A few thoughts on reviews, the good, the bad, the unfavourable, and what to do about them

As of today, The Green Man’s Heir has reached 100 reviews on Amazon UK, and is similarly gathering favourable ratings and reviews on Goodreads and elsewhere, like this appreciation in F&SF. So first and foremost, my sincerest thanks to everyone who’s shared their enthusiasm for this book.

Regardless of algorithms and suchlike, knowing that readers appreciate what we do is what keeps us authors writing. It’s great to see, and to share, a positive review, whether that’s a closely detailed essay showing that this reader really understood what you are aiming for in the story, or if it’s an enthusiastic ‘Loved it, a really great read – five stars’. Either is fine, because good reviews are an uncomplicated delight. What to do about them is simple for an author: be grateful and if the opportunity arises, say thank you.

Of course, not all reviews are good… and just to be clear, I’m looking back over twenty years and sixteen novels, as well as a lot of other writing. I’ve plenty of experience here, which is why I make a distinction between bad reviews and unfavourable reviews.

A bad review is one that is pointless. One that says nothing about the book. ‘Don’t like the cover – one star’. ‘Didn’t realise this was the second book in a trilogy – one star’. ‘Was buying this as a gift, but Amazon delivered it too late – one star’. You know the sort of thing I mean. A waste of everyone’s time.

An unfavourable review is different. It engages with the book. It says what the reader didn’t like and hopefully, gives some idea why. Sometimes this says a whole lot more about the reviewer than about the actual book. Back in 1999, you could find a review of The Thief’s Gamble condemning me as a ball-breaking, man-hating feminist, and a few mouse-clicks away, another one equally insistent that I was a patriarchy-enabling betrayer of the Sisterhood. That was an early lesson for me, demonstrating that the author has no control over the assumptions a reader will bring to a book, or their ability to read into it what they want to see, and which the author never intended.

But unfavourable reviews can also engage with exactly what the writer hoped to convey. They absolutely get it, and they really don’t like it. For instance, in The Gambler’s Fortune, a fair few readers had a real problem with the character Jeirran, who is deeply flawed, seriously unpleasant, and the leader of an oppressed minority. Readers who felt that such a leader should be a heroic figure were badly jarred, and some were thrown out of the story completely. Ten books later, and Zurenne in Dangerous Waters divided readers again. A widow in a paternalistic, patriarchal society, Zurenne is utterly unable to cope when a devious, manipulative man exploits and abuses her for his own gain. Some readers found her passivity exasperating, and that really doesn’t make for an enjoyable book.

But here’s the thing. For everyone who wished Zurenne would just grow a backbone and stand up for herself, someone else would comment that her plight made them realise even a benevolent patriarchy is ultimately no good for women, because when the going gets tough, they have none of the skills they’ll need to cope. For everyone who hated Jeirran so much that he ruined the book for them, someone else was prompted to ask why do we make assumptions about ‘heroes’ and the potentially dangerous consequences of doing so. So I learned early on that unfavourable reviews must always be seen in their wider context. Some readers may well not like a particular aspect of a story. That doesn’t mean the author wasn’t making a valid point by including it.

Writers should remember they can’t please all of the people all of the time. What’s way too fast-paced for someone can be a plodding plot for someone else, while it’ll be just right for a whole lot of other readers. Views on what’s too much violence, or too little action, or too much politics, or not enough depth of background vary similarly. The author has no control over any of these reactions, any more than the three bears could anticipate what Goldilocks might want in a bed or a bowl of porridge.

Of course, that isn’t to say that a writer should just ignore unfavourable reviews. If the majority view is that some aspect isn’t working, that’s something to look at more closely, especially with regard to whatever you’re writing at the moment. This is how we increase our understanding of our craft, and develop our skills.

What else should a writer do? Once again, that’s easy. Nothing. There is nothing to be gained by arguing with, or even debating, bad or unfavourable reviews, whether that’s in person or on the Internet for all the world to see. As one best-selling author explained to me, early in my career, and well before social media. ‘It’s starting an arse-kicking contest with a porcupine. Even if you win, the cost to yourself will not be worth it.’

So when I see someone didn’t find The Green Man’s Heir to their personal liking, I privately wish them happy reading elsewhere, and move on. It’s not as if there’s a shortage of good books for all tastes, after all. Meantime, I shall continue working on the sequel for all those who have enjoyed Dan’s adventures thus far, all the more encouraged by to those who’ve found a few moments to say so. As I said at the outset, many thanks for that.

