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I Hated This Book! Or, Coping With Negative Reviews

This is one of the most common issues on writers’ forums. And that’s kind of surprising, isn’t it? I mean, surely writers know that, once you put your book out there, it isn’t “yours” anymore. The power has shifted to the reader, and every reader has an individual response. You can’t sit with them, looking over their shoulders as they read. You can’t tell them, when they complain that they disliked some aspect, “Well, here’s why I did that. You see, I’m showing that her background has made her wary, and it’s hard for her to trust!” Nope. They all get to decide for themselves. And not everyone will like it.

OK, but I haven’t had that many negative reviews. So I should be able to dismiss those I have received as outliers, or shrug and say, “can’t please everyone,” right? Alas, it’s not so easy. It’s like somebody telling you your baby is ugly. It still hurts. And I think that writers tend to be fairly introspective and sensitive anyway. After all, that’s what we do: spend all our time looking inside our heads. That being said, after receiving hundreds of reviews, here’s what I’ve found:

1.     People love it or hate it for the same reasons. For example, “Just for Now” is a tender, funny story about family, without a lot of external drama. It is many readers’ favorite of my books. But other readers haven’t been crazy about it, for the same reason. Too much family, too much about the kids, not enough excitement. It’s personal taste.

2.      An apropos quote. Bill Cosby said, “I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.” It’s one thing to examine your negative reviews, or negative comments within positive reviews, for anything that is truly HELPFUL. Was the ending rushed? Do you have grammatical errors that need to be fixed? That’s helpful. That your book didn’t appeal to someone’s personal taste—not helpful. And if that comment gets into your head when you’re writing: REALLY not helpful. See Bill Cosby. (Oh, and by the way: no matter how tempting it is, do not respond. That way lies disaster.)

3.     Your mileage may vary. I’ve written four books, and just in my little critique circle, there are four different favorites! My readers share the same diversity of opinion. When I think about my own favorite authors, I don’t love all their books equally. Some of them I don’t even care for very much. I’ve never been a huge fan of “Mansfield Park,” because Fanny Price is kind of a drip, isn’t she? And she and Edmund seem set to have a mighty virtuous and boring life. And yet I’ve read it at least three times, because Jane Austen writes so well.

4.     It goes double for sex. Think people’s opinions differ about your heroine? Get reviewers going about the sex in your book! I’ve had people say, about the SAME BOOK:

“I loved . . . that the sex scenes weren’t so intense.”

“I found the sex scenes to be a little kinky for my taste.”

“Too much explicit sex.”

“Plenty of hot steamy sex.”

One reviewer thought that the hero putting his hand over the heroine’s mouth was BDSM (that would be the “hated it” category). Bottom line (so to speak), there is a huge variation in steam levels in contemporary romance. When your books are just getting known, people are finding out if they like the way you write, and in particular, the way you write sex. You are finding your audience. And that ain’t everybody.

5.     The acid test. I realized, after wrestling with the “ping-pong ball” effect, where I’d think: “It’s good!” “No, wait, it’s bad!” “No, it’s good!” after every review, that the REAL question was, “Did I write the book I wanted to write?” And in all four cases, I answered, “Yes, I did.” That is all I can do. And it’s all that matters. On with Book Five.

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