On the perils of the disappointing book review

Santo_Domingo_y_los_albigenses-detalleWarning: This post was manufactured in a facility that also processes self-pity. May contain traces of nuts and stronger swear words.

Bad reviews are inevitable. As an author, you have to be thick-skinned enough to take criticism, even when it’s unconstructive. As a reader, you have the right to get what you pay for, and the right to complain about it when you don’t. We all know this when we buy or sell a book. It’s part of the social contract of readership, and that’s totally cool. We learn from our unpleasant experiences and move on from them a richer, wiser person. Right?

Well…no. Let’s be honest. Getting a bad review sucks. It stings and burns and makes you squirm in your seat like an itch you just can’t scratch, because in most cases, you can’t reach out to that reader and explain to them in painful detail what exactly you were trying to accomplish, what exactly they got wrong, and how exactly they are supposed to think about your flawless masterpiece.

It’s tough. For example, quarterfinalists in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards (ABNA) got their Publisher’s Weekly reviews a few days ago, and I’ve never seen a group of authors try so very, very hard to keep their chins up in the face of what a disaster it was. While people are more likely to complain about bad reviews than post the good ones, I was rather shocked and a bit appalled at the quality of reviews – not the quality of the novels – that resulted from this particular scheme.

I won’t post my review in its entirety, since Dark the Night Descending isn’t published yet and the review contains spoilers, but I was confused and disappointed to find a near-total lack of professionalism from the person who read my book. The reviewer mixed up two major characters, which caused them to harp on the fact that my plot made no sense. They pointed out inconsistencies and open-ended questions, but they would have found out the answers had they read the entire book instead of just the first four chapters. And while they seemed to enjoy the tone and the quality of writing, they panned the overall work because of their own inattention and mistakes.

When I first read this block of text, I was absolutely furious. How could they make such elemental errors? Why did my participation in the contest have to suffer for it? Who were these people who dared to call themselves professional reviewers when they couldn’t even give their full attention to the task at hand?

I ranted on Twitter. I posted a snarky message on my Facebook page. I was ready to hunt down email addresses and write strongly-worded letters and generally storm about because Amazon should know that the people Publisher’s Weekly hired were not up to the task. I’ve heard from forum members that the reviews were laypeople offered a few hundred bucks to read lots of books in five weeks, which may or may not be true, but it would certainly explain a lot.

But…then I started reading the bad reviews that other people had posted. They had the same complaints about a lack of reading comprehension. The same level of outrage from jilted authors. The same dismay and frustration and anger when a book got totally destroyed by a piqued reader. The resigned acceptance of fate’s fickle finger from long-time participants in a contest I was just entering for the first time.

I calmed down a bit when I realized I wasn’t alone. I may have gotten shafted, but it wasn’t personal. It was just how this particular system worked. The system was terrible, and it wasn’t really fair, but I had signed an open-ended contract of readership with ABNA, and in the end, I had to take what my reader was going to dish out.

So I read my review again. And it wasn’t so bad, really. “Inventive and engaging” are good words. “Shows great promise” are also good words. I hope those sentiments are just as true as the negative ones. I will keep telling myself that they are. Of course it means I won’t be moving on to the semifinals, but there was an extremely slim chance of doing so in any case, and I didn’t expect it. I got what I came for, which was a quote with a Publisher’s Weekly tag attached to it that might help me sell some copies.

After achieving nirvana, with the help of some pizza and a long heart-to-heart conversation with my cat (he counseled patience, humility, and some of his favorite chicken treats), I came to the real question. Should I write about my sour experiences in a post like this, which has the potential to be misinterpreted, or should I delete all those zingers I had plastered across my social media accounts in the heat of the moment? Will people just think I’m a sore loser, or will they see my words as intended: a way to work through negative feelings while trying to be objective and reasonable?

Because for an author, that’s where the peril lies. It’s very hard to avoid being “the problem person” when everything you say or do online is squirreled away by Google to be trotted out every time someone types in your name. You don’t want to be that guy who oozes prickly negativity. You have to handle yourself with composure, grace, fortitude, politeness, and reserve. But does that mean not complaining about anything?  Ever?

