Jeans pocketDo you write by the seat of your pants?

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Rebar steel ready for construction with text: Building a Scene List for Our Story

My regular readers know that I’m a pantser, writing by the seat of my pants. However, it wasn’t always that way.

Although the first story I wrote (a never-to-be-shared Harry Potter fanfic) was written spur-of-the-moment with no planning, my first attempt at an original novel involved lots of plotting in advance. I thought that’s what serious authors did.

Through that experience, I learned that plotting out details kills a story for me. I enjoy the drafting phase more if I’m discovering the story as I write it.

That said, I’m naturally a planner/plotter in the rest of my life. I have detailed to-do lists. On family vacations, I’ve been known to plan all the activities and come up with a day-by-day itinerary. I’ve managed projects large and small.

(I highly suspect that my inability to be a plotter is a result of me over-planning…says the over-thinking, over-analyzing writer. *smile* I have a hard time not going overboard if I start plotting at all.)

Between my natural tendencies and my experience with plotting, I’m a pantser who understands plotters. I like to think it’s my ability to see both sides that helps me with my Lost Your Pants? workshop, where I teach writers—both pantsers and plotters—how to plan “just enough,” depending on their own needs.

So when my blog reader Etienne asked me how to build a scene list from a beat sheet, I didn’t react like a normal pantser. (Which would be to shudder and scream in horror at the thought of plotting out every scene in advance—and then shriek “But why would you want to do that?”)

Instead for my plotter-loving friends and readers, I figured I’d put together a real answer. I hope you appreciate the sacrifice. *grin* (And for the pantsers among us, I talk about how we might want to use scene lists too.)

The Difference between Beat Sheets and Scene Lists

Beat sheets, like the beat sheets I have here on my site, are intended to capture a story’s high level structure. In particular, they’re to identify the main scenes where the story “turns” or changes directions. They’re not meant to be a full list of every scene in a story.

While every scene should be important and involve some kind of change, not every scene will be a “turning point” and appear on a beat sheet. Rather, beat sheets pull out the most important scenes to the story, which allows us to check for pacing and storytelling issues.

Depending on the detail level of our chosen beat sheet, we might identify 4 to 8 turning point scenes (such as with my Basic Beat Sheet) or up to 23 turning point scenes (such as with my Frankenstein-ish Master Beat Sheet).

Yet I’ve heard that novels include around 60 scenes. (In truth, we should use as many scenes as we need, which might be 50 or 200, depending on many things. I haven’t counted my stories, but around 60 scenes sounds reasonable.) So even with the most detailed beat sheet, we’re not creating a list of every scene with that beat sheet.

That’s okay. *smile* Some scenes are necessary setup for a turning point scene that follows. Some scenes are going to be a “sequel”-type reaction to what came before. Some will establish a problem or show a resolution.

Story Development Can Go in Either Direction

There’s no wrong way to build a beat sheet or a scene list.

Either direction can work, but Etienne’s question is about the first scenario, so we’ll stick with the Beat Sheet –> Scene List direction for this post. Besides, the second scenario is similar to how pantsers use beat sheets in revision, and I’ve already written posts about that analysis.

How to Get from a Beat Sheet to a Scene List

First, let’s talk about tools for creating a scene list. Some writers use MS Word or Excel to create a basic list. Some use physical note cards. And some use a writing-specific tool like Scrivener to build virtual scene note cards.

Don’t get hung up on the tools. Whatever works for us works. For ease of description, I’m going to give examples of using physical note cards, but translate the ideas to your own tools and methods.

Step #1:

List our beat sheet scenes on cards, and lay them out in the correct order.

Step #2:

Think about the scenes necessary to get from the opening scene to the first scene from our beat sheet, and write each one on another card:

  • Do we need a scene to introduce the “normal world”?
  • Do we need a scene to introduce the main characters?
  • Do we need a scene to foreshadow what’s going to cause trouble for the protagonist later? (Think of a murder mystery that opens with the murder for our intrepid detective to solve.)
  • Do we need a scene to set up the Inciting Incident (or whatever our first beat is)? Etc.

