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We've had so many negative conversations about reviews lately I thought it'd be nice to start a thread for sharing the things we've learned from our reviewers. After all, whether or not we agree with every review, they do give us priceless insight into the expectations of the average reader.

So when it comes to reviews and other reader feedback, what's the most common thing - good or bad - you've been told about your work? Are there one or two areas where most of your readers tend to agree and which you plan to keep in mind when writing your next book?

Me: Almost every review without exception agrees that my novelette is short. Not all say too short but readers who like it sometimes comment they wish it was longer. Readers who don't like it suggest they might it if it were longer.

What have I learned from this? 17,000 words is a tricky length. I'm working to make the next story a few thousand words longer and am also trying to figure out a better way to emphasize the length, rather than just posting it in the product description, where it isn't always noticed.

How about everyone else?
 

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I suspected that the strong points of my novel were world-building and likable characters. That is pretty much what readers and reviewers have confirmed. Readers who enjoy complex world building and don't mind a cast of characters love my books; readers who find world-building and complex stories hard to follow are a little lost but sometimes stay with the story because they like the characters.
 

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Thanks, Dara, for this thread. It's mildly amusing (but not especially surprising,) that it has gotten no traction. If there ever was proof that reviews are for readers, not writers, this is it.
 

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There was this review for Amulet on Smashwords:

Surprisingly well written. Believable characters, intesting plot. Much more than just another sex book, the sex is secondary to the character development. It was so good I re-read a lot it, not something I'd bother with in just another [expletive] book. Being a romantic, I also liked the summing up and generally happy endings, but I'm curious about the final conversation between Jason and Becky, what did they actually talk about.
The scene he's referring to was a throw-in, put there to set up the attempt at humor in the final scene.

But his question got me to thinking, what did they talk about? That train of thought eventually led to the plot for the sequel.

If I could contact the reviewer, I'd let him know this (and give him a free copy of the sequel), but with Smashwords, there's no way to do that if they don't leave their email.

As for learning something from negative reviews, because of them I've decided not to write any more stories just about sex. They might have sex, but there has to be a plot that can hold up without the sex..

Edited to add: Like others, because of complaints about the shortness of Remote Intimacy (it was originally for a contest that limited its length), I went back and revised it, expanding it to broaden the characterization.
 

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Let me slightly shift this to answer what I have learned from those who "reviewed" my book before publication: my beta readers.

Put bluntly, they saved my butt.

One of the most valuable bits of feedback I received from the earliest readers concerned the book's opening pages. Initially, I had planned to do a "Prologue" of events that took place several years before the current action began. My earliest readers were underwhelmed. I then radically changed the opening, changing the "prologue" into a flashback chapter, and planting it 2/3's of the way into the book. It turned out to be the perfect place for it, because the events of the story now gave it a poignancy that it couldn't have had as the opening chapter.

Another bit was that several advance readers thought that the new opening chapter was a bit slow -- that they weren't really grabbed until about the fourth chapter. I went through chapters 1-3 with a chainsaw, cutting ruthlessly, down to the bone. Subsequent feedback indicates that both of these decisions were hugely beneficial to engaging readers right from the start.

Finally, they saved my butt by pointing out a host of errors and goofs of all kinds...including the change of a minor character's last name DURING a scene! The problem for any writer is that, when reading your manuscript, you tend to read what you MEANT to say -- not what you actually wrote. My Betas caught a lot of stuff that would have embarrassed me endlessly had it been published.

I'm sure that, in time, fresh errors or shortcomings will be pointed out by readers. But I would advise any author to vet his "final" draft past a number of beta readers before publication, then to PAY ATTENTION to what they are saying...sometimes "between the lines." You'll wind up with a much better book.
 

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Big Al just did a nice review of Cemetery Vote, but called out a few pages because they just contained backstory that stopped the narrative. What's funny about that is: A year after the final draft and self-pubbing it, I re-read the book and thought it needed more explanation for why the character was able to do what he did, so I did some research and added it. There was probably a happy medium that I missed - I should've kept the additional backstory shorter. Maybe I'll go back and re-do it; shouldn't be too hard to cut.
 

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As John Locke points out, people either love or hate my books.  :-\

I've sold somewhere between 55,000 and 60,000 books and I've gotten just over 100 reviews.

Of the people that love the books, they like the fact that the books are more like a serial novel than a bunch of books in a series.  The people that hate the books, hate the fact that they are more like a serial novel than a bunch of books in a series.

Of the people that love the books, they love the interaction between the sisters, the close family, the traditions.  The people that hate the books, hate all of that.

What have I learned?  Can't please everybody, so take a breath and look at what they are really saying.

Other than answering questions sooner (I really blew it and allowed the 'mystery' to ramble over multiple books) I'm doing okay.  I'm a first time author, the first book of the series was the second book I'd ever written (the first has not yet seen the light of day), and without any marketing, social media, or anything like that, I've sold a respectable number of books.

I've taken the advice of reviewers giving me 5 stars and giving me 1 star, and I think each book has gotten better than the book before it.

Sheila
 

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The biggest complaint and the thing my early reviews had in common mentioned errors with spelling, grammar and punctuation.

It taught me that not all editors are created equally and no matter how many times I look at my own stuff, I will miss things.

The other reviews mentioned things people liked and hated that I'm not going to list here. I kept a lot of it in mind when working on the next book and stories in the series.

_Sheila_ said:
As John Locke points out, people either love or hate my books. :-\
It's true. You can't please everyone and in my opinion you shouldn't try to but a lot of people hide behind that statement. If nine out of ten people say there is an issue with your plot then odds are there is probably an issue with the plot.

StaceyHH said:
Thanks, Dara, for this thread. It's mildly amusing (but not especially surprising,) that it has gotten no traction. If there ever was proof that reviews are for readers, not writers, this is it.
Give it some time. I just woke up and it's over a hundred here.
 

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Honestly, I've learned a few things that I think will improve my writing.

1. My writing style is suitably and satisfyingly descriptive without being over the top, in most areas.  But I tend to leave out some sensory descriptiveness, such as smells, tastes, sensations.  The reviewer who mentioned this said that they enjoyed my writing style, and didn't realize until well into the book that these sensory and sensual descriptions were missing, and that it didn't detract from the book, but that the addition of these kinds of descriptive points would have probable made it even better.

2. Some readers don't like the old "switch POV at every chapter or two" style.  This is going to be a hard one to overcome... my second book does that nearly as much as the first, and the third has my two protagonists separated on two entirely different worlds, each experiencing two different stories that come together in the end.  It's something I'm going to have to consider thoroughly to figure out how to switch my POV without it being intrusive to the reader.  Then again, this was one reader's complaint, in a 4-star review... other readers have said they enjoyed the changing POV's throughout the book.

3. My character and world-building have in general been praised, with one caveat: my story focuses entirely on the main cast, as far as characterization.  Yes, there are a few cameos by common-man characters, but they are in general limited to advancing the story.  This is also a difficult hurdle; how do you develop and show the plight of the common man, and the state of the world, without massive brain dumps that turn off the reader?  Again, it's one comment, from a 5-star review, but I'm trying to take to heart everything that was given as constructive criticisms, especially by people who clearly enjoyed and are fans of the book.

So overall, I think I've learned a few things and gotten some feedback that will help improve me as a writer, provided I can assimilate and use the information I've been given.  This kind of review, to me, is the absolute best kind.  Reviewers who enjoyed the book very much, gave it high ratings, and yet still felt strongly enough about it to point out some things that might have made it even better.
 

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gatehouseauthor said:
This is also a difficult hurdle; how do you develop and show the plight of the common man, and the state of the world, without massive brain dumps that turn off the reader?
Terry Pratchett is very good at doing this in a paragraph or two, if you're looking for examples. I'd say he has more occasion to do this in the city watch books, so, like, Men at Arms, or Thud, are dense with examples of this. So is Unseen Academicals. Sir Terry seems to have been focussing in on themes of racism, prejudice, classism, and acceptance a whole lot recently, so...yeah. I don't know if it makes a difference that Discworld is basically a skillful transposition of the world we actually know (or have known, historically) into a fantastical setting, so that the mappings are frequently one-to-one(ish) - so, like, if you're dealing with worlds and characters that have little in common with the real world, I can see where there might be added difficulty - but regardless, Sir Terry's so good at it that he'd probably be a helpful example anyway. Like, often you don't even notice what just happened. He's like a descriptive ninja.

