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I Call BullSh*t: Authors Shouldn’t Read Reviews

productReviewI know I haven’t been the best about blogging regularly lately. So many new things going on and so many excuses to give you.  So now, I wanted to get back into this with the regular feature I promised, but never delivered on. The I Call Bullshit series where I take things I was told starting out in writing and blow them apart.  The first one was on how I was told that social media marketing was really easy.  It is not.  This time I am going to go over a big one.

I was always told, don’t read the reviews of your work.  Just ignore them all and keep putting out books.  But that is complete bullshit. Perhaps if you are George R.R. Martin you can pass on reading the reviews, I suppose your success tells you what you need to know.  But even still, I think he should be reading his reviews too. And who knows, maybe he is.

First people tell you that everyone is a critic, and this is true. It is also true that you can’t please everyone.  Some people will genuinely hate your work and for no other reason than your style. Not every book is good for everyone. I think once you realize that, there isn’t any reason not to read the reviews.  Even the bad ones have something for you in them.

And there is the reason you should be reading your reviews, there is feedback from actual readers there. You would listen to your Beta readers if they told you they didn’t like something, you may not change it, but you would listen. So why wouldn’t you listen to the person who paid money for it? Some of that money you received.  Readers should be the reason you are writing stories. So to ignore their comments is a spit in the face of the reason you write.  Sure, you may write for yourself. Or you may write because you like to create. But if you took that writing and had it published in anyway, you did it because you wanted someone else to read it.  So you should be listening to their reviews.

Reviews, good and bad, are a precious gift. They are so hard to get.  I have had just one review on Volition Agent since July 6th of 2013. One review and a year of nothing.  Broken Trust has had just one review since itsrelease over a month ago.  And Dissolution of Peace has 20 reviews, but it has taken three years to amass that many.  So getting reviews is far from easy. I have given away free copies asking for a review in return. I have done promotions to get the book in thousands of hands through a KDP free day.  And, I’ve begged and pleaded with my friends to write a review. And it doesn’t come easy.

The point is this. Even a bad reviewer took the time. Something so many readers will not do.  They took the time to tell the author and other customers how they felt about the book. So I make sure to check them at least weekly and to read them. I do this because it is feedback. Feedback from someone who took the time to let other readers know what they liked and disliked.  It is the reviews that lead to a second edition of Dissolution of Peace, because there was consistent feedback that too many typo and grammar mistakes slipped through the cracks.  And it is the same set of reviews that has pushed me to get the sequel out.

And I am not just talking about Amazon or Goodreads reviews.  I am also talking about the blogger, the Facebook comment, the Tweet, and all the other ways that authors get a review.  We should be reading those because they speak volumes about what we are doing right and what we are doing wrong (or at least not to our reader’s enjoyment).

Because I will tell you my stance.  Getting no reviews for a full year, that stings a whole lot more than getting a sub-par review.  I am sure there are people who read it who must have liked it, but they couldn’t be bothered to review it. And that feels like I did something really wrong.

I have noticed a shift starting to happen in this “don’t read reviews” movement. That is the independent author.  Authors like me who are publishing our own work.  I am seeing more and more independent authors saying that we should be reading reviews. And I think this comes from the fact that we are typically the struggling artists who finally decided to take our work into our own hands and put it out there for the world to see. And, we are desperate to know if we made the right choice.

valid-stampThe main difference is that Traditionally Published Authors already have that validation. They have an agent, editor, and publisher that loved their work enough to put it out on shelves and stamp it with their name. Where as the independent author, the only validation that our work gets is from the readers.

But, as time passes I suspect we will continue to shift away from this idea that authors should avoid their reviews. I think it is important we listen to our readers and become better from it.

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Listen to Your Critics

free-lemonsWait, what? No I didn’t typo the title of this blog.  I really do plan to talk about reasons you should listen to your critics.  Sure there are countless blogs posts about all the reasons you should ignore your critics.  I have even written one (or two).  There are lots of great posts on how bad reviews and the critics of your work should be ignored.  You can’t please everyone and you can’t win them all.  But, after careful consideration, I am not sure that is really the best tip to provide authors, or any artist for that matter.