Step #3:

Think about the scenes necessary to get from our first beat sheet scene to our second beat sheet scene, and write each one on another card:

  • Do we need a scene reacting to the Inciting Incident?
  • Do we need a scene where the protagonist comes up with a new goal because of the Inciting Inciting?
  • Do we need a scene to show the protagonist refusing the “call to adventure” at first?
  • Do we need a scene to introduce more characters?
  • Do we need a scene to set up more problems that will make the protagonist change their mind?
  • Do we need a scene to set up the First Plot Point scene where the protagonist will commit to the story goal?

Step #4:

Continue identifying necessary scenes to fill in the blanks between each beat sheet scene. Our story should be a chain of cause-and-effect, so our scenes are basically a way to cause the next scene.

For example, in Star Wars, the beat near the 25% mark (sometimes called the First Plot Point/End of the Beginning) is when Luke decides to join Obi Wan Kenobi in his mission of delivering the Death Star plans. If we know that’s the point B we’re trying to get to, we can look at point A and think through each step of that cause-and-effect chain.

Just like we discussed above with story development, we can go in either direction, depending on what’s easiest for us (and that might change with each scene).

We can…:

In Star Wars, to get to the Point B of Luke deciding to join Obi Wan from the Point A of Luke discovering that R2D2 disappeared (an Inciting Incident type of Point A scene), we could work forward from point A. We could use Therefore/So or But transitions along the cause-and-effect chain to see that we need scenes where:

  • Luke searches for R2D2 (the effect), which then leads to (therefore—is now the cause of)…
  • Luke meets Obi Wan (therefore)
  • Luke sees the hologram message, which gives a goal that Luke initially rejects (but)
  • Luke learns of the death of his aunt and uncle and changes his mind

Or we could also work backward from point B. We’d see that we need scenes that:

  • give a reason for Luke to change his mind and agree (death of aunt and uncle)
  • give a reason for why Luke isn’t there to die along with them (he’s with Obi Wan)
  • give a reason for why Luke is tempted to join Obi Wan (the message)
  • give a reason for why Luke meets Obi Wan (follows R2D2)

It’s the same scenes either way, but sometimes we might find it easier to work forward, and sometimes we might find it easier to work backward. Either way, we’ll end up with a scene list that’s the cause-and-effect chain of how A leads to B.

Step #5:

Assemble the cards in the right order and check for:

  • Cause-and-effect: Is the chain clear?
  • Pacing: Do we have too many scenes between two beats (according to the beat sheet/guess at a page count)? Can we get from A to B more efficiently? Are some of the scenes from a parallel plot (like a Meanwhile subplot) and can be moved elsewhere?
  • Raising stakes: Are the stakes of each plot or subplot increasing at each point? Is each success followed by a new problem? Or does it turn out to be a false success?

Once we’ve arranged them for the best order for those issues, we have our scene list.

Should Pantsers Make a Scene List?

During drafting, pantsers might work through this process as we write. If we have a vague idea of a point B we want to write toward, we might work forward or backward along the cause-and-effect chain to get there.

But depending on our level of panster-ness (which might shift from story to story), we might not know how A leads to B until we get there. And that’s okay, because being a pantser is often like driving in a fog, and we might be able to see only a sentence or two ahead of us.

So should we try to come up with a scene list ahead of time? I would not recommend that for any pantsers.

However, we can still keep the cause-and-effect chain in mind while we draft to prevent tangents. By the time we finish a scene, we should usually have an idea of how it fits along the chain with the rest of the story.

That said, we’d most often create a scene list after we’ve drafted the story. Just as pantsers can use beat sheets for revisions, we can use scene lists during revisions as well.

Whether we’re a plotter or a pantser, we can ensure that each scene follows cause and effect. We can also make sure that virtually all of our scenes lead to the next with either a Therefore/So or a But transition. A scene list can also be helpful to ensure balance, such as between the main plot and a subplot or between the hero and heroine in a romance.

Whatever kind of writer we are, we can use scene lists to improve our story. They can help us develop our story and keep things on track. But it’s up to us and our writing preferences to decide how and when we want to create one. *smile*

Have you ever created a scene list? What did you use it for? When did you create it—before or after drafting? Before or after creating a beat sheet? Do you find it easier to work forward or backward on the cause-and-effect chain (or do you switch from scene to scene)?

