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Don’t Waste Time Dwelling on Bad Reviews

It is never pleasant to get a bad review. In fact, reading a review that savagely eviscerates the novel you’ve spent months nurturing is one of the most unpleasant experiences a writer can have.

This might help: Getting a bad review often means that you have missed your audience.

Even if you haven’t thought about writing to an audience, one exists for your book. If you’re successful at finding your readers—and assuming your book is well written—most of your reviews should range from 3 to 5 stars, which is where you want to be.

But every author who has collected lots of reviews has picked up some bad ones—even the most popular books by the most popular writers.

Try this experiment. Search Amazon for your favorite books. If they have enough total reviews, I guarantee that some reviewers will rip them apart. Most of the reviews may be 3, 4 or 5 stars, but there will be the inevitable handful of readers who rate the books as forgettable, a waste of time.

The bottom line is: You can’t please everyone. This also is true of “professional” reviewers,” those folks who get paid to review books and movies.

For example, one criticism of The Hunger Games is that the novel is not original, that a screwed up future world and a reality TV show where the contestants kill each other has been done before—the novel to which it usually is compared is Stephen King’s The Running Man.

Technically, everything has been done before. A fellow named Georges Polti analyzed lots and lots of literature and concluded that every story that has ever been written or will ever be written can fit into one of 36 dramatic situations, or plots. What makes each story fresh and different is what the author brings to the telling. Although The Hunger Games and The Running Man use the same basic plot elements, they are vastly different novels.

Does any of this make you feel better about getting bad reviews? Maybe the following chart will help. I’ve listed five popular novels and the reviews they’ve gotten on Amazon (as of 4:30 p.m. Central Time on July 22, 2012):

1-star 2-star 5-star Total Reviews
11/22/63 by Stephen King 88 80 1,268 1,871
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury 96 76 787 1,505
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins 247 193 6,156 8,220
The Help by Kathryn Stockett 182 123 4,450 5,639
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain 17 19 256 455

Remember two things:

  • Don’t give much weight to ratings without reviews telling why the readers didn’t like your book.
  • Don’t give any weight to mean-spirited reviews in which readers seem more interested in attacking you and your book than in giving constructive reasons why they didn’t like it.

A review is just someone’s opinion, and as long as you’re getting mostly positive comments, don’t waste time dwelling on the bad ones.

This article was originally published April 16, 2012, as a guest post on Wise Words. I’ve updated the information in the table.

Love and Other Four-Letter Words by Carolyn Mackler

Love and Other Four-Letter WordsLove and Other Four-Letter Words by Carolyn Mackler

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Love and Other Four-Letter Words is a well-written and engaging story about a teen caught in the middle of marital problems between her parents.

When Sammie’s parents decide on a trial separation, her father (a Cornell University professor) leaves for California on sabbatical while her mother sublets their home in Ithica, NY, and moves with Sammie to New York City.

Her mother, a frustrated artist, regrets leaving the big city for an art teaching job in Ithica when she got married. When she can’t find work immediately, she falls into a deep depression, leaving Sammie to take care of both of them while also trying to rebuild her own life. But before things get better, they will get worse, much worse, eventually leading to a melt-down.

This coming-of-age novel contains some profanity and mild sexual situations but nothing that would be surprising or disturbing to most teens. I highly recommend it for early teens on up.

Read my review of Carolyn Mackler’s The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things.

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Learning To Swim: A Review

Learning to Swim: A NovelLearning to Swim: A Novel by Sara J. Henry

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Learning to Swim begins when freelance writer Troy Chance sees a child plummet from the deck of a passing ferry into Lake Champlain. Instinctively, she dives in and saves him, then begins the long swim back to shore.

The child, who speaks only French, tells Troy his name is Paul. Other than that she manages only to get sketchy information from him. He tells her he was kidnapped and held in a room somewhere, and that the kidnappers shot his mother.

Troy becomes attached to Paul and, instead of going to the police right away, uses her internet researching skills to do some preliminary investigating of her own. She wants to find out to her satisfaction that the boy will be safe if she turns him over to the authorities and he’s returned home. She wants to make sure the father wasn’t involved in his abduction.

Her investigation leads her into deeper involvement with Paul and his father and puts her under suspicion of a local detective who thinks she had something to do with Paul’s initial disappearance.

After an attempt on Troy’s life, she really hits the investigation trail, determined to find the two men who kidnapped Paul. But what she stumbles into is a twist that I never saw coming.

Learning to Swim is Sara J. Henry’s debut novel. It is a relationship story as well as a mystery, and on both levels it succeeds very well. I highly recommend it.

