Looking beyond the bad reviews

My last blogpost was all about ignoring bad reviews and moving on.  Hah, if only I could!  We authors have trouble moving on.  We can quote verbatim that awful review we got in the Podunk Gazette back in 1982, while we forget all the good things that have been said about our books.  So in the spirit of looking on the positive side, I will steadfastly avoid mentioning the two Reviewers-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named who slimed THE BONE GARDEN.

Well, okay, you twisted my arm. They were Publishers Weekly and some guy named David Pitt who made the jaw-dropping comment that he didn’t see the point of using Oliver Wendell Holmes in the story when any fictional character would have served the story just as well.  Hello?  A book about childbed fever? A disease that the real Dr. Holmes almost single-handedly stamped out in America?  Yeah, and if I’d written a Revolutionary War novel, Mr. Pitt probably would have groused, “why use George Washington as a character when any fictional first President would have worked just as well?”

But I digress.

The point is, I’m obsessing over those two bad reviews when there’ve been many more great reviews of BONE GARDEN.  And now it’s time to mention them, if only to make myself feel better.  So here goes, with links when I could get them:

KIRKUS (starred review):  “Readers with delicate stomachs may find Gerritsen’s graphic descriptions of corpse dissection hard to take, but the story, which digs up a dark Boston of times long past, entices readers to keep turning pages long after their bedtimes.”

USA TODAY: “Lively dialogue and a pitch-perfect narrative make for a highly engrossing novel.”

ROCKY MOUNTAIN NEWS (Colorado):  “Mixing the gruesomely bloody with the scientifically compelling, this time-traveling tale never misses its mark.”

SOUTH FLORIDA SUN-SENTINEL (Oline Cogdill): “No matter how graphic the medical scenes are, it is the poignant stories of Gerritsen’s well-developed characters that make “The Bone Garden” one of her best.”

THE GLOBE AND MAIL (Toronto): “Gerritsen knows how to do historical detail: the plot, with ghouls and grave-robbers is great, and the mystery of the body in the modern yard is well done, too.  This is one of Gerritsen’s best.”

THE GAZETTE (Montreal): “I adore a historical novel, particularly a mystery, and The Bone Garden is one such book. It’s a ripping good read, and I learned something, too.”

OTTAWA CITIZEN (Canada): “An intriguing departure for Gerritsen… Shifting deftly back and forth between the present and 1830 Boston, she creates a compelling and historically detailed narrative about an earnest med student, illicit cadavers, brutal murders, and the state of medicine at that time.”

MADISON COUNTY HERALD (Mississippi): “A bold and unexpected new direction from the queen of medical suspense… The Bone Garden is as thrilling as it is horrific, combining a shameful time in American medical history with murder and intrigue a la Sherlock Holmes.”  

MAINE SUNDAY TELEGRAM: “Tess Gerritsen is a master technician whose specialty is cauldrons of blood, pus and treachery.  It may keep you up at night, but that’s the point.  It works.”

DAILY AMERICAN (Somerset County, PA): “This is a fascinating look at early medical science, as well as a good, character-driven mystery.  The murderer will come as a complete surprise.”

BOSTON GLOBE: “The medical practices that Gerritsen depicts are fascinating.  In addition to the well-drawn scenes in the hospital, she takes readers on grisly journeys with a procurer of cadavers, to be used in the training of medical students.  Here, too, she calls on her experience as a physician to render situations in excruciatingly horrific detail.”

MYSTERY NEWS: Tess Gerritsen tells her story beautifully, with just a smidgen of humor… Her own medical background is evident and her peering into a true historical past just adds to the enjoyment.”

WICHITA EAGLE: “Gerritsen brings 1830s Boston to life with vivid detail, from the stench and squalor of Rose’s rented room to the delectable opulence of the doctors’ parties… Aside from the chilling suspense and well-plotted mystery, THE BONE GARDEN certainly makes us appreciate how far medicine has come.”

PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER: “With realistic detail, Gerritsen describes the unimaginable living conditions endured then by the poor… Richly plotted, with superbly developed characters, it’s a suspense thriller likely to keep you reading into the wee hours.”

 

Dear Ms. Cornwell

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You’re looking at the painful results of a donkey-porcupine encounter.  I don’t know who started the fight, since I didn’t witness the confrontation, but I suspect my donkey Scottie was the aggressor since porcupines are inclined to scurry away from conflict while donkeys can be, well… territorial.  An infected leg and $2,000 in veterinarian bills later, Scottie was safely home and back in his paddock.  The suspect porcupine was quickly dispatched by our farm caretaker.  Yet only days later our other donkey, Spock, had porcupine quills in his legs.  Resulting in yet another trip to the vet and another hefty bill.  Although we’ve gotten rid of several porcupines since then, new ones keep showing up.  There’s no end to them.

I was reminded of porcupines when I read about author Patricia Cornwell fighting back against the multitude of bad reader reviews she’s received on Amazon.com.  In a letter on her website, she talks about a possible conspiracy against her, and asks her loyal readers to defend her by posting reviews to counteract the unfair ones.  Her request has garnered a certain amount of ridicule and laughter.  The general reaction in the blogosphere is that Cornwell is rich and famous so why does she bother to fight back?  People in her position should be immune to hurt feelings.  People with money and success should be able to shrug off any and all criticism.  

Instead of shrugging it off, she’s attacking her attackers.  Just like Spock and Scottie, she’s kicking back at her tormentors — but she’s getting stuck with the quills of ridicule because of it.

I can understand her impulse to fight back.  Many times, I’ve wanted to fire back an angry letter at a nasty reviewer.  I’ve wanted to respond to 1-star Amazon.com reviews.  I’ve thought of enlisting my readers in defending me.  But then I consider the ramifications of those actions.  You come off looking whiny and desperate.  You reveal just how sensitive — and vulnerable — you really are.

The fact is, we writers are sensitive and vulnerable to criticism.  I know I am — and it appears that Cornwell is as well. 

But we have to grit our teeth and keep smiling.  We have to resist the urge to kick those porcupines. 

Now, I’ve never met Patricia Cornwell, and I doubt she knows who I am.  But if I could write a note to her, this is what I might say:

Dear Ms. Cornwell,

you’ve written some fabulous books.  You’ve also written some books that have not been well received by your readers.  Some of their reviews have been unspeakably nasty and crueler than any novelist deserves.  Don’t give them the satisfaction of a public response.  Don’t let on that you’ve even noticed.  Because no matter what you say, no matter how justified your response may be, you will come off looking bad.  I know it’s hard to take those attacks without fighting back.  Like you, I have a tough time ignoring criticism.  Probably like you, I have fantasies of revenge.  Fantasies involving hitmen and midnight knocks on my tormentors’ doors.

But let’s both be strong, okay?  Let’s show the world we’re true professionals and above the fray. 

And if by chance you’ve already hired that hitman, tell him the plans are off.  Tell him to leave your critics alone.

Send him after mine instead. 

 

Action is boring

In the airport in Zurich, I bought a paperback novel for the flight home.  I wasn’t looking for heavy literature, just something to keep me entertained for the seven-hour flight, so I chose it based on the back-cover description, which promised a fast-paced thriller with an international setting.  Within the first chapter, bam, someone died a violent death.  About every other chapter after that, there was a gun battle or a car chase or a fist-fight.  The protagonists were chased across several countries, by a relentless cabal of bad guys, and everyone was after a piece of evidence that would change the world.  There was a fall off a cliff, some death-defying escapes, and countless ambushes.

I was bored out of my mind.

I wanted to stuff the book in the seat-back pocket for some other hapless airline traveler, but I still had five hours left in the flight and nothing else to read, so I persevered, more as a writers’ exercise than for entertainment.  When I finished the book, I thought about why the book didn’t work for me.  On the surface, you’d think it should be exciting, with all the chases and derring-do.  Yet it lacked tension.  It was all action, and no suspense.