Last Week to Register!
Join Jami in her upcoming workshop:

Get ready for NaNo by learning how to do just enough story development to write faster with “Lost Your Pants? The Impatient Writers Guide to Plotting a Story.”

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6 Tips for Finding a Cover Artist

by Jami Gold on October 6, 2015

in Writing Stuff

Paint tubes squeezed onto a palette with text: 6 Steps to Finding a Cover Artist

Back when I started thinking of self-publishing, one of the first things I researched was cover artists. I’d decided that if I couldn’t find an artist who could create the kind of quality cover I wanted, I might have to come up with a different list of pros and cons for my “Should I self-publish?” list.

I’ve said since the beginning that my requirement for self-publishing was producing a book equal to those traditionally published. If I couldn’t meet that benchmark, self-publishing wouldn’t look nearly as appealing.

So in my usual over-thinking/over-analyzing way, I uber-researched the cover artist landscape. *smile* And I figured some of what I learned might be helpful to others.

Here are the six steps I went through during the cover art aspect of my publishing journey. Even if we traditionally publish, we should follow this list at least to Step #2. Traditionally published authors usually don’t have a say in their covers, but the better we understand trends, design elements, and what we like or don’t like, the better we’ll be able to fill out the “cover information sheet” many publishers use as a starting point for designing a cover.

Step #1: Keep Our Eyes Open

We should pay attention to self-publishing tips and recommendations unless we’re completely against self-publishing and know we will never go that route.

(Not as a hybrid author, publishing both under the self and the traditional banners. Not for novellas or short stories. Not as freebie side stories for a series. Nothing. Ever, ever, ever.)

If we can’t put ourselves into that category of never, we’re better off keeping our eyes open for self-publishing tips, options, and service providers.

Similar to Step One of how to find potential editors, our first step of finding a cover artist is to gather names or links of every artist we come across:

  • friends who do cover art,
  • recommendations from friends or social media,
  • artists who have done covers we love,
  • artists who win awards (such as Joel Friedlander’s monthly cover design awards),
  • answers on forum posts about cover artists, etc.

I’d always kept the idea of self-publishing in the back of my mind as a possibility. Because of that, when I came across blog posts giving shout outs for various freelancers, I bookmarked that post and/or the freelancers they recommended and stuffed them in a “self-publishing” folder in my browser bookmark manager.

By the time I started my research, I already had over 50 cover artists bookmarked and several more posts with links to other artists. This gave me a huge head start in my research.

Step #2: Decide What We Like and Don’t Like

I’m not a designer. At all. So I was clueless about what I wanted for my cover.

In writing, we usually want to avoid clichés. However, our cover design needs to give a sense of our story’s genre.

In other words, cover design clichés are often necessary—and good—for attracting our target audience. Unfortunately for me, most of the cliché cover designs for my genre wouldn’t work for my covers, so I was a bit stuck for ideas.

(Tangent: The vast majority of paranormal romances feature a paranormal hero and a human heroine, so their covers highlight the hero with a bare torso shot and a hint of their paranormal nature, sometimes with a woman wrapped around him. Half of my Mythos Legacy stories involve a paranormal heroine and a human hero, so that cliché doesn’t work for my series.

Also, I write characters of different races and appearances, and as I’ve bemoaned before, it’s difficult to find diverse stock photos. So the stereotypical “clinch” cover of the hero and heroine in an embrace would be difficult to maintain over the whole series.

Other paranormal romance covers—those featuring shifters—include a photo of a wolf, bear, or whatever the character shifts into on the cover as well. Not all of my stories involve shifters, so that cliché wouldn’t work over the course of the series either.

I wouldn’t be surprised if my non-cliché covers hurt me in genre sales, but I still haven’t thought of a better way to approach this series. I break the stereotypes in many ways, and I guess I’m okay with that. *smile*)

To gather ideas, I scanned Amazon’s Top 100 Bestsellers for my genre and categories. A handful of covers didn’t follow the clichés as much and appealed to me. I started a secret Pinterest board to collect book covers I liked.

After collecting over 20 book cover images that I liked (and noting the things I liked about them), I was able to notice patterns. I had a fairly good idea of what elements appealed to me, and just as importantly, what elements, styles, or clichés I wanted to avoid.

