Critical Mass

There are many pitfalls for authors in this strange writing world. Bad agents (and there are more than a few), bad contracts, broken contracts and agreements, writers block, lack of ideas, lack of confidence, competition in the market…

Depression will set in if I list any more.

But here’s one you can avoid, if you can avoid it.

Yeah, I intentionally wrote it that way. We all have to deal with reviews, and bad reviews are like ear worms, they get inside your head and keep digging deeper and deeper, causing problems and self-doubt until the only thing you hear are strange, unidentifiable rock and roll riffs by the Red Hot Chili Peppers that seem to have originated with Chuck Berry’s My Ding-a-Ling.

The one true thing about being an author is that you will get bad reviews, or some of those backhanded reviews that folks tend to dwell upon.

Children, I can promise I’ve had some doozies, but I don’t read reviews to wallow in the gloom they might bring. I find them entertaining.

Here’s a one-star wonder for one of my books. “Not what I expected.”

Not a lot of meat in that one.

Another one for my most recent release needs a little setup. It takes place in Northeast Texas back in 1969 and seen through the eyes of multiple characters including two teens, two adults in their late twenties, and of course Ned Parker who’s in his late 60s, Tom Bell (advanced age), as well as John Washington who clocks in somewhere in his early forties.

The Review: Southern euphemism overkill. This was a police procedural mystery…

…it is???

…but half of the book focuses on a group of teens which really doesn’t add to the storyline.

Now, I could weep in the fetal position in one corner of my office while sucking my thumb, but I found this one damned funny, because the teens are the trigger for several plot twists. They’re the foundation of the entire novel.

Then there are a few one and two-star reviews that could sting, but the truth is, I don’t care, because the vast majority of those posts are right up there in the four and five-star range.

I’m writing the best novels I can produce and if you look at the hundreds of reviews for each one, those few old soreheads who miss the entire point of the story don’t amount to a hill of beans.

It even happens in the music industry. Dwight Yoakam released a song back in 1991 titled You’re the One. He repeats those three words thirty times in the course of this wildly successful hit. Instead of reviewers taking him to task over these repetitions, party-goers made a drinking game out of it.


I know one NYT bestselling author who told me he got a one-star review his newest novel, not for the book’s content, but because it arrived with a torn cover.

Good lord. That’s not a review. It’s a complaint against the company that shipped it. That individual should have simply returned it for a replacement, but the crime falls on the shoulders of the author.

Negative reviews are inevitable, so ignore them and go on about your business. They might come from folks who’re mad at the world, or mad that you made it and they can’t, or simply don’t like your genre.

Maybe they’re challenging you because they dislike what they view as your own political beliefs. Another author once told me she got a bad review because the reader thought her antagonist was based on the author herself and they had differing political beliefs.

I once read a review of my work accusing me of being an Obama groupie.

Another came in only a few days later, saying I was a gun-toting, bible-thumping Republican.

All right, I’m a Gemini, but still…

Folks like that read their own biases in my work, projecting them onto me and not the characters I’ve developed. If you create a serial killer, does that make you a serial killer in real life?

Prolly not, but there are a few names on a list in my drawer.

Here’s the deal, if you release a novel, you’ll draw both fire and accolades from all directions. Revel in it. You’re published!

Teddy Roosevelt said it best. “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strives to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither knows victory nor defeat.”

Just for grins, look up your favorite author, or title, or famous titles, and read what others have written. That should put it all in perspective for you.

The Stand by Stephen King, One Star. “This is a horrible book. I was thinking of giving it two stars, mainly because the idea was so intriguing that it made me read it in the first place, but anything more than one star would be condoning the many serious problems that make this book an utter disgrace.”

Not one specific. This individual obviously lost sleep over the course of many nights to pen such a generic review that says absolutely nothing.

Herman Melville, Moby Dick. “This is a book that seems great until you read it. There’s nothing brilliant or profound that I found.”

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. “What an utterly terrible novel. Racist, sexist, poorly written, and absolute trash moralism. Steinbeck has as much command of adjective as a fifth grader, and his understanding of the subject this book focuses on, labor economics, is about that of a fourth grader.”

Delia Owens, Where the Crawdads Sing. (Cut and pasted) “This appears to be a used book based on its condition (substance and fading on cover, be t cover, book doesn’t lay with pages flat). I purchased and paid for new, so it’s disappointing to not receive when I ordered. It’s only $.50 cheaper to get used, not about the money. With Covid, I purposely wanted a new book to be sure nobody else had their hands all over the pages.”