I don’t think it does. “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all” is a great rule of thumb for the internet, especially when there is so much vitriol going around in the virtual world. Finding the balance between flagging what you perceive as an injustice and simply being a Negative Nelly is hard to do.

No one should ever attack a reader for not liking something they’ve read. If the content doesn’t tickle your fancy or if the style rubs you the wrong way, you have every right, as a reader, to tell me. Please do. But if you don’t bother to read correctly?

Then I’m sorry. I will try to be polite, but you have violated the contract of readership, and I think you kind of lose your right to express an authoritative opinion. It takes a lot of effort to write a book, and it isn’t respectful to the author to half-ass a glance at a few chapters and call yourself a professional reviewer using the name of a respectable company to back you up.

ABNA bills itself as one of the most highly sought-after prizes for self-published authors, and despite what you think about Amazon’s business practices, the name carries a hell of a lot of weight with customers. I think Amazon has seriously slighted its authors by structuring the contest in a way that doesn’t allow for a full consideration of manuscripts from seasoned, accomplished reviewers, and marred the integrity of the competition.

Should I be surprised? Maybe not, considering Amazon’s other recent negative press in the publishing world. I’m a trusting soul, even when it comes to megacorporations, and perhaps that’s a personal problem. But now I know that something I respected will not respect me, and I will behave accordingly.

And so I say fie and humbug to poor reviewers. A pox upon contests I don’t end up winning. Fiddlesticks to short attention spans, and a hearty cheer for those authors who have endured disappointment and lived to try again another day. Let’s all have a pizza and get back to work.

There. I feel better. How about you?

Advertisements

The top ten Twitter hashtags for writers

twitter-logo

Whether you’re blogging, Facebooking, Instragramming, Tweeting, or (heaven help us) Snapchatting, social media is a primary part of our current cultural experience as well as a great way to make connections, promote your work, and blow off a little steam when things aren’t quite going your way.  While I don’t take part in every single one of the social networks that seem to be breeding like rabbits these days, I am a pretty big fan of Twitter, and would like to share with you my top ten favorite hashtags (if you don’t know what a hashtag is, go ask your kids) for writers and other publishing folks.

#AmWriting

While often grammatically awkward when integrated into a sentence, the #AmWriting and #AmEditing tags are two of the most popular for our kind.  #Writing and #Editing are used frequently, too, but for some reason, people like the declarative form.  I don’t blame them.  “I am writing” is a powerful statement (even if you say it while you’re tweeting instead), and it often comes with a surge of motivation, joy, and squishy creative juices that encourage you to close your browser and get back to work on that first draft.

#AmEditing

#AmEditing is a bit different, and is often a little sadder.  Editing is rarely any fun.  I’m doing it right now on Dark the Night Descending, and let me tell you: it’s tough going, man.  Editing is about facing your mistakes, reconciling changes, discovering stupid little typos, and generally trying to hammer a huge, unwieldy, resistant mess into something vaguely resembling a decent novel.  #AmEditing people can be nervous, weary, and despondent, so give them a little bit of love and encouragement to help them through the doldrums.

#SelfPub

This hashtag is split between the desperate, persistent, deeply irritating self-promoters and the people who will give you some of the best advice you could ever ask for.  If you can ignore the all-caps “$1.99 TODAY ONLY!!!!” screaming, you can link up with self-pubbers who have a great deal of experience and know-how in a world being shaped as we speak.

#NoFilter

I know, I know, this is an Instagram thing, but since people so often cross-post onto Twitter, I’m including it here.  Do you know what it means?  It means you’re not writing.  It means you’re taking an artfully composed (and yeah, probably filtered) picture of your cat lying over your keyboard, or the beautiful blue sky outside, or the frosty beverage that’s sitting next to your elbow as you stare into the hypnotizing depths of your cellphone.  I won’t say this is a bad thing.  Everyone’s entitled to a break, and you should do your work in your own time.  But eventually you should probably close up the app and get back to it, right?