This step doesn’t mean that we’re trying to do our designer’s job, or that we won’t listen to what they have to say (they are the expert). Rather, the purpose of this step is two-fold.

First, we want to know what style of cover art we’d like our designer to be good at so we can do a better job of narrowing down our list in the next step. Second, a stronger awareness of design elements can help us give our designer better feedback, such as being able to express why we like or dislike a rough design mockup.

Step #3: Review Artists to Get a “Feel” for Their Style

Once we have an idea of what we like or don’t, we can start narrowing down our big list of potential cover designers. I skimmed through the online portfolios of the artists in my saved list to get a feel for their experience, focus, skills, and style, as those are all potential reasons to eliminate them from our list.

They might…:

  • Work in the Wrong Category: Some artists might have experience only in non-fiction covers, and we write fiction, or vice versa. The design trends for the two are very different.
  • Not Have the Right Genre Experience: While some artists might specialize in our genre, others might not have any experience with those clichés or trends. An artist who’s skilled enough could research and come up with something great, but if we see that they only do one genre (a genre that’s not ours), we don’t have any evidence that they can branch out.
  • Have the Wrong Style: Some artists work strictly with photos, and others might go for cartoony illustrations. Some design great text-focused covers, while others focus on the visuals. In this case, they might be a skilled cover artist but just have the wrong style for our book or genre.
  • Lack the Necessary Skills: Some artists’ PhotoShop skills aren’t any better than mine (i.e., crap). Some design covers with blah font choices. Some create overstuffed, cluttered covers. Etc. We shouldn’t eliminate a cover artist just because some of their work falls into this category (for all we know, an author client requested those blah or cluttered covers), but we should take a closer look to see if their other covers show a different story.

Step #4: Make a Short List of 3-10 Artists

Once we’ve narrowed down our big list of potential cover artists, we want to start on our “short list.” These are the designers with the right skills and style for our project—that we trust would be able to come up with something that would work for us.

However, one reason we might have to eliminate an artist that we love is because they’re not available. Many cover artists are closed to new clients or don’t have an opening when we need one. For these, we might want to keep a “follow up later” list in addition to our short list.

Step #5: Prioritize and Contact

With our short list in hand, we can then start prioritizing who we’d want to work with. There are several factors that might go into that prioritized list:

  • Price: For many of us, the artist we’d most like to work with might be beyond our budget. We might still keep them on our short list, however, because if all our other options fall through, we might work harder to figure out a way to afford them.
  • Best at Style: Maybe there’s one artist where we love every one of their designs—not a clunker in the bunch. Or maybe they already have a pre-made cover we think might work if they can just tweak xyz.
  • Timing: If we’re fighting with deadlines, we might prioritize based on the earliest available artist (or one with a workable pre-made cover).

Once we have that prioritized list, we can start making contact. If artist A doesn’t work out, we can move on to artist B, etc.

Step #6: Prepare for Issues

No matter how much we prepare, we’re likely to run into problems. An artist might have just filled their schedule. Or an artist we love might drop the ball or never return our emails. Or they might change their prices or design focus to no longer be a good fit.

Know that none of that has to be the end of the world. Things can go wrong, and we can still be okay.

When I started my research project, I wanted to have one cover artist for all my series books so they’d have a consistent design for branding. Anyone looking at my covers so far would probably assume that I have had only one cover artist.

Unintended Guardian Logo   Treasured Claim cover   Pure Sacrifice cover   Ironclad Devotion cover

However, I’ve actually had four in some shape or form. One’s schedule changed before she even started mockup, one went on sabbatical, one filled in for an emergency on a print cover, and one I’m working with now.

At some point in time, trends might change in my genre, or my designer and I might come up with another approach to working with my series. So our covers might not stay the same forever either. Again, not the end of the world.

The point is that my research helped me understand my options for artists and for designs. Once my designer #2 and I came up with the “template” for my series covers, the others were able to run with the design because I knew enough to be able to describe what I needed.

Often, when working with a designer, the hardest part is communication. What we see in our head, or what we like or don’t like, can be difficult to explain. Writers and cover artists almost speak a different language sometimes. So the more we’re in-tune with them on how their job and the design process works, the easier it is to come up with a design that will work for us. *smile*

Have you worked with a cover designer? What was the hardest part about finding the right artist? What was the hardest part about working through your project? What would you do differently next time? Do you have any tips or advice to share?