Visit Sara J. Henry’s blog at Sara in Vermont.

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Under the Dome: Trapped in a Stephen King Nightmare

Under the DomeUnder the Dome by Stephen King

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I put off reading this novel for more than a year because it is massive, 1,074 pages in hardcover. But I may have temporarily forgot that Under The Dome was written by Stephen King, who, in his own words, likes to write with “the pedal to the metal.”

Under The Dome has all the earmarks of a Stephen King novel: violence, massive destruction, sexuality (much of it perverted), and a deliciously depraved villain. It also has a cast of characters so large that King lists the main ones (in categories, no less) at the front of the book for easy reference. He also gives us a map of Chester’s Mill, Maine (the sock-shaped town, population 2,000, where the story takes place) showing the major landmarks in the novel.

The hero is Dale “Barbie” Barbara, a disillusioned ex-army officer (he has been the cook at the Sweetbriar Rose restaurant for the past few months) who is on his way out of town when the Dome comes down. I won’t tell you what the dome is or why it comes down. Suffice it to say that Barbie is trapped, which is inconvenient. He was leaving because of bad blood between him and some of the town’s young punks, particularly Junior Rennie, the son of Big Jim Rennie, used car dealer and one of the town’s three selectmen.

Big Jim uses the dome to assert his leadership. The town needs a leader to keep order now that it is cut off from the rest of the world, and why shouldn’t that leader be Big Jim? The only problem is that Barbie manages to get a call out to his former commander, Colonel Cox, who promotes him to Colonel and puts him in charge of the situation.

This doesn’t sit well with Big Jim as he embarks upon his mission to take over the town with the help of his “special” police officers. These are the town thugs who will do what Big Jim tells them, using whatever force is necessary (or even unnecessary) to keep the citizenry in line. Barbie and the friends he’s made since coming to town are the major obstacles in the way of Big Jim’s goal. They must be silenced, discredited, and/or killed to prevent them from interfering with Big Jim’s plans. He implements those plans through deceit, general skullduggery and even murder to turn the townspeople against Barbie and, as King calls them, the expatriates.

Under The Dome may be a massive novel, but it is a page-turner, right up though the electrifying climax and conclusion. I highly (double highly) recommend it.

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True Grit: Two Movies and a Novel

True GritTrue Grit by Charles Portis

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Although I was a fan of the John Wayne movie based on this novel, I’d never read the book before. When the latest film incarnation with Jeff Bridges was released, I dug up a copy of the novel and read it before going to see the movie.

The critics were right. The Coen brothers version does follow the novel more closely than the first movie, particularly in some key spots that I won’t tell you about. I hate giving things away.

There is, however, one major section where the story departs from the book, and I can’t figure out why. There is no reason structurally or story-wise that it should be changed (even the John Wayne version followed the novel here). I won’t tell you which part it is, either. But it really doesn’t make that big of difference. It’s just odd, and I actually do like the Jeff Bridges True Grit better than the John Wayne version. And Matt Damon, who plays LaBoeuf in the Coen brothers version, is a better actor than Glen Campbell. Sorry, Glen. Hailee Steinfeld, who plays Mattie Ross, also gives a commendable performance in her first major motion picture role.

Enough prattling about the movies. The book is an easy and an enjoyable read with strong characters and action. It is one of those genre novels that rises above its genre. I highly recommend it.

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Full Dark, No Stars: Stephen King at his Best

Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Full DarFull Dark, No Starsk, No Stars is a collection of four novellas that delve into the darker regions of the human psyche.

  • In “1922,” Nebraska farmer Wilfred James murders his wife to prevent her from selling her land, which lies adjacent to their farm – and to carry out his brutal crime he enlists the help of his teenage son.
  • In “Big Driver,” Tess, a mild-mannered writer, is brutally attacked and left for dead, and she hatches a plot to seek revenge on those responsible.
  • “Fair Extension” is a deal with the devil story Stephen King style.
  • And in “A Good Marriage,” Darcy Anderson discovers, after 27 years of marriage and two children, that her accountant husband Bob has been a serial killer since before they met.

If you like Steven King’s novels, you’ll like Full Dark, No Stars. King is a master of the shorter form. I highly recommend this collection.

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War, by Sebastian Junger: A Review

WARWAR by Sebastian Junger

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is not what you may think it is, namely the “war is hell” theme or “we’re fighting for our country” mantra. War is not a political book. The reasons for the war and whether it is right or wrong, the author says, is left for politicians to haggle over.

Between June 2007 and June 2008, journalist Sebastian Junger made five trips to the Korengal Valley in eastern Afghanistan. He was “embedded” with American troops, meaning that he was “entirely dependent on the U.S. military for food, shelter, security, and transportation.”

