I was going to do the usual writer’s resolution list, but that can wait until later. This is much more fun.

I spent most of my new year’s even doing the formatting for Ghost of the Navigator. When I finally got it finished around 9PM and checked on how Shadow’s Talent had been doing on Goodreads, my first heavily critical review landed in my lap. Did this ruin my new year? Far from it. Starting 2016 like this was surprisingly satisfying.

Let’s be clear before I post this: I respect the opinions of this reviewer and I’m thankful they gave their time to let me know what they thought. In the book’s back matter, I tell would-be reviewers that I appreciate even the critical stuff, and I mean it sincerely. I’ve seen too many writers go into what fellow indie author Anthony Vicino recently called ‘hulk-smash mode’ while talking to me about reviews. I refuse to be the author who turns green and hurls computers.

The odd witty retort that I can’t resist aside, reading yesterday’s review has taken me into the new year in a positive way and I’m even more ready to start 2016’s writing challenges. Here’s why.

Criticism is a badge of honour

‘I will not read the rest of the series or other works by this author.’

Thus ended the review of Shadow’s Talent I read last night. Fair play, I got into this writing business knowing that I couldn’t keep everyone who read my work. My heroes have all been there too, and now I can pin the badge on my shirt. The ability to keep going when you get a response like that is all part of what it takes to reach the people who will read the rest of the series, and look forward to other works. Besides,

Sometimes critical readers do return

I’ve worked in customer service jobs before and long since lost count of how many times I’ve heard ‘I’m never shopping here again’ and then seen that same person back in the store the following week. Or day.

I know book marketing and readers aren’t quite the same, but here’s another way of looking at it: at least this reviewer knows who I am and what I do. Have I ever tried a book, disliked it, and said the same thing as my reviewer only to go back for a second go? You bet. As long as a reader knows you’re out there, there’s always that chance of the unexpected return. Perhaps I’m overly hopeful here, but I’ve always had a theory that behind most critical review lies something positive that a reviewer may simply not have told you. Especially if they did finish the book (more on this later.)

A critical review adds authenticity

We all love getting praise on the sites where we sell our books. We all love keeping our star ratings in the 4-5 score. Yet we’ve all seen those books where every review looks like it was written by one of the author’s friends. If you have criticism, it shows you’ve either reached other readers or requested a review from someone unafraid to tell it like it is.

Not that I want people to stop giving me five star reviews if they loved my books, but you know what they say: nothing is every truly perfect. Even when it comes to 4 or 5 star reviews, the ones that stand out and get ‘helpful’ ratings from readers on Amazon tend to be the ones that also contain some criticism.

It’s been great to say that for 18 months I’ve only had 4 or 5 star ratings for this book so far. Yet a 3 star review with heavier criticism and a less positive reader response does lend itself to making me look like an author unafraid of risk taking. Flaws in my characters and their behaviour that might put a reader off are inevitable. Which brings me to:

Reading what a reviewer didn’t like can create interesting questions

My reviewer said about Shadow:

‘…the very young protagonist , 17 for most of the book, spends roughly two third of the book stoned, high, drunk or hung over, is irresponsible and a brat.’

I can’t lie, I did that get that moment of ‘Oh my god, you’ve made my character sound like Justin Bieber!’ and then the typical ‘But if I’d written about a clean-living saint who obeys his mum and dad, you’d probably have accused my character of being boring!’ And what the hell, at least Shadow doesn’t smoke. But I can’t deny it, it’s a fair comment.

Is Shadow irresponsible? Ooooh yeah. Does he like to drink? I’ve never met a farmer’s son who didn’t. A brat? I had him down as more of a smart-arse, a bit of a snarker at times and now and again a bit spiteful. Yeah, maybe he is a brat sometimes. The lines he walks are a little fine. It didn’t work well for this reader, but it was part of why I enjoyed writing as him. Other readers have liked him. This one didn’t appear to find redeeming features though:

‘He starts to be presented and referred to by himself and others as a responsible, hard working, selfless and positive kid. None of that is reflected on his actions or his thoughts.’

This would be a good book club question on Shadow. Is that statement true? I don’t always think so, but there were times during the writing when I did feel the same way about him. Behind what’s nice about him (and I do think there are nice qualities there) lurks someone who might end up with this said about him if he isn’t careful. In fact, he does end up with far worse said about him later, but that would be a spoiler. Let’s just say I’ve wrestled with ‘Has my character gone beyond redemption?’

I always intended for Shadow to be something of an anti-hero. What’s in Shadow’s Talent is only a small stage in his development as a dark horse. Whether I agree with the reasoning or not, a reader criticising his behaviour and having a healthy dislike for him might just be a sign that I’ve partly achieved what I set out to.

Black clouds and silver linings

‘In short, I did finish it, but found it depressing and not very engaging.

No typos or mistakes that jumped out at me, so good editing.’

Yep, at least that’s not a book-down review. The reader gave it a fair trial. I always knew the book wasn’t happy, life-affirming fun, but some readers would be engaged by the dark sides of life. Maybe this is the book for them. My editor will hopefully be as pleased as I am that it’s a confirmed ‘clean’ book, and any potential reader who looks at this review will know about that too.

Over to you guys and the comments section. What are your experiences with these sorts of reviews?