A Review of Book Reviewers

A Review of Book Reviewers

I want to talk about book reviews and book reviewers for a second.
Here’s a bit from one Amazon review of my work:
“So many twists and turns, you’ll think you’re at Six Flags. Michaelbrent Collins is the type of author that will make you put down that Robin Cook novel, that Stephen King book, and that Clive Barker story, and pick up his book instead.”
Here’s another:
“GET ON WITH IT! Incredibly exhausting and frustrating watching the main character bumbling around and thinking, what an idiot…”
Both, FYI, are for the same title on Amazon.
So that’s one thing to remember: just because you get a “bad” review doesn’t mean you’ve written a bad book. It reflects the wonderful reality that we are all very, very different. If EVERYONE hates your book, then you might want to go back to the drawing board. But failing that, a bad review isn’t the end of the world. It is GOOD news: it means your audience is expanding. You are rubbing up against bigger and bigger circles of people, which means the odds go up that some won’t like your work. That’s just statistics.
The other, more important thing, though, is this: that reviewer took time out of their life to read your book. And cared enough to write their thoughts down. We as authors think our thoughts are worth a great deal – even when we are telling a story about things that have gone wrong in our world. We as authors get to point out flaws and detriments WE PERCEIVE because “I am an AUTHOR and what I say MATTERS, even if it hurts!”
So… why do so many of us treat reviewers like they aren’t worthy of that same respect? Why do we think that obviously the ones who hate us are evil, or mean, or just idiots?
Not cool.
My work has been reviewed on Amazon and Goodreads thousands of times. Of those, there are one or two that engage in personal attacks. A few of them WERE mean, and several were obvious attempts to hurt me. But those are the outliers. They can’t make us (authors) react as though reviewers are the enemy or every “bad” review is born of ill will.
Oh, and by the way: I put “bad” review in quotes because I know far too many authors for whom a “bad” review is anything other than five stars accompanied by gushing about the writer’s genius.
Also: not cool. And shortsighted.
In addition to having a good number of reviews on Amazon and GR, I’ve also been reviewed hundreds of times by book blogs and review sites and magazines big and small. And I get asked with some regularity, “How do you get those folks to read you?”
To which I will answer, first and foremost, I LIKE these people.
I’m not talking about Amazon and Goodreads now, but “pro” reviewers. By pro reviewers, I’m talking about book bloggers and book reviewers for sites devoted to reviews. This can be big ones, like Kirkus or Publishers Weekly or The New York Times, genre-specific ones like ScreamFix or The Horror Fiction Review (or others in other genres), or folks who have blogs titled “My Book Review Which I Read and Also My Mom Reads When She’s Not Too Busy” or things like that.
Pro – not “paid” necessarily (most reviewers get no money at all), but folks who do it not as a byline on a review agglomerator like Amazon or LibraryThing, but as ITS OWN BIZ. It’s their hobby, their passion.
Have I gotten gushing, loving reviews from some of these people? You bet. And I email every one of them to let them know how I appreciate their time and I make sure to put their name in a file to keep in contact with. I try to follow them on Twitter and Facebook and read and retweet and share their reviews. They deserve it.
But what about the mean ones?
I got reviewed by Publishers Weekly lately. The reviewer said my prose was great (yay!) and hated pretty much everything about the book. Okay, groovy. I’ve gotten that before.
The reviewer said it focused too much on barbarity and even hinted (not so subtly) that it had racist overtones. Now, for the record: this is a book that’s been reviewed dozens of times and no one else has pulled out either of those, so the first thing I’m going to do is assume that those points are less about the book than about the reviewer’s own background.
And the second thing I’m going to do: thank that person.
Publishers Weekly doesn’t publish the bylines or contact info of their reviewers, so I haven’t been able to do it directly, but I’ll do it here: Thank you!
And I mean it, too.
Even if they read things into the book that weren’t there, they TOOK THE TIME TO READ THE FRIGGING THING. They alerted me to issues that, even if they DIDN’T appear in this particular book, I should be aware of. They let me know things I hadn’t thought of, and provided a viewpoint that I will certainly have in mind in the future.
Again, to that unnamed reviewer: Thank you.
And, incidentally, I suspect there’s a reason that reviewer is unnamed: because so few authors act like adult businessmen and businesswomen and instead act like huge toddlers when they get words they don’t like.
A third time: not cool.
If a “reviewer” is doxing you or trying to ACTUALLY HARM you, then there’s action to take. But short of that, bad reviews don’t mean bad people.
Again, those crazy folks ARE out there. Sure. But you can’t treat everyone who cuts you off in the road (a fairly regular occurrence) like they’re a murderer with a grudge who is specifically trying to run you off the road (a lot more rare). After they take a swipe or two, sure, and drive by spraying automatic gunfire through your windows while screaming for the blood of your progeny… there are definitely things that have to be done. Call the cops. File reports. Hire a guy to “visit” that person (don’t really do this).
But normally… nope. Sorry. And anyone who DID treat the world like everyone who cut them off was out to get them, outfitting their car with Mad Max style rollbars and cages around the windows and a spike in the front and “WILL MURDER YOU IF YOU CUT ME OFF” in blood on its side would quickly be labeled as a loon.
Yet we authors get that way with bad reviewers. It’s rarely, “Well, that was their take… I don’t see it myself, obviously, but it’s good to know that some people are reacting that way!” but instead, “That &*(^$&*#* is evil! And obviously out to get me!”
But usually… it just isn’t so.
Especially with the pro reviewers. In fact, guess what? The “pro” reviewers who have given me bad reviews… in every single case where I’ve had their emails available, or other points of contact, I have reached out to them. I have thanked them for their time.
A lot of them responded with a HUGE appreciation for that action. A good chunk then said, “I didn’t like this book, but please send me the next one!”
Why? Not because they decided to love my writing all of a sudden. But because in a very hard job that pays zilch and fills their lives with the constant potential to be yelled at, a large chunk of the reviewers out there are every bit as open to reviewing a book for someone they think is KIND and COURTEOUS as they are to reviewing a book that genuinely looks like THE NEXT BIG THING.
Ultimately, we can’t control most of the world around us. But we CAN control how kind we are. We CAN act like mature adults. So…
To the reviewers who have said nice things about me and my books: thank you.
To the reviewers who have said I was just okay: thank you.
To the ones who straight-up hated my work: thank you.
There ARE a few bad ones out there. But I have chosen to assume that reviewers – on Amazon, magazines, or everywhere else – are mostly good folks who hope my book is great almost as much as I do. They aren’t in it for the thrill of destroying people, but for the thrill of finding something to LOVE.
That’s a good thing. That’s a thing that draws us together. Even if we don’t agree over what book is good, what book is bad, we’re both reading, we’re both actively searching to create, find, and let others know about the most beautiful things we have: our stories.
And a quick note here: there are people who might respond with, “Well, you’ve gotten thousands of reviews. Of COURSE you can afford to disregard the terrible/mean ones.” But I didn’t START with all those reviews. And some of the first ones I got were pretty awful. Which makes sense, because I just wasn’t as good as I should have been with some of the skills I was trying. None of those facts automatically mad the reviews “bad.” They were different viewpoints. They taught me something. Some of them I even agreed with, and used to find and shore up the weak points in my writing.
So…, thanks, reviewers. Keep up the great work. That’s my review of YOU, and it comes with respect and appreciation for being the front lines of folks who get the word out about us weirdos who live in dreamworlds.