The Korengal Valley is a particularly bad place to be in terms of fighting, and the Taliban proved to be an unconventional fighting force.

For instance, the Taliban would pay a teenager $5 to go up in the hills and start shooting at an American outpost. When the Americans returned fire the teenager would put down his weapon and disappear down the back side of the hill. The Americans knew about this stunt, but they had to waste an entire afternoon and lots of manpower to make sure it was a stunt and not a real “firefight.”

The Taliban would also leave weapons lying at various points in the hills. They would walk unarmed through villages – often past American soldiers – up into the hills, pick up the weapons and start shooting.

War focuses on the soldiers, the bond among them, and their thoughts about what they do and why they do it. As I mentioned earlier, the big picture of why we are in Afghanistan, as far as the troops are concerned, is something for the politicians to argue about. They are fighting to that they can go on living and so that their buddies can go on living.

This book shows how war changes people, for better and for worse. It has made me examine my preconceived ideas about our troops, and I highly recommend it for everyone. Those of you, like myself, who have never seen combat will gain a new perspective on war and the men and women who fight.

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Relics of Repentance–The Letters of Pontius Pilate & Claudia Procula, compiled by James F. Forcucci: A Review

Relics of repentance: The letters of Pontius Pilate and Claudia ProculaRelics of repentance: The letters of Pontius Pilate and Claudia Procula by James F. Forcucci

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you are interested in Biblical history and archeology, you’ll like this little booklet. The story leading up to the Crucifixion of Jesus is well-known, but then the Bible says nothing more about Pontius Pilate and his wife, Claudia Procula.

In Relics of Repentance, Biblical researcher James F. Forcucci tries to shed some light on events that were overshadowed by the formation of the Christian movement.

Relics is built around A Letter From Pontius Pilate’s Wife, translated by journalist Catherine van Dyke and first published in 1929. The letter is said to have been written by Claudia Procula to her friend, Fulvia, several years after the Crucifixion. The letter fills in some blank spots in the lives of Claudia and Pilate both before and after the Crucifixion.

To flesh out the story, editor Forcucci also has culled from various sources several letters purportedly written by Pilate as well as an excerpt from The Gospel of Nicodemus (formerly The Acts of Pilate).

For more information about Relics, check out http://issanapress.tripod.com/

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Death of the American Novel? Really?

I’ve always considered writers to be storytellers. If the story had what one of my college professors called “a deeper, hidden, secret meaning,” that was fine as long as it had a proper beginning, middle and ending, as long as it–warning: I’m about to use what some self-proclaimed  literati consider to be a dirty word–ENTERTAINED.

I’ve spent my career wedding entertainment with a “deeper, hidden, secret meaning.” Readers who pick up my stories to be entertained will be satisfied. So will readers who want to analyze them. The two conditions are not exclusive, as critic Harold Bloom seemed to suggest in 2003 when he scolded the National Book Foundation for giving a “Distinguished Contribution to American Letters” award to Stephen King because good literature could not be that popular.

The idea that a story can be meaningful and entertain is not new. Many of the classics, novels that are taught in our schools and universities, were popular.

Mark Twain made lots of money with his books (he had to because he also lost lots of money investing in inventions that tanked). Huckleberry Finn in particular can be read as an adventure story, but for those who want to delve deeper Twain is saying plenty about the human condition.

John Steinbeck had hit the best seller lists before he published The Grapes of Wrath, which not only was popular, but it also rocketed him to the top of many corporate America sh*t lists. In a nutshell, the story was about the crappy treatment of displaced Oklahoma farmers during the Great Depression. For those who want to delve deeper, though, there’s lots of stuff to think about.

For example, the Rev. Jim Casey is a Christ figure. Writers of literature like to put Christ figures into their stories.  When I first read this book for a college English class, I took it a step further. An angry mob beats Casey to death with pickax handles. Pickaxes, before they are separated from their handles resemble crosses…you can probably see where I’m going with this. It may be speculative bullsh*t, but my professor was pretty excited about my analysis.

Other popular novels which also encourage the reader to think are Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Carson McCullers’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is an amazing novel considering that it was a first novel and its author was only 23 years old at the time of publication.What’s amazing is not that a 23-year-old could write a novel that is both popular and literary, but that one so young would have such a depth of understanding about the world.

