Don’t Read Your Reviews

by Michelle Gagnon

As part of Thrillerfest one year, they gave a special award (if a piece of fossilized poop can be considered an award) to our very own John Gilstrap (even though he’s no longer officially part of this blog, he’ll always be the Friday guy to me). The award was for the Worst Amazon Review, and he won for this little nugget (no pun intended): “The glue boogers in the binding were more captivating than Gilstrap’s torpid prose.”

I know this is going to sound counter-intuitive, and for many authors, nearly impossible, but here’s my advice: don’t read your reviews, ever. Turn off that Google alert. Skip the Amazon reviews section. Ignore your GoodReads ratings. And if you must know what a blogger or traditional media reviewer is saying about your book, enlist someone you trust to skim the contents and give you the highlights.

This applies not only to negative reviews, but positive ones. Because here’s the thing. As we all know, a reader’s opinion of a book is enormously subjective. The way they approach a story can vary at different points in their lives, or even their day. They read things into it that you might never have intended–and they’re all going to have vastly different opinions about what worked and what didn’t. I’m always startled when I get feedback from beta readers–everyone always manages to come up with different favorite sections, and least favorites. So when taking their advice, I usually try to find the commonalities, the issues everyone zeroed in on. In the end, much of what they say is taken with a serious grain of salt.

The same applies to reviewers, naturally. Maybe Marilyn Stasio ate a bad oyster before reading your book, and the nausea she felt skewed her experience. Maybe the Kirkus reviewer was going through a divorce, so the way that you depicted a couple falling apart resonated too strongly with him (or not strongly enough). I know that for my last book, several reviewers felt the plot was tremendous, but the character development was weak. Others loved the characters, but the story left them cold. When writing a review, even when you loved the book, there’s an irresistible inclination to find something to pick at. That‘s what many of us were taught to do in school; otherwise it doesn’t feel like we’ve done the review justice.

As writers, we already have enough voices in our heads. Resist the temptation to let new ones in. This is particularly critical if you’re writing a series; if one reader hated your protagonist, do you really want that small seed of doubt planted in your head? Do you want to be swayed by Merlin57 if he declares that you should be the next winner of the fossilized poop award? 

Even when a review is entirely positive, there are drawbacks. Say a particular reader took a shine to a relatively minor character, and hopes to see more of her in the next installment. Should that be factored into your writing process? I say no, not if that wasn’t part of your initial vision for the narrative.

It’s a challenge not to dive into the fray–especially since, with all the blogs out there, there are potentially dozens of opinions on your prose just waiting to be perused. But avoid the temptation; don’t dive into the rabbit hole. If your book is amassing lots of great reviews and accolades, you’ll hear about it from your editor, agent, and friends. But knowing precisely what’s being said can be detrimental.

*side note: I’d also advise against doing a Google Search for fossilized poop. Trust me on this one.

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ITW Thriller Awards

By Joe Moore

DSC_0373 (Small) It’s Thriller Awards submission time again. ITW announced the winners of the 2009 awards in July during ThrillerFest. Jeffery Deaver won Best Thriller for THE BODIES LEFT BEHIND. Tom Rob Smith took home Best First Novel for CHILD 44. Alexandra Sokoloff grabbed the Best Short Story award for THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN.

ITW_Award_black_72dpi As previously discussed on this blog, the hard cover and paperback originals were lumped together into Best Thriller for 2009. For the most part, this was based upon the belief that a good book is a good book no matter what the format.

For 2010, things have reverted back to separating the hardbacks from the soft. So the categories are Best Hard Cover original, Best Paperback Original, Best First Novel, and Best Short Story.

ITW has announced the call for submissions. Competition is open to anyone who meets the requirements which include being published by one of the organization’s recognized publishers. You don’t have to be an ITW member to enter. A complete set of rules can be found on the Big Thrill website.

Thrillerfest D3 '09 (Alan Jacobson) (194) [640x480]For a look at the 2009 Thriller Awards Banquet and ThrillerFest conference, visit the ITW photo gallery.

Now that the Thriller Awards are back to separating the hard cover from the soft, do you think there’s a preconceived prejudice between the two? In other words, if a book is published in hard cover, do you think readers consider it to be “better” that one released as a paperback? Or is it true that a good book is a good book?

