by Alex Lukeman
This blog was stimulated by a reader review on one of my books. A three star review, which is like damning with faint praise. Most of the reviews on this book are five star, with a few fours thrown in. People like it.
Reader reviews are an interesting part of being a writer. You can learn a lot from them. You also have to remember that it's impossible to make everyone happy, no matter what you do. This particular reader dinged me because she didn't like and/or understand my style of writing.
Style is a subjective thing. You like Picasso or you don't. You like ZZ Top or you don't (I like both). The reader seemed to think I didn't understand how to use commas (I do) and said most of my sentences were 5 or 6 words long (they aren't) and that Robert Ludlum could write twice as many pages to tell the same story (he could). Ludlum is also dead.
My style is consciously direct, clipped, fast moving. I could write sentences that went on and on if I wanted to, with plenty of commas. My English background is unusual. I know what I'm doing, even though I do make mistakes. I break rules on purpose. I don't follow the Chicago Manual of Style. My style would make most editors completely crazy, but there's nothing prohibited about it.
Think of writers who break the rules: Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, Steinbeck, Lee Child. Raymond Chandler comes to mind. William Shakespeare. In fact, pretty much every good writer you ever heard of.
This reader was disturbed because the sentences were too short for her liking. She probably wouldn't like Lee Child either. He sometimes writes sentences of two or three words. What do you think I should take away from a review like this? Should I be worried that my sentences are too short? Should I feel upset and inadequate, a failure when held up against Robert Ludlum?
Right, mate, no way.
Some reviewers love to make unflattering comparisons to other authors. I have reviews that compare me favorably to James Rollins. I have a review that says Rollins is a much better writer. I don't copy Rollins or anyone else. My style is mine and not anyone else's. I don't think I'm as good or better or worse than James Rollins and other successful writers. I try and learn from them. I am what I am, as Popeye said.
Finally, there are negative reviews from readers who are sure they know a lot more than you do about any given subject and that you are a dumb screw up who has his head you-know-where. For example, I had a review that took me to task for not knowing what I was talking about, because I had my heroes carrying around 35-40 pounds in the Himalayas at 17,000 feet. The reviewer was sure it couldn't be done. As a matter of fact, I have trekked in the Himalayas at 17,000 feet with a 35 pound pack, and I wasn't in the kind of shape my heroes are (super!). I was writing from experience. Then the reviewer became personally insulting.
Part of me would dearly love to review him, but that is not a good idea. The only thing to do with a negative review is learn from it if it has any truth and see it as a back-handed compliment if it does not. Hey, at least you got someone's attention!
I had one reviewer give me 2 stars without reading the book. That's a lousy review. She said she read the description, though, and didn't like it. I mean, SHE DIDN'T READ THE BOOK! All of which means you need to take reviews with several pounds of salt. Believe in yourself: that's what counts.
Author of the PROJECT Action/Adventure series