Also, as an aside, I like this thread. Thanks, Dara.
 

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I have written a few reviews myself. I think it's easier to write a book than to review one.  :D I do appreciate anyone who takes the time to leave a review. Some of the harsher reviews I will read and then read a few days later and sometimes nod my head because I do get what they're saying.
 

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I didn't plan my books to be sequels, but my reviewers seem to think otherwise. I wanted to leave the reader looking over their shoulder at the end of my 2nd book, yet a number have asked for a sequel or prequel. So, I take from my reviews that what I plan is not what my readers necessarily want from me. Reviews are great for showing authors how to please their audience. I'm off to plot out my sequel.
 

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StaceyHH said:
Thanks, Dara, for this thread. It's mildly amusing (but not especially surprising,) that it has gotten no traction. If there ever was proof that reviews are for readers, not writers, this is it.
I think the opposite is true. Writers can gain a lot by reviews. They can really help improve weak areas that we may not be aware of. If we consistently get the same comment about our writing, then we know what needs improvement.

You don't seem to like review threads, maybe you should avoid them.
 

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I've found reviewers to be incredibly helpful, especially in the world of electronic publishing where you can actually go back and revise a book after publication.

The first two reviews of Dead Men Don't Cry were strongly positive, but both reviewers said that the first story seemed oriented more toward writers than toward readers. I swapped it out for a different piece and I think the anthology is stronger overall as a result.
 

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Shifting from reviews and beta readers to critiques, I have found that even the "dumb" critiques are helpful.
Topping on my list was the question (paraphrased): How do you expect to generate 80K words with this plot?
After coming down from my high-horse, I realized that even if I didn't have to prove anything to the "critter", I did have to turn my 40+K WIP into a full novel.
The "dumbest" critique question, in my opinion, gave me the incentive to fire up my imagination and get writing.
 
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Beta readers are who authors "learn" from when it comes to reviews because you have a working relationship you have developed. However, if you are willing to take the time to analyze (objectively) your reviews, you will find that all types of reviews can be helpful.

I think someone hear said that reviews are for readers not writers. Some are. I call these reviews, Reader Reviews. Now, going into this territory can cause some hurt feelings so if you don't have a tough skin, don't read them.

If so, "reader reviews"(these are reviews written for readers by readers) can help you find out more about your actual audience. If you are writing fantasy with very descriptive violent scenes and you get 20 reader reviews and find that 3 of them give you one and two star review sbecause your book is too violent, then you know, hey, some people don't like a lot of violence, but 17 of my reviewers haven't mentioned it as a problem for them. As a result that's something you don't have to change in your future work. You will know to use some of the same promotional tactics you used before to reach this audience because it worked for you.

Furthermore, I think it was Kyrin (hope I spelled that correctly) who said, my reviewers help me improve punctuation and spelling areas (not a direct quote). From that point of view, your reader reviews can help you realize the importance of editing. Some people--many people can't self edit.

Also Reader Reviews of your book can help you discover the clarity of your book. Sometimes, we think we have a clear storyline and that we have answered the what, when, and where but we haven't. If 11 out of 20 reviewers say they didn't understand the plot, then perhaps you have some work ahead of you.

I've learned, that you have to kind of know the nature of the review to know how you can learn from it. Reviews on Amazon.com are written by readers for readers, book critics who review specific genres are lovers of that genre, they are like the fashion police, they want writers to "respect" the genre they are writing for. They critique "writing." You can discover whether you are writing in the right genre from them.

Then you have blog reviewers who love to read and love to find something special to share with their audience. They are bloggers and its not a random thing for them. Integrity is very important for them. Characterization is important. Plot is important. Even your book cover is important. They tend to be very thorough and often very fair. It's not just a "I hate this book and I can't tell you why."

Each type of reviewer has something great to offer the writer and for the most part, it is all an indie has to go on.

I realize there has been some negativity between the two professions here a the Writer's Cafe, but here's what I think will help us all get to a place of love and mutual respect.