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WHY I DEDICATED “ILLEGAL” TO A TOTAL STRANGER

By Paul Levine Paul Water shot 2009 (small)

Today TKZ is thrilled to welcome author Paul Levine, who has been nominated for the Edgar, Macavity, International Thriller Writers, and James Thurber awards. Today he discusses a subject near and dear to my heart, illegal immigration (although I confess to being green with envy over his earlier release date, considering the fact that my next opus treads similar ground). Read on for a true immigration story…

“Let me get this straight,” the Hollywood producer said. “You dedicated your book to an illegal alien.”

“A Mexican woman,” I said. “She floated up the New River on an inner tube with her little boy.”

“I didn’t know rivers ran north.”

An odd statement, I thought. Focusing on the flow of water rather than the flow of people. “Some rivers do,” I told him. “The Nile. The Monongahela. The New River between Mexicali and the Salton Sea.”

The producer licked his thumb and turned to the dedication page. We were sitting in his bungalow on the Warner lot. Outside the window, I had a fine view of the water tower.

He read aloud: “‘To the woman carrying a rucksack, clutching her child’s hand, and kicking up dust as she scrambled along a desert trail near Calexico, California.’”

He looked puzzled. That happens to people who don’t know rivers can run north. “I still don’t get it.”

“The boy and his mother. They’re the heart and soul of ‘Illegal.’”

ILLEGAL COVER FINAL MEDIUM Then I told him the story behind the story.

Three years ago, the news was filled with horror tales of border crossings gone bad. Families heading north were attacked by Mexican bandits or robbed by their own coyotes. People locked inside truck trailers literally baked to death. Women were beaten, kidnapped, and forced into sexual slavery. The hellish desert took its own toll, leaving the Border Patrol to rescue illegals as well as arrest them.

I wanted to write a novel set against the backdrop of illegal immigration and human trafficking, but what story would I tell? With me, the characters come first. When their lives are etched in my mind like petroglyphs on a cave wall, they tell me the story. I already had the protagonist. Jimmy (Royal) Payne, a down-and-out Los Angeles lawyer, would cross borders of his own while encountering immigrants, coyotes, corrupt cops, and human traffickers. But what was the spine of the story? I didn’t know.

On a day of blast furnace heat, I drove south through the desert, roadkill armadillos roasting on the pavement. To the east was the polluted Salton Sea. To the west, the Borrego Badlands. As I neared Calexico, the yellow “Caution” signs started popping up. Silhouettes of a father, mother, and daughter scampering across the road. The message: Be on the lookout for “pollos.” Cooked chickens in border slang. Coyotes are “polleros,” or chicken wranglers. Many of the signs were peppered were gunshots.

Bienvenidos a los Estados Unidos. Yes, welcome indeed.vallen_illegal

I thought of Freddy Fender singing Across the Borderline, an achingly sad tale about the “broken promised land.”

“And when it’s time to take your turn
Here’s one lesson that you must learn
You could lose more than you’ll ever hope to find.”

Near the border, I took a wrong turn onto a side road that dead-ended at the New River, a steaming current of raw sewage and toxic runoff that carries hepatitis, typhoid, polio, and cholera. Tree limbs bleached the color of skeletons floated in the water, which bubbled with a poisonous foam. Knowing of the Border Patrol’s reluctance to dive in, some hardy – or foolhardy – illegals swim with the current, white garbage bags over their heads to blend in with the noxious foam.

Getting out of the car, I saw no swimmers this day. But a large inner tube was grounded in the shallows. A striking, dark-haired woman in her early 30’s and a boy of 10 or so were picking their way across the rocks to shore. Backpacks, sneakers, and a gallon jug of water. Judging from the ease with which the woman hefted the jug, it was nearly empty.

I shouted out a friendly “Hola.” The mother froze. The boy stepped in front of her, a gesture of protection, the child on the verge of becoming a man. I ducked into my car, came out with a Thermos filled with iced tea. I held it up, a universal offer of friendship to travelers. They stood motionless. I walked toward them, but they started backing up…toward the river. I stopped short, placed the Thermos on the ground, dug into my wallet and placed several twenties under the Thermos. A puny gesture, given the enormity of their task.

Border Sign I returned to my air-conditioned car and headed for the main highway. Through my rear view mirror, I saw mother and son walking north along the dusty road. The boy carried the Thermos.