#Urghhh

…and then you can use this one.  Whether you’re laying down the plot, revising your story, or reading something you’ve summoned up the courage to look at after leaving it in a drawer for a while, we’ve all had this moment of feeling stuck, stupid, helpless, and horrified.  I don’t think I need to say more.

#Coffee / #Starbucks / #DDRun

You’ve stopped writing again, haven’t you.  Yeah.  I know how it is.  Go get your coffee.  You’re going to need it.

#WritingTips

This is a good one…if you like inspirational quotes from established authors or links to click-bait blog posts claiming to have all the secrets for diligence and studious application to your work.  Sometimes there really are a few good nuggets in here, though, so sift through the chaff and find what attracts you.

#PitMad

Personally, I find #PitMad to be a totally unproductive zoo of spam, but there are enough stories out there about Twitter-based book deals to make it worthwhile, I suppose.  #PitMad is a pitch festival for agents who cruise the hashtag for 140 character tidbits that may catch their eye.  It’s incredibly popular, which makes it incredibly difficult to be noticed, but miracles do happen.  You can learn more about it here.

#FML

Either another #PitMad passed by with no results, or your story just took a nosedive.  Maybe you can’t find any time for writing this week, or this month, or this year.  Life gets in the way, things go wrong, distractions overcome us, and Starbucks runs out of caramel chai vanilla mint double twist sugar free syrup.  Bad things happen, and what’s the point of social media if not to complain?  Just make sure your grandma doesn’t find out what this one means, or you’ll be in for a scolding.

#YesyesYESyayYESSS

Something worked!  You figured out the reason for that secondary character to jump into focus, or your plot suddenly appeared again after wandering into oblivion.  You finished an important scene – maybe it wasn’t even a very important scene, but you finished it, damn it, and you’re going to let the whole world know.  Good for you!  This is what makes it all worthwhile, and you should feel free to #humblebrag your way into the next chapter…as long as you don’t mind losing a follower or twenty after you do.

WordPress authors talk NaNoWriMo and what happens after

Hey, guys!  I hope you’ve all enjoyed your first week of noveling madness, and haven’t yet been banned from your local coffee shop for scaring the children with your creepy concentration face.  Whether you’re participating in NaNoWriMo this year or not, you might want to check out a series of posts by the WordPress wizards on the joys of this month-long festival of literary abandon – and what to do with your 50,000 word mess when you’ve finished.

In addition to four other super cool authors, these posts just sort of happen to feature the wit and questionable wisdom of me, myself, and I.  Please check out the books and blogs of my fellow NaNoers – but don’t spend too long on the internet, because you’ve got a word count to meet!

NaNoWriMo 2013: Want to write a novel?

post1

***

NaNoWriMo Roundup: Seasoned authors share their secrets

post2

***

On blogging and publishing your book: Authors talk shop

post3

Five Social Media Tips for Authors

I am the guardian of good online etiquette.  Hear me roar.  Also, Jen went to the zoo yesterday.

I am the guardian of good online etiquette. Hear me roar. Also, Jen went to the zoo yesterday.

If you’re tired of scrolling past Instagram photos of your smiling, bikini-clad high school classmates, or clicking “hide” when that coworker starts sharing recipes and Candy Crush invites sixteen thousand times a day, then you know from experience that Facebook, Twitter, Pintrest, StumbleUpon, and tumblr can be more of a hassle than they’re worth.

Social media doesn’t always work as a sales platform.  With millions of authors, musicians, actors, start-ups, and artists looking for exposure, it’s easy to get lost in the crowd.  I’m no media whiz kid, as my 94 followers on Twitter and 44 Facebook “likes” will be the first to tell you, but here are some of my top do’s and don’ts when it comes to keeping social media from turning into social mediaaargh.

Learn everything you can about SEO

Search engine optimization (SEO) is the foundation of the only thing that matters in the universe: Google page rankings.  Want your blog to come up on top when someone searches for “space pirate murder mystery robot love story?”  Then you better have short, relevant, eye-catching titles, and work those keywords into the first 160 characters of your posts.

