Friday, November 5, 2021

What to Learn from Reviews of Your Books

Most authors I know read at least some of the reviews of their books. I've learned a lot from reading them, especially if a reader doesn't like something. 

I've talked a couple times about early reviews of the Jolie character in the cozy mystery series, set at the Jersey shore, that bears her name. In Appraisal for Murder, she's left a gambling husband and settled at her aunt's B&B as she reorganizes her life.

To me, it made sense that she was a tad sarcastic and more than irritated at her ex-husband. She also had a fling (a cozy, so not that kind of a fling) and focused on her own needs to a greater degree than she would in later books. 

These seemed like things someone might do if their life turned upside down. And if she found a woman dead in bed on her first day on a new job.

Readers commented some on the humor, a lot on Aunt Madge (whom they liked), and some on the pets. A number of reviewers liked the story but said Jolie was self-centered. I realized that while I created her to behave as a woman in her situation might, readers wanted a more likeable protagonist.

I had planned for her to eveolve as life got happier, but I changed more of her internal thinking than I might have had I not read the reviews. Less sarcasm, more dry humor. And as she gets more involved in the food pantry and life in Ocean Alley, she focused outwardly more.

As I wrote new series, I consciously made the protagonists more likeable -- or at least more relatable. Is this kow-towing to others' opinions? A bit. I write for me, I publish to entertain readers and make money. Readers have to like my genre fiction or they won't keep reading.

Mixing Mystery with Life

My next big learning experience was a head slapper. 

I am very critical of TV mystery series that devolve into soap operas. House was a good example. It started with such keen medical mysteries and eventually became the story of Dr. House's addiction and love life, plus various life and love events of other characters. Boring.

As the Jolie series has evolved, I've had reviews such as this recent one of Vague Images:

The mystery is sort of in the background but the relationships are what make books great. Full of friendships, family relations and a touch of romance. I had actually forgotten about the main mystery by the end but I enjoyed how it all wrapped up.


On the other hand, here's a review of Mountain Rails of Old, the most recent book in the family history mystery series. Memorable characters and intriguing plot combine with genealogical research to make a fun read.

Lesson learned, perhaps not as consciously as I should have, but I do let the stories have a life of their own.

As with much of life, I suppose there has to be a middle ground.

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