How to Handle Bad Book Reviews

By Jody Hedlund @JodyHedlund

I recently got a REALLY bad review on my book, Love Unexpected. The title read "No! No! No! Dirty, dirty, dirty!" The reviewer left one-star, but I'm sure she would have left a negative number if that were possible.

When I first saw the review title, I was startled. I thought there must be some mistake. After all, my book is a Christian romance. It's devoid of bare-chested men, bodice-ripping, and bawdy bed-rolling. In the publishing industry, my book is categorized as a "sweet romance."

Granted, within the spectrum of sweet fiction, my books tend to be a bit edgier, truer-to-life, with grittier themes. Even my new medieval YA series doesn't shy away from darker themes like Bubonic Plague and gruesome torture methods. It's also true that the romantic elements in all my books (adult and YA) while "sweet" are definitely more realistic and emotion-evoking. However, the relationships are all very chaste (especially in my YA).

So you can understand my confusion when I saw the title of the review. After clarifying that the review was indeed referring to my book, then I chuckled. I thought it was funny that someone in this modern age of Fifty Shades of Gray considered my book "dirty."

Besides, dirty is a word I'd use for those slushy muddy footprints on my kitchen floor left by my children when they don't take off their boots. Dirty isn't something I'd use to describe a budding relationship and the ensuing sensuality that develops between a man and a woman. I'd actually describe it as beautiful.

My point isn't to elaborate on how sad it makes me that there are people who view sexuality as dirty. Rather my point is to say that ALL authors get bad reviews. This isn't the first I've received and it certainly won't be the last.

Authors will get stinging, biting, and even caustic reviews. Readers may nitpick about things we can't even remember writing or not say anything specific at all except that they hated the book. Sometimes an issue, character, or theme may upset them, and we can only scratch our heads and ask, "How did they get that out of my book?"

But the thing about reviews? They're for readers, not writers. Reviewers are allowed to say whatever they want (although even as a reader who sometimes leaves reviews, I have the personal policy of being graciously honest).

All that to say, writers have to learn how to handle bad reviews because it isn't a matter of "if" we get them, it's a matter of "when." So here are several pieces of advice for handling those bad reviews:

1. Either develop thick skin or don't read the reviews. 

As I mentioned, the reviews aren't really intended for the author to read. They're there for other readers. So if we read them, we need to go into them with the mindset that we'll face open, honest, feedback. If we can't handle it, then we need to stay away (and that's perfectly acceptable; everyone needs to know his or her limits).

2. Don't take the reviews personally. 

Remember this is a business. Nowadays every product out there gets rated. Recently when I was in the process of buying a new comforter for my bed, I scoured the reviews of each potential purchase. I wanted to be alerted to problems or flaws in the product before finalizing my decision. I appreciated the reviews in helping me narrow down the many choices. Reviews are helpful, even the "bad" ones.

3. Remember that reviews are subjective.

Readers view the pages of our books through the lens of their unique backgrounds, personalities, and values. All of that will shape their reading experience. Some readers who are accustomed to reading erotica may find my books boring. Other readers who prefer the sweetness of Little House on the Prairie may be offended by the kisses.

4. Focus on the positive. 

The "dirty" review is the only one-star review I have on that particular book. The majority are 5 stars. And the majority of readers have only positive things to say about the romance relationship. If we're pleasing the majority, we can't cater to or worry about the minority.

5. Never respond to those bad reviews. 

We can commiserate in private with other author friends. We should share our frustrations (or our humor) with our inner circle. But we should never, ever, comment back on reviews or defend ourselves (even if it's legit). When we do so, we only make ourselves look worried or defensive (too much like a hovering parent who always comes to the rescue of a bullied child). We should let our works stand on their own two feet without intruding as the author.

How about you? How do you think authors should handle bad reviews?

