Authors, editors, agents—really everyone in publishing—tell authors “don’t read reviews.” “Reviews aren’t for authors, they’re for readers.” They’re not wrong. There’s a lot of self-preservation in the advice. Reviews can be frustrating, cruel, and just downright ridiculous. Like a one star review because of a delivery delay. Or the one star review I received for Heresy because a reader thought the book was defective when really just had deckled edges.
But, I also think that a well written critical review can help authors. So I read them. Well, I mostly scan them these days. I’ve been lucky enough that my books consistently get four star averages, with the exception of Sawbones (not really sure why; again I skim the reviews) and Stillwater.
The most consistent complaints I get in reviews of Stillwater is that readers hate the ending. Readers feel cheated, they say the ending is a cliffhanger, and just a way to get them to buy the second book. They’re not wrong, but they’re not completely right, either. Everyone comes into a book with their own ideas, their own expectations. I let some readers down with the ending, and I respect their opinion. But, I needed some blog content and I figured “What the heck? I’ll tackle the Stillwater ending.”
First, some background
Stillwater was the second novel I completed. When I finished it, I opened up a new document and started writing The Fisher KIng (TFK) immediately. I think I wrote 40K words on TFK in two months. The story just poured out of me. I knew from the beginning that it would take three books for me to tell the story of Buck Pollard’s corruption, and Jack and Ellie’s journey. When I flowed right into writing TFK, I hadn’t even gotten an agent. I wrote an ending for Stillwater that would leave an agent wanting more, knowing all along that if it sold, the publisher/editor would want to change the ending.
I did get an agent with Stillwater and when it sold to a publisher and we finally started editing, I told my editor I knew we would need to change the ending. Her response: “No! I love it.” She explained that the second book would be coming out the next year, so the ending should be fine. Made sense to me.
Now, I don’t want to overly criticize my editor who was a lovely person and I enjoyed working with her very much. But, the publisher was a general fiction publisher, and she edited a wide range of books and topics. I don’t think she was as tuned into mystery readers expectations as an editor at a dedicated mystery imprint would have been. This was my first publishing experience, and I relied a lot on other people’s opinions, figuring them for the experts. My instincts told me to change the end but I didn’t. Ultimately it’s my book and I take full responsibility for not trusting my instincts.
With all that said, the two most frequent complaints is that 1) I didn’t solve the mystery and 2) the ending was a cliffhanger. I’ll give the critics the second point. it does read like a cliffhanger, at least in regards to the central relationship between Ellie and Jack. The thing is, with just a few changes, a couple of more sentences, maybe a paragraph or two, and I don’t think anyone would complain about this. If I ever get the rights back to these two books, the first thing I’m going to do is to smooth out the ending. I won’t change it, but I will tie the ending into a better bow. (Chances are I’ll never get the rights back. Hence this blog post.)
As for the criticism that I wrote the ending like that to make people buy the second book (which is inevitably followed by a complaint about the ebook price being too high) of course authors want you to buy the next book. That’s how we make a living. But, I didn’t write the ending with the intention of manipulating anyone into buying the next book for a higher price. I have no control over the e-book prices. (I think anything over 9.99 for an ebook is too high, too.) But, I know a lot of people get Stillwater on sale in ebook form so seeing that $12.99 price is a shock. I totally get it, and I’m sorry. But, TFK price is totally out of my hands.
Now as to the “the author didn’t solve the mystery” complaint. We’re going to have to agree to disagree.
Mild spoilers for the ending of Stillwater
There are two central mysteries in Stillwater: the double murder of Gilberto and Rosa Ramos, and the forty year old murder of Claire Dodsworth. By the end of the book we know who killed Gilberto and Rosa, who ordered the killings, and why. Jack and Miner have also pieced together the events they think happened with Claire’s murder. But, since it’s a forty year old case and the people who were there are dead or senile they may never now what exactly happened for sure.
Why did I make that choice with Claire’s murder? Because that’s real life. Murders go unsolved. There are theories that the authorities can’t prove. No one is brought to justice. This is especially true for cold case files.
The discovery of incriminating evidence for another crime in the search of Buck Pollard’s house near the end of the book muddied the waters, too. This discovery is essential for the overarching story of Buck Pollard’s corruption but I can see how adding that in would frustrate readers with certain genre expectations.
What I didn’t fully appreciate when I was writing Stillwater and we were editing it, was that for mystery fans, justice being served at the end of the book is as important to mystery readers as the Happily Ever After (HEA) is to romance readers. Because of the open endedness of Claire’s case, and Buck Pollard’s disappearance, mystery readers felt cheated.
I could go into justifications such as ‘powerful men get away with bad shit all the time.’ But real world injustice is precisely why mystery readers expect justice in their fiction.
So, what about the third book?
Readers have emailed me and asked if I’m writing a third book and when it’s going to come out. The answer is yes, there will be a third book. I have no idea when it will be published.
Here’s the thing about publishing: if people offer you money, you write what they want. That’s why I’ve been writing historical and women’s fiction for the last few years.
There’s another reason. I severed ties with the Stillwater/TFK publisher a couple of years ago. (That’s another post. Maybe.) That means that the Jack McBride mystery series is an orphan. When I finish the third book it will have to go through the submission process and with it being an orphan from other publisher? Who knows if mystery publishers will bite. There is always the option to self-publish, which I don’t really want to do, but I will if we can’t find a home for Jack and Stillwater.
As soon as I finish my current MS, I won’t be under contract for anything and I’m going to write the third Jack McBride mystery. I’ve started it, and I know the story. Cross your fingers that it will flow out of me like The Fisher King did. The double cross your fingers that it will find the perfect home.