Among Thieves by Douglas HulickFirst, I want to thank Aidan for inviting me to blog over here on A Dribble of Ink. It’s terribly flattering when someone trusts you enough to ask for your help in maintaining a blog they’ve worked so hard on over the years. It’s like being asked to house-sit, only there isn’t any booze to steal or plants to ignore. Which is a bit of a let-down, now that I think about it.

So, Lesson Number One: Guest blogging — not as fun as wrecking someone else’s house while throwing a huge party, but better than sitting around your own place watching TV.

That being said, Aidan was good enough (at my request) to come up with a list of possible topics for me to write about. Things like how my life has changed now that I am published author; or whether I might want to write about one of my literary influences; or what it was like to take a familiar character trope (the thief) and try to put a fresh spin on it.

These are great suggestions. In fact, they’re so good I may steal them for use on my own blog at some point (assuming, you know, I start one). I’m particularly intrigued by the whole “new spin on the thief” thing, because I haven’t consciously thought about it that much.

But if I’m going to steal them for later use, that doesn’t exactly help me right now, now does it? Which leads us to…

Lesson Number Two: If you’re going to steal someone’s suggested blog topics in hopes of making your own (eventual) blog more interesting, be sure you have something much more banal to write about on their blog, thereby giving the readers a reason to abandon the original blog for yours.

So, rather than use any of Aidan’s suggestions, I’m going to take a moment and talk about reviews from the vantage point of a newly published author. (You see what I just did there? How this is a review site and I turned the subject back on itself? Tricky, right?)

As a new author, you dream of scads of praise for your work; of opening up your chosen publication or blog Of Record and finding glowing reviews dripping off the page. You want people to love your book or story as much as you do, to see and appreciate all the work and blood and coffee and countless nights/days/meetings-at-work-where-you-sat-in-the-back-typing-instead-of-listening that went into your prose. It’s only natural.

And here’s the thing: if you’re lucky, you’ll get some of those reviews. Somewhere, someone (preferably someone you don’t usually refer to as “Mom”) may go absolutely ga-ga over your work. You’ll be praised as the greatest genius since Heinlein, write the smoothest prose since Poe, be the next biggest things since…well, whoever is big in your corner of the genre that week. They’ll throw five stars up on Amazon and any place else they can, and tell all their friends.

Those reviews? Those reviews rock. And as a writer, they’re easy to read because these are the people you were clearly writing for. These are the people who “get” your stuff, who connect with it on one or more levels and sing the song you were secretly hoping they’d sing.

But, as with everything, there’s an opposite end of the spectrum, and it’s there you’ll meet your challenges. There will be people who can’t stand your work, or find it full of flaws, or don’t see the point in it. And they’ll say so. And, being a writer and being invested in your work (and having access to Google, which you will search compulsively, but that’s another blog post…), you’ll read it. And it will, indeed, suck my friend.

Lesson Number Three: Reviews, like the Force, have a light side and a dark side. However, unlike the Force (or duct tape, for that matter), they do nothing to hold the universe together.

So who’s right? Well, both of them, in a way. Because–and here’s the important bit, so pay attention–reviews are opinions. Oh, they may be well-informed, or relevant, or well-meaning, or just plain crackers; but they are, at base, someone’s opinion about your work. And everyone’s opinion works for at least one person: them.

That doesn’t make reviews irrelevant, or course (far from it–sometimes there are insights or observations that bring up valid points about your work; and they do help people learn about your work); but it doesn’t mean you have to take every one of them to heart, either. And by no means should you ever take one as a personal comment on your worth as a person. Reviews are (ideally) evaluations of a piece of work, not of the artist. Sometimes you may not be so sure about that last bit–the web’s a wild and woolly place, after all, and electrons and the opinions they carry are cheap–so you need to armor up and remember…

Lesson Number Four: Some reviews may feel personal. Don’t take them that way.

But that’s not the main thing I want to get at here. For me, the most interesting part of reading the reviews of my first novel have been those that stray more towards the middle: the ones where a person may have liked the book to a degree, but were clearly looking for more/less of something. The reviewer may not even know precisely what this thing is, but you can often get a good idea through their comments about what didn’t work for them. Maybe they wanted a more sympathetic character; maybe your character wasn’t enough of a bastard; maybe they wanted to see more of the world; maybe you put in too damn many details about the world. Maybe (to pick a completely, utterly, not-related-to-my-book-AT-ALL random example) they just don’t like thieves.