How to Utilize Tension More Effectively

By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

Tension is a very important story-telling technique. It's basically the way we tug on readers' emotions, how we pull them along page after page with curiosity, fear, or even fascination. Tension tightens readers' fingers to the book, making it very difficult for them to pry themselves away.
In essence, tension is the state of being stretched tight. I like to think of a rope tied to a tarp holding it down against a strong breeze. The harder the wind blows, the tighter the rope grows in its effort to hold that tarp in place. But if the wind dies down, the rope slackens and may even turn limp.

As writers, we can think of the tarp as our overarching story and plot, the rope as the varying types of techniques we use to stretch reader's emotions, and the wind as the amount of force we apply at any given moment.

The Tarp:

A writer must have an overarching plot. Many define plot as the connection of events or a series of causes and effects that are arranged in logical order. However, I would take the definition a step further to say that plot has to encompass the introduction of a story-problem, a problem big enough to last the entire book, a problem that covers and hangs over everything – like a tarp.

Small problems and conflicts are all fine and good (and needed). But without the overarching plot that hangs above everything else, we risk losing reader interest as the smaller cause and effect scenarios work themselves out.

The Rope:

There are two basic types of rope or tension that we can weave into our stories: macro-tension and micro-tension.

1. Macro-tension: This is the type of tension that carries through a broader scope of scenes and story. We introduce longer-lasting issues that stretch readers' emotions so that they have to keep reading to find out what happens. We can exhibit macro-tension in numerous ways:

• We make our bad guys so strong that it appears the good guys won't be able to win.

• We keep stacking the odds against our good guys until it seems they can't climb over.

• We set a ticking clock that our characters must beat or else . . .

• We withhold information to keep our reader guessing.

• We plant questions that we don't fully answer until later.

• We hint at problems that are yet to come.

• We add a sub-plot that has intrigue and inherent conflict.

2. Micro-tension: This is the type of tension that happens on a much smaller scale, usually at the paragraph or short scene level. We often feel this kind of tension when we're watching a movie and we know a knife-wielding criminal is in the house with the heroine. We're with her as hears strange thumps upstairs, as she rises from the couch, creeps down the hallway, and ascends each creaking step one at a time. We're waiting with tightening muscles and shallow breathing for the moment when the intruder jumps out. (Cue the scary music!)

With micro-tension, we stretch the paragraph or scene as taut as we can. We can do that a number of ways:

• We show more details; we move our "video camera" much more slowly and carefully, showing each step of the unfolding drama.

• We utilize the five senses to evoke a certain mood.

• We share the character's internal narration, their reactions, their churning emotions.

• We use contrast (instead of our character sneaking up the stairway, we can make her oblivious to the danger that awaits her).

The Wind:

As writers, we're the wind. We control how much pressure we apply to our characters and story. Obviously this will vary depending upon the genre we write. Suspense stories will likely have more inherent tension than historicals.

Whatever the genre, however, we writers are the ones who blow the breeze. And for the most part, we'll want to keep a steady stream in order to keep our tension levels tight.

However, we may make our readers weary if we never release the tension but instead keep the wind blowing at gale force all the time without any let up. Imagine reading page after page of both macro and micro tension without anything good ever happening to our characters. Readers may begin to think, what's the point in reading this if the character never succeeds or gets a break? They may begin to think the story is unrealistic or the character too weak.

Thus, the use of tension requires some releasing and then tightening. We blow hard, then relax, only to blow harder the next time. It's a process of give and take, and the better we get at it, the better we engage our readers.

How well are you utilizing tension in your stories? Any other tips that you can share with us? We'd love to hear them!

*Photo credit: Flickr Ollie Brown

P.S. My young adult e-novella, THE VOW (published by Harper Collins) just released! It's a prequel to the first book in my YA series coming out in March. If you love castles, knights, and the middle ages, then check it out!

Do Agents Still Hold the Gatekeeper Key to Getting Published?

By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

The world of publishing has changed radically over the past few years. With the evolution of ebooks and indie publishing, everything that was once tried-and-true has been shaken. As the construction dust settles, many are trying to figure out what remains of the old traditional way of doing things and also what is new and necessary.

Of course, one of the things many writers want to know is, "Do I still need an agent?" 

