Reviews: perhaps my readers know more than me…

At one point, my day job was of enough interest that someone actually reported on something I did. This is where I learnt something important, that I believe Hollywood actors say, ‘Never read your own reviews, daaarrling!’ Or at least, I beleive they say, in some sort of thespian drawl, whilst avidly poring over everything written about them or their work in private.
Anyway, so perhaps I shouldn’t read my own reviews. But, as a debut author, with a book to pitch that, to be honest, I am not entirely sure how or where to pitch it, I do read them. In fact, I moved my book from ‘thriller’ to ‘suspense’ on the advice of a review. But here is one review that I got recently:

13 March 2018

A gritty, streetwise novel that follows a group of friends from pavement to penthouse and back again while asking the question: What do you do when one of your best friends is a psychopath?

Switching between 1996 and 2008, we see the characters transform from 20th century teenage wasters plotting their escape from suburbia to grasping, materialistic 21st century adults desperately trying to keep it on the up-and-up – all while dodging almost every type of trouble imaginable.

Firstly, wow! I have pondered nicking some of this review as advertising copy. But, I am a bit unsure about ‘American Psycho in Reverse’. It gives away some of my novel (obviously, now you know there is a psychopath in my novel, and presumably already got that there were City yuppies as well), and I have been unsure as to whether that should be there in the advertising copy or not. And, I am a bit uncomfortable as comparing myself to Bret Easton Ellis, as he writes ‘literature’, possibly even ‘great American literature’. And, although I said this novel was a literary, coming of age novel as I wrote the first chapter, I think it very quickly morphed to gritty crime (I tend to compare my work more to Martina Cole, as she is also willing to write in the swear words and seems familiar with the insides of a London Working Man’s Club). Worse, I’ve not finished reading American Psycho myself. I spent the start impatiently waiting for the gory bits, and when I got to them, I got a bit grossed out to be honest.
The next bit of the review: ‘grasping materialistic adults‘. This caused some thinking. One of my friends who’s read the book told me they thought that Rake was a bit of an arsehole at the start of his story in 2008. And I recently re-read that chapter. We have Rake, noticing that the strippers in a trashy, classy club are being exploited, but, although this stops him from enjoying the experience and leads to him wondering if this was the life they were promised when they left ‘Romania or where-ever‘, it doesn’t encourage him to report the Russian gangsters to a human trafficking helpline, neither does it prevent him from ogling the bar maid. So, yeah, a bit of an arsehole then. (But let’s give Rake his due, attempting to rescue women in peril hasn’t worked out so well for him in the past, and he’s on a bit of a redemption plot-line at this point). I must admit, however, yes, the characters are grasping and materialistic adults. I did wonder if I could write a story where I could persuade the reader to sympathize with a stock-broker during the 2008 crisis (at least, a little bit). And, after their upbringing, is it any wonder that the characters are attracted to money?
The other thing about this review is this question: ‘what do you do when one of your best friends is a psychopath?‘ This is interesting. I could reframe the book copy as being about the relationship between Rake and Cezek (currently, I see it as about Rake, Helene and Cezek). This is the current copy on adverts for the book:

Old friends. A terrible secret. Dare they risk it all to stay on the up and up?

If you like gritty truthiness, compelling characters and gripping suspense, then you’ll love this stunning debut novel from Erik Sturm.

And this is a possible new formula:

What do you do when your best friend is a psychopath?

If you like gritty modern noir, compelling characters and gripping suspense, then you’ll love this stunning debut novel from Erik Sturm.

Both of which, I think has a better hook than ‘No one escapes home undamaged‘, which was my original version.
They are all true to the content of the book. Those that have escaped Plumstead are a bit damaged by their experiences, but that doesn’t really tell you anything about the book, it’s more the conclusion you might draw (the ‘premise’ in book writing terms). The three sentence structure (Old friends. A terrible secret. Dare they risk it all to stay on the up and up?) tells you a bit more, and introduces the colloquialism ‘up and up’, which it occurred to me at some point during the process, not everyone would know. And the question, (What do you do when your best friend is a psychopath?) gives away a plot point, but perhaps a hook-y one. (What would you do? Especially, if you and no one you know can trust the police. Especially, if, because you were dumb enough to call in a favour with them, they have something over you. How can you protect someone else from them, especially if because of your personal guilt, you cannot come clean and explain how you know they’re a psychopath).
So… what have I learnt from this experience? In self-publishing, it is a good idea to do what is called a ‘soft launch’ and put your book out quietly to get some feedback from your first readers and your first reviews, especially if it’s your first time and you are learning how to pitch your book from how people react.
That, and people can spot a psychopath.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: