The Good The Bad And The Ugly
I thank everyone who has posted a review for one of my books. I read every one. At their best, a well-considered review is really helpful for any author. At their worst, they can be soul-destroying. Obviously when one reviewer says it is the best book they have ever read, and another says it is the worst, they can’t both be right. The first thing I learnt is that reviews say far more about the reviewer than they do about the author. In my book “None Stood Taller” I have tried to create an emotional experience for the reader – it was certainly an emotional experience for me writing it! My assumption is that the book appeals to people who are amenable to that emotional connection. For those people, their connection to the characters probably helps in suspending belief. In a work of fiction the characters are, by definition, fictitious; we have to suspend belief in order to connect with them.
The whole point of a novel or a film is that you become a part of it. It is an experience which elevates you far away from everyday life. Do we really believe Daniel Craig can perform all those feats as James Bond? The same applies to writing fiction – in order to elevate ourselves above the normal activities of daily life, we need to experience something which is not within our normal activity. This seems to be a dividing line among readers which is reflected in the reviews. Obviously, it is the author’s job to bring the characters to life and to make them believable. I suspect there is no one formula that will meet with complete approval among readers. Consider the following review:
“Not a believable story. Character not developed – rather felt at times I was watching a film from the 1940 era complete with its Blitz spirit and all that. Disappointing to say the least. Was hoping for better.”
It is fair to say that I have not connected with that reader. I would go as far as to say that I probably never will; there is little I can learn from those kinds of reviews. Even the most damning reviews can sometimes be helpful if it gives me an insight into the readers’ thinking. This next review is a good example.
“I really wanted to like this book, but it just seemed to drift along with no real depth. To top it off, we have no idea how 4 of the main characters’ stories really ended and suddenly we are in 1980 with a new character introduced who had absolutely no bearing on the story to date. What happened to Greg, Lily’s love interest?! All in all, a bit of a disappointing mess.”
I found this one to be enlightening. Obviously, the reader didn’t find a connection to the characters, but more to the point the reader has failed to understand what was clearly, albeit subtly, intended. The “new character” didn’t suddenly appear in 1980 with no bearing on the story. Charlie, who is Lily’s godson, appears in the Prologue/Introduction on page 1. The book opens with Charlie talking to Lily and continues as a conversation between them; the reader has completely missed that. In the last scene (1980 reunion) Lily is referred to as Her Ladyship. In other words, she must have married Edward; many readers also missed this. The book ends without explaining how the complex relationships end, as the reader says. However (and it’s a big however) it clearly says that Lily’s story will continue.
I thought the subtle way that I introduced the fact that Lily married Edward was really clever. Some readers spotted it and loved it; far more, however, missed it completely. Lesson learned: don’t be too clever. The same applies to Lily’s conversation with Charlie. Quite a few readers missed it – I didn’t give it enough prominence, another lesson learned. In fact, the biggest criticism of the book is the ending – many people missed the fact that there is a follow-up book, which obviously explains all.
So, for all those readers who – because of my inept writing – have misunderstood the ending, you will be pleased to hear that the follow-up book (soon to be published) ends with total clarity. The same applies to the fact that the book is a conversation between Lily and Charlie; in the follow-up book I make that crystal clear. In fact, as a direct response to the reviews, I have rewritten the prologue/introduction to the current book and have made amendments to the ending.
Another problem with historical fiction is the mix of fact and fiction. Some readers are more interested in one or the other, and there is little an author can do about that. I write primarily for my own pleasure, and I like historical detail, so that’s what you get. I’m sorry that I can’t appeal to everyone, but there seems to be no obvious compromise. Here are a couple of good examples.
“I just love WW2 fiction and non-fiction and read it almost exclusively. The most enjoyable fiction for me must have lots of history. This one does not disappoint!”
“This was not historical fiction, it was almost total fiction. The setting being WWII Britain is all the historical you got. The rest is a bunch of fluff and not even romantic.”
Sadly, there are always a few reviews which are hard to comprehend; extreme views that are difficult to empathise with. They are very much in a minority, but the 2% of 1-star reviews, however marginal, drag your overall rating down. There is no point taking it personally, all authors have to develop a thick skin. My view is that if I cannot connect with a book which has excellent reviews, then the book is simply not for me. I would not dream of giving a book 1-star because I didn’t connect with it. Here are a couple of examples, although I must admit I have removed a reference to God in the follow-up book.
“I don’t usually give up—I have slogged through a lot of “okay” books in my years, but this one had me throwing in the towel about 40% of the way through it. (I do admit to skipping to the very end to see how it came out, but even that was disappointing.)”
“The author chose to use my Lord’s name inappropriately and I refuse to finish the book. I also refuse to read any more books written by this author.”
The vast majority of readers have given “None Stood Taller” 5 stars, which is very gratifying. However, I suspect the author has to be careful not to get carried away. Unless the reader is a serial reviewer, we are all more inclined to review a product if our experience has been very good or exceptionally bad. Where the excellent reviews are a real boost to morale is when the reader has interpreted the character or event exactly as you intended. For me, my principal characters are actual people who effectively sit next to me and write their own story. When a reader feels that close to one of my characters, I feel like jumping for joy. It means I have conveyed something beyond just the words and that the reader shares that emotion with me. It can be enormously rewarding. The following is a wonderful review which makes it all worthwhile.
“Oh my goodness! I’ve no words to describe how beyond this book was. Wow! This book is a keeper. I want to buy copies to hand around to friends and family. I want to read it out loud to my children. I want to reread it myself. It has inspired me. It has uplifted me with the strength of spirit displayed. I will never treat June 6th the same again, ever. It will not be just a day in history. It is real. It is our life! Without it we would not be as we are. Bravo Peter Turnham. Bravo.”
Thank you. Peter Turnham July 2021