Pay attention to your URLs.  Tag effectively.  Keep your articles under 1000 words, because people typically won’t read any more than that.  Use sub-headings to define your article’s content and chop it into easy, bite-sized pieces for readers.  Google gives preference to titles with fewer than 60 characters, and the more buzz words you can pack into that half-a-tweet, the better.  You can’t get read if you can’t get found.

Keep it short, keep it relevant, keep it funny

People have short attention spans.  They want to be entertained, and they want to be entertained by the stuff that matters to them.  If you’re commenting on an article about diagraming sentences, no one cares about your opinion on global warming.  And they care even less about hearing your elevator pitch and having to scroll past your Amazon link.

Being a productive, interesting member of any online community is about contributing to the topic at hand in a way that makes people look forward to your two cents.  Humor works.  Funny humor works better.  Get to the point and get to it fast, or you’ll attract a lot more eye rolls than eyeballs to your next tirade.

Don’t let l’eau de desperation stink up your campaign

Look, we know your free Kindle promotion is going to start on Wednesday.  It’s only been half an hour since you last mentioned it.  We’ve seen your Facebook posts, and once you’ve invited us to like your page once or twice or three times, we get that it exists.  Now we’re just ignoring you.

No one likes spam, but what people like even less is the blatant guilt-tripping that often accompanies it.  It’s great to let people know you’ve got a book coming out.  Some of your old friends might be proud of you.  Most of them are going to “like” the post and then never buy a copy.  That’s just how people are.  The more bullying, whining, cajoling, and demanding you do, the fewer sales you’re going to make.  Alienating your friends is never a good marketing strategy.

Stick to what you’re good at

When I first published The Last Death, I tried everything.  Kindle message boards, fantasy communities, discussion groups on Shelfari and Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, this blog, and even Pintrest.  I thought spreading my net as wide as possible would get me the most exposure, and I guess technically that’s sort of correct.

But I had no time or energy to give each of these things the attention they deserved.  Leaving one “buy my book” post before disappearing into the ether was not being a good community member, nor was it a very effective way to make people want to hear more about what I have to say.  So I decided to stick to WordPress, Facebook, and Twitter to thoroughly cultivate my brand.  If you can’t figure out who I am and what I have to offer based on those three platforms, then I can’t help you.

WWYD?

Jesus, in his infinite charity and kindness, may accept every Farmville invitation and click on every Buzzfeed photo montage.  He might buy every self-published author’s magnum opus and retweet every mildly amusing quip you have on hand.  But you don’t.  You’re mean and horrible and have to keep some of your money to buy food and chocolate and anti-anxiety pills, because you’re a writer with limited tolerance and limited grace.  Most people are like you, in that respect.  They skip things.  They ignore things.  And that’s not something that’s ever going to change.

So before you post anything, whether it’s an artsy cell phone pic of your dirty sneakers or a self-indulgent whine about how long it’s taking to get through the line at the post office, think about how you would react if you saw that Facebook post from someone else on your friends list.  Would you scroll past?  Would you get annoyed?  Then don’t post it.

Building a strong, attractive brand requires some sacrifice, and sometimes that means forgoing that snapshot of your turkey sandwich.  It also requires a little reciprocity.  Click on other people’s links sometimes.  Leave your mark on their blog just as you wish they’d do on yours.  Social media can be a game-changer, but only if you stick to the golden rule.

Backscratcher

I have a confession to make.  I’ve been hiding something from you.  I didn’t want to share it for fear of alarming my loyal readers, because I can’t find my smelling salts and I don’t really want to be responsible for that sort of thing.  However, I want to mention it because I have a problem in front of me, and the only way to solve it is with your help.

It's...uh...ketchup.  Yeah.

It’s…uh…ketchup. Yeah.  Ketchup.

A few weeks before Christmas, I was put in touch with an agency in New York.  There were burner phones and cool sunglasses and self-destructing notes left under park benches – the whole deal.  I’m an international assassin, my last mission went awry, and I need you to hide me in your basement. Really.