Last Week to Register!
Join Jami in her upcoming workshop:

Get ready for NaNo by learning how to do just enough story development to write faster with “Lost Your Pants? The Impatient Writers Guide to Plotting a Story.”

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Stick figure at a chalkboard with text: Fiction University Day! What's Your Distribution Plan?

It’s time once again for my monthly guest post over at Janice Hardy’s Fiction University. We’ve been walking through the process of making choices about our self-publishing options.

Indie publishing isn’t made up of just one decision to put us on one path. The choice to self-publish is just the first of dozens, maybe hundreds, of decisions we’re going to have to make as part of our indie career.

My series about Indie Publishing Paths at Fiction University is working to highlight some of those choices and give us a few guidelines for figuring out how to make the best decisions for us. To that end, I kicked off the series with the topic of knowing our goals.

Depending on our goals, we might want to make different choices about pricing, release schedules, or distribution. I’m focusing on each of those areas in the next segment of the series, calling them the how much, when, and where of our decision process.

Janice Hardy's Fiction University banner

Last month, we identified four options for the distribution—the where—of our books, and we started with a closer look at two of those distribution options. This month, we’re looking at the other two distribution options and when they might work best for us.

This month’s options covers working directly with retailers and going exclusive with Amazon. The latter option is especially tricky. “Should I enroll in Amazon’s KDP Select?” is a common question on all forums related to self-publishing, and everyone has different opinions.

Hopefully by digging into the pros and cons of each of our options, we’ll be able to think beyond the opinions of others and figure out when one choice might make more sense for us than another—or when a combination might work even better. There are no right or wrong answers—only what works best for us.

However, depending on our goals, we might find one (or more than one) option a better fit for us. Once we know which way we want to go, we’ll know which tips to listen to for best practices and the like.

I hope you’ll join me at Fiction University for this month’s post!

What are the most common choices you’ve seen for distribution of our books? What makes some options seem better than others to you? Do you want to go with wide distribution, or does it not matter to you? What are your reasons behind that attitude?

Join Jami in her upcoming workshop:
Get ready for NaNo by learning how to do just enough story development to write faster with “Lost Your Pants? The Impatient Writers Guide to Plotting a Story.”

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The Risks of Offering a Freebie

by Jami Gold on September 29, 2015

in Writing Stuff

Sale tag with text: Should We Offer a Freebie?

Last time we talked about our options for handling reviews and criticism. Some authors avoid reviews, some intend to avoid them but peek anyway, and some don’t mind reading reviews. As with many things writing, we have to find the option that works best for our situation.

I’ve alluded several times to the fact that I knew my freebie short story would suffer from worse reviews than my other books. I was prepared for that possibility and accepted the risk, but I wanted to talk about the psychology behind the situation. The better we understand, the more we’ll know what risks we’re signing up for before making our decisions.

Especially as “offer a freebie” is a common suggestion for how to attract readers, I think it’s important to be fully aware of the pros and cons of that strategy. Only then can we make the best decision for us. *smile*

Why Might We Offer a Freebie?

As we’ve discussed before, freebies are good in certain situations. Freebies do expose our work to more readers. And if those readers like our work, they might buy our other stories.

In other words, freebies create a sales funnel, which funnels potential readers toward sales of our other books. We can offer something free to the widest possible audience, and then we can use the back of our book (where readers who enjoyed our story will be most likely to want more from us) to direct readers to our other stories.

That brings up the biggest reason for and against offering a freebie. They’re useful if we have other books available that we can promote to freebie readers, but freebies don’t do us much good if we don’t have other books in our list to use for turning those freebie-loving readers into paid readers.

But if we do have other books for sale, freebies correlate to higher incomes. The Copyblogger site has gone so far as to say that 100% of authors with a sales funnel will make more money.

Like Beverly Kendall found in her survey a year ago, for authors with an income:

  • Under $10K: 32.53% offered a series freebie
  • Over $50K: 68% offered a series freebie
  • Over $500K: 88.24% offered a series freebie

What Are the Risks of Offering a Freebie?