A few New Year thoughts…

… starting with why you didn’t read this yesterday. I thought about posting something but when I took a glance at the Internet, the first thing I saw was a SF&F row swirling around. I thought briefly about trying to determine where the lines between misunderstanding and bad faith might lie on either side – and then logged out to spend the day with my family instead. We can call that a New Year’s resolution, if you like. There’s more than enough negativity around at the moment, so I’m not interested in looking for more.

I’m currently appreciating my family, those nearest and those further away. 2017 saw some ups and downs but overall, both the sons and the husband are on an even keel, hopefully set fair for 2018. My parents and step-parents continue pretty hale and hearty – and long may that continue. I really appreciate being the off-spring of a teenage romance these days, now that so many good friends are supporting increasingly elderly and infirm parents with all the practical and emotional challenges that brings, up to and including bereavement.

Somewhat unexpectedly, 2017 also saw me branching out into editorial services. Two writers whom I’d taught on residential courses contacted me asking if I ever worked one-on-one with authors. Knowing that both were tough enough to take realistic appraisal of their writing, I accepted this new challenge, and it’s been very rewarding. They’re two very different writers, with two very different and interesting projects. Both have been applying themselves diligently to addressing the issues I’ve highlighted, drawing on my own twenty years in this business. Both projects are progressing and improving. And yes, this added income stream is welcome amid the ongoing flux of the book trade that sees author advances and earnings continue to fall. (And no, I’m not touting for trade – the time that I can spare for such work is currently fully committed.)

All such ticks in the plus column are all the more welcome against the bigger picture that’s been so uncertain and troubling throughout 2017. Here in the UK we have the divisive and destructive idiocy that is Brexit, whose equally destructive economic impact is only just beginning to be felt. Across the Atlantic, US pals have the horror show that is the Trump administration. If ‘administration’ is the right word for such a shambolic and nakedly predatory presidency.

All of which makes it very tempting to bar the front door, stop reading/watching the news, and opt out of social media beyond staying in touch with family and real-life friends. The thing is though, one of the last things 2017 handed me was confirmation that individuals really can make a difference. In December 2014 new regulations on the taxation of cross-border digital sales across the EU looked disastrous for the person-to-person digital economy. All the small traders who would be worst affected were told there was nothing we could do. I was one of half a dozen self-employed women who refused to take that for an answer and spent 2015 and subsequent years lobbying and campaigning for change. December 2017 saw the changes we need signed into law, effective 1st Jan 2019. In legislative terms, we achieved pretty much the impossible, far more quickly than might be expected.

Not without cost. For me and Clare Josa, it meant pretty much abandoning our own businesses throughout 2015 in favour of campaign work. It was the first year since 1997 that I didn’t write a full novel – though I wrote around two novels worth of words in blog posts, letters, reports, and submissions to organisations like the OECD and legislative bodies like the House of Lords. The other women of the EU VAT Action team similarly sacrificed time they’d otherwise have spent on work and family, according to the contribution they were able to make.

But we did it, and that’s something to take forward into 2018. We can make a difference and we can bear the cost. Let’s make our voices heard against the selfishness and greed that’s leaving so many destitute and desperate. Let’s reclaim the reins of power in the interests of the many, not merely the few. Write letters, make phone calls, protest.

What else will I be doing in 2018? Reading. A lot of reading. I’m serving as a judge for the World Fantasy Awards, which promises to be fascinating and demanding in equal measure.

I’ll also be reading for the background and research required for a new publishing project, of which more details in due course. After several years of primarily small-press and short-story publication, this New Year sees the prospect of my work on the mass-market shelves in 2019. As I say, there will be more news about all that later on. There’ll also be a few short stories from me here and there through the year.

Meantime, and more immediately, Wizard’s Tower Press will be publishing my next novel shortly. The Green Man’s Heir is a modern fantasy, drawing on the folklore of the British Isles, and prompted by looking at urban fantasy from a few different angles. Once again, I’m indebted to Cheryl Morgan’s technical and publishing expertise. Ben Baldwin’s artwork is fabulous, and Toby Selwyn has done a stellar job as the book’s editor. All of which reminds me of all the positive, supportive and constructive people there are in SF&F fandom, always there to far outweigh outbreaks of negativity and back-biting.

So I will get back to checking over the ebook version Cheryl has sent me, as my first task of 2018. Watch this space for more, and soon!