In the not-too-distant past it seemed that everyone was talking about getting an agent. In fact, when I first started my agent hunt about six years ago, the frenzy was at an almost ridiculous high. Most agents already had full client loads but occasionally bestowed their favor upon a giddy new writer plucked out of the slush pile.

As agents began blogging and tweeting, aspiring writers scrambled to get noticed in the new medium. At times among the cyber-hallways, it felt as though there was a "high school popularity contest" mentality both among aspiring writers and between agents.

The few writers who got an agent's attention were considered lucky and special. Because like it or not, everyone knew that agents held the gatekeeper key to getting published. Most publishers didn't have the time or staff to weed through manuscripts of all the wannabe's. So, for the most part, they let agents do the gate-keeping job for them.

But alas, the hype over agents has died down (finally!). The popularity contests are over (thank goodness!).

However, new, unagented writers are left scratching their heads wondering what to do. Do they really need an agent? And if they get agent, what would that person do for them anyway?

If you're planning to self-publish, then no, you don't need an agent. At least not right away. When you've written multiple books and they're hitting best-seller lists, then you can possibly consider acquiring an agent to help you expand your reach into traditional publishing, foreign print, and even film. (Sidenote: I'm not self-published, so I can only share what I've heard from indie friends. For those who are self-published and agented, feel free to chime in with the benefits you've experienced with your agent.)

For those still seeking traditional publication with a bigger publisher, yes, you likely WILL still need an agent to get a book deal. Once in a while, writers make connections with publishers at writing conferences. Every now and then, indie writers catch the attention of publishers if they have high sales like Hugh Howey with his Wool series (which I'm currently reading and enjoying). (Read his fascinating publishing story here on WD.)

But for the most part, traditional publishers still usually find authors from manuscripts submitted by trusted agents. Savvy knowledgeable agents not only broker deals but also provide much needed career direction (which I could expound on in a whole other post). The truth is, some agents are better at their job than others, and new writers should be careful to get feedback from agents' current clients before signing.

So how does a writer go about getting an agent? Sometimes writers connect with agents at conferences or get referrals from agented friends. But the most common way to get an agent is still through direct querying. Most agents have query guidelines on their website for exactly WHAT to submit (usually a query letter containing a synopsis and then a specific number of sample pages), HOW to submit (usually via email), and WHERE (usually to an agency email address). Follow those guidelines as carefully as possible. 

If a writer's skill is honed, if a story is well-told and captivating, and it holds general market appeal, it WILL eventually garner an agent's attention. From my many years of critiquing for new writers, I've learned that it's VERY easy to spot a talented writer and a great story. The problem is that many writers think they're at the graduate level before they really are and so end up querying an agent too soon in their writing career (like after their first book or two). Most successfully published writers will attest that they had to write several books before their writing skill reached a publishable quality.

My advice for writers who are beginning to query is this: Send it out and see what happens. If the story doesn't "hook" an agent right away, keep trying. But in the meantime continue to write AND improve your writing skills. Writing and learning must always go hand in hand.

The traditional publication process still takes lots of patience. But the good thing is that it's not the ONLY option available to writers. Our hopes for a writing career don't all hinge upon it anymore. If the traditional door stays shut, the future is still wide open.

So what about you? Do you still think agents are necessary in today's changing publishing industry?

15 Ways to Find Writing Inspiration in 2015

By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

Happy New Year!

At the start of every year, I like to search for ways to inspire my writing to greater depths. While I'm a firm believer in BIC writing with or without inspiration, it's always pleasant to have a rare burst of creative characterizing, poetic prose, or brilliant brainstorming. (BIC = Butt-In-Chair)

Yes, most of the time, I write without the fairy dust. But that doesn't mean I don't seek ways to inspire my writing with more beauty and meaning. So in an effort to inspire all of us, here are 15 ways to find writing inspiration in 2015:

1. Find things to smile about. We should uncover the hidden joys that surround us. Sometimes we get so busy we forget to take the time to see the small things that can make us smile. Sometimes we forget to laugh at ourselves and with others. Looking for humor in life, helps us better able to add it to our stories (and every story needs lighter moments in some form).

