Don’t follow the instruments

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When I was in the army, I applied for helicopter flight training. Passed all the tests until they got to the vision part and, having been hit in the forehead with a brick when I was seven which severely damaged an optic nerve, I was disqualified—just barely passed the vision test to be in the army in the first place, but when I joined, if you were breathing and could sign your name they’d take you.

Anyway, one of the things I learned during the application process is that one of the first things pilots are taught is to never ‘follow the instruments’ when flying any aircraft. This was explained to me as a caution against overreacting to every twitch of a needle on an instrument that can send a plane into a stall or uncontrollable dive—a very dangerous situation. An old pilot told me that really good aviators stayed aware of their surroundings and just used the instruments as one of the indicators of their attitude, and primarily altitude, and otherwise kept the plane in harmony with those surroundings regardless of what the instruments were indicating.

I give this same information to my writing students—and to myself. The instruments I refer to here are the reader reviews that almost all writers get, actually that we crave because along with monthly royalties they are the indicators that we are being read which is the Holy Grail for any writer.

But reviews, especially nowadays when everyone considers himself or herself to be an expert in just about everything, are a double-edged blade that cuts both ways, and I’ve known writers to go into a tail spin upon receipt of the inevitable negative review. My advice in situations like this, which I give for the positively glowing reviews as well, is ‘don’t follow the instruments.’

A review if the opinion of the reviewer, which that reviewer is entitled to have, but like rear ends, everyone has one and they all smell fishy. Worse, like a malfunctioning altimeter or attitude indicator, they are sometimes just plain wrong and the writer who agonizes over them, or worse, tries to follow what they suggest could end up in literary limbo.

Let me give you a few examples of ‘poorly functioning instruments’ that I’ve been blessed (or cursed) with over the years. First, let me put this in perspective. I’ve published over 250 books over the years, almost all of them except for a few nonfiction works on leadership and international affairs, pulp fiction intended to tell an entertaining story only. I do not aspire to be the author of the next ‘Great Literary Masterpiece.’ I’ve quite literally received thousands of reviews, with some individual books, such as those in my Caleb Johnson Mountain Man series, receiving over two hundred. My reviews range from one-star slams to five-star raves, with some books getting both, which should itself tell you something about the value of reviews.

I love the four- and five-star reviews, shrug at the three-star ones, and ignore the one- and two-star pans of my books. I do read the one-star reviews, for my own entertainment, and sometimes I’ll even try to figure out what motivated the reviewer to be so cruel.

Here’s one, for instance, that amazes me. A reviewer said of Caleb Johnson Mountain Man: In the Shadow of the Mountains, “The story is shallow. If he is a mountain man he is very, very liberal (the review didn’t put a comma between the two adjectives). Mountain men would not have given these men a second chance to kill.” This reviewer gave the book three stars for what he or she perceives as shallowness and an overly liberal character, pulling the books average rating over 97 reviews to four and a half stars, with over 60 percent of those reviews being five-star ratings.

Now, I don’t know this reviewer’s politics or how much he or she really knows about the mountain men of America’s western frontier, but this is book number 21 in a series that is now 24 books, and from the beginning book I established my main character as somewhat liberal, reluctant to take a life—doing so only when it is unavoidable—and have given him a background that supports those actions. I’ve also done extensive research on the mountain men and know from the historical record that they were an extremely diverse bunch, not at all like the popular western media has often portrayed them.

Needless to say, I laughed at this particular review and moved on.

Another reviewer was even harsher, though. This person gave Jacob Blade Vigilante: Retribution in Reynosa one star and said the following, “Didn’t finish past the few chapters (again, I’m writing this exactly as written by the reviewer). Uses the Lords name in vain. Poorly written.” There’s no way I can tell if the one star was for the ‘poorly written’ part of the review of the reaction to one of the characters who was very profane in his speech. I don’t go overboard with profanity in my stories, but when the plot calls for it, characters speak as I believe they would have spoken in a real situation. The old west was not inhabited by saints alone. Again, this rating brought a book with 25 reviews/ratings (60 percent are five-star) down to four and a half stars.

Do ratings and reviews like this bother me? Early in my writing career they did. Now, I react to them like a duck reacts to water, they roll off my back. I continue to write the stories that are inside me the way I feel they should be written. That many of my books (including the above two) continue to rank in the top 100 and top 200 of the millions of books for sale on validates that I’m achieving what I aim to achieve, tell a story that people find entertaining. The few who are turned off are simply the instruments that I do not follow.

Keep flying and keep writing. – NWI