Attracting more readers and achieving a higher income both sound great. So why wouldn’t we want to offer a freebie?

The common risks come down to two main issues:

  • the psychology of free
  • the content of free

Let’s take a look at each of those…

Risk #1: The Psychology of Free

Psychologically, we appreciate things more when we have to work for them. Wealthy parents who are smart often won’t pay for their kids’ college education (at least not all of it) because they know their kids will take the opportunity more seriously if they have some “skin in the game.”

The survey I ran last year showed that—not surprisingly—people are more likely to read a book if they’ve paid more for it. If we’re spending $5.99 or more for an ebook, we’re going to make sure it’s not buried in our ereader. For the same reason, we’re not necessarily going to be in a hurry to read a free book. We’re simply not likely to appreciate it as much.

This psychology isn’t limited to ebooks. Free can make people feel entitled, like they don’t have to do anything to deserve even more.

When Facebook goes down, people gripe about how much they suck for not being available when wanted. (*raises hand* Guilty. I want my Twitter up all the time, and I complain when I hear rumors about potential changes.) Free services like Gmail or Hotmail or Yahoo often cause people to demand more. (“Why doesn’t it do XYZ? Why can’t I ABC?”) People complain about free apps all the time.

My free blog advice leads to emails or messages every day from people expecting me to be their personal mentor for career advice. My free worksheets and beat sheets trigger messages every week from people expecting me to troubleshoot why they’re having problems downloading or installing the files. (Even though 100% of the time, their downloading or installing issues are user errors due to their computers or lack of reading the directions.) They expect me to provide more. More free service, more free help, more free advice, etc.

I’ve said before that I’m pathologically helpful, so I’m happy to help—if that help is appreciated. I’m sure I’m not alone in that. We all want to be appreciated, to have our time and effort respected, etc.

And most people are appreciative (so this shouldn’t be taken as a “stop bothering me” plea *smile*). But those few that aren’t… Those who expect and get grumpy when I don’t have time… Those who think they deserve more… We’ll find those types everywhere, including grabbing our free books.

Those people who complain about free might go out of their way to leave a negative review because they don’t respect the book. Many won’t appreciate it because it’s free.

Before we spend money on a book, we’re going to make sure it’s something we want. We might not do that for a free book. So we’re more likely to get reviews on a free story complaining that it wasn’t what they expected or wanted.

That’s all a given for the psychology of free. We simply need to be prepared for lower star reviews on free books.

Risk #2: The Content of Free

Especially when we’re first starting out, we might not want to make a full-length novel free. We want to make money, and a novel takes a long time to write and edit (and likely costs more to pay for editors, as the word or page count increases). Understandably, many authors will offer a short story or novella for free instead.

However, the novel-favoring readers who would enjoy our usual writing aren’t necessarily going to appreciate a shorter work. I don’t blame them. Personally, I wish many short stories were longer. If I’m enjoying the story and characters, I want more of the same.

Also, to promote the rest of our work within our freebie, we might include excerpts of another story or several pages of covers and book description blurbs for our other books. That can make readers upset when they reach the end of our free story sooner than they expected—even if our freebie is a full-length novel.

As authors, all we can do to counteract those reactions is to make our description as clear as possible. We can make sure our title or subtitle states “short story” or “novella” if appropriate. We can point out “includes an excerpt for XYZ at the end” in our book description blurb.

However, even with that heads up to readers, reviews of our freebie will often complain about the length (no matter if it’s a short story or a full-length novel or anything in-between). Many three-star-and-below reviews will state issues like:

  • Too short.
  • I wanted it to be longer.
  • It ended just as it got interesting.
  • I thought there would be more to the story, but the last quarter was all an excerpt for another story.
  • Not what I expected.

None of those are about the quality of the writing craft, story, characters, or plot. In other words, they’re not about an aspect we can control—short of writing a different story.

Are These Negative Reviews a Bad Thing?

These risks might make us question whether it’s worth it to offer a freebie. However, remember what we said was the main purpose of offering a freebie?

They’re to expose our work to more people. Some of those people will like our work and some won’t.

If all our reviews are positive, we’re likely just reaching our bubble of friends and contacts. It’s the negative reviews that prove we’re reaching a wider reading audience. Sure, some won’t care for our story, writing, etc., but some will.