I didn’t know their names, so I gave them new ones. Marisol and Tino Perez. I imagined them wrenched apart in a border crossing gone-to-hell. They completed my trio of main characters. A shady lawyer. A missing woman. A lost boy. Their antagonist would be a wealthy California mega-farmer with a twisted vision of his own power.

“Illegal” is about choices. Will Jimmy Payne risk his life for two strangers or retreat into his own solitary world? The book is also about greed and corruption, revenge and redemption, all set in the dark world of human trafficking.

When I was finished, the producer said, “Why’d you help those illegals instead of calling the Border Patrol?”

“The Bible says, ‘Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this, some have entertained angels.’”

“Don’t go biblical on me. Biblical doesn’t sell, except for Mel Gibson, and he’s so yesterday, he’s last year.”

The producer looked out the window where a motorized cart was hauling two-by-fours to a set under construction.

“This book got some blood and guts? Like ‘No Country for Old Men.’” no country

“The hero gets horsewhipped.”

“That’s good. Like Marlon Brando in ‘One-Eyed Jacks.’”

“But it’s more like ‘Chinatown,’” I said, figuring movie analogies kept the producer in his comfort zone. “The abuse of power. Corruption of the flesh.”

He seemed to think it over a moment. “Can we lose that polluted river?”

“Why? Because it flows north?”

“Because no one will believe those illegals would risk it. Just why the hell would someone do that?”

“You nailed it,” I said. “The reason for the book. The reason for the dedication. It makes you ask, ‘Why the hell would someone do that?’”

You can read an excerpt of “Illegal,” sign up for Paul’s newsletter, and win cool prizes at http://www.paul-levine.com

Paul Levine’s new novel, ILLEGAL, has been praised as “the most original, offbeat and wholly entertaining novel of the year so far,” by the Providence (R.I.) Journal. Levine also wrote four novels featuring squabbling Miami trial lawyers Steve Solomon and Victoria Lord. SOLOMON vs. LORD was nominated for the Macavity Award and for the Thurber Prize for American Humor. THE DEEP BLUE ALIBI was nominated for an Edgar, and KILL ALL THE LAWYERS was a finalist for the International Thriller Writers Award. He was awarded the John D. MacDonald award for Florida fiction for his “Jake Lassiter” novels.A screenwriter, Paul wrote 21 episodes of the CBS military series “JAG” and co-created and co-executive produced “First Monday,” a drama set at the Supreme Court, starring James Garner and Joe Mantegna.

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The Results are in…

by Michelle Gagnon

The ITW recently posted the nominees for their Thriller Awards. Some of you might remember a post I wrote last August, when it was first announced that the paperback original category had been eliminated. Henceforth all of those books would be battling it out with the hardcovers for the moniker “Best Thriller.” There was a range of responses to my post, everything from “Hear, hear!” to “It’s silly to have different categories for different formats.” A few people chastised me, saying that any bias against paperbacks was only perceived, that I didn’t have enough faith in my fellow authors to judge a book based on its merits alone.

Well.

The results are in, and I am shocked, shocked! to report that not a single paperback original made the cut. thriller-award

Here are the finalists:

BEST THRILLER OF THE YEAR
Hold Tight by Harlan Coben
The Bodies Left Behind by Jeffery Deaver
The Broken Window by Jeffery Deaver
The Dark Tide by Andrew Gross
The Last Patriot by Brad Thor

Now, I’m not claiming these aren’t the best thrillers of the year- of the five I’ve read three, and they were great. But I also read a slew of PBO thrillers last year, and I’d rank them as high (or higher) than those three. The ITW is always battling charges that it’s morphing into a club for NY Times bestselling authors, and judging by this list, that might be the case. Granted, books are subjective little beasties, and what I love others might loathe. Perhaps these were the best thrillers of the year. I plan on reading the other two to satisfy my curiosity (and because they’re probably good books).

But I still don’t see where having a separate category for Paperback Originals does any harm. If paperbacks are consistently passed over in favor of their hardcover brethren for another few years, I believe there will be an exodus of PBO authors from the ITW. Which would be a shame, considering the fact that this award was initially conceived to address the fact that few thrillers were acknowledged by the established mystery awards. And making PBOs the red headed stepchildren of the organization doesn’t help anyone.

That’s my two cents.

Comments?

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