Sunday, July 15, 2018

The Fickle Nature of Book Reviews

You expect to get a few critical reviews when you put a book out into the world. That's the nature of the beast. That doesn't stop it from hurting though.

Of my first two books, Amelia's Children and Primogénito, I openly admit to having a favorite. Primogénito just plays on my heartstrings more than Amelia's Children does. It's deeper, darker, and richer in detail.

Readers, on the other hand, seem to flock to Amelia's Children while avoiding Primogénito like the plague. Now that I've put a couple of years distance between me and those two books, I can look at them more objectively and see that Amelia's Children has more mainstream appeal. Primogénito doesn't exactly qualify as navel-gazing, but it is none-the-less a very personal work. A primary concern of mine in writing it was to hit myself in my own feels, so to speak. I assumed everyone else would love it because I assumed everyone else kept their feels in the same place I keep mine.

So I published Primogénito and reviews began to trickle in from readers and book bloggers. The reception was lukewarm. No one really hated it, but only a select few gushed over it the way I'd hoped. Nevertheless, it's held its own. Some people find it a little too slow at the beginning and others are turned off by its dark themes, but general consensus seems to be that it's a decent book.

When I decided to start entering writing contests, Primogénito was the first book I wanted to put out there. I was still convinced it was my best. I've entered it in three contests so far, two of which, Writer's Digest and Booklife, give professional critiques to all entrants.

The Writer's Digest critique came first. I was so excited to open my email that day, just knowing I'd have something I could proudly display all over the interwebs to show what a world-class author I was. Here's' the review I got:

Structure, Organization, and Pacing: 3

Spelling, Punctuation, and Grammar: 4

Production Quality and Cover Design: 3

Plot and Story Appeal: 3

Character Appeal and Development: 2

Voice and Writing Style: 3

Judge’s Commentary*:

A striking cover but almost a little too spare. The title certainly piques the curiosity. Okay, you only need to state once about Ashley. I feel like you’re hitting me over the head with it. Otherwise, it’s an intriguing opening. Was Damian a good name choice? Isn’t that a little loaded? I love the literary mystery aspect of the story, 11%. This is a pretty fascinating discussion at 20%. I like your insights about the patterns in their relationships. Pretty inventive, this glowing, evil scar, 30%. “Right now, he had a lot to prove,” – good line, 37%. A little bit of overexplaining sometimes. I feel like I’m watching a soap opera, 45%. Your characters seem cold and clinical. I’m having a hard time caring about them, 52%. This shadow world is used far too often in books of this type, 65%. Pretty interesting, having the baby be the focus of all of this, 74%. There’s far too much talk. The story needs a lot more direct, present action. You spend a lot of time having your characters discuss past events, 81% “like her heart was being ripped right out of her chest,” That’s a little bit over the top, 88%.

I was devastated. And, honestly, I couldn't disagree more. My characters were cold and clinical? My characters were my favorite part! I loved them almost as though they were real people. As for the rest of it...well, I've learned a lot about "show, don't tell" since then and can recognize a tendency in my earlier work to be repetitive when I had a point I wanted to drive home.

Still, I was bummed. This being my first professional review, it left me with the feeling that my books were good enough for the average Joe, but I would never be able to compete with the big kids.

Then the Booklife review came rolling in. I'll let it speak for itself:

Plot/Idea: 7 out of 10

Originality: 7 out of 10

Prose: 8 out of 10

Character/Execution: 7 out of 10

Overall: 7.25 out of 10

Plot: The plot of this novel is engaging and soundly constructed. The story moves along at a good pace, but some readers may find the ending a bit predictable.

Prose: The prose is one of this book's main strengths. The writing is clear and smooth. The dialogue is effective.

Originality: Though the conceit of this novel will be familiar to some readers, the author manages to make it feel fresh and different.

Character Development: The characters here are well rendered and believable. Readers will care about them, though some character motivations could be clearer.

So readers will care about my characters, eh? Take that, Mister Writer's Digest Reviewer Guy! story is well-paced? The dialogue is effective? Ah...Mister Booklife Man, you are my hero!

So what have I learned from all of this? I've learned that all reviews, even professional ones, are subjective. What one person loves in a book, someone else will hate. That's the way it is and that's the way it will always be, so there's no use fretting over it.

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