Working in the art industry, and we can’t forget that writing is an art, attracts all kinds of people.  You have the people who love just about everything.  You have the people who hate just about everything.  Then you have the people who really don’t know what they like or hate.  And finally you have the ones who know what they like and why they like it (and they usually know why they don’t like something too).  One might argue that you can also attract the jealous artist.  The one who wants to do what you do (and probably could) but they never bothered to really work at it.

In the past two years I have written a ton of book reviews.  I realized that reviewing a book on Amazon and Goodreads really helped authors.  Soon I was writing them for Plasma Frequency, and now I am writing them for my own blog.  And in all those reviews, I used to feel guilty when I wrote something critical about a book.  I felt like maybe I was being a jerk.  And I knew how critical reviews bothered me sometimes.  But I’ve realized that I am only sharing my opinion.  Other readers, and the author, can take it or leave it.  It is just my opinion, and I am but one reader.

But over the past few weeks, especially after all the inspiration I got from WorldCon, I have realized that perhaps I am thinking about reviews the wrong way.  That ignoring the bad ones, and basking in the good ones, was not necessarily the best method.

First, we should get this out of the way.  There is one review that you can always ignore.  That is the review that just bashes your book to bash it.  There is no logic to the reviews.  That would be the “This book sucks because I said it sucks but I won’t tell you why it sucks” kind of review.  Any blog reviewer worth your time won’t publish a review like that.  But on Amazon and Goodreads you will see those from time to time.  When I say you should ignore those reviews, I mean just that.  Don’t bother with it.  Don’t waste your time getting it removed or asking all your friends to vote the review as being not helpful.  I just mean ignore it.  It isn’t worth the time you put into it.

Recently I have seen an explosion in sales and reviews for Dissolution of Peace.  I was lucky to sell five copies each month in the past six months.  And I thought five was a great month.  I also seemed stuck at 12 reviews for a long time.  But now, I find myself looking at my 18th review on Amazon.  And 28 text reviews on Goodreads, which is great in my opinion.  I’ve also sold an average of 1.75 books per day (not counting my free promotion earlier this month).

So things are going well right?  Yes, and no.  There are some critical elements in these reviews.

I’m consistently seeing reviewers that love the story line of my book.  There has been a sprinkle or two suggesting better character development, and another sprinkle or two that love the characters.  There have been a few that hate the ending.  There have been a few that love the ending.  But one critical comment has been consistent.  They don’t like the grammar and spelling.  They seem to find errors that I didn’t catch.

Anyone who follows this blog knows that I am very self conciseness when it comes to grammar.  So my first step in dealing with this was to follow the advise we see across the blogging world.  I simply ignored it.  In fact, anything critical, I ignored.  Anything that people loved I relished in, I noted it for the sequel.  I even bragged about it.

But that is a disservice.  Not just to the reviewer, who took time to review the book (which we know many readers do not do), but it is also a disservice to yourself.

Every artist can grow.  And listening to your readers is a great way to learn where you might want to focus your growth.  It also tells you what you can fix to increase your sales.  For example, I’ve hired a new editor to review and fix the mistakes in Dissolution of Peace that I simply can’t catch.  Once she fixes those, I’ll update the book with a new version.

But grammar isn’t the only critique I have got.  I am looking into how I develop my characters and the way I end my novels.  I am looking into what it is that people really enjoy about the way I write stories.  I’m listening to my readers, even the critics.  Because that is how I will grow as a writer.  That is how I will become better.  And once you think you can’t get any better, you’ve become to arrogant and your readers will eventually notice there is no progression in your work and you will fade out.

So while critics are everywhere, they are also extremely helpful to the arts.  You, as the artists, may not take all their tips.  I am not saying you have to.  But I am saying you should at least listen.  You will benefit from that. If the majority of readers have a consistent complaint, I would suggest correcting that aspect of your writing.  Either in your current book, or in future works in progress.  For those more 50-50 splits, the choice is yours as an artist.  It could be something to change, or it could be that your style is not their style.

