds that authors and editors should remain above the fray. You’re supposed to ignore bad reviews, especially those that are off-topic or smell like fruit. I know writers who engage their haters in the comment fields on Amazon, but the reason to avoid such arguments was best put to me like this: Never wrestle with a pig. The pig enjoys it, and you get covered in sh*t.
Which leads us to the most craven of them all…
- The Dread Saboteur
Since February, my novella “The Frozen Sky” has sold 20,000 copies on Kindle and Nook. That’s not a huge number, but it’s nothing to sneeze at. It’s also gotten a lot of nice reviews, which is gratifying.
Unfortunately, “Sky” has also seen some attacks.
As the e-revolution evolves, the pages of successful books are experiencing not-so-subtle assaults by bitter would-be successes who post scathing low-starred reviews with as many dummy accounts as possible, then use the same dummy accounts to post five-star raves of their own novels in an attempt to draw traffic from the high-selling books.
Can the system be gamed so easily? My guess is no, not in the long run. Ultimately the Dread Saboteur’s work needs to stand on its own. If it’s garbage, it’s garbage. Cardboard plots, wet dream characters, bad dialogue, and the inability to spell or use punctuation are common pitfalls.
Horse puckey reviews won’t carry a flawed story beyond a few extra sales – and if those readers feel duped, well, let the bad karma begin! The fake five-star raves will be overwhelmed by genuinely unhappy reviews.
There are more archetypes and goofy anecdotes I could share, but we’re out of time.
Here’s a final thought. Things are changing fast in publishing, but I hope it will always be true that it’s the fans who carry the day.
The loonies and the saboteurs want everyone to wear their demon-colored lenses. Don’t let it happen. If you like a book, bang out a quick ranking-and-review. That positive feedback may be enough to see your favorite author through his next encounter with a Nutcake From The Eighth Dimension.
Readers can find free excerpts, advance news, contests, and more on Jeff’s web site at http://www.jverse.com.
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