Where do I begin with this subject? It is so fraught with anxiety. Authors are told they need to develop a thick skin but so many of us are sensitive souls. Take John Steinbeck for instance: “Unless a reviewer has the courage to give you unqualified praise, I say ignore the bastard.”
I learned to write in public. I was working at a mundane job in a cubicle and struggling to keep my sanity. Writing literally saved my life but I had no idea what I was getting into.
The book I wrote, The Reverse Commute, was a roman à clef. Sophie was a strung out, fictional version of myself. She lived in my old house in New Hampshire, her husband painted houses, and she too had squirrels in her bathroom.
One night Sophie is home alone drinking wine and watching Blue Valentine starring Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams. She has an epiphany. “This is my life.” The night I was home alone drinking wine and watching Blue Valentine an entire novel popped into my head. From that moment on I couldn’t stop writing.
The novel alternates chapters between Sophie’s story and the story of a young girl also working in a cubicle in the editorial department at the same company where Sophie works in the accounting department.
Several Amazon reviewers didn’t like the fact the chapters alternated between the two women. Many didn’t like the fact the young girl didn’t have a name and that her story led up to the ending while Sophie’s story began after the surprising ending and it is only in the final chapters that the reader is brought back to the fateful day that unites the two women’s stories.
Some readers couldn’t figure things out because the ending didn’t reveal itself until the ending. A few readers even said there was no ending.
Honestly I don’t know what to say to that. Many readers liked the ending. But clearly I had bitten off more than I could chew as a first time writer without the help of a big time New York Publishing editor to straighten it all out and clean it up.
I did promotions on various websites that advertise free Kindle books. I gave away 28,000 copies. Yes, that’s right. 28,000!!! Most of my bad reviews came from readers who wrote things like, “I’m glad I got it for free.”
Let’s just say I’ll never do that again.
Many of these reviewers didn’t like Sophie. They called her a bitch. Ouch! That’s me you’re talking about dear reader. One commented that the writer didn’t know the difference between it’s and its.
I first saw this review when Rich and I were driving across the lonely landscape of eastern Wyoming to deliver our youngest daughter to her summer job at Yellowstone National Park. I had the book with me and started compulsively scouring its pages to find my errors. I found one it’s that should have been its.
“Fucking bitch,” I muttered.
“Hey, give it up,” Rich said. “We’re getting close to the Tetons. Forget those jerks.”
I ignored him and kept searching the book for typos. “You’re missing some fantastic scenery,” Rich kept telling me. But I was obsessed. I couldn’t find a wrong their or there which someone else accused me of. I did find the heal that should have been heel. I started to get paranoid, imagining this one “Heel” had activated a movement and now others were joining in. They were all complaining about IT.
IT felt like a cabal of haters who didn’t like Sophie because of her random liberal comments and her dissatisfaction with being trapped in a cubicle “sitting for health insurance”. One reviewer said, “All the characters seemed to want to move to France. Go ahead then, go there.” One of them even said, “I really didn’t like her and her friends and their wine emergencies.” Hey, those are my good friends you’re talking about. I emailed my friends and apologized for implicating them in this disaster. Channeling Steinbeck, they told me to “forget about those bastards.”
There was also this sort of comment about Sophie: “Usually by the time you’re middle aged you’ve worked through your choices in life. In my opinion, you don’t have daydreams.”
It hurts my fingertips just typing that, but I guess we all have opinions, humble or otherwise. Imagine no longer daydreaming because you believe you’re too old! I understand someone may have a different political perspective but giving up on dreaming because you’re in your fifties? Sorry, that is really depressing and says a lot more about the reviewer than the writer.
But then things turned around and I got a review titled: “The Book With the Amazing Highs and Lows in Reviews”. The reviewer wrote this: “When I read the reviews I picked this up with a huge dose of curiosity – I thought maybe it was one of those books with a load of good reviews that actually sucked – or maybe it was one of those gems that a whole lot of folks just did not get. Some books are like cilantro – you either love it or hate it. For me – I LOVED the book. I do not think this is a spoiler alert – but I am in my 50s and maybe that had something to do with why I loved it so much. There was a perspective I could grab on to with both hands. But I think the same could be said for a person between 25 and 35 – because the story has a strong story line from that perspective as well….Don’t over think the reviews – just relax – read – and enjoy the ride! I fully enjoyed the writing style – and although I did get a bit confused about the parallel story lines at times I REALLY liked it! This is NOT a formulaic romance novel – it is a unique story line with huge doses of life as it really is.”
I never did like cilantro but I’ve grown to love it.
Somehow, in the midst of my deepest despair, while sitting in an Adirondack chair gazing out at the Snake River and talking to a man from New Zealand who was driving a motorcycle through the American West, the idea for my second novel, Take Me Home, took hold. And despite Rich’s concerns that I was missing the passing scenery I took some notes on a man I met in the middle of nowhere Wyoming. He was an interesting guy who worked in a gas station/fireworks shop and had tattooed fingers that read “Next Time”. Both of these guys ended up in Take Me Home, a fun little story about finding love late in life. Not anything I set out to write when I first started this adventure, but it kept me going as it was true, I hadn’t worked out my life choices. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my days in a cubicle. I do have an unrealistic belief that dreams do not end until you’re six feet under.
What I originally set out to write was my frustration with the times I lived in. I have always tried to write by the words of the amazing Oliver Sacks.
“The most we can do is to write —intelligently, creatively, evocatively — about what it is like living in the world at this time.”
