Frustration, Dissected

I have been pretty fortunate in my career as a novelist. Ten novels in, working on the eleventh, I have a lot of loyal and supportive readers. Not everybody loves every book, but it would be silly to expect that; there is no novel out there, no matter how beloved generally, that doesn’t have its detractors. People who find it boring, or activity dislike it for whatever reason.

Women's Medical School, Philadelphia. 1900. Dissection.
Women’s Medical School, Philadelphia. 1900. Dissection: Getting to the heart of the problem.

When you’ve been writing novels for enough time, you know even before one hits the shelves which aspects might not go over well.  If you are writing a series with many dedicated followers and you kill off a major character, you must brace yourself for unhappy feedback from readers. Of course there are a lot of reasons to let a character go; it might have been exactly the right thing to do given the long-term plan for the series, but some readers will not forgive you. They will walk away. Nothing you can do about it. 

When I got past the 250,000 word mark on The Gilded Hour and was wrapping up, I knew that readers would be unhappy about the big cliffhanger. Unless I had the time (and the publisher was willing) for me to hang on another 100,000 words, the cliffhanger was unavoidable and, I hoped, evocative in a good way. 

The one thing I really wanted to do was to have a “first in a new series” label placed in a prominent spot on the cover. I thought this would help cushion the cliffhanger shock. It’s a point I argued  with my editor until I was hoarse, but the editorial higher ups said absolutely not. They were afraid that if it said “first in a new series” people would not buy it for that reason.  

As it turns out, my instincts were right. If it had been clear from the start that the novel was the first in a series, some people might not have bought it, but I think there would be less unhappiness out there than there is. Today I glanced at the Amazon reviews and the first five or so — the most recent — are pretty brutal. People absolutely disgusted with me because they have to wait to find out who did it.  People who loved the Wilderness novels, but find this newest book to be awful.

I’m not frustrated so much with the readers as I am with the publisher. Publishers truly think they have a better sense of what readers like and dislike, but any novelist who interacts with readers simply does know better. I’ve got close to twenty years worth of mail from readers — I would say less than three percent of it strongly negative — to draw on. For example:  The woman who read Dawn on a Distant Shore and then wrote to say that she had heard that most people only had one novel in them, and it seemed I was an example of that. She suggested I go back to my day job. Her tone was utterly polite and concerned, and I didn’t know whether or laugh or just give up. 

There are also a lot of really positive and encouraging reviews, which is what I need to concentrate on. And now I’ll go back to work and try to do just that. 

5 Replies to “Frustration, Dissected”

  1. “If it had been clear from the start that the novel was the first in a series, some people might not have bought it, but I think there would be less unhappiness out there than there is”.

    Yes, I certainly think that for the casual reader this would have been the case. Those of us who knew that it most likely would be a multi book series weren’t that upset by the abrupt ending, we are willing to patiently wait for the second novel to find out who the killer/killers are.

    And authors who do interact with the reading public certainly have a better handle on what people really are looking for.

  2. I remember being very pleased by the book, the first time I read it, and only afterward saying, “But wait, who…?” But knowing of your previous work, I was fairly certain there would be more, and that “the mystery” (which for me was not the main point of the book anyway) would be resolved.

    I mean, I do want to know! But if I like a book, I will read it again and again even when I know whodunit, for the way it gets there.

  3. I just re-read Gilded Hour and LOVED IT for the second time. I knew that it would be a series as soon as I figured out who Aunt Quinland was. Funny, I found this website because I was looking around trying to figure out when the next book would be published. I appreciate how you manage to bring history alive … and your focus on women and children. I dimly remember hearing about the Comstock Act in high school, but had no clue what it really looked like.

    I’m now re-reading “Into the Wilderness” for about the 20th time – as you can tell, I’m a fan. I remember being on an airplane listening to the end of “The Endless Forest” for the first time.

    So don’t worry about the negative reviews and the clueless publisher.

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