We each have to make our own choices for what risks we’re willing to accept. But if we’re prepared for these risks and know not to take these negative reviews personally, we’ll also have the chance to reach more potential readers than we could otherwise. And reaching readers we don’t have a connection with is the only way we’ll succeed at selling lots of books. *smile*

Have you seen people act entitled or unappreciative when they receive something for free? Do you think that attitude can be avoided, or should we just accept it and be prepared for it? Have you ever been disappointed by the length of a free book? Do you agree that free books can attract more readers who aren’t our audience? Can you think of other reasons people complain about free (yet good quality) books? If you offer a freebie, what’s been your experience?

Join Jami in her upcoming workshop:
Get ready for NaNo by learning how to do just enough story development to write faster with “Lost Your Pants? The Impatient Writers Guide to Plotting a Story.”

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Criticism & Reviews: How Do You Handle Feedback?

by Jami Gold on September 24, 2015

in Writing Stuff

Statue of woman in pain with text: Can You Read Your Reviews?

Many of us start writing because we have stories in our head that demand to be told. That often grows into the desire to share those stories with others.

For many writers, the point of writing is to connect with others through our words. A story that’s not shared is like the hypothetical tree that falls in a forest when no one’s around. A story without readers can seem less real.

Because of that desire to share our stories, the feedback we receive is hard to ignore. Obviously, we need to read the notes from our beta readers, critique partners, or editors. (Otherwise, what’s the point?)

But what about after we publish? Should we read reviews of our published work?

The Case for Avoiding Reviews

As writers, many of us suffer from self-doubt. We can doubt our story ideas, our characters, our plot events, our writing craft, our cover, our blurb, etc. The list goes on and on.

So exposing ourselves to reviews can seem like torture. Why would we want to see evidence of how many people don’t like our book? Or what if they find a plot hole and we can’t do anything to fix it?

Avoiding reviews can be safer for our mental and emotional health. We already doubt ourselves enough on our own, and we don’t need others to help.

For many authors, it is best to avoid reviews, and no one else should judge them. Heck, we all have days when we’re feeling more fragile than others. Maybe we’re sick or didn’t sleep well, or maybe we just received other bad news, or maybe we’re already in a self-doubting mood.

That’s okay. We’re all allowed to set our own boundaries.

Most reviewers know they shouldn’t tag an author in a tweet or post about a negative review (because that’s the social media equivalent to getting in someone’s face and telling them how much they suck). So those who do are likely just being mean.

Unless we run into someone mean like that, we should be able to avoid our reviews if that’s what we want. We can choose to not visit our books’ pages on Amazon and Goodreads, not click on the review section of our Amazon Author Central account, and not Google the titles of our books.


The Case for Reading Reviews

Curiosity can be hard to ignore. The potential of seeing evidence of others connecting to our story can be a powerful temptation. We might want validation that others heard our words.

Curiosity, connections, validation—there are many reasons why even those authors who intend to avoid reviews might give in and take a peek.

Most authors I’ve seen discuss this question say they don’t read reviews, or they tell others that it’s best to not read review. But I’ve also seen many of those authors admit that they cheat and look anyway. *smile*

I’m of the opinion that either choice is valid. There are several ways we can approach reading reviews with a healthy attitude—if we so choose.

Some authors purposely seek out reviews of their work. They might shrug and decide that their skin is already sufficiently thick, so they’re not going to worry about encountering anything negative. Or they might figure that they were able to handle their work being torn apart by beta readers or editors, and they don’t see a difference with a review.

Others might be able to emotionally separate themselves from their stories. They might not see their books as their babies, or they might understand that reviews are for readers, so they don’t take reviews personally.

A few authors might treat their initial readers as beta readers and look at their reviews to see where changes are needed. (Not recommended!) While others might see the reviews as big-picture feedback of things they need to work on in the future, such as character likability, finding a new copyeditor, etc.

What Category Fits Us?

I’m one of those types who doesn’t try to avoid reviews. Partly, that’s because negative reviews don’t bother me. Seriously.

I would never let a review affect a friendship or how I feel about someone, because I don’t take them personally. I’ve never cried over feedback, a bad contest score, or a rejection either. So to me, reviews aren’t much different. Also, I know that reviews aren’t for me—they’re for readers.