Stuck in my cubicle, I saw so many problems. Loss of worker representation when unions were busted. Stagnant wages. Pay increases frozen while executive salaries grew ever more extravagant and the corporation you worked for bought out other companies and expected their employees to “absorb” the additional work load because there was no room in the budget for new hires. And of course, there was always the never-ending struggle to obtain affordable health insurance. College tuition expenses were upon us when I wrote the The Reverse Commute. My oldest was a senior in high school and I was faced with the question, “How the hell do we pay for this?”
I look back at that first novel written in 2012 and see the makings of the 2016 election. It was all right there. Some want to blame it all on racism. Yes, there is a lot of that but I still believe the election could have gone a different way if more politicians were familiar with Sophie’s day to day struggles.
I carried on and kept writing. I got better at it. I attended a writers’ conference in Southampton, NY, took a class with Robert Emmett Ginna, and had the opportunity to meet the esteemed James Salter. In my solitary dorm room I tore apart my third novel Life Is All This. I gained the confidence to get back to writing the stories I felt I needed to share.
An Amazon reviewer compared Life Is All This to the work of Richard Ford, a Pulitzer Prize winning author. Someone else compared me to Alice McDermott. All despite the fact Sam Ryder, my main character, was not afraid to voice his political opinions.
Believe me, the fact Sam is an opinionated male and Sophie was an opinionated woman has not escaped me. I will admit when I decided I was going to write the third novel from a male perspective I felt liberated. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Richard Ford once said: “Giving a book a bad review is like driving along the road and seeing a hitchhiker and deciding that instead of not picking him up, you’ll run over him. Sorry, I can’t pick you up, but I will kill you.”
He also said this: “I try to find ways to insulate myself from the feelings of bad reviews. The feelings of bad reviews are not so much that somebody doesn’t like your book but that it keeps other people from reading your book. I hate that.”
And this is where you come in my friends. I need your reviews. Reviews not only help people make book buying decisions. There are book promotion websites that advertise new books. Places like Book Bub which a fellow author called a game changer. But you need a certain number of good reviews to get on there. They don’t tell you how many, they won’t admit this is a criteria, but everyone knows it is.
I am bracing myself for the bad reviews. I now know even Pulitzer Prize winning authors get bad reviews and are hurt by them.
When Richard Ford was asked why reviews matter he said this: “They create the all-important buzz. It becomes one of the little strings that are plucked in the hum of what’s going on about a book.”
This is how you can help me. If you like the book please help me create that all-important buzz. WRITE A REVIEW.
Authors are encouraged not to answer their bad reviews. Richard Ford didn’t listen to that advice. He once received a bad review in the New York Times from another famous author, Alice Hoffman. He took one of her books out into his backyard and shot a hole in it. Then he mailed it to her.
I was tempted to fight back, but each time I tried to do it Amazon or Goodreads had a little pop-up reminding me that they strongly advise against it.
Before I started writing this blog I went back and looked at the bad reviews for The Reverse Commute. Not a really good thing to do when you’re experiencing the anxiety of having just released a new novel.
This one from LeftBrainedFemale jumped out at me:
Interesting that while the main character works in Massachusetts, she lives over the state line in “live free or die” New Hampshire where they have no state tax. Unfortunately, the author’s disdain for those of us who truly love our freedom was quite off-putting. I can’t wrap my mind around women with grown children and families still whining about their life choices. It’s one thing to recognize poor choices and work to correct them; quite another to be stuck in the mindset of a moon-eyed star-struck teenager.
It wasn’t the familiar moon-eyed star-struck teenager dagger that got me. Like I said, that says a lot more about LeftBrained than me. It was the Live free or die, false tax scenario she was spewing.
Five years after I published The Reverse Commute, the very common day-to-day struggles of Sophie’s life began to see the light of day. Finally, the media and the politicians discovered the problems of rural America and the struggling middle class. And it was the fake news aspect of the review that now bugged me.
I didn’t pull out a shotgun – I don’t own any guns. I just hit the little X at the top of the box that popped up warning me to not respond to negative reviews then started writing.
Dear LeftBrainedFemale, In these days of misinformation and fake news I just wanted to make sure you were aware of the fact that although Sophie lived in New Hampshire where there is no state income tax and worked in Massachusetts, she would nonetheless have to pay Massachusetts state income tax. Her real estate taxes in NH would be higher than MA because they pay for the schools her kids attended, while her MA withholding tax would help pay for the schools her children didn’t attend. I know this because I made this very same Reverse Commute when it was the only job I could find after 14 months of unemployment after a layoff during the Recession, along with the expense of making Cobra health insurance payments of $1200/month. We all do what we have to do to take care of our families. It’s really important to stay informed, now more than ever.
By the way, I did escape my cubicle after I published this book & my husband and I managed a B&B in CT, so sometimes the mindset of a moon-eyed star-struck teenager isn’t all that crazy. Thanks for giving the book a chance. ~ Sheila
I haven’t heard back from her yet.
***My advice on writing a review: Don’t overthink it. Write what you liked about the book. One or two lines is fine. You’re not writing a novel. But if you have a lot of good things to say, by all means Go For It! Remember, you don’t have to write like a writer. Write like a reader.***
And a great big Thank You to everyone for your support over the years.
Addendum: I did catch a typo above. Advice should have been advise. I corrected it. Shit happens. We make mistakes. No one’s perfect.
Under The Same Sun is available here: http://bit.ly/buyunderthesamesun