Posted by in Writing Advice
Storytelling on Social Media – a Parable of Tanks and Rollerskates

Storytelling on Social Media – a Parable of Tanks and Rollerskates

What to write about… what to write about…

This is the question I face when writing this article, or starting a book, or anything else. What do I write about? What do I DO?

So I thought I’d write about that process – and about something that so few of us think about: the power of our words. As writers, we all kinda-sorta-maybe know that. We know that words matter, but many (most? all?) of us think about them in terms of, “I have a story. The story matters. People will like it. People will buy it and I will have a pool of golden duccats that would be the envy of Scrooge McDuck.”

To be sure, I think most people do have that kind of story in them. The trick is finding it, bringing it out, putting it down, and getting the word out (and those are a whole SERIES of blog posts/articles/book, so I won’t try here).

My dad once said (wisely) that talking about important things on social media is like trying to teach rocket science using bumper stickers. To which I would add: with the only difference that we would all agree that the latter is insane.

But not the former. We talk about “important” things all the time, never minding that they a) usually AREN’T that important in the grand scheme of things (and if you think they are, I’d invite you to tell me what you Tweeted last Tuesday), and b) the most important things merit our greatest care and attention.

I’m not telling people here to stop social media. I’m not encouraging silence. I’m saying that we live in a time where communication is possible on a greater scale than would have been imaginable even twenty years ago. I’m saying that this means words are flying around constantly.

And words, I am fond of saying, are the single greatest inhibitor of communication ever invented.

Before words, it was easy. You either hated or feared a person – in which case you ran away and/or beat them with your club made of T-rex femur – or you loved them, in which case you ran TOWARD them and shared your T-rex meat and/or went to the nearest cave to make sweet caveperson love.

Now, though… so many words. So much complicatednessosity. Even that last word is needlessly complicateder than it has to be. But I’m leaving it. BECAUSE IT’S IMPORTANT.

Ultimately, we created words that allowed us to exercise the single greatest power in human history: the power to tell stories. That’s the thing that differentiates us from every other creature, because there’s no other creature capable of telling Beowulf, or creating a sonnet, or writing out blueprints or mathematical equations (which are how science tells ITS most important stories).

We are creatures of stories, you and I. We meet, we converse, we share… and, fundamentally, we spend much of our time misunderstanding.

That’s one of the pitfalls of being a writer: you become convinced that not only are you telling a good story, but that the people for whom you write are hearing the same story you intended to write. This is rarely the case, though, because we all bring ourselves to the stories we hear. The audience is as much a part of the finished product as is the “original” storyteller.

This is even more pronounced on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, you name it. A smiley-face or heart means something vastly different to me than it does to you. Sure, they mean “happy” or “love,” but those words themselves are two upon which oceans of writers have expended infinite words, so obviously there’s a lot of wiggle room there.

