Thursday, November 17, 2016

Learning to Deal With Critical Reviews

A Natural Fear

We all fear rejection, and when we put our babies (aka books) out into the world, if they get rejected we feel it on a very deep level. When I published Amelia's Children last year I didn't even send out review requests because I was so terrified that people would hate my book. Then I finally got brave enough to do it, but my efforts only earned me one review. It was five stars, though, so I was greatly relieved. If you're interested, you can read it here. Then a few months later, another review for Amelia's Children came rolling in. This time it was only three stars, despite the fact that the reviewer had some very positive things to say. You can read that review here. I'll talk about my feelings regarding those reviews in a moment, but first I want to discuss my new book.

I released Primogénito: The Fuentes Legacy this Halloween. This time I did things the "right" way. I started sending out review requests before the release date. The results, however, have been disappointing so far. One person rated the book on Goodreads, but did not leave a review. One person reviewed it on her blog but did not post it anywhere else. And one person left a review on Goodreads, but nowhere else. As of today, I still have no reviews on Amazon for this book. And the reviews/ratings I do have are all three stars. I'll discuss those reviews, and my feelings about them, in a moment, but I want to tell you how I feel about my book first.

This Book Is More Than My Baby

We all love our books. That's why we refer to them as our "babies". But not all "babies" are created equal, and of the two books I have published so far, I absolutely have a favorite. I openly admit to loving Primogénito more than I love Amelia's Children. That's right, I like the book with the lukewarm reviews better than the one which earned five stars right out the gate. There are multiple reasons for this, some from an objective, critical standpoint and some from a very personal standpoint. I'll get into the details later, but first I want you to understand exactly how strongly I feel about this book. Basically, if Amelia's Children is The Hobbit, then Primogénito is The Lord of the Rings. No, I'm not actually comparing myself to Tolkien. I know that would be considered almost sacrilegious in the literary world (but at least I didn't compare myself to Shakespeare!). What I'm comparing is the difference between my two books.

Like The Hobbit, Amelia's Children is fast-paced and exciting. The tensions build gradually until by the end you can't put the book down because you want to know what's going to happen next. And no, those are not my words. I'm merely quoting things people have told me after reading it. What I've learned from the people who have made the effort to contact me and tell me their feelings is that Amelia's Children is a crowd-pleaser and a page-turner.

Primogénito, on the other hand, is my masterpiece. Not that I'm putting it on the same shelf with The Lord of the Rings. I'm not. I recognize the world-building genius of Tolkien and do not presume that my own book is nearly that rich with detail. But it is pretty rich, especially compared to Amelia's Children. And I worked my butt off to make it that rich. Even though it's an urban fantasy which takes place in our modern society, still a lot of work went into the world-building aspects of that book. And I think I did a good job. In fact, one of the critical reviews it has received (which, again, I will discuss later) applauded my efforts at sculpting a captivating backstory to explain the paranormal element. But I love my book for more reasons than just that.

What Makes Primogénito Objectively Better Than Amelia's Children?

Amelia's Children was my debut novel. And because I self-published I did not have an editor standing between me and my audience. I could put it out there whenever I felt it was ready. You should know that I am a grammar nerd, so I made sure it had been thoroughly scoured for glaring mistakes and awkward wording before I hit the publish button. But I only knew what I knew at the time and there are a few things I have learned since then. Primogénito reflects those things. Basically, I was better at following "rules" by the time I sat down to write my second book. Here are some examples.

Concise writing
Have you ever had your writing referred to as wordy? Do you even know what that means? When I wrote Amelia's Children, I had no idea what it meant. And looking back, I see that my debut book was "wordy". I recognized it to an extent on the first proofread. I think I deleted the words "just" and "I mean" at least five times per page as I was preparing the book for publication. One word I did not delete, however, was "that". It's still there, in the edition that is currently available from all the various booksellers. It's everywhere in Amelia's Children. Maybe one day I'll do another revision and take some of them out, but for now I'm busy promoting my second book and writing my third. But I can guarantee that my subsequent books, including Primogénito, will rely less and less on those filler words and more on words which have real meaning.