Okay, no.  It was a literary agency, of course.  They loved The Last Death and are excited about my prospects for success, and even asked for the first chapter of The Spoil and didn’t throw up after reading it.  I’m not officially signed or anything – this is more of an advisory partnership at the moment.  But they’re a bunch of awesome people, I’m extraordinarily flattered that they find my book worth pursuing, and I’ve had some very helpful conversations about what I need to do to get my name out there and generate enough interest in my stuff before a traditional publishing house will bite at a self-published work that’s already on the market.  We’ll ignore the indignant chorus of accusations about the stigma of self-publishing, because I don’t really care about all that, and it doesn’t matter.

The point is, I’ve gotta move some books.  I have to be desirable and charming and sociable and in demand, none of which are adjectives that have ever been used to describe me before.  We all know that badgering readers for reviews doesn’t work, and beating people over the head with a paperback will barely even leave them with a concussion.  Trust me, I’m an international assassin.  The best you can do is a particularly vicious paper cut.

But here’s what might work: putting on some razzle dazzle with guest posts, or an interview or two.  There are hundreds of blogs out there with a literary focus, and I know some of you guys are among them.  So here I am, volunteering my services.  Have a fantasy topic that needs to be addressed?  Want historical grounding in issues that pop up in make-believe worlds?  I’m your gal.  Know of a blog that’s looking for authors?  Tell me!  Want to grow your own audience while helping out a fellow author?  Come do a guest spot on Inkless.  I know it’s hard to get noticed, but you notice me and I want to notice you.

What do you think?  Are you in?  Leave a comment, send an email, use smoke signals…just get in touch.  Let’s be awesome together.

News, interviews, and a contest!

[Skip down to the bottom if you only care about the contest]

I’ve been a busy, busy girl.  No, I haven’t finished up The Spoil of Z-K yet, since illness and injury have kept creativity out of my reach for the moment, but I have been doing other things.

Tomorrow I will sign a lease on a brand new apartment, where I’ll be moving in March.  It’s one town over, closer to my job, and within five minutes of my grocery store, two CVS’s (what luxury!) and some nice restaurants, not to mention a big park with a lake to swim in and several of my favorite stores.  I’ve been living in my current place for more than five years now, and although I will always cherish it for being my first apartment, in many ways it’s simply time to move on.

spikeI will also be taking on a feline roommate in this new apartment of mine, and I couldn’t be more excited.  I’ve missed having some kitty companionship since I moved away from home, and I think it’s finally time for me to commit to a freeloader of my very own.  This is Oliver, a.k.a. Spike, a (probably mostly) Norwegian Forest Cat and such a sweet, lovely, playful boy.  He’s a rescue from a local adoption program who very luckily turned up at the back door of a foster cat family about a year ago.  I probably won’t be able to bring him home until April, but I know he’s being well taken care of in the meantime.  You can all look forward to many, many, many more cat pictures in the months to come.  Many.

But I haven’t completely stopped all my book promotion work due to staring at his mischievous little face for twenty-four hours a day.  Did I say “little”?  He’s 18 pounds.  But anyway.  I had the opportunity to do an interview with Rachel Herriman, and spoke to her about The Last Death and The Spoil of ZK, as well as The Paper Flower and some of my wise words about the writing and self-publishing process.  At the bottom, you’ll see some information about a giveaway.

rachelherriman

There are only a few simple steps in order to enter to receive a signed, personalized paperback copy of The Last Death of Tev Chrisini.  Here’s what you have to do:

1. Follow me on Twitter: @jenrosebresnick

2. Follow Rachel Herriman on Twitter: @Writer93

3. ‘Like’ RachelHerriman.com on Facebook

4. Send an e-mail to rachel@rachelherriman.com with your Twitter handle and Facebook name to ensure an entry!

You can do all that, right?  Easy as pie.  If you already follow me on Twitter, then don’t worry about that step – it still counts.  The last day for entry is January 31.  A winner will be randomly chosen after that, assuming there are any entries this time.  Good luck!