Responding to Reviews

This past weekend, I was at LepreCon in Phoenix, Arizona. On Saturday, I was on a panel called “Responding to Reviews.” The authors and artists gave some great advice and I thought it was worth sharing some highlights. The panel is below. In the photo below you see Educator KellyAnn Bonnell, yours truly, writer and game designer Shanna Germain, Jennie Breeden, writer and artist of The Devil’s Panties, and game designer Ben Woerner.

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Of course, as an author or artist, when you get a review, positive or negative, it can be problematic to respond with much more than a very polite, “thanks for sharing your opinion.” This is pretty common advice and the panel generally agreed with it.

The panel moved on to discuss what constitutes the most helpful reviews. The panelists cited reviews that give clear examples of what worked for them and didn’t work for them in a book. Also helpful is when the reviewer can cite why something worked or didn’t work. I noted an example of a reviewer mentioning an element of my novel Children of the Old Stars that didn’t work for her. That inspired me to create an important plot point in Heirs of the New Earth that addressed the issue.

The panelists also noted a frustrating tendency of some reviewers to review the artist rather than reviewing the art. As an example, a person might see a statement by a character in a story and assume that reflects the author’s politics or personal preferences, then attack the author’s perceived philosophy. Unfortunately, these reviews are never helpful because they’re never about the work. They’re just a case of the reviewer having their buttons pushed and then venting.

Related to this, KellyAnn discussed the issue of evaluating reviews. She noted that she generally ignores the top 1% of positive reviews and the bottom 1% of negative reviews as outliers. It’s the stuff in the middle that often has the best constructive criticism you can use to help you evaluate your own writing.

Another aspect of the panel was simply coping with poor reviews. Ben noted that there’s an actual physiological response that causes us to look at bad things and remember them vividly. It makes sense as a survival instinct. Don’t go back to the place that hurts. It’s one of the reasons bad reviews tend to sting so badly and stay with us. Shanna noted that she keeps one of her favorite positive reviews handy and reads it over any time a bad review comes in. It helps her to remember the good work she’s done and move on. Jennie noted that sometimes a bad review comes in and if you sit back and think about it, it’s clear the reviewer is having a problem in their own life.

I finished up this part of the discussion by noting that I like to look at the reviews of my favorite authors and remind myself that very successful authors get bad, good, and neutral reviews too.

Are you a writer or an artist? If so, I’d love to hear what you think is helpful in a review. Likewise, I’d love to hear how you cope with the bad reviews. Are you a reader? What do you look for in reviews when you buy books? Do you look at the reviews?

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Stephen King’s It

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I’ve spent much of this summer reading It by Stephen King. It’s taken a while partly because it’s a long novel and partly because I would take breaks and read other things. As I reached the end of the novel, it occurred to me that this is one of those novels that really demonstrates the problems I have with the five-star review system that most on-line retailers have foisted on us—and I admittedly propagate by having a five-talisman review system in Tales of the Talisman Magazine.

The novel moves back and forth between 1958 and 1985. In 1958, a group of children in the small town of Derry, Maine learn about the supernatural source of a series of child murders and start on a course to try to defeat the evil. In 1985, those children have grown up. We learn they’ve vowed to reunite if the evil reappears.

Parts of this novel are brilliant, well worth a five-star rating. Stephen King once again shows himself as someone who builds wonderful characters and delivers some truly frightening moments. He not only gives us scary clowns, he offers insight into why they’re scary. The way he runs the parallel narratives in 1958 and 1985 is nicely done.

That said, parts of this novel are less than brilliant and perhaps only warrant one or two stars. The kids themselves feel a bit like the sterotypical band of misfits—the fat kid, the black kid, the abused girl, the stuttering kid, and the kid with asthma. There’s an infamous sex scene near the end. I’ll only say my big problem with it is that it felt forced and so-doing, it feels a little like I took a wrong turn while browsing the web and came across a page I didn’t want to see.

Much of the novel just felt a little long-winded for the relatively simple plot. I’d say that would warrant it three stars except that King never manages to be boring so maybe it gets bumped up to three and a half or four, depending on your rating system and how generous you feel.

So, what is it, a one, three, or five-star book? If I call it a five-star book one could say I’m being over lenient about the one-star parts. However, even the one-star bits are effective. King takes the misfit kids beyond the tropes. Heck, even that sex scene appears to scare most people who read it! A three-star rating implies it’s an “average” book, but even that doesn’t really do it justice.

I’m not going to go quite so far as to make a grand call to end the five-star rating system for books. However, as a writer, I do ask you to be thoughtful when you give those ratings and write those reviews. Don’t trash a book because there was a part you hated. Don’t gush over a book because there was a part you absolutely loved. Try to give a balanced review that touches on both the good and the bad. This isn’t really about sparing an author’s feelings. It’s about giving a fair and considered opinion to your fellow readers. Of course, if the author stops by, knowing both what worked and didn’t work is more helpful than just knowing you loved or hated the book. (Although I don’t mind too much if you give the book five stars and tell me how much you loved it!)

Vampires of the Scarlet Order

Now, my favorite part of It had to do with a large and ancient spider, which reminded me a bit of the ancient beings the Scarlet Order vampire novels. King’s spider is a bit more primordial and powerful than mine. Also, mine is more a trickster and his is downright evil. You can find my spider in Vampires of the Scarlet Order.