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Into the Wild: "Reviews" Edition
Navigating the strange world of author feedback
In 2012, shortly after I signed my first book contract, my publisher’s president offered me some good advice on things like the editing process, the marketing of my book, and how to handle criticism of my work.
I figured I already had a leg up on the last one. At the time, I had been writing political commentary for a nationally recognized news website for about a year and a half. In a genre where passions often trump reason, I had gotten pretty used to scathing criticism. On a weekly basis, in the always colorful comment section, I was being called every nasty thing you could imagine: a traitor, a racist, a war monger, a Nazi, a Maroon 5 fan, etc.
(These people showed no mercy.)
There was also a fair amount of anti-semitism directed at me, which was particularly strange being that I’m a Lutheran of Irish decent.
Anyway, my default response was to shine the crazies on a little with some dismissive mockery and the occasional cheap shot at their grammatical failings. This wasn’t particularly productive, of course, but it was mildly satisfying.
Well, according to my publisher, mockery is not an ideal way of responding to book critics who leave negative reviews on blogs, Amazon, and Goodreads. The best author reaction, according to her, was no reaction. She was absolutely right, of course. Since authors put their creative (and often very personal) work out there for all the world to see, thick skin is indeed required. If you don’t have it, the disparagement will mess with your head, and ultimately weaken your writing.
That’s not to say that criticism is never constructive. Sometimes it is, and writers can benefit from certain types of critiques. My point is that you have to try not to take it personally, even when those scrutinizing your work sometimes get fairly personal.
Fortunately, the hundreds of reviews I’ve received for my books over the years have been largely positive and heartening. In fact, each of my books has over a 4-star average on the retail sites, and nearly all of the blog and editorial reviews have been favorable. But like every other author (including some of the greats), I do occasionally receive ones that are either quite harsh or downright strange. And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t find some of them to be wildly amusing.
So, as an exclusive to Daly Grind readers, I figured I’d bend the rules a little, and weigh in on some of the most memorable among them. I hope you’ll find them entertaining as well. I’ve omitted the names of the individuals who wrote them, just because I don’t want anyone giving them a hard time (not that I would expect any of you to).
Here we go!
“Put me to a dead sleep.”
That was a two-star review, in its entirety, for my book, From a Dead Sleep. Get it? The book is called “From a Dead Sleep,” and he says it put him “to a dead sleep.” Not only brilliant, but sassy!
“I at first thought Sean was goofy and needed a bath badly. Then I could not put this book down.”
I guess the turning point for this reader was when Sean took a shower in his motel room, about half way into the book.
“I wish all authors who insist on making up names for their characters would be required to indicate how to pronounce the names. Every time I read a name like Quanmem I have to sound it out in my head and it's not pleasant.”
For the record, it’s “Quammen.” And this is totally the fault of my friend, Kari Quammen, for whom the character was named after.
“A guard business would never hire a loser with a hothead reputation who is as unpredictable as Coleman, or the business would not last long.”
It’s funny the things that people get hung up on. I’ve wondered if this reviewer is a security guard himself. Or maybe he works in human resources? For whatever reason, he had a genuine concern about Sean’s job performance (which has nothing to do with the story) and the business burden it could potentially place on his employer (who, by the way, was Sean’s uncle… who hired Sean as a personal favor).
I may consider this reviewer for some consulting work, should I ever hire an intern.
“As a reader, I’m a huge fan of the jerks, so I loved Sean.”
I liked this one not only because the reviewer digs jerks (and more of us should, unless they’re excessive jerks), but because she qualified that affection by noting that she’s a reader. This made me wonder, “Do readers tend to like jerks more than non-readers?” It would certainly make for an interesting study, but the early evidence, as demonstrated in the next review, points to no:
“…most of the people in this novel are just plain horrible--the main character is unlikeable (sometimes beyond unlikable), the bad guys are 100% evil, other than the first dead one who seems ok at first until you hate him, too. The dead guy's wife seems likeable, then not, then likeable again. Almost everyone decent either gets killed or seriously wounded...”
It should be noted (without me giving away too much of the story) that very few “decent” people are either killed or seriously wounded in this particular book, so I’m not sure what that was about. Regardless, I find the reviewer’s broader take on likeability, unlikeability, and characters allegedly switching back and forth between the two, to be a fascinating topic. So, I’ll take a minute to expand on it…
Truth be told, a lot of people have a hard time connecting with stories in which the protagonist is initially unlikable. That’s pretty normal. Sean Coleman is this way by design (though I do believe he’s also sympathetic from the get-go). The Sean Coleman Thrillers are ultimately about redemption, and someone can’t begin to “redeem” himself unless he begins from a dark, tormented place in his life.