Good. Lord.

And for the same incredibly successful novel one reviewer said, “Crawdads don’t sing—a fiction at best and an anthropomorphism at worst. She knows it. Animals do not take on human characteristics. Only the truly ignorant…”

We can stop there. This kind of stuff makes me want to give them more cowbell.

Finally, here’s one last thought, and most authors will agree with me. No matter how bad the review, do not respond! You will gain nothing in a back and forth, and will likely drive away readers and fans, and at worst, become the target for those with even more perplexing axes to grind.

Read it and weep. Read it and smile. Read it and wonder at the mental stability of those who posted those inexplicable negative reviews, but then go on and write your next novel.

It’s not right. It’s not wrong. It just is.

Evil begone!





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About Reavis Wortham

Two time Spur Award winning author Reavis Z. Wortham pens the Texas Red River historical mystery series, and the high-octane Sonny Hawke contemporary western thrillers. His new Tucker Snow series begins in 2022. The Red River books are set in rural Northeast Texas in the 1960s. Kirkus Reviews listed his first novel in a Starred Review, The Rock Hole, as one of the “Top 12 Mysteries of 2011.” His Sonny Hawke series from Kensington Publishing features Texas Ranger Sonny Hawke and debuted in 2018 with Hawke’s Prey. Hawke’s War, the second in this series won the Spur Award from the Western Writers Association of America as the Best Mass Market Paperback of 2019. He also garnered a second Spur for Hawke’s Target in 2020. A frequent speaker at literary events across the country. Reavis also teaches seminars on mystery and thriller writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to writing conventions, to the Pat Conroy Literary Center in Beaufort, SC. He frequently speaks to smaller groups, encouraging future authors, and offers dozens of tips for them to avoid the writing pitfalls and hazards he has survived. His most popular talk is entitled, My Road to Publication, and Other Great Disasters. He has been a newspaper columnist and magazine writer since 1988, penning over 2,000 columns and articles, and has been the Humor Editor for Texas Fish and Game Magazine for the past 25 years. He and his wife, Shana, live in Northeast Texas. All his works are available at your favorite online bookstore or outlet, in all formats. Check out his website at “Burrows, Wortham’s outstanding sequel to The Rock Hole combines the gonzo sensibility of Joe R. Lansdale and the elegiac mood of To Kill a Mockingbird to strike just the right balance between childhood innocence and adult horror.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review) “The cinematic characters have substance and a pulse. They walk off the page and talk Texas.” —The Dallas Morning News On his most recent Red River novel, Laying Bones: “Captivating. Wortham adroitly balances richly nuanced human drama with two-fisted action, and displays a knack for the striking phrase (‘R.B. was the best drunk driver in the county, and I don’t believe he run off in here on his own’). This entry is sure to win the author new fans.” —Publishers Weekly “Well-drawn characters and clever blending of light and dark kept this reader thinking of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.” —Mystery Scene Magazine

26 thoughts on “Critical Mass

  1. Wise words, Rev. Unless someone specifically tags me on social media that points to a review, I don’t bother reading them. The only time I do is right after the release to make sure my readers liked the book. Otherwise, I’m busy working on the next one.

  2. Can’t argue with anything you’ve said, Rev. I ignore most reviews, fume a little when they get things wrong (and presume to be the experts), but the ones that tick me off are the ones who write “book reports” giving away the plot, the things we’ve worked so hard to keep hidden until it’s time to reveal them.

    • I wonder about people like that. Are they trying to give the twists and plot away, or simply oblivious? Maybe they’re trying to make themselves important, or fancy themselves as true reviews and get the process completely wrong.

  3. Good advice, Rev. And hilarious examples.

    Wouldn’t it be fun to have a website where writers could compete to display the most imbecile reviews, and review the reviews? I suppose such a site exists.

  4. While I put stock in reviews for non-fiction, I don’t pay much attention for fiction. Generally, if I’m skimming fiction reviews it’s to identify if someone has noted a book is full of swearing or other content I don’t want to read. But I want to make my own judgements about the stories. And in fiction, reviewers forget sometimes to NOT have spoilers.