I don’t say that to brag or sound superior. As I stated above, we’re each allowed to set our own boundaries and decide what works best for us and our mental/emotional health.

In my case, I suffer from withering self-doubt in tons of different ways. Reviews just happen to not be one of them.

(That might be because my self-talk is often worse than anything others could say, especially on my bad days. I’ve learned to ignore myself. A lot. *smile*)

Whatever my neuroses, I can definitively state that I’d much rather have those who read my books feel comfortable leaving honest reviews for other readers than for them to not leave a review at all. I’m not joking when I say that I laughed and celebrated when I received my first one-star review.

My books aren’t for everyone, and I’m okay with that. (So yes, if you’ve debated leaving a review, please do. This isn’t just me putting on a “brave” face—I really don’t have an ego about my writing. *smile*)

If We Peek… A Survival Guide

However, there are many authors who intend to avoid reviews but peek anyway. For those, I really appreciated this post by Eric Trant on Kathy Pooler’s blog on how we can survive bad reviews.

He points out that bad reviews fall into several different categories, each of which say something different about the reader. I really liked these categories he shared because they give us a structure to look at negative reviews in a constructive way:

  • Heckler:

These reviewers find entertainment in the writing of their review. That’s okay. They’re not writing their review for our sake, so if entertainment is what drives them, that’s not for us complain about. (My first one-star was a heckler, and I was entertained too. *smile*)

The point for us to remember is that while there might be some gems of useful information in their review, they’re likely not our ideal reader. So don’t worry about their dislike of our story.

  • Constructive Critic:

These reviewers often give thoughtful feedback, so it’s more likely that we’ll find nuggets of insightful information here. Maybe they point out a pacing problem or that grammar errors distracted them.

These reviewers could be part of our target audience, and the fact that they took the time to give a thoughtful review says a lot. We want to care about these reviews enough that we see what we could learn for the future, but after that, we need to move forward.

  • Non-Audience:

These reviewers often pick on our genre, the tropes used in our story, the type of story, etc. If we’re smart, we’ll be grateful for these reviews because these elements are subjective. What they say they hate, another reader might love. A “Too much kissing!” complaint can grab the attention of a reader who thinks, “Oh cool! A kissing book.”

Regardless, we really shouldn’t worry about these reviews. These are in no way personal, and these negative reviews can help other readers find our books by pointing out what might be catnip for them.

  • Subconscious Fan:

These reviewers say they dislike our book, yet they can’t stop reading it. Eric’s post compares them to eating spicy food—when we want to stop but can’t—and that’s a perfect description.

In other words, they want to dislike our story, but they really liked it despite themselves. *smile* Others reading their review will notice that disconnect as well, so these negative reviews won’t hurt us either.

I also really liked Eric’s observation about paying attention to what the negative reviews don’t say. If we don’t get any reviews complaining about grammar or copy edits? Yay!

Same with plot holes, unresolved questions, characterization issues, point of view problems, confusing sections, etc. Each element that doesn’t come up in negative reviews is a victory for us.

That said, it’s still valid to want to avoid our reviews. We have to do what’s best for us. But if we happen to cheat or see them anyway, it’s good to have guidance helping us through the experience.

As Eric points out, the biggest lesson to take away from being exposed to negative reviews is that we shouldn’t let them discourage us from continuing to write. No matter where we are in our writing journey, we can learn, grow, and improve.

What our weaknesses are today don’t have to remain our weaknesses tomorrow. Whether the feedback comes from beta readers, critique partners, editors, or reviewers, the same mantra applies: Take what works for us and ignore the rest. *smile*

P.S. Would you like to guest post on my blog? Now’s your chance!
To make my NaNo November easier, I’m taking proposals for guest posts to run during November. Interested? Submit a proposal here.

Do you know what category you fit into: read or avoid? Why is that the best option for you? If you fall into the avoid category, do you ever cheat? Are you able to handle negative reviews or feedback, and if so, how? Does seeing these categories help with knowing which reviews you don’t need to worry about?

Join Jami in her upcoming workshop:
Get ready for NaNo by learning how to do just enough story development to write faster with “Lost Your Pants? The Impatient Writers Guide to Plotting a Story.”

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