What he said

One of the more fascinating aspects of online book websites is instant reader reaction. As a writer we so rarely get to hear what people really think about our books. Our relatives don’t give us the real deal. If we’re face to face with someone we seldom get the truth. (Okay, so my hairdresser gushed over Blackbird Fly last week. I’m sure she was being honest.) I’d be last to say I couldn’t learn anything new, be a better writer, and well, just write a better book. I’m so far from perfect it’s scary. Reader reviews are weird and wonderful to me.

Bravo to those readers who tell it like it is on Amazon and Barnes & Noble, the good, the bad, the typos. Sometimes of course, you wonder. Why did they pick that book to read? Was PMS involved in the writing of that review? What were their expectations? Every reader approaches a book with expectations — what the story will be like, what the reviewers said, what they read last, how the synopsis grabbed them, how their week went. Here’s a review I got recently for The Bluejay Shaman:

I enjoy Alix Thorssen, art dealer and amateur detective. I like it very much when she describes the local landscapes and makes smart observations about various characters. But-I hate the South American boyfriend, and the books have way too many crying women, all of whom need constant mothering. This whole “by a chick for chicks” plot, present in every book, is very tedious and makes me skim that part. Jack Reacher she isn’t. I would very much like to see more mysteries, but without all the clinging.

Written by man, as you may have guessed. I certainly hope men read my books. I know many who have. I’m scratching my head over this “whole ‘by a chick for chicks’ plot” though. If I, a woman, write a book about a woman it seems like there is an expectation that it would be, well, about chicks. The part about “too many crying women” made me laugh. Alix Thorssen is a stoic, not a cry-er, so I guess he means her sister, or maybe the entire women’s group, Manitou Matrix. Lots of chicks there.

Then he says: “In every book.” Does he mean he’s read all my books, or all books by chicks…? Because if he’s read all my books and still finds too many plots by and for chicks, well, he’s my hero! (And FYI: South American boyfriend doesn’t last.)

“Jack Reader she isn’t.” Talk about your expectations. If you want men’s action adventure don’t read amateur detective novels…

I have read very little Lee Child. You can read about one of my deconstruction projects of a Jack Reacher novel here. I have nothing against Jack, he just isn’t my thing. No surprise, then, that Alix Thorssen doesn’t resemble Jack. You want Jack Reacher, you read Lee Child. You want arty, landscape-loving amateur detectives, you read Lise McClendon.

The cool thing is reader reviews tell you something about the person writing them. Taste in novels is incredibly nuanced. If you’ve done your job as a writer and the review is glowing, you know you and the reviewer have similar tastes. (Because you’re not going to convince anybody to change their beliefs in a novel, especially a genre novel.) If they don’t like the book, find it “tedious” or “bland,” there’s not a whole lot you can learn about your writing but there may be something. I read all the reviews, good and bad, and try to glean something  from them. Especially if several people mention the same problems. But reviewers bring their expectations. As a writer you can’t know what those are, you can only try to write the best book possible.

And don’t try to make your character Jack Reacher. Make them unique. You, minus the crying.

2 thoughts on “What he said

  1. I understand that ‘for chicks by chicks’ comment. If you’ve read James Patterson’s ‘Murder Mystery Club’ series with Detective Lindsey Boxer as the heroine, you know what I mean.
    Lindsey started off as a tough-as-nails San Franciso detective and the stories were a great read until Patterson added a woman co-author. Seems from that point on Lindsey no longer handles adversary very well (at one point spending 2 days in bed) worrying about her current love, her relationshiop with her very hot partner, the loss of previous lovers…
    If I’m reading a detective novel I expect it to be about the story and the situations they find themselves in, as much as the characters. If I want smarmy emotion I can always turn to a romance novel.

    • Interesting, David. I just read a mystery novel where I would agree: too much crying. It was set in Victorian times but still. (Tasha Alexander’s Dangerous to Know.) There is definitely a point where the emotional aspect of characterization can be too much. That said, I don’t like novels where there is no deep emotional characterization, where the characters (esp the main one) doesn’t “live” for me. Maybe it is a male/female thing but I don’t think so. More like the reason why you read novels: sometimes you want action, thrills, adventure; sometimes you want to live another person’s life that is perhaps more exciting, sexy, and yes, emotional, than your own.

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