Deep POV
I had never even heard of deep POV when I wrote my first book, but it's something I tried to pay close attention to with my second. So Amelia's Children is full of phrases like, "I thought", "I saw", and "I felt". Primogénito is not. If you're not familiar with deep POV, here's the abridged version. Basically words like "think", "see", "feel", etc., are barriers between the reader and the character. They are little ways that the author makes his presence known in the book. Deep POV is a method of removing the author from the book entirely so the reader only sees the characters and, hopefully, feels what the characters are feeling. This is only my humble opinion, and I know I'm biased when it comes to my own book, but I think I pulled off some pretty awesome deep POV in Primogénito.

Show, Don't Tell
This is the cardinal rule of writing. Don't tell me your character is angry. Show me his cheeks getting hot, the blood pounding in his temples, his fist colliding with the brick wall. I don't really feel that this is a weakness in Amelia's Children, but I was definitely better at it by the time I wrote Primogénito. The area where it can be seen the most is in the relationships between the characters. If you read a lot of book reviews, you may have heard the term "insta-love" thrown around. It's not a positive term. When people use it, they are referring to a romance where the characters fall in love but the reader never fully understands why they fell in love. Basically what's happened is the author has told the audience that the characters are in love, rather than showing it. There's a bit of insta-love in Amelia's Children. Sarah falls for David the minute she meets him and that initial attraction forms the basis of their entire relationship. In Primogénito the characters' feelings for each other are shown, not told. To the point that I want to cry for my own characters every time I re-read the book.

So, my point is Primogénito follows the rules better than Amelia's Children does. But just following the rules will not guarantee people will enjoy a book. For that you need an engaging story, and maybe that explains why my first book has better reviews than my second. Amelia's Children moves at a faster pace and spends less time on character development. Primogénito does have some pretty darn suspenseful moments, but it's the characters who push the story forward rather than the action. Maybe that kind of book is not for everyone. I don't know. Let's take a look at what people are saying.

A Modest Collection of Three-Star Reviews.

I must say I agree wholeheartedly with the first person who reviewed Primogénito. You can read that review here. Her feelings about my book echo my own. She fell madly in love with Damian. I'm madly in love with Damian. She was fascinated by the backstory and learning how the magic works. I can't say I'm fascinated by it, because I'm the one who came up with it, but I am darn proud of it. She wasn't a huge fan of Ashley. I'm not a huge fan of Ashley. The problem is she docked two stars because she didn't care for the Ashley/Nick storyline. I'll talk more on that later. First, let's look at my other three-star review.

You can read Primogénito's second review here. This one doesn't go into much detail about the pros and cons of the story. Her main critique is that the pacing is too slow in the beginning.

What Can I Learn From These Reviews?

Focus On the Positive
First let me say that I have yet to get a review accusing me of poor writing. I don't want to jinx myself. I don't want to pat myself on the back too soon, because as soon as I do I likely will get one of those reviews. Nonetheless, it's encouraging to know that, so far, no one has complained about grammar, typos, writing style, etc. And until I do get a review complaining about those things, I must conclude that I'm doing well with that part of the writing business.

Learning from the Negative
The critique of the Ashley/Nick storyline troubles me. Not that I can't see her point, I absolutely can, but I don't see it as being such a big problem because I never intended the book to be about Ashely and Nick. From the beginning, it was about Damian. The need to save Nick is motivated by Damian's feelings of guilt over what happened when they were kids and Damian's desire to take care of everyone around him. But someone took off two stars because she couldn't identify with Ashley and couldn't feel for her struggle to get her husband, and her life, back.

So what do I do with that? Do I need to rewrite the book, starting a little earlier in the story so we can see Ashley and Nick happy and whole, which will cause us to really feel something when things start to go wrong? Or should I merely rewrite my blurb? Because the book has three POV characters, I had three different ways I could have written my blurb. I could have done it from Damian's perspective, or I could have done it from Jenn's (Damian's wife). I chose Ashley because the situation with Nick is mysterious and creepy and I thought that would attract the interest of potential readers. But perhaps what I've done is give the impression that the book is all about Ashley when really it's not. Here's the blurb so you can see for yourself:

“I wake up in the middle of the night sometimes and see him standing at the foot of the bed, staring at me. Some nights I don’t think he sleeps at all.”
Ashley Preston has a problem. Her husband Nick has fallen victim to a mysterious illness, alternating between bizarre physical symptoms for which doctors cannot determine a cause and alarming personality changes which have Ashley fearing not just for Nick’s health but for her own safety as well. Desperate to save her husband, she turns to the only person she believes can help her: Damian Fuentes.
Ashley knows Damian’s family has dabbled in some kind of dark magic over the years. She also knows that when Nick was ten years old, Damian’s grandfather performed a strange ritual on him. Convinced that this ritual is at the root of her husband’s problem, Ashley begs Damian to delve into the Fuentes family’s darkest secrets in search of a cure. But Damian has spent the past five years trying to distance himself from his family and his traumatic past. Helping Ashley will mean resurrecting the long-dead ghosts of his most disturbing memories. If he saves Nick he may very well lose himself.
So maybe I've made a mistake in attempting to draw readers in by making them think the story is all about a person who turns out to be one of the less likable characters. The one comment in the review that I keep playing over and over in my mind is, "The other characters basically carried them through and made the story what it is." Well...yeah! That was the point. Primogénito, at it's heart, is about Damian and Jenn. They are the ones you should feel for when you read the book. Ashley is merely the catalyst who sets them on the dark path which leads...well I won't tell you that. You can read the book to find out.
As far as the other review, which calls my book "slow-paced", is concerned, I'm wondering if I'm marketing to the wrong audience. It also underscores another fundamental difference between Amelia's Children and Primogénito. While my first book contained a collection of interesting characters who all went through their own personal drama, the story was primarily plot-driven. And while Primogénito contains some interesting plot twists and (if I do say so myself) a pretty darn fascinating backstory, as a whole it is more character-driven. So calling it a dark fantasy and writing a blurb which emphasizes the creepy and mysterious aspects of the story may be a bit misleading. If you'd like to read more about the difference between plot-driven and character-driven books, you can read this article.
So What is Primogénito: The Fuentes Legacy?
It is a character-driven drama which also happens to have some intense, suspenseful moments. And dark magic. Let's not forget the dark magic.
It is the beautiful love story of Damian and Jenn. It is not a romance. We do not get to see these two meet and fall in love. When we are first introduced to them, they are already married. Within the first four chapters we discover that they are expecting their first baby. The driving force behind the story is the fear that Damian's past will come back to haunt them and destroy everything they have spent the past five years building.
It is the story of Damian's struggle to put himself back together after enduring an unspeakable trauma which occurred five years before the events of the book. Ashley's appearance at his door, begging for help, pulls him right back into the hole from which he has finally climbed out.
It is the story of Jenn's fear of losing Damian. She's afraid of the darkness which will take hold of him if he gets involved with his family again after all these years. She's afraid of losing him to Ashley, whom he dated in college and who still harbors some lingering feelings for him. She's afraid of the evil of his past coming and destroying their life together.
It is the story of Ashley, a woman who never really put her life back together after the trying events of the past, and who is now dealing with the new trauma of figuring out what is happening to her husband, Nick.
It is an emotional rollercoaster.
It is a tear-jerker.

It is a paranormal book with a very detailed backstory. Really...if I decided to write the prequels I would probably end up with a series of at least eight books.

It does start off slowly, because there's a lot of character development at the beginning, but it has an ending with a heck of a lot of action and suspense.

It is a dark fantasy. And I mean dark. The things Damian's family has done in order to obtain the magic are truly disturbing.

It is a relatively clean read. Though some really gruesome stuff is mentioned as part of the backstory, very little is actually shown in the book. And I don't do f-bombs. Just because I don't particularly care for f-bombs.

The Shameless Plug

Yeah, I know...self-promo is not cool. But I'm an indie author. If I don't plug my book, who will? So if you like character-driven stories which also happen to have a creepy, mysterious element to them, check out my book on Amazon:

Primogénito: The Fuentes Legacy
If you're more into plot-driven stories with lots of twists and turns, and you don't mind a little insta-love and some mild overuse of the word "that", check out Amelia's Children:

If you have any advice about getting my book into the hands of people who will actually love it, please tell me about it in a comment.

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