by Edwin Hill
Some career authors avoid reading reviews but I’m not one of them. For example, I came across this 1-star critique of my novel from a Goodreads reviewer: “This book is a mess.”
That was my first bad review. I remember reading it and being hit by the intensity of the language, the almost visceral dislike that seemed to spew from the reviewer’s words. This was a reader I hadn’t managed to connect with on any level—or at least that’s what it felt like at first. But after a few moments, I decided to step away and analyze what they were saying. After all, this wasn’t the first person who’d told me she didn’t like my writing. I’d been told the same thing by numerous agents who passed on representing me and publishing houses that passed on publishing my book—though the language in those passes had been considerably less direct. And I’d used those passes to help me push my novel further, till it had finally been ready to publish.
So, I wondered, how could I use this review? What could I learn from carefully reading negative reviews and taking them seriously?
Shape your message
When I start a new piece of writing, I always begin with the question, What would I want to read? It’s the only way I can possibly stay interested in a manuscript long enough to finish it. So one question I seek to pull from negative reviews is: Who wants to read what I write? Or how can I shape the way I talk about my book to better find those readers and maximize exposure?
Here’s the next sentence in that first negative review: “Much of the book is written from the perspective of the two bad guys.”
Well, there’s our disconnect. Little Comfort was inspired by the true story of Clark Rockefeller, and one of the central premises of my novel is that it follows a Tom Ripley-like grifter as he worms his way into a wealthy woman’s life. Knowing this character’s motivations is central to the story. All of that comes through in the jacket copy, but somehow this reviewer (and some later ones too) had missed that, and I wanted to know why. So, the first step was to adjust my message and make sure to highlight that connection to Clark Rockefeller anytime I spoke or wrote about the book.
A second reviewer offered up another clue. She wrote, “This is not a traditional mystery. Hester finds Sam. Quickly. Little Comfort is a challenging read and somewhat disappointing for a reader with different expectations.”
I read that passage a number of times, focusing in on “different expectations,” and asking myself what this reviewer might have wanted and not gotten. Little Comfort isn’t a whodunnit, it’s a why-done-it, and the goal of the novel is to explore the aftermath of what happens when you find someone who doesn’t want to be found. Someone looking for a traditional mystery could be disappointed by it. So again, I adjusted my message, making sure to give potential readers as many clues as possible about the structure of the novel without giving away the story.
Tighten your writing
Five-star reviews are fantastic. For that reader, it means you’ve hit it out of the ballpark and found a way to connect. Four-star reviews are pretty good too, especially when you find reviewers who don’t grade on a curve. While above I focused on one- and two-star ratings, those are readers you’ve probably missed completely. Your book simply isn’t for them.
It’s the three-star reviews that I find especially useful to mine for information and direction on my writing. These people usually like my book—mostly—and when they’ve taken the time to write a review, it’s often thoughtful. Here’s where I try to find comments that ring true, asking myself where I could improve: could I have pushed the narrative or developed a character more or paid more attention to the details?
In one of the three-star reviews for Little Comfort, Melissa writes, “Who the hell keeps a key to their house in a fake rock right outside the front door?”
I like how direct Melissa was in her critique. I also don’t quite agree with her. That key’s placement is crucial to a plot point in the novel, and I know plenty of people who leave keys in pretty obvious places outside their houses. (Don’t come looking at my house, Melissa!) Still, there was something about this comment that hit home for me, and it took me a day or two to figure out what it was. This comment reminded me to pay attention to the details—the parts of the narrative that can throw readers like Melissa out of the story. While I know that novels don’t necessarily need to be factually accurate, they still need to seem that way to the reader. I know enough about myself and my own writing to know that I can sometimes give myself a pass on details, telling myself that the reader won’t notice. When a reader like Melissa says, “That would never happen,” I’ve lost them, so as an author my responsibility is to notice those details and fix them.
So at least I know this: as I finish up the edits in Hester Thursby #2, The Missing Ones, I have to ferret out any details that make me uncomfortable with my choices—or my own laziness!
The power of positive thinking
Always, always find a way to look on the bright side. In one recent one-star review, a Goodreads reviewer likened my writing to Louise Penny’s, and you know what? I’ll take that as a huge compliment, no matter how it’s spun.
There are lots of reviews for Little Comfort over on Goodreads, and most of them are pretty positive. Take a look and decide whether the book is for you.
Edwin Hill was born in Duxbury, Massachusetts, and spent most of his childhood obsessing over The Famous Five, Agatha Christie, and somehow finding a way into C.S. Lewis’s wardrobe. After attending Wesleyan University, he headed west to San Francisco for the original dotcom boom. Later, he returned to Boston, earned an MFA from Emerson College, and switched gears to work in educational publishing, where he currently serves as the vice president and editorial director for Bedford/St. Martin’s, a division of Macmillan. He lives in Roslindale, Massachusetts with his partner Michael and his favorite reviewer, their lab Edith Ann, who likes his first drafts enough to eat them.
Visit edwin-hill.com to learn more about Little Comfort.