So You Got a Bad Review…

Yeah, we all get them. No matter how good you are, no matter how brilliant a story you have written, someone is going to give it a bad review. And though we try not to care, try not to think about it, try not to let it bring us down, we do and it does.

But why?

We have other reviews, perhaps lots of other reviews raving about what a wonderful book, and yet this one lousy one, just makes us think all the good ones were fake or those people writing the good ones were somehow embellishing their enjoyment and being somehow false in their praise.

Oh, woe and strife shall be thy lot.

Well, I will give my take on this horrible subject. It goes like this: reviews are nothing if they are not biased. I don’t really believe a single review means anything. Every author, the greatest authors of our time get bad reviews, one and two star ratings saying “Drivel!” “Crap!” “Hack!”

You say, yeah, that doesn’t help, I still feel miserable about my crappy review. Bear with me for a moment, this is a slow dig.

Someone might say to you this unhelpful statement: “Not everyone is going to like your book.” Yes, we already knew that, thank you. Or this fruitless advice: “Suck it up.” Sure thing, coach.

The reason those kind of statements or commands don’t help our Bad-review-osis, is because they don’t really get at the meat of the problem. As an artist creating something (a book) that book is a baby and that baby, no matter how ugly, is beautiful to its creator-mother-father. So, anyone calling your kid and ugly bastard is apt to get you down.

More to the point: if Mr. Bad Reviewer would just do this one little favor, just this: be specific, maybe, just maybe we could understand and let it go. Apparently this is too much to ask for, however. But if it could be done the review would read something like this: “I thought the characterization of the step-mother was too stock, falling into the old and tired cliche of the evil step-mother who is trying to ruin the family and I would have preferred a fresher more modern approach.” Well, at least you would be able to understand where this reader was coming from.

Instead you tend to get things like: “The step-mother was just a throw-away character” which leaves you with two hang-ups: 1) what is a throw-away character and 2) who says?

In other words you have two problems: a vague comment that is meaningless because it is vague and an opinion masquerading as a fact.

Now, maybe this all some Utopian view of reviews and is totally unreal to expect a reviewer to take the time to explain himself, and to you I say, you’re right. My point here is how to take these uncomplimentary reviews and figure out why they’re torturing you so you can get over them and back to writing.

Okay, so you have a big problem in reviews in that almost nothing in a review is an actual fact. Take this wonderful statement: “The book was uneven.”

Huh? If you could just get a specific, a “In chapter 3 the move from first person to third person jarred me out of the story” or “I felt the authors voice kept going in and out, from Old Time Story Teller to Radio Announcer style.” Something, anything to let you at least understand what the problem was, at which point you could a) decide if you care enough to change it b) change it or not.

It’s as equally bad to say: “this book was good.” I have actually gotten “good” reviews that I felt disappointed with because they didn’t really say why the book had merit.

One way to evaluate a negative review is on the basis of: is there a specific and is there an actual fact. One review I got, a two-star said they didn’t like this dark story, but if you did like dark stories with dark characters doing dark things, you will probably like this dark book. Yes! This is the truth! So, in a way it was a complimentary “bad” review, because if I were looking for a dark and sinister tale about evil and magick and some church lady told me that The Hellbound Heart by Clive Barker was a terrible, terrible book about dark doings, I would run out and buy that book right now.

What does it all come down to anyway?

Once you get past the opinions stated as if they were scientific fact and the ambiguous statements about quality, you are prepared to enter the next tier of enlightenment. Let’s face it. Reviews–all reviews, good and bad–are little more than biased, opinionated statements of one person’s tastes. And that’s not a slam on reviews or reviewers, it’s just that that is all any review can ever hope to be.

There is no “good review” or “bad review” because “good” and “bad” are not factual qualifiers. There are only reviews written by people who liked or did not like your book.

And then you must consider that tastes change with the culture. When I was fifteen, we used to pin the bottoms of our pants with safety pins and somehow, with our big feet being accentuated and our pants pinned to our skinny calves, we looked good. Now, I know that if I did my pants up like that people would think I looked really dumb and bad. So tastes can change.