One of my aunts really struggles with this concept whenever she reads one of my books (for which I tease her). No amount of character background on Sean (whether it’s him being abandoned as a child, or decades of guilt and family struggles, or losing people he cared deeply about, or a lifetime of bad personal decisions) will ever convince her that Sean Coleman should be anything less than a jovial, polite individual who gets along with everyone.
What I found unique and puzzling about this particular review, however, was the reviewer’s disappointment in some basic story elements that define a thriller novel:
the book’s “bad guys” being unlikable (they’re supposed to be)
bad things being done to good people by the bad guys (that’s how antagonists are developed)
a character, who initially seemed to be a good person, turning out to be a not-so-good person (that’s a swerve)
a good person displaying a moment of weakness in an emotionally difficult situation, who later regrets her action (that’s the character arc of an imperfect individual)
It would be one thing if I were writing for a sitcom like Friends, in which case I would definitely understand someone being put off by Ross suddenly being exposed as a crime-lord, or Rachel taking a bullet in the shoulder, or Chandler being run over by a car full of mobsters (though that would personally strike me as being kind of funny). But the thriller genre isn’t supposed to make readers feel warm and comfortable. It’s supposed to elicit anxiety, and keep them on their toes.
The good news is that the reviewer a least seemed to recognize a little bit of the redemption component at the end of her review, and was curious about what was coming next in the series:
“… Still, it was a good story, and as the main character has the little bit of good in him reveal itself in the end and there are later novels in this series featuring this same unlikable/can it be he's changing into a decent person? man, I am looking forward to reading the next novel in this series.”
I’ll take it!
The next sentence is what I consider to be the “What’s the frequency, Kenneth” of cryptic book reviews:
“?kill kill ' hmmmm high 765 battlefield the same time to get it out of the box office at least you can manage to.”
That’s an actual Amazon review I received, in its entirety. It came with five stars (which is great), but I haven’t a freakin’ clue what it means. At first, I figured the person intended to review a completely different product (maybe a video game?). But I later noticed that he left the exact same review, for my book, on other websites.
So, what’s the deal? Is it some kind of code? Is “765 battlefield” an address where hidden treasure is buried? Being a thriller writer, I appreciate a good mystery, but this one has me stumped. If any Daly Grind subscribers can make heads or tails of it, please let me know. There may be a signed book copy in it for you.
This next one was a one-star review, but the reviewer went out of his way in its title to explain that he would have given it “negative 3 stars” if Amazon would have allowed him to. Yikes!
What type of things upset him so much about the book? Here’s one:
“In his book the author has resorted to giving his characters lines of dialogue, then crediting past episodes of various crime tv shows. It would be much better to at least try and write credible and interesting dialogue.”
Just between you and me, I nearly spit out my drink when I read that remark. Again, people fixate on the oddest things.
Those of you who’ve read my books know that an element of Sean Coleman’s character is that he’s a big fan of old detective shows, from which he occasionally (and comically) draws some investigative wisdom. It’s my little way of paying homage to some of the shows I personally enjoyed as a kid.
And when I say “little way,” I mean it. It’s a very minor component of the novels. Sean quotes specific TV detectives maybe once or twice (tops) in each book. To the reviewer, however, this came across as a dirty trick that I “resorted to.”
I wonder how tricked he’d feel if he knew that those quotes weren’t even real. The TV detectives I “quoted” never actually said those things. I made up the dialogue — all of it. So, as it turns out, the reviewer found my stuff to be “credible and interesting” after all.
“There were a number of things that caused me to lose my belief in the story and characters. Why didn't anyone find Sean's father before the body turned up? Sean's brother-in-law is in law enforcement - wouldn't he have had some connections? And yet, once there's a body, the family is identified immediately. Hmmm. Also, the reader is reminded many times that Sean is a big man (6'5"), so why would he rent a Ford Focus or whatever? He'd be doubled up to fit inside. It just didn't feel like something that would happen.”