2. Feel pain deeply. When we face difficulties,we can't be afraid to embrace the plethora of emotions that go with it. We should let the pain filter through us fully and not avoid it. We need to cry, weep, feel frustrated, and taste depression. When we do, we can write about those emotions much more realistically in our characters.

3. Go below the surface. We need to top taking issues at face value (whether political issues, world trauma, or personal difficulties). We should peel away the layers and look deeper at problems than we ever have before. This helps heighten our awareness of motivations. And it also makes us better able to weave in eternal truths that will resonate with a broader audience.

4. Study people. Instead of letting people pass us by without taking a second glance, we should slow down and study humanity. We can look at the way people react differently to the same situation. We can analyze their habits, mannerisms, and uniquenesses. And we can study their faces, expressions, ticks, and all of the things that make them different from others.

5. Collect words, ideas, and metaphors. Everywhere we go, we can raise our radars to become more aware of interesting words, ideas, and metaphors. Whether we're in line at the grocery store or at the dentist office, we can be on the lookout for the strange and unique. But we can also try to view the ordinary with new eyes.

6. Make better use of movie time. We all watch movies (and/or TV). And most of the time we simply allow ourselves to be entertained. But we can turn movie time into "work time" by watching more thoughtfully and gleaning ideas for characters and plot. We can pick and choose characters that especially stand out to use as a basis for one of our characters. Or we can take plot twists and use them as a spring board for something in our novels.

7. Listen to inspiring music. Lately I've been listening to lots of piano and cello music (my current favorite is The Piano Guys). The incredibly complex cacophony of instruments surges through my blood. There’s something about beautiful music that restores beauty to our souls and stimulates our moods that then spills over into our stories.

8. Take time to focus on sensory details. A gently floating snowflake, the lustrous velvety fur of my kitty, the creaking of the branches outside my window, the rich aroma of the garlic and sage in the spaghetti sauce. How can we write sensory details in our stories if we don’t stop and experience them for ourselves?

9. Read writing craft books. My favorites are Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell, Characters, Emotions, & Viewpoints by Nancy Kress, The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Browne and King. I own these and re-read them frequently. They're dog-eared, highlighted, and full of notes.

10. Read books outside our comfort zone. Over the past couple of years, I've been branching out and reading books in genres that I might not normally read. I can't say that I like each one I read. But I learn something new about writing techniques and story-telling with each book.

11. Study great books. Every time I read great books (award-winning or classical) I usually end up taking lots of notes. I enjoy studying the characterization, plot development, the usage of similes and metaphors, and all of the other techniques. I try to figure out what made the books popular in their day and why they still have a timeless appeal.

12. Make real connections. Nowadays, we spend more and more time behind a screen interacting with people as opposed to connecting in real. While there's nothing wrong with having online friendships (and in fact it can be a wonderful blessing), it can't replace face to face interactions where we're truly able to get to know people on a deeper level. If our primary relationships are shallow off the page, then how can we expect depth in our characters on the page?

13. Try writing something new. I've branched out into writing YA and have found that it has opened my creative juices in a new way. I've also recently written two novellas which has stretched my writing muscles too. When we try new genres, styles, or new techniques, we give ourselves a fresh outlook, even if eventually we go back to the tried-and-true.

14. Read a historical biography or memoir. Even those who aren't historical writers can benefit from reading history, particularly reading biographies or memoirs. I recently read Night by Elie Wiesel a memoir of his experience in German concentration camps. Of course we read so that we don't forget the past and make the same mistakes, but we also learn so much about the present when we delve into the lives of others who've come before us. Such reading enriches our experiences of life.

15. Never fail to ask "What If?" All too often our imagination is turned off in our practical, news-headline dominated world. But we can't forget to dream, be curious, and imagine the impossible. We can't be afraid to be a little crazy, to wander off the path, and to search for rainbows. Sometimes we have to let our imagination get wild and carried away in the first draft. We can always go back and tame and temper our wildness during editing if need be.

What are some other ways YOU find inspiration for your writing?

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