“Don’t just write a short story. Start out with an epic, because you gotta build to a short story.” I said that once in jest/not-jest, and there’s truth in it. Writing something short that matters, that’s punchy and interesting… it’s hard. Not least of all because, again, the chances of the audience reading the interesting, cool, deep thing you tried to write is infinitesimally small. They’re going to read the words, but their lives loom larger when the picture is smaller. They’ll bring more of themselves to a short story than they would to a novel, because the author of a short story necessarily leaves more blanks for the audience to fill in. An eight-book epic spanning twenty years of a family’s lives, well, that’s something where the author gets to put a pretty sturdy cage around what he intends, and keep prying audience members from messing with it too much. But a twenty-page short story? A five-hundred word flash fiction piece? Those are really written by the author, interpreted by the audience, and the interpretation disseminated to the masses.

So what, then, a Tweet? A line under an Instagram picture.

Again, this isn’t to condemn those forums. This isn’t to tell people to stay away. But as a writer, I’ve seen far too many times where I thought I was telling one story, and ended up telling one completely differently. I take great care now not just to tell the story, but to make it as close to impossible for the reader to misinterpret it as I can… and I still only succeed a fraction of the time.

Our words are magical. Our words are lovely. They are the brightest of suns. But they also burn, they cut, they corrode. So powerful, and it behooves us to use them wisely and well. Our society has little place or use for hermits; we interact with each other and expect others to contribute to our lives just as we contribute to theirs. But we must remember: we are creatures not of concepts, but of stories. Every word we say, or write, or type, is part of a story that goes into the world, and changes it a bit. We bear every bit as much of a responsibility to do our best to change the world in a good way with every word as we do the responsibility of leaving a world behind that has food and air and water for our kids. But though most of us wouldn’t blow up a dirty bomb in a mall amongst thousands of strangers, we think far too little of lobbing potentially dangerous words into the atmosphere of social media. Then we shrug and say, “Hey, I’m being honest,” or, “Hey, that needed to be said,” or “Hey, I’ve always stood up for what I believed,” without ever asking the more important questions: how does that honesty benefit the world? Did it “need” to be said, or did I just really really wanna say it? And in standing up for what I believed, did I help others, did I harm them, or did I care less about that than I did about just getting something off my chest?

The world is magical. It’s so full of stories, so full of words. We talk, we smile, we laugh, we play. I love all those things – they make me smile myself, and (selfishly) I enjoy stealing others’ stories so I can reshape them in my own image.

But we also stand up and tell people things “for their own good” without getting to know them. We condemn groups as a whole without regard for whether that will actually change their minds or lead to any kind of change. We spit into the wind, because we are ANGRY, DAMMIT, and then are shocked when the wind changes and the person who gets the most spittle on their cheek is not the intended victim, but we ourselves.

Words are important – and there are definitely those that must be said. But we have to be careful. We have to think.

We are storytellers. That is what it is to be human: to experience things, then to take those experiences and boil them down into stories we can tell to (hopefully) make our future experiences and the future experiences of others into something more meaningful and pleasing. But as storytellers, as the most powerful of creatures, we also bear the tremendous responsibility of using that power wisely. If Superman went out and murdered someone – even just once – we would toss him out as our superhero. I’m not talking “I got into some kryptonite and did something over which I had no control,” I’m talking about a day where Supes just gets tired of it all, throws up his hands, and heat visions his frickin’ neighbor who constantly plays house mixes with full bass to death. At that point, we are done with him. He is no longer not a hero, he is forever unredeemable.

But we can lose control. We can post in the moment, because IT MUST BE SAID IT MUST BE SAID NOW IT MUST BE SAID THIS WAY BECAUSE I FEEL IT MUST BE SO.

I am a storyteller. I am a human. So are you, those of you who read this. So let us tell good stories. Let us tell kind ones. Sometimes kindness is painful (ask any child who just had a tetanus shot or got a cavity filled what he or she thought of it). But kindness is never unthinking, or motivated by my feelings of the moment – it is motivated by plans that will benefit someone’s future.

The best stories are these. Whenever someone asks me to write an article or a guest post, and I always try to think of something useful to write. There’s story tips, there’s craft how-tos. I can talk about making a relatable villain, or dealing with suspension of disbelief for a zombie story. All that’s important, but all it boils down to at its base is the fact that the story that matters deserves a well-crafted vehicle.

So craft your own vehicles well. And remember that Twitter is just as much a storytelling venue as is Amazon or Barnes & Noble. Remember perhaps as well that when we use social media as a vehicle for our stories, it’s not a rollerskate; as often as not it’s a tank with a single devastating shot. Let us take care to shoot only things we’ve really thought about, and really aimed for; collateral damage is horrid in war, but for some reason it deserves no notice when I’m posting on “my” wall – a wall of “mine” that is bought and paid for and designed and maintained by other people without any input on my part, which is the strangest definition of “mine” I have ever heard.

And maybe we should sometimes not shoot at all. Perhaps we should get out of the tank, and take a walk. That’s how we actually meet people with whom we’d like to share our T-rex meat and make sweet caveperson love.

Posted by in Life Advice, MbC Must-read