Most of my blog posts are really positive, sharing exciting news about new releases, blog tours, milestones reached and so on. The reason for all the positivity is because I love what I do, I’m so incredibly grateful that I have a devoted readership who support my writing and enable me to write full-time, and I want to share the successes with my blog readership to show that things can change if they’re struggling at the moment. I struggled for five years but found my publishing family with Boldwood Books who changed everything for me.
Occasionally, though, I write something which isn’t quite so shiny and happy because that’s the reality of the job I do. Much as I love it, there are downsides to being an author. Readers can make an author’s day with a kind review, a message about how much a story has resonated, and excitement every time a new book is released. But readers can also (whether intentionally or not) really hurt an author.
Negative reviews come with the territory. Like so much in life, reading is very personal and what is right up one reader’s street won’t be someone else’s cup of tea. Even if a reader loves a particular genre and reads voraciously within that genre, there will be sub-genres they don’t like and authors whose voice or style doesn’t work for them. Some readers don’t like books written in the present tense and others don’t like first person narratives. And even those who love a particular author might find a specific book or even a series by that author doesn’t work for them. And all of that is fine because, let’s face it, it would be a boring old world if we all liked exactly the same thing.
While I know I’ll never be able to please all of the people all of the time, negative reviews can still hurt. With tens of thousands of positive ones across my books, they don’t hurt as much as they used to but I wanted to talk about a word that appears in many of my reviews which I find such a struggle: predictable. I swear I’m coming out in hives just thinking about it. This word isn’t just confined to the negative reviews – it slithers its way into the positive ones too so can creep up on you unawares. It isn’t just in my reviews either and it isn’t restricted to my genre of romance.
If we look at what the dictionary says, predictable is defined in the following ways – certain to happen, able to be predicted, happening in a way where you know about it before it happens, obvious in advance that it will happen – and so on. When ‘predictable’ is used in a negative review for a book, it is clearly meant as a criticism. But what about when it is given in a positive review (which is a 4 or 5-star review on Amazon who classify a 3 as negative)? Is this an insult?
I spotted a very recent 4-star review for Chasing Dreams at Hedgehog Hollow, the fifth book in the series. The review was full of positive comments about how much the reader loves my writing and how much she values the escapism but the middle of the review states, “I find them [Jessica’s books] very predictable, maybe because I’ve read a lot of books in this genre, but you can often see how the storyline is going in the first few chapters. This one is no exception, but it didn’t stop me racing through it to make sure I’d guessed correctly!”
It was lovely of this reader to leave me a 4-star review and I am so very grateful that she has read and loved my books. What I’m about to say is not a dig at her or anyone else who has left a positive review for me or any other author in which they have mentioned the word ‘predictable’. It is simply an observation about how it feels from my perspective as an author, so here comes my reaction…
When I read this review, my heart sank. I didn’t see it as a 4-star review. I took in none of the positives flanking this and could only focus on this middle bit and, even though the reader tempered this by saying she’s a voracious reader of the genre (so will be aware of the recurring themes/tropes etc), and conveyed a sense of excitement about racing through to check the accuracy of her guesses, this is what my head translated: I find Jessica’s books predictable. All of them. I’ve read loads now and they’re all the same. I don’t know why I bother reading her books because there’s nothing original about them. I only bother turning the pages because I’m hoping for some amazing plot twist which never happens and I only keep going to the end to satisfy myself that I was right and could have plotted this book out myself.
I know that’s not what it says … but it feels like it to me as the author. And, despite being 4-star review and therefore positive, it floats in that dark cloud along with the 1-star and 2-star predictable accusations, a selection of which you’ll find below along with a couple of other insults about my writing abilities (or lack of them!):
“Waste of Time – Not her best work, too formulaic and predictable. Could not hold my interest. If her remaining books in the series are this poorly written I won’t be reading them” (1-star review for All You Need is Love)
“Written for children – Predictable and long and drawn out. Utterly disappointed” (1-star review for The Secret to Happiness)
“Light reading – This story has a predictable ending… Worth a free download. I wouldn’t pay to read this book though” (2-star review for Christmas at Carly’s Cupcakes)
“Sweet but predictable story – This story was okay but pretty predictable and far too sweet and tame for me… There are 2 more books to read in this series but unless they are vastly different from this one I doubt I will bother with them” (2-star review for New Beginnings at Seaside Blooms)
They say that there are no original stories and I turn to a classic author to illustrate this point from way back. Mark Twain in Mark Twain’s Own Autobiography: The Chapters from the North American Review states, “There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages.”
This quote was published in 1906 so if Mark Twain had declared this 117 years ago, what hope is there for authors today to be completely original or, to put it another way, not to be predictable? And if Twain was thinking this back then, surely that wasn’t him sharing a lightbulb moment at the point where new ideas had run out, so how far back do we go? Could we argue that all modern plots have echoes of biblical stories? What about before then? Can we go right back to cave paintings?
Is predictable even a bad thing? In romance fiction, we talk a lot about romantic tropes. These are elements of a plot which drive the story forward. Readers recognise these and love them and the familiarity they bring. Some readers even have their favourite tropes e.g. enemies to lovers, fake relationship, second chance at love and so on and will immediately dive into a book which promises that trope. There’s been a lot of interest about in tropes on BookTok with books now specifically being marketed by their tropes. There will therefore always be an element of predictability in whatever trope the author is using. If they are using enemies to lovers, then guess what’s going to happen?
And if we strip a romance book back to basics, they’re about boy meets girl (or boy meets boy, girl meets girl, girl means shapeshifter… but that’s a different sub genre and a whole different conversation!) Of course the reader knows the couple are going to get together by the end of the book and get their HEA (happy ever after) or perhaps their HFN (happy for now) ending. That’s the whole point of the genre. There are slight variations. I personally write women’s fiction so my stories are about wider community, friendships and families and there isn’t always a romance story driving the plot. But where there is a romance, the reader knows the couple are going to get together but what is delicious and exciting is the journey they go on to get there. What barriers are in their way? What baggage are they carrying? What misunderstandings will unfold? Will a case of bad timing catch them out? When they do get together, having overcome all of this (or at least found a way to work through it), then we feel a sense of satisfaction as readers and have our “aww” warm and fuzzy moment. Isn’t that what readers want? It’s predictable but what would unpredictable look like? They never get together? One of them dies? One of them is abducted by aliens? There’s a wedding but they’re all massacred? (Hang on a moment, were those last two plots from 1980s US soap Dynasty?)
There will always be exceptions which work well, a classic of recent times being Me Before You by JