I don’t mean write a review to put up on Amazon or Goodreads. I mean sit down and really think about what other readers will not like in your story. If you read that last sentence and you’re thinking to yourself, I don’t need to do that. Everyone will love my story. I love my story. My beta readers love my story. Stop. Even if you and your beta readers think your story is ready to be out in the world, still take the time to write that bad review. Doing this will save you much grief in the long run and will make you a better writer.
Intellectually, we can accept that not everyone will like our books. We talk about it with other writers. We joke about putting our worst reviews on tee shirts and wearing them proudly. One of mine would say “Mostly harmless MacGyver-esque foolishness.” I actually love this, because yes, there was a lot of MacGyver influence in that book. Foolish is in the eye of the beholder.
So we tell ourselves we don’t care about reviews and we try to quiet the little Trumpish ego voice inside us that whispers we won’t get many negative ones because we are amazing and people should throw rose petals at us everywhere we go. Never mind that most of us writers sit around by ourselves in our pajamas so we are unlikely to be anywhere near adoring rose petal-throwing fans. Or we tell ourselves that anyone who doesn’t like our stories are just clueless or they hate everything or _________ (fill in the blank.)
When the first scathing review or even minor criticism hits, we are gobsmacked. (Love that word. It comes from “gob” which is supposedly “mouth” in Irish / Scottish Gaelic.)
Back to the writing of a bad review. I’ve read many books I hated. A few I’ve really, really hated. In analyzing why I’ve loathed certain books, I’ve begun to see why other people might hate my own. The most recent book I did not finish was a popular fantasy book, beloved by many. To me, it was so wordy and overwrought with purple description, I fought the urge to ransack my bookshelves for some Hemingway to cleanse my palate.
If you put long descriptions in your stories, certain readers will love it. Others will write reviews about how the story dragged or how they skipped over certain parts or couldn’t finish. If you write fast-paced action-packed books, again you’ll have some readers who love it. Others will say there is no character development or the book was just a lightweight read not really worth their time or it was too fast for them to follow.
So critique your own books in terms of your style, but don’t stop there. Take a long hard look at that style. Are you actually too wordy? Or are you too overly focused on stark action? Read some popular books in your genre, especially the first few chapters of those books. If you have twice as much backstory or detail as a good detail-rich example, you’ve probably got too much. For the other extreme, read the first three chapters of a popular action-packed adventure, then ask yourself what you know about the characters and their world. Compare your own and see if it measures up or if you’ve just thrown in a bunch of plot points.
Do your characters actually seem like real people or are they some idealized version of who you’d like to know or be? Are they memorable enough? Reviewers concentrate much of their focus on characters. What can be said of yours?
Most important, know your flaws. I know my biggest flaws. I am bad at physical descriptions of characters. It’s something I continually struggle to improve. I also hate writing endings so I rush them. In writing children’s fiction, I struggle with wanting to write realistic stories versus how best to portray such things to young readers. In writing adult fiction, I struggle with my own impatience to get the story done. I have others, but that would take up too much room for me to list them all!
It’s easy to convince yourself readers won’t notice your flaws. Ha! So not true. I’d rather know in advance that someone is going to discuss in great detail my character’s flaws. If I put those flaws in on purpose, I won’t care what a reviewer said. If I didn’t intend them to be there, then that means I need to do a better job in the next story. There’s always the next story.
And if anyone is interested in MacGyver-esque foolishness, check out WILDFIRE RUN.