Sales are very encouraging. Amazon charts “best seller” lists on an hourly basis. For most of the first two days, the eBook version has been the #1 Best Seller at the Kindle Store. And, yesterday, my editors informed me that the hardcover version was actually the #1 Best Seller among all psychological thrillers. For this, dear readers, I sincerely thank you!
So yesterday I looked at my Amazon reviews. The main thing that jumped out at me was that absolutely no one was talking about the quality of my prose. Nor, for that matter, did people say the novel was badly written. None of that mattered to my readers. Which struck me as funny because most writers I know (including myself) are super invested in the word- and sentence-level quality of our writing.
I used to ask writers if they’d rather write a “a great novel that was horribly written” or a “poor novel that was beautifully written.” The results were mixed—a lot of us would rather be known for writing great sentences even if this meant our novels were otherwise fatally flawed.
Our sentences matter—to us, at least. And yet, for the majority of readers, my guess is that beautifully-written sentences aren’t foremost on their minds when evaluating a novel. Nor, for that matter, are readers terribly interested in style or tone, imagery or themes. Instead, other fictive elements—namely, plot, pacing, and characters— are what they’re after.
The other thing that struck me is that I WILL NEVER LEAVE YOU is definitely not the novel to read if you can’t stomach unlikeable characters.
For me, there’s two distinct streams of psychological thrillers.
On one hand, some novels center on the efforts of a likeable wife who struggles to escape from a manipulative/abusive husband. B.A. Paris’s BEHIND CLOSED DOORS, S.J. Watson’s BEFORE I GO TO SLEEP, Kaira Rouda’s excellent BEST DAY EVER, and Emma Chapman’s HOW TO BE A GOOD WIFE fit into this category.
And the other kind of psychological thriller?
Well, that’s the crazycakes variety where all characters are unlikeable (if not psychologically unhinged), and all relationships are dysfunctional. Think Gillian Flynn’s GONE GIRL, Paula Hawkins’s THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN, and Mary Kubica’s EVERY LAST LIE.
I’ll make no bones about it—my novel definitely falls into the crazycakes variety. My agent and editors and everyone heavily invested in my commercial success might not like me to say this, but people looking for “likeable characters” really should spend their money on one of the novels with likeable characters that I mentioned above rather than buy my novel. Similarly, if you’re looking for a baseball book, civil war saga, or a historical novel set during the Great Depression, look elsewhere. Readers deserve to be happy. If you’re like me, you don’t have a lot of extra money or a lot of free time to invest in something that’s bound to give you no joy.
However, if you’re fascinated by “unlikeable characters” and their crazycakes twisted twisty drama, may I humbly suggest you give I WILL NEVER LEAVE YOU a look?
Addendum #1: What’s weird is that those who didn’t like my novel because of the unlikeable characters usually wrote very short 1-star reviews. And, like I said above, I can’t blame them for their dissatisfaction. However, those who really liked unlikeable characters really liked my novel, leaving long cogent reviews so glowing that I almost wanted to cry. These readers really got what I was trying to accomplish.
As readers of this blog know, I’m a big John Lennon fan. There’s a line in “Strawberry Fields Forever” in which Lennon sings about his fear “no one I think is in my tree.” As a previously- unpublished writer, I never knew if I’d ever connect with readers. I honestly thought I was nothing but a voice braying to his lonesome, much to the consternation of everyone around me.
But after reading some of these reviews, I realized I’d made a connection. I wasn’t braying to myself any longer. There were others in my tree!
So yesterday, I emailed my agent, Rick Pascocello of Glass Literary Management, my impression that readers’ willingness to accept unlikeable characters was the chief indicator of whether they’d like my novel.
Rick wrote back the most remarkable insight:
“You hit the nail on the head. Unlikable characters are like cilantro. Some people love it (it’s the world’s most used herb); but some can’t stand it. The reviews reflect people’s ability to embrace these flavors. That’s why the good reviews are so effusive; others spit it out immediately.”
Addendum #2: The question I get most when talking to people about my novel is why I chose to publish it under a pen name. Earlier this week, I wrote a guest blog piece at Missdemeanors.com in which I talked about this.
Addendum #3: And, lastly, one other excellent thing happened this past week. For the first time ever, I’ve been asked to blurb a novel! And the neat thing is, the person who asked me is a legitimate best-selling novelist, someone whose work I’ve admired for quite some time. This feels like such an honor!