This was a review for my third novel, Broken Slate. What’s really strange about these particular questions (which wouldn’t seem all that odd to people who haven’t read the book) is that they’re taken, almost verbatim, from literal questions that Sean himself asks in the book. I’m not kidding. And in each instance, the question is promptly and unequivocally answered, usually in the very next sentence or paragraph.
When Sean wonders out-loud why no one had been able to locate his father while he was still alive, a character in the room explains exactly why, in detail, including why Sean’s brother-in-law hadn’t been able to help, and why — upon the discovery of the father’s body — authorities were able to “immediately identify” his family.
The same is true of the “Ford Focus” (which was actually a Ford Escort in the book). An ongoing theme throughout is that Sean is financially broke, and spends as little as he possibly can on everything during his trip, from the flight, to the motel, to the food, to his rental car. And the size of the car, in relation to the size of his body, is a running gag (he keeps having to squeeze inside it, behind the wheel) — a nagging consequence of his decision to save money.
In other words, these alleged plot holes were never holes to begin with. They were simply part of the plot. But, hey… at least the reviewer got the main character’s name right…
“Hope Daly writes another Alex Coleman thriller.”
“[Sean] comes across as superhuman, i.e. he can apparently go days without sleep or food and sustain injuries and setbacks that would fell a normal human and keep on fighting.”
This review was also for Broken Slate, a book in which Sean goes exactly one night without sleeping (and is exhausted because of it), eats several times, and literally passes out (and is hospitalized) from those allegedly sustainable injuries.
Still, I’m sort of intrigued by the idea of Sean having super powers. It has me thinking, if I ever decided to go in that direction, about what would be his kryptonite. Healthy relationships, maybe? Soap? (That might make the other reviewer happy).
Anyway, I hope you found some amusement in this stroll down “review” lane. I certainly enjoyed revisiting the feedback (along with the many flattering and gracious comments I didn’t include here). Though I had some fun at the expense of the reviewers, I really do appreciate everyone who has at least given my work a chance… even if they ended up not particularly liking it.
And while we’re on the subject… If you’ve read any of my books and enjoyed them (I assume many of those subscribed to this newsletter have), I’d very much appreciate you leaving a short review of one or more of them on Amazon. The more positive reviews a book gets, the more often Amazon’s algorithms recommend it to people.
You know we’re a divided people when even Baby Yoda has become a polarizing figure.
Obligatory Dog Shot
My wife’s been giving me a hard time about not including pictures of our dogs in this newsletter, so I figured it was probably time. Squiggy is on top, and Piper is on the bottom. This is their default nighttime arrangement:
I truly believe the Scorpions to be one of greatest rock bands ever. I’m a big, longtime fan of the band, and I can recite the lyrics (from beginning to the end) of a number of their songs. What I can’t do, unfortunately, is whistle the opening part of “Wind of Change,” (in large part because I’m terrible at whistling).
Still, I tried to from the stands when they performed the song live at Red Rocks Amphitheater in the summer of 2012. It was a stop on their “Retirement Tour,” which there was no way I was going to miss. Of course, as it turned out, the band kept right on touring after that — for the next 8 years — and they plan to continue touring after the health crisis is over.
Anyway, because I’m a fan, I was pretty surprised a couple years ago when I found the “Best of Scorpions” album at a record store, and didn’t recognize a single song on it.
How could this be? The answer is that the Scorpions have been around for 55 years! It’s hard believe, but it was way back in 1965 that Rudolf Schenker formed the band. Iconic vocalist Klaus Meine joined four years later, and by the time they began pumping out memorable hits like Blackout and Rock You Like a Hurricane, they had already been around, and putting out albums, for almost 20 years.
Best of the Scorpions was released in 1979, right before the band became an international sensation. It’s a very cool listen. Several songs, including Speedy’s Coming and Fly to the Rainbow, are indicative of that great melodic sound we later came to expect from the Scorpions. The hard rocking album serves as a retrospective look at where the band was headed back in the early 70s, and I highly recommend it.
By the way, if you want to go back even further, check out the song, I’m Going Mad. It was one of the band’s earliest recordings with a psychedelic sound that will probably make you think of The Doors.
That’s all for now. Thanks for reading today’s Daly Grind.
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Also, if you’re not caught up on my Sean Coleman Thrillers, you can pick the entire series up at a great price on Amazon. And if you’re interested in signed, personalized copies of my books (they make great Christmas gifts), you can order them directly from my website.
Take care. And I’ll talk to you soon!