But if you want reviewers, you have to listen to them.  You can’t bash them and ignore them.  You can’t accept only the good.  You have to listen to your critics.

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Grammar Sensitivity

handle_criticismRecently I had my first three star review for Dissolution of Peace.  There are many who believe that writers should avoid reading reviews of their work.  Of course, as a new writer that can be tough.  There is a certain quest for validity when you are first starting out.  This is especially true of independent writers, those not publishing through one of the big house publishers.  But you also have to have a certain level of thick skin when it comes to reading reviews.  It is the same thick skin you have to develop when you get those first critiques back from beta readers.  I think I am fairly good at taking a bad review or critique.  I am willing to admit that my writing isn’t for everyone.  I don’t think every story is for everyone.  In fact, I don’t think there is one story that is for everyone.  Tastes vary, and I can appreciate that.

But there is one chink in my review armor, an Achilles heal of bad reviews, and that is grammar.  Nothing makes me feel more incredibly horrible as a writer, or even as a human being, then when someone points out bad grammar.  The worst part is so many people feel compelled to do so.  I have a friend who doesn’t even like to read who will point out just about every grammar mistake I make on social media.  My sister-in-law loves to do it as well.  My wife, she can do it all the time.  She especially loves to point out bad grammar in my speech.  My mom even pointed out that she thought I had a bad editor, because of the mistakes she saw in my writing.  I found this even more disheartening because I thought my Editor did a great job helping me polish this out.  So my first thought was how horrible the original could have been without his help.

Every time someone points it out, I feel like a hack.  I have an insecurity when it comes to my grammar.  This includes my spelling, punctuation, and sentence structure.  Really any of it gets me down.  So while a three star review is decent, the text of his review got me down.  Down to the point that I nearly scrapped my current novel in progress and packed up the keyboard.  Nothing makes me feel more like a want-a-be writer than when I get hit with grammar points.

But like any Achilles heal, I’ve had to learn to deal with it. There are two reasons I never pursued my original dream career, one of them was a mentor of mine who repeatedly pointed out my horrible spelling skills.  I don’t think she ever called them horrible, but that is what I heard. So when the second thing came along, I never bothered to overcome it because deep down I was self conscious of my ability to deal with spelling.  I can’t let that become the stumbling block for my dream to write.

If it wasn’t for spell check, my spelling would be worse.  But one can not rely on spell check alone.  It isn’t a perfect system.  Sure, I could resort to blaming others.  But that really isn’t fair either.  In fact, I really haven’t found a trick to dealing with this.  I try my damnedest to learn everything I can about grammar, and do my best to catch it all.  I hire an editor to make sure my grammar is on point.  And I listen to those grammar complaints from everyone who points them out, even when it gets me beyond angry.

I also try to remember that I am not the only one.  I know others that have had, or continue to have grammar difficulties.  So here are some tips I use to help me deal with my Grammar Sensitivity:

Grammar Police1. Not everyone knows what they are talking about.

Frankly, many don’t know what they are talking about.  There have been a lot of people to point out grammar mistakes for me to spend time looking up only to find they were the ones that are wrong.  But, just because they are wrong doesn’t mean I didn’t learn a little more about grammar.

2. Learn what you can about grammar.

If you are like me, you hate learning about grammar.  I don’t like it at all.  But if you have the dream of being a writer, it is something you have to deal with.  When someone points out a grammar mistake, look it up.  And when you are not sure, look it up.  There are many ways to look it up.  A fellow author shared this site with me: http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/  It has helped me out a lot.  But if grammar is your stumbling block, learning it may not be so easy.  But you could also be making it harder of yourself.

3. Don’t over think grammar.

Once of the biggest draw backs to constantly studying grammar has been that I am now constantly second guessing myself.  I don’t know how many articles I have read on then versus than.  Yet, I still make the mistake.  And 95% of the time, I make the mistake because I spent so much time over thinking the way I was using it.  And spending too much time thinking over the grammar only slows down your progress on the story.

4. Grammar can be fixed

I believe I have said this before.  But grammar can be fixed while the ability to tell the story generally can not.  Story is much harder and sometimes impossible to fix, but changing a semicolon to a period is easy.  But only if you can catch your mistakes.

5. Hire someone to catch those mistakes

Hire a grammar cop to edit your stories.  If you know grammar is your weakest link, get a grammar strong editor.  Get grammar strong beta readers too.  And don’t restrict them from pointing out grammar issues, especially in later readings.  I’ve made this mistake before.  I’ve been very restrictive on grammar comments from beta readers and in the long run it only shoots me in the foot.

6. Have a safe zone.

My friends tend to make this impossible.  But I used to use social media as my reprieve from grammar.  That is why I have made it one of the rules on my blog that there be no Grammar policing on my site.  This is my break.  But, my mom still feels compelled to point it out.  While there is no real safe zone from grammar cops, you can do your best to make some sort of buffer area.  It is why I get so angry with my friends on social media when they get grammar crazy.  It just isn’t the place for it.

7. Grammar mistakes are not a stopping point.

Grammar mistakes should not be something that stops you from realizing your dreams.  I wish I understood that ten years ago.  Grammar mistakes can actually be a starting point.  They can be a spring board for you to learn from.  You can make yourself a better writer by getting these mistakes brought to light.  And then learning about them.

8. Watch out for the ones that point out grammar too much.

Yes, there can be too much grammar.  Those that expect perfect grammar in dialogue for example.  But it has also been my experience that many who are absolutely crazy about grammar are not exactly good with story.  I know some people are going to go nuts over that comment.  But it is still my firm belief that when you are writing a story, you should be obsessed with the story not the grammar.  If you have people around you that drag you down over grammar, they may not be the type you want to have around.  But that ones that want to build you up by helping you with grammar, those are the keepers.

Here is a trick to tell which type of person they are:  It is all in how they point it out.  If they point it out with a rude comment, then it is obvious they are the “drag you down” type.  But sometimes it isn’t so cut and dry.  The sarcastic joke, the laughing at you (even an LOL or a 😛 count as laughing at you) for your mistake, and the constant pestering of you for your grammar.  Those are all signs of the “drag you down” type of person.  And most of the time, the “drag you down” person is jealous of some other aspect of your writing, such as your story telling ability.

But the person who wants you to succeed will point out resources for you to learn.  They will explain the grammar error to you.  They will do their best to tell you how to fix it, how to learn more about that mistake, and how to keep from making it again.  That is a person that wants you succeed.  They are happy that you have all the talents for writing that you do have, and they want to help you make grammar another one of those talents.

I Don't Know9. Once it is published, it is published.

Don’t get me wrong.  If you don’t think a work is acceptable and you are self publishing it.  You can pull it down.  But, if you have been following some of my other tips and tricks, you likely did all you could to make it the best possible work you could put out at the time it was published.  Going back and changing something after every review that points out a mistake, will only lead to an inability to move on and progress as a writer.

10.  Push on.

I mentioned above that I was ready to give up on writing over the grammar review I got.  It hurt.  But I also had to recognize that it is also their opinion.  And, I think it is a bit exaggerated.  But even if it isn’t exaggerated, the point of Amazon reviews is for a person to give their honest opinion of the product.  Even if it gets all one star reviews, you have to move on.  You have to move on and start on that next project.  You have to keep pushing for that dream.  Giving up on it now will only cause regret later.  I still kick myself for giving up on my career goals.  Giving up on my writing dreams will not work.

 

If you are going to be a writer, you will have to deal with grammar.  Even worse, you will have to deal with grammar critics.  If you have a sensitivity to grammar correction, like I do, you will have to learn to work around it.  I hope with a few of my tips you can at least manage to keep writing.

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