1. We all love books.
2. All writers want reviews so we have to develop a tougher skin or don't read the reviews until we do.
3. Regular reviewers have stepped into the world of writing so they are writers too. So respect their "authoritar" (South Park voice).
4. No more personal attacks.
5. If a first time writer gets that first time bad review and is respectfully expressing his or her sadness about it. Give him or her a firm pat on the back and let them know you have just been initiated, you'll get over it.
6. And if we haven't gotten to the point of realizing we need each other then we all have some growing to do. Get off the boards and read a personal develpment book.

Okay, that's my rant ;D
 

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Carmellitas_pen_has_power said:
Furthermore, I think it was Kyrin (hope I spelled that correctly) who said, my reviewers help me improve punctuation and spelling areas (not a direct quote). From that point of view, your reader reviews can help you realize the importance of editing. Some people--many people can't self edit.
Thanks for getting my name right but please quote me next time. My grammar and punctuation hasn't improved, at least to my eyes. I never said it did. I already knew about the importance of editing and the problem with self-editing. In my opinion, self-editing is right up there with being your own lawyer or doctor.

It taught me that not all editors are created equally and no matter how many times I look at my own stuff, I will miss things.
My first editor wasn't that great. I had this idea that an English teacher could edit and proofread my book as well as an editor could. Some can. Others can't. I might have avoided a few bad reviews if I had gotten a sample edit or taken more time to get an editor.

As for the rest of your rant, didn't we have enough threads with review rants? Was there a need to derail this one? I'm going to say this. I've always found it odd that people need to classify and divide things into categories when there is no need to.

  • A reader is a reader. How much they read and what they read doesn't matter.
  • A review is a review. Where the review is posted and the reviewer doesn't matter.
  • A reviewer is a reviewer. It doesn't matter how they choose to voice their opinions.
  • A critique is a critique. The source doesn't matter.
  • Finally, a writer is a writer. It doesn't matter how they choose to be published.

There are exceptions but let's stop with the false divisions.

Carmellitas_pen_has_power said:
5. If a first time writer gets that first time bad review and is respectfully expressing his or her sadness about it. Give him or her a firm pat on the back and let them know you have just been initiated, you'll get over it.
6. And if we haven't gotten to the point of realizing we need each other then we all have some growing to do. Get off the boards and read a personal develpment book.

Okay, that's my rant ;D
Here's the thing. If someone gets a bad review, that doesn't mean they automatically get a cookie and a pat on the back. A bad review doesn't entitle one to sympathy especially if the bad review has merit. I would much rather be told to "Suck it up and get back in the game" or "Walk it off". That tends to motivate me more than holding hands and singing "Kumbaya" while crying foul as other writers rally to my aid.

As for needing each other that's true to a certain extent but let's steer away from generalizations and telling people to get off the board and read a personal development book. Some might take your words the wrong way and a smiley face won't pretty things up.

EDIT: Had to change my last sentence to make it slightly less snarky.
 

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The first thing I learned is that I wasn't very aware of my strengths and weaknesses.

I thought my battles and fights were pretty good. But while some reviewers liked these elements in my story, others didn't. Now I think the critical comments were more right, and I've really worked on improving that part of my book.

I thought my book was weak in terms of world-building. But I've never gotten a negative comment about my world-building, and I've gotten a decent number of reviews saying this is a strength of mine. Okay, I'll take it.

I thought my writing was good. This is another mixed bag. Most reviewers seemed to like my writing, while others complained about particular things--especially Derek Prior, whom I now think was right about all of his complaints about my writing style. I hired him as an editor, and he really helped me take my writing up to the next level.

Early on, the most common complaint was about a romantic scene that I had. Those reviewers were right, and I had no idea that it was such a problem at first. But I've worked hard at improving that element and I feel pretty good about the romance element now.

I've also learned what most people seem to like. They like my first chapter. They like my major character and her conflict with the black god. They like the pacing and generally like the characters and the world. That's helped me to focus on what people enjoy and on what's working in my story. So when I added a new 2nd chapter, I added a completely new scene that focused on the Lucia/black god dynamic.

Reviewers have been berry berry helpful to me.
 

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The #1 thing I've learned from my reviews is that no two readers are alike. Some of them will love it, some of them won't, and it's never a good idea to try and defend your work to those who don't like it. :)
 
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