    As you noted in your post, sometimes what the author intended and what the reader takes away are wildly different things. And actually, that’s positive argument for those of us who cling too tighly to our manuscripts, hesitant to release them into the public arena. You’re never gonna please everyone & not everyone is going to get what you were trying to convey.

    I myself don’t view fiction from the same lens as many others–I’ve read books that have been lauded for ages as literary masterpieces that didn’t wow me. Does that make me wrong in my assessment? You’re free to think so, but I’m still going to view books from my own lens.

    One of our TKZ contributors mentioned in a past post (sorry, don’t remember who it was) about having someone else read your book’s reviews for you, and maybe give you a summary of the type of feedback you’re getting. That’s the route I’ll probably go.

    Reading reviews does have a side benefit–through all the good, bad, and ugly of reviews, sitting there and reading them allows you to do some armchair psychoanalysis on some of the more interesting reviews. 😎 😎 😎

  5. Rev, although you wisely counsel not to respond to bad reviews, I must include here my all-time favorite comeback to a rotten review. It was from the German composer Max Reger to a newspaper critic:

    “I am sitting in the smallest room of my house. I have your review before me. Soon it will be behind me.”

  6. I review almost every book I read, and I’ve read some real stinkers — stories that dishonored their established logic, stories that leaned hard into multiple genre cliches, stories that left plot holes the size of meteor craters. But I’ve given only one one-star review, for a self-published novel that was clearly a first draft. I’ve given some two-star reviews, but three is my baseline for a novel in which tue answer is clearly yes to the question, “Did this novel do what it set out to do?” And when it falls short of that standard, or has flaws despite meeting that standard, I show my work and state my case.

    I make some authors angry. But if the crime-fiction community has one overriding flaw, it’s in its willful unwillingness to draw a distinction between a good person and a good book. That results in a lot of the “cool kids” in the community getting lavish praise for problematic works. For a lot of people in crime fiction, relationships matter more than good work.

  7. Excellent advice, Rev. I have read my own reviews, but never respond. Like the Dude said in “The Big Lebowski,” “it’s like your opinion, man.” Readers are entitled to theirs.

    Have a wonderful weekend!

  8. The most painful yet funny review was some doofus saying that the grammar and spelling was horrible. His grammar and spelling would embarrass a sixth grader. Between us, the editor and I had seven degrees in English and education and 30 years teaching experience.

    I had one review from a major book review site that was really great, but she gave away my twist ending. I’m talking on the scale of saying Bruce Willis is dead in THE SIXTH SENSE. Very fortunately, I received a copy before the review went up, and they removed that information.

    • Giving away the ending is inexcusable. Reviews, and any form of written communication that’s full of spelling and grammatical issues drives me NUTS! Hence my comment somewhere above when Spell Check stepped in and changed my word.

      Even responses and comments on social media should be properly written. I’m afraid the English language is in trouble, due to social media platforms.

  9. One writer I know wrote an excellent history book and got a one star review because the price of the book was too high. Definitely not the writer’s fault.

  10. I see so many “book” reviews regarding book condition, shipping, and price that I choose to believe not that many people can truly be that stupid. I’d like to think they’re responding to an Amazon prompt to “review your purchase.”

    • And Amazon does send those prompts, although all Alexa asks for is how many stars would I give a purchase. That’s why there are so many ratings without reviews, I think.

      • Have you ever read yelp reviews of restaurants? Try that some time for for some chicken __________.

  11. A review is about the reviewer, from the perspective of the reviewer, a window into the soul of one of your readers.

    Reviews say much more about the reviewer, to me, than the content of the review says about my books. I KNOW my books, and it’s unlikely I will learn something new there, but the conversation with a reader might tell me something I can respond to (in my next book – never (almost never?) to the reviewer.

    And these are people who made the effort – which most readers don’t. There is a gift there, however clumsy the wrapping and lopsided the bow.

  12. Great advice, Rev.
    Just like with social media: don’t engage the trolls!

    I had an amusing review on a short story in an anthology. While the review was complimentary overall, the reader admitted that she “didn’t really get it the first time.”
    I really wanted to reply in the spirit of Cap’n Jack Sparrow, but instead of “Ah, but you HAVE heard of me!” it would have been, “Ah, but you DID read it again!”

  13. I rarely read reviews, Rev. Never found much constructive – negative or positive – to help move the craft forward. But I did like one a while back. It was an Amazon five star for one of my backlist ebooks: “Good product. Well made. Arrived on time.”

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