I have the same reaction while I’m watching films.  I find that the most boring part of a thriller movie is often the car chase.  That’s when I yawn and glance at my watch, waiting for something more interesting to happen.  During the most recent James Bond film, I thought the action sequences were okay, but what really got me to perk up was the dialogue between Bond and the Eva Green character on the train ride.  The verbal sparring, the double entendres, the undercurrent of sexual tension — that’s what I call suspense.

When it comes to books, I’ve come to realize that action on the page is sometimes the least interesting part of the whole story.  Real suspense lies in the buildup toward conflict or danger, the threat of something terrible happening.  When it finally does turn into action, all that tension is released and leaks out of the story like a deflating balloon. 

A lot of writers confuse suspense with action.  They think that for a book to be thrilling, it needs lots of fights and gun battles and falling bodies.  Well, let me tell you about four books that kept me riveted to the page, books that were loaded with heart-pounding suspense, yet weren’t overstuffed with action.  NO TIME FOR GOODBYE by Linwood Barclay and REMEMBERING SARAH by Chris Mooney were by male authors who managed to inject amazing suspense just by the conflicts and crises of their characters.  Once I’d started these two books, I couldn’t stop.  They didn’t need action scenes dripping with testosterone.  Instead, they relied on something far more difficult to achieve: characters whose lives are in such crisis, you have to keep reading to see what happens. 

I can think of two other books that managed this feat.  One is an older book, KILLING ME SOFTLY by Nicci French.  I can’t even remember any violence in the book, but I remember almost unbearable tension toward the end, as the heroine finally discovers the truth about her lover.  Another memorable book (not yet released), is ICE TRAP by debut author Kitty Sewall.  It has no violence that I can recall, yet the author manages to set up so much psychological conflict and that I didn’t really care if it was a thriller, a murder mystery, or just a novel about twisted characters in the far north — I had to find the answer to the puzzle that the author introduces within the first few chapters.

I think it takes far more skill to write a suspenseful novel with no action.  Action scenes are easy.  Anyone can write a chase scene or a murder scene, and less skillful writers confuse action with suspense.  They think a gun battle is all you need to make a chapter exciting.  Instead it may have the opposite effect.  It may bore readers like me, readers who just flip past all the running and shooting and screeching tires. 

Pay attention the next time you read a thriller novel.  When does your heart pound, your hand go sweaty?  Is it during the gun battle?  Or is it during the pages leading up to the gun battle?  Is it the dread and impending doom?  Or is it when the bullets actually start to fly?

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COMMANDER RIKER AND ME

As a lifelong Trekkie, I was tickled when actor/director Jonathan Frakes and I were asked to be judges for a local talent show here in town.  Here we are, along with third judge David Grima (editor of our local paper) and emcee Slim Goodbody (in the tuxedo.)   We took our jobs seriously — and it wasn’t that easy a job, considering the talent we had to choose from.  I just wish there could have been an extra prize for the amazing 12-year-old boy who played the piano, sang, AND played the harmonica to Elton John and Billy Joel tunes! 

(And in case you’re wondering, Frakes is both utterly charming and outrageously funny in person.)

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Bits and pieces

 If you’d like to meet some of my other readers, check out the Tess Gerritsen forum over on my UK site. (Although I have to admit it makes me feel a little weird, knowing people are talking about me.)

 And here are a few shots from my trip to Germany!  Here’s me with my publicist, Inge, the German actress Marie-Lou, and the moderator for two of my presentations, Margarete.  We had a grand time at dinner together in Hamburg:

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and here’s another photo, of my reader Jasmin with me in Berlin:

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What I’ve learned from two decades in the business

This month marks a milestone for me.  Twenty years ago, my first novel, CALL AFTER MIDNIGHT, was published by Harlequin Intrigue.  Back then, Intrigue released only two books a month, and I vividly recall the moment I walked into Waldenbooks and saw my book displayed on the romance rack beside the other November Intrigue title, Jasmine Cresswell’s CHASE THE PAST.  For a long time I just stared at it, amazed that I was finally a published author. 