And this is the part, as a writer, I find fascinating. I know damn well what I meant to do when I wrote a scene or action or an exchange of dialog, what I was trying for in terms of pacing or story-arc; but that doesn’t mean the reader is going to see the same thing when they read it. As writers, we spend so much time in our heads and in the story, we come to see it one specific way–our way. Even with revisions and critique groups and editorial input, ultimately what is on the page is what we pulled out of our brain and our guts: how are we not going to intimately understand what it’s supposed to mean? But once I send the story out? Once it’s in the reader’s hands and then in their head? It’s not my story any more. Oh, I wrote it, but I can’t control how they read it. The novel is as much the reader’s as it is the writer’s at that point, and by the end of the book, I’d argue it belongs more to them than it does to me anymore. All I can do is write the words; I can’t control how someone sees and tastes and imagines the story those words try to tell.

And that, I think, is the true secret to handling reviews as a writer: you have to realize that the story no longer belongs to you. Because no matter how hard you try, you can’t convey every detail and nuance and subtlety of the story to every person. And that’s okay. It’s why different people buy different books, and why one guy gives you one star and another thinks five isn’t nearly enough. Because, in the end, they each read the same book, but they also each read a different book; and neither one is quite the same book you wrote to begin with.

Final Lesson: When it’s done, you have to let the story go.

Now, enough navel-gazing. Let’s break a lamp or something so Aidan knew we were here. But I’m not paying for it.

Written by Douglas Hulick

Douglas Hulick

Douglas Hulick is the author of the Tales of the Kin series. His debut novel, Among Thieves, the first book in the series, is published by Roc/Penguin in the United States, by Verlagsgruppe Random House/Heyne in Germany and by Tor/Macmillan in the United Kingdom and Australia.     @doughulick

  • Michael Sullivan May 12, 2011 at 7:09 am

    Great post – and I know EXACTLY how you feel. There’s nothing better than seeing someone write a review who “gets” what you’re trying to do with your writing. It took me a long, long, time to get over my past few “bad reviews” but then I realized that everyone has different tastes and a quick fun read like mine is not going to be well received by someone who likes long detailed gritty realistic stuff. It doesn’t make one better than the other – just different. Good post – I really enjoyed.

  • ganymeder May 12, 2011 at 8:10 am

    A very interesting look at reviews. Thanks!

  • BT May 12, 2011 at 8:30 am

    Mr. Hulick, I very much enjoyed this post. As an aspiring writer, I always think when I write a scene, “is the reader going to see it the way I see it?” The answer is obviously no. We all have different experiences that shape the way we see the world. Our words generate images in the reader’s mind, but the reader’s experiences shape those images. The words are merely the catalyst. The hope is that the reader’s vision is similar enough to the writer’s that they “get” you, as you so succinctly put it…

    Excellent advice. Maybe I’ll have to check out your book now.

    And I’d think twice about breaking that lamp. You see that teddy bear on the shelf over there? Aidan’s definitely got a nanny-cam in it…


  • Mundanename May 12, 2011 at 11:50 am

    BT – definitely check out Among Thieves, if you like thief/rogue/outlaw stories at all you should love it :)

    As a reader I never really get the point of negative reviews. Perhaps it is just me but there are way too many books to read so by default I never read many of them. So rather than looking for more reasons not to read a book I am always looking for positive reviews to direct me to the good ones.

    Also as a reader I wish I could insulate my favorite authors from the really harsh reviews. Haters will hate, and writing takes a lot of creative energy which is hard to come up with if you just read something very negative.

  • Kat Hooper May 12, 2011 at 3:15 pm

    Really interesting to read an author’s views of reviews after so recently publishing his first novel. Thanks for this! I look forward to reading your book!

  • BT May 12, 2011 at 3:35 pm

    @Mundanename – thank you for the recommendation. Many many moons ago I followed the Thieves’ World books by Robert Asprin and Lynn Abbey religiously, but I haven’t read such books in awhile. Mistborn is probably the closest I’ve gotten.

    For my site, I post what I like and don’t like about a book I read. If the review ends up being more negative, it’s because I didn’t “get” the writer, as Douglas puts it. I never just say that a book was terrible, though. I try to give detail on where I feel the writer went wrong. I’d rather the writer use my review as constructive criticism rather than hate – I want the writer to improve or change some things, not quit in disgust because I had a complaint.

    As a writer myself, I want to know what people like and don’t like about my writing. My friends and family think of sparing my feelings first, so they may not be the most objective reviewers. If several readers, who are complete strangers to me, consistently point out something they didn’t like, maybe that’s something I need to work on, but individual reviews that are bad I would chalk up as simply a matter of taste and not worry too much about it.

