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Mining Reader Reviews for Story Gold

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If you’re already a published author, you may not want to do this. It can be painful. Since my novel isn’t published yet, I can do it for you. When my author friends read their Goodreads and Amazon reviews, they often do it with one eye open. Some give up after their first one-star reviews.

Some of the bad reviews from readers will say DNF as in “did not finish.” This is about as crushing as seeing NSF on your bank statement after you’ve bounced a check. Yet there are people who force a bad book down like cold medicine. As if it’s a test of character to endure every book they begin.

Still, we know that every bad review doesn’t equate to a bad book. Maybe the reader was ticked off standing in the 15 items or less line at the grocery store behind someone with 16 items in the cart. When I peruse reviews, I find a more likely answer as to why people dismiss certain books. Bias that has nothing to do with storytelling or literary merit can sink a reader’s assessment of a book fast. For example, they’re pro-life and one of the characters had an abortion, so they abhor the book. That’s an actual critique I saw once on Goodreads. Not a helpful review.

I’ll put my critique partner and beta readers up against yours any day. They are literary luminaries in my admittedly biased estimation. Still, when I’m in revision mode, I turn to book reviews to understand what keeps readers turning pages and reading a novel when they could be doing a million other things. I pore over the reviews for books I’ve read so I can go back to the text and understand why the reader stayed engaged or slogged through or just stopped reading. I wade through poor reviews look for recurring themes and issues raised by multiple people. A silly, errant thought occurred to me: If I can avoid all the things readers hate, they’ll love my book. Okay, maybe not, but I’ve found some valuable nuggets and some doozies, too, in the cavern of comments.

Lack of emotion and poor character development can flatten a book.

Reviewers often say, “I didn’t understand the character’s motivation.” We’ve all heard that the stakes in the story must be clear, urgent, and high. This matters to readers. Even more importantly, they want to connect with the characters and feel something. Often, they point out that highly stylized, experimental writing and story structure can work well, but not if it keeps the reader at a distance, sacrificing emotional intimacy with the characters. Another problem stemmed from characters not growing or transforming over the course of the book. 

The most common assessment is “I didn’t feel any connection or empathy with these people. I didn’t care what happened to them.” Readers remarked that they knew the characters were going through tough times and some lamented they felt guilty for not feeling anything. Even in books they lauded as beautifully written, they were often left empty and uninspired. That stuck with me and I continually return to the post [2] and book by Donald Maass on The Emotional Craft of Fiction. Don does a nice job helping us understand how to give our stories heart and make them compelling.

The pacing was too slow.

This comes up a lot in reviews. Readers mention that the book bored them, and they often point to a lack of tension and pacing that dragged. They try to diagnose the problem and will say too much time was spent developing characters at the expense of a propulsive plot. Or “nothing was happening.” All of this points to narrative drive and story beats that will keep people turning pages to find out what happens next.

There’s too much going on in the story.

One reader complaint is that the author is trying to do way too much. Often, it’s lots of big themes: bulimia, infidelity, homophobia, homelessness, global warming, and mass incarceration. That might be overly ambitious. The story can get lost in an effort to tackle and say something meaningful about all those issues. I also found that readers struggled to connect with the protagonist when her story was absorbed by a cast of multiple characters.

One reader said, “I wish the author would have stuck close to one character instead of shifting to so many others.” In the novel I’m revising, I started with four POV characters and quickly realized that it was difficult to build and sustain full narrative arcs for each of them. There are authors who do it successfully in epic narratives, but when readers only have a watered-down, surface-level understanding of the characters, they quickly lose interest.

The book didn’t meet modern socio-political expectations.

In this #MeToo era, some readers look at fiction through a new lens and are vocal about how male characters behave on the page. Do books need to align with your worldview for you to enjoy them? That’s worth exploring. In one book where the male protagonist boasts about being an occasional philanderer, some readers called his actions “abominable” and “sexist.” One person claimed the novel overtly “reinforced toxic gender stereotypes.” Usually, I don’t comment on reviews I disagree with because I like to play nice in the literary sandbox. So much for that restraint.

I explained in the comments that my own novel-in-progress explores how toxic masculinity affects two of my male characters during a time of heightened economic anxiety. This is real, and I don’t want to avoid it in my fiction. The reader I engaged with in the forum responded that it’s irresponsible, even dangerous, to promote toxic behavior without acknowledging and condemning it in the text. This presents a complex conundrum because I believe it can be authorial intrusion to judge character behavior in the narrative. Still, it’s perfectly acceptable to me if characters check the problematic behavior and call it out as offensive. And if that creates genuine story conflict, even better. Reader comments on this issue forced me to think about the author’s responsibility during these times of social change.

Cultural meaning can get lost in translation or be intentionally misunderstood.

As literature becomes more diverse with people of color contributing in greater numbers to the canon, racial differences emerge in reader comments. For example, I read a review of a novel written by an Afro-Latina author. The book addresses gentrification of an urban city and the protagonist laments the role of white people in her changing community. One reader commented, “I was disappointed by the racism in the book at a time when society has tried to rid itself of discrimination.” I chose to ignore the “racism” charge considering the sociological definition of racism and the structural power required to put it into practice.

In addition, there were readers who challenged the sprinkling of Spanish in the text often spoken by a Dominican woman. It’s true that I like having some context as a reader when a language that is foreign to me is introduced. Still, I’m comfortable with cultural authenticity that I may not fully understand. That’s how I learn and grow. I’ve noticed these occasional critiques in reviews of books written by authors of color. My takeaway here is that some readers expect authors to sanitize their truths and strip stories culturally to make narratives more palatable for certain audiences. That’s a hard pass for me as a writer.

The blurbs and promo copy promise something the book doesn’t deliver.

This happens when the famous author blurb on the front cover promises a heart-pounding rollercoaster of a ride and the book turns out to be a quiet, introspective read. Readers feel cheated. They will ask, “Am I reading the same book he (big-time blurber) did?”

The other issue readers have is with how publishers promote a book in the marketplace. Readers will complain that the novel was marketed as a climate fiction book when that issue was tangential to the storyline or barely mentioned. Some of this may be out of the author’s control, but it’s important to know how your book is being positioned to its target audience.

There you have it. I’m amazed that two people can read the same book and come away with vastly different impressions. Still, there are consistencies in critique that help us understand our readers.

You can thank me later with a five-star review someday.

What trends are you seeing in reader reviews? What have you learned from them as well as your own experiences as a reader? When you’re crafting your novels, how much do you think about potential readers and how does that influence your writing?

About Nancy Johnson [3]

Nancy E. Johnson [4] is a writer with an Emmy-nominated, award-winning television journalism background. Her stories often explore life’s complexities at the intersection of race and class. She was named runner-up for the 2018 James Jones First Novel Fellowship Award. Her work has appeared in O, The Oprah Magazine and has received support from the Tin House Summer Novel Workshop and Kimbilio Fiction. Also, Nancy is an advisory board member for Author Accelerator’s diversity scholarship program. When Nancy’s not writing, you can often find her exploring bookstores, festivals, and restaurants in her hometown of Chicago. Currently, Nancy is revising her first novel.