Over the past twenty years, I’ve had twenty books published.  My career has been a see-saw ride, and there’ve been times when I thought my career was, if not dead, then headed for oblivion.  My first nine books were paperback romantic thrillers, eight published by Harlequin, one by Harper.  None of them earned out more than $12,000 in their first printings.  Since I’m a slow writer, and couldn’t turn out a book any faster than every eight months, I knew I’d never get rich as a writer.  But I loved what I was doing, so I stayed with it.  I was — and still am — proud of every book I’ve ever written.  I don’t care if certain readers spit on my romance novels.  I don’t care if the mystery purists consider them dreck.  I still think they’re good reads, each and every one of them.

Then I got the idea for my tenth novel, a medical thriller that was radically different from the romantic thrillers I’d been writing up till then.  I’d also signed up with a new literary agent named Meg Ruley, who was wildly enthusiastic about my partial manuscript for HARVEST, and she managed to snare a substantial book contract with Pocket Books.  In 1996, the hardcover edition of HARVEST managed to pop onto the New York Times bestseller list for one week, at #13.

I thought my career was all set.  Little did I know.

For the next three books, I watched my sales flatten out and even decline, although I did manage to hit the list again with the paperback of BLOODSTREAM.  By the time GRAVITY was released, it was clear that my sales were in a downward spiral.  Despite publisher enthusiasm and rave reviews, GRAVITY could not find an audience among women readers.  That doomed it in the marketplace.  And once your sales start to slip, the pre-orders for your next book, and your next, begin to plummet.  Just as depressing were my foreign sales, which had been so bad that I was having trouble finding anyone to publish me in the UK.

I took off a year to re-group.  I wrote my next book entirely on spec, without a contract.  This time, I was writing just for myself.  By then I’d been pegged by the industry as a “medical thriller author,” and once you’ve been categorized, you’re trapped.  No one wants you to change.  But I longed to do something completely different, to get out of that genre cage and write a truly frightening crime story that would keep me awake at night.

By the time THE SURGEON was published in 2001 by Ballantine, two years had gone by since I’d released a book.  I was writing in a new genre, I’d been out of sight for two years, and my last book had sold poorly.  Everything seemed to bode ill.  But Ballantine managed a miracle.  With a great cover and amazing in-house support, my fourteenth novel THE SURGEON hit #13 on the New York Times list its very first week out.  

Then September 11 happened. 

And yet, that autumn, THE SURGEON kept selling.  In the midst of tragedy and chaos, readers seemed to crave stories about good vs. evil, stories that offered emotional catharsis. 

Since THE SURGEON, my six subsequent books have all been New York Times bestsellers.  And in both the UK and Germany, where my sales had once been moribund, I recently hit #1.

So what have these two decades taught me?

SUCCESS TAKES TIME

I didn’t hit the bestseller list until book #10.  I didn’t start to sell consistently well until book #14.  When I hear new authors complain that they haven’t found success after two or three books, I can only shake my head at their impatience.  It may take another seven books.  Even then, it doesn’t mean the media’s going to pay any attention to you.  Oprah isn’t beating on my door, either. 

Bestselling romance author Linda Howard recently wrote a terrific column about her career, and she revealed that it wasn’t until her 25th book that she hit the bestseller list.  Twenty five books!  How many writers have the patience and fortitude to wait that long for success? 

I hear bitterness in the voices of so many new authors who haven’t yet achieved bestsellerdom.  Bitterness gets you nowhere.  What you need to do is roll up your sleeves and write the next book.  And the next.  And maybe twenty more.

GREAT BOOKS SOMETIMES GET IGNORED.  LOUSY BOOKS SOMETIMES HIT BESTSELLER LISTS.

Life — and publishing — can be unfair.  I’ve read many a wonderful book that never found its audience because of bad timing, bad luck, or bad publishing.  The opposite is also true — that laughably bad books can go on to sell like gangbusters.  For that, I blame a reading public that tends to behave like mindless sheep.  But that’s the subject of another blog.

NOBODY REALLY KNOWS WHAT MAKES A BESTSELLER

I’ve gotten good advice and bad advice over the years. I’ve been told that medical thrillers were my brand and I shouldn’t deviate.  I’ve been told that writing a series character would make my books “smaller.”  I’ve been told that mysteries were dead, romantic thrillers were dead, and religious thrillers would never sell.  Sometimes I’ve heeded the advice, sometimes I’ve ignored it.  The point is, you have to use your own judgment — because you know just as much as anyone else.  Whether you realize it or not.

—————–

And now, another snapshot of my traveling books, this time from Vojtech in Prague:

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Bookselling is bigger than just America

Most of the time, I feel like a reclusive clockmaker who painstakingly crafts gears and chains and sprockets and weaves together intricate bits of machinery.  Since I toil in solitude, I often forget there are real readers out there who buy my creations, readers who actually know my name.

Then I go someplace like Switzerland and Germany, and I’m totally amazed by how many readers I have.

My book tour last week started in Zurich and moved on to Munich, Berlin, Hannover, and Hamburg.  My publisher Limes toured me with a gorgeous German-speaking actress, Marie-Lou Sellem, and at the book events, we took turns reading from BLUTMALE (the German version of THE MEPHISTO CLUB.)  In just about every town, I had interviews with radio stations, newspapers, and I even managed to get onto TV in Berlin.  I also (as you might expect!) sampled the wonderful local beers, dined on curry wurst and schnitzel, and stayed up way too late every night with my willowy companion Inge and my event moderators Gunter and Margarete.

 With every stop, the crowds grew larger until, on the last night, I gazed in awe at a sold-out auditorium.  (And yes, the readers had to pay to attend.)  Despite heavy rains and gale-force winds, hundreds of readers came to hear me speak in Hamburg — and afterwards they stood in an endless line, some of them carrying armloads of books to be autographed.  (“Next time she comes here, we’ll have to get a bigger space,” was the organizer’s comment.)  Here in the U.S., I’m ecstatic if 30 people turn up at one of my booksignings.  In Germany, I felt like a rock star.

While the huge crowds were astonishing, it was a random encounter with a stranger in Berlin that sticks most vividly in my mind.  It happened at the plush Regent Hotel, which was swarming with police because some of the Saudi royal family was staying there.  I was sitting at the bar, having a late-night supper, and when the server took my tab, she said “Thank you, Ms. Gerritsen.”  A table away, a well-dressed German businessman suddenly snapped to attention and stared at me.  “Are you Tess Gerritsen, the author?” he asked.  He told me his job keeps him too busy to read more than one book a year “but it’s always one of yours!”

That’s the kind of encounter that makes a writer giddy.   

Success in America doesn’t always translate to success abroad.  And the opposite is true as well — an obscure author in the U.S. can achieve astonishing success in Europe.  American author Jilliane Hoffman is hugely popular in Europe, but I don’t think she’s found nearly as big an American audience.  Two of my favorite authors, Nicci French and Linwood Barclay, are big names in Germany but for some reason they haven’t yet gained traction in the U.S., although I hope they will one of these days.  In German bookstores, I found many prominently displayed books by American authors whose names I rarely see here at home, but who are clearly doing well abroad.

Foreign markets give a writer a whole different audience and another chance at success. You don’t need to be an American bestseller to make a good living as an author.  Selling well just in Germany and the UK alone could keep a writer prosperous. 

And with the dollar crashing, it doesn’t hurt to get paid in Euros.