  • Douglas Hulick May 12, 2011 at 6:11 pm

    BT & Kat: Glad you liked the post. Also, thanks for considering checking out my book. :)

    MundaneName: Thanks for the shout-out!

    As BT points out, I think the whole good/bad review thing depends on what comes with it. If a review essentially says, “I hate this because I hate it,” I agree that it’s not helpful. If is says, “I hate this because I hate thieves/fantasy/mysteries/this kind of book or character”, that tells me that, well, the book wasn’t for you; but beyond that, again, not terribly useful to the review’s reader. Hate reviews are pretty easy to walk away from, really.

    If, however, you, as a reviewer, specify why you didn’t like the book, that’s more helpful. If nothing else, it explains your position, in which case, I as the reader (or the writer) can start to gain some insight into your preferences, expctations, and so on. It still may not make one whit of difference whether or not a person decides to pick up the book (or whether I change my writing for the next book–which I won’t; you can’t write for reviewers, only yourself), but it at least gives some context for the reviewer’s reaction.

    Like I said, by far the most unanticiapted benefit for me has been my being able to read the various reviews and discover what clicked or didn’t click for people. Seeing the contradictions that arise–even over the same aspect of the story–is the best reminder I can think of that, even though our name is on the byline, we can’t control the audience or their reaction. All we can do is write our story and hope someone else is willing to go along for the ride.

    And a nanny cam? Really? Well, I would think the whipped cream we sprayed all over the walls would take care of that, but if not, well…I suppose we can always try to find the original footage. :)

  • Dave Wagner May 12, 2011 at 7:18 pm

    Great post, very fun and well-presented. Coincidentally, I had just read the free sample of your novel a few days ago… so now I feel qualified to tell you everything I don’t like about you and your writing! Ahem, ok, let’s see, where to begin…

    I’m kidding, of course. It was a solid, enjoyable read, and I look forward to buying/reading the full thing soon (My TBR pile is monstrous!). Thanks for taking the time to post. I won’t break one of Aidan’s lamps, but I will be a little sloppy while using the restroom, if you catch my drift… (*oops*!) Is that close enough?

  • Douglas Hulick May 14, 2011 at 1:52 pm


    Glad you liked the post. And I’ve already been panned based on a downloaded sample, so you’d be late to the party. :P Hope you enjoy the full-length product.

    (Nice touch in the restroom, btw…)

  • Jacob @ Drying Ink May 15, 2011 at 5:14 am

    I’ve been hearing a lot about ‘Among Thieves’ over at Fantasy Faction, and I’m looking forward to reading and reviewing it as well. Great post, by the way, though I would say that while most reviews may be personal opinions and thus subjective, they’re also likely to be representative of a section of the readership as well – as long as they comment on their reasons for liking/disliking the book.

  • Douglas Hulick May 15, 2011 at 12:28 pm

    Michael: Glad you liked the post. It’s one of those things I “knew” about from talking to other writers, but there’s nothing like experiencing it yourself. The wide spectrum of reactions to some of the exact same elements in the book were the things that really made me stop and think about the reader’s (& reviewer’s) experience. It’s very easy for us, as the artists, to focus on the end result (did they like/hate it?), and miss some of the subtleties of experience that a well-done review can convey. Doesn’t stop me from scratching my head from time to time, but helps daunt the sting a bit, too.

    Jacob: Thanks in advance for considering reviewing “Among Thieves.” Any attention is appreciated. And yes, I agree that reviews can represent a larger cross-section of the readership. I know that there a some reviewers I’ve found who have similar tastes and preferences to my own, and some who I find tend to have tastes quite different from mine. As a result, I give the former more weight and the latter less so when it comes to considering books I’ve yet to see or peruse on my own. But that just comes back to opinion, again: if both reviewers cover the same book, with one liking and one panning it, my own choice on which review to favor is going to be effected by how their tastes and opinions re. past books mesh with my own. Not a bad thing; just part of the process. The important thing, as you say, is to explain the reasoning behind your position, so that the people reading your work know whether they might agree with your assessment of my work or not. :)

  • Brad Beaulieu July 6, 2011 at 1:48 pm

    I didn’t catch this until now, but nice post, Doug.

  • Brad Beaulieu July 6, 2011 at 1:50 pm

    I especially liked the last bit about how what you write is not exactly what people read. I’ve heard it said as: you bring half of the experience to the table, and the reader brings the other half. I didn’t really subscribe to that at first, but only because I was a complete noob. Now I totally buy into it. It’s a good mantra to keep in mind while writing *and* while reading reviews.