So, now that we have dispensed with good and bad morality as regards reviews, we can see that we have people who liked the book and people who didn’t. Here’s where reviews start to have meaning, but it is a quantitative, not a qualitative significance. How may people “liked” or loved your book versus the haters. You should run somewhere along a 80% favorable (3 star and above) versus the 20% unfavorable (1 and 2 star) with some variance, but this is really what you should have and honestly, in the opinion of this author, what you want. Why? Let’s take a look:

All five stars? Really, every single review is a five star? Okay, so that’s not even real. Stephen King doesn’t get that ever and I’m pretty sure he’s good at what he does, so…bullshit.

Really, it must mean that the reviews are cooked or, more likely, the book doesn’t have enough reviews from the general public. So, in order to even get a picture of whether a book is (old system) “good” or “bad” you need quantity. Conversely, you can’t get one five star review and throw a party because you have written the best classic of the century. That’s pretty obvious how insane that would be. So, neither can you get a shit review and head for the Golden Gate Bridge. You need quantity and only then will you enter the next stage of literary Nirvana.

What are you looking for with this quantity? Whether the book is “good” or “bad?” God, no. We’ve already established that good and bad are meaningless statements of Puritan hypocrisy and a moralist based logic system. No, we want to see the only thing that matters. Ready for this?

What makes Twilight a wonderful success? The excellent prose? Nope. The amazing characters? No, no. What then? What makes Wool so wow-wow. Is it the author’s ballet videos? Nah ah. The fantastically realistic sci-fi technology? Not even.

One word to bind them: resonance.

If you got it, you have success, whether or not you write “good.”

It sucks, I know. What is it? Some could call it the zeitgeist. Heinlein did, about Stranger in a Strange Land when fans in the 70’s tried to actually practice the religion in the book. Twilight resonates with 17 year old girls everywhere, even if that 17 year girl is in your past or somewhere deep down inside. Twilight hooks you with Bella’s “voice.” Hunger Games, Wool and that new one, Divergent, all play on the fascination we humans have with our world becoming a dystopian concentration camp that we have to overcome and restore hope in.  Zombie stuff…somehow we love the idea of the end of the world coming by making everyone a soulless animal that we then have to blow holes in. Gothic vampires will never go out of style because the dependence on human blood with the eternal damnation makes for wonderful love stories that make us ponder the meaning of life and our role in eternity. Etc, etc.

Many things resonate with many different groups. Some groups love Rocky Horror Picture Show. The trick is to write something that resonates with the majority of people, but the REAL trick is to write things YOU LOVE that resonates with ENOUGH people to sell copies and pay the rent or buy that Aston Martin you’ve been eyeballing.

For me, I don’t like the big blockbuster books. They make me so bored. I read them to see why they’re such hits, but they’re soporific to me. Wool. It took me like 5 hours into the audio book to even get remotely interested, and then I admit, I did start really liking it, but I still haven’t finished it, because every scene in this Dean Koontz book stirs up the wildness in me. In other words, while Wool is a beloved masterpiece of the masses,  it doesn’t resonate with me like a good dark fiction fantasy story, like a 800 page Anne Rice back story, like a Weird as all get out China Mieville story, like a–you get the idea.

So, we now have a yardstick by which to rate the ratings and review the reviews.

1) Any facts in this review?

2) Any specifics in this review that you can actually grasp?

1 & 2) No? Dismiss as taste and preference. Yes? see if you agree or weren’t aware of the issue and whether or not there is something to learn from it.

3) Do I have enough reviews to even see a pattern? Or do I need more exposure before I can see an overall picture?

4) What is the ratio between favorable versus unfavorable reviews? If it’s swinging outside of the 80 “good” and “20 bad” you can:

a) review to see if multiple people are saying the same thing.

i) fix or not fix as you see fit or (better)

ii) don’t make the same mistakes in your next book.

4A) If you’re getting nothing but 5 stars, double to check to see if you really did just write the newest classic of the century, or if you need to send your book to people who don’t know you and don’t give a crap if they make you sad today.

5) If its something like 80 to 70% “good” then don’t pay attention to the haters. It didn’t resonate with them, because their head is wrapped around and fascinated with the zombie apocalypse, or  Bigfoot erotica, or vampire saints, or quirky girls who can’t stop shopping or solving crimes with their dad or, or, or ad infinitum.

Now, do you feel better? Get back to writing!