Some more modern practitioners of literary fiction that also is popular are Ann Patchett (Bel Canto) and Audrey Niffenegger (The Time Traveler’s Wife)

A favorite phrase of many English teachers, particularly in high school, is: “What was the author trying to say?” Then they look meaningfully at the class as if expecting some student to pipe up with the “theme” of the novel in one or two sentences. I always hated that phrase. If you want meaning in one or two sentences, open a Twitter account.

The meaning in a story is in the characters, what they say and how they react in different situations. The meaning is in the conflict of the story and in its resolution. The meaning is in the emotions that the writer arouses in the reader.

It is possible for a novel to be both entertaining and meaningful, and some of the meaning will rub off on the reader whether he or she does a deeper analysis or not. For instance, many readers may not get all that business about the Rev. Jim Casey being a Christ figure, pickax handle theory and all, but they will be incensed at the crappy way an uncaring society treats the displaced Oklahomans.

The American novel is not dead, as critic Lee Siegel claimed in a New York Observer article. His reason: because the public no longer talks about books. This is not the Nineteenth Century. We have movies, TV, and video games to talk about as well. And even novels continue to be talked about, although probably not during the series finale of Lost. The Internet provides countless forums for literary discussion. You can also find book discussions on TV, and many communities have organized reads like my hometown’s One Book One Lincoln where a particular book is read and then discussed in small group settings around the city.

So, to paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the novel’s death have been greatly exaggerated.

For additional reading see: “Literary storm rages as critic Lee Siegel pronounces the American novel dead.”

Fahrenheit 451: A Powerful and Thought-Provoking Story

Fahrenheit 451

The 50th anniversary edition of Fahrenheit 451.

In 1966, Ray Bradbury wrote: “I find now, after the fact, chances are Fahrenheit 451 might be around for a few years.”

At that time the short novel, originally published in book form in 1953, had “been around” for 13 years. In 2003 it celebrated its 50th year in print, and now, in 2010, it is still as popular as ever.

Why has this story had such longevity?

Is it because Bradbury reversed a widely accepted premise–instead of putting out fires, future firemen start them? Is it because people are horrified at the idea of censorship? Is it because of the passion with which Bradbury tells his story of rogue fireman Guy Montag?

Perhaps. But I believe the main reason Fahrenheit 451 has become a classic is because of its powerful, three-dimensional, multi-layered storytelling.

On the surface, Fahrenheit 451 appears to be about a Fireman’s new-found love of books and his rebellion against burning them. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find that Bradbury is painting a picture of a world that has become desensitized, a recurring theme in much of Bradbury’s early work.

In Bradbury’s future, life goes on in the parlors, where the walls are giant, interactive television screens. People plug their ears with seashell radios, even while they’re asleep, and they often OD on sleeping pills in order to get to sleep. They drive more than a hundred miles per hour to have fun. They avoid thoughts of death or anything else that makes them unhappy; five minutes after a person dies, his or her body is dumped into a giant incinerator and reduced to ashes. Even in his descriptions of Montag’s wife Bradbury symbolizes the drab artificiality of the society:

“Mildred stood over his bed, curiously. He felt her there, he saw her without opening his eyes, her hair burnt by chemicals to a brittle straw, her eyes with a kind of cataract unseen but suspect far behind the pupils, the reddened pouting lips, the body as thin as a praying mantis from dieting, and her flesh like white bacon. He could remember her no other way.”

And:

“She ran past with her body stiff, her face floured with powder, her mouth gone, without lipstick.”

Bradbury also gives us a credible villain in Captain Beatty. Although Montag is a mouthpiece for the author, Beatty makes a good argument that books cause unhappiness and should be eliminated–because the focus of this society is on happiness and not on thinking too much.

But Montag suspects that people are not happy. The television walls, the driving at super high speeds–and hitting things that wander unaware into their paths–the seashell radios, and the giant flues where dead bodies are reduced to ashes in a second anesthetize them, numb their pain. If they don’t think, they can’t be unhappy. And books make them think.

Bradbury suggests through Montag and Faber–a retired English professor who, after initially being frightened to openly oppose the status quo, helps Montag with his rebellion against conformity–that only when one thinks and feels, is one truly alive; stop thinking and feeling, and you become a zombie.

Although for the most part the technology is a bit dated–Bradbury missed the Internet entirely, and communications are still snail-mailed–his prediction that television would play a major role in the mind-numbing of future generations appears to have been right on. That was a pretty astute speculation for 1950 (when Bradbury wrote his original novella, The Fireman, which was published in Galaxy Science Fiction) when many folks did not realize the powerful force that television would become.

I would have to agree with Bradbury’s other prediction in 1966; I think Fahrenheit 451 will be around for a few more years. Although it gets a little preachy at times, is a powerful story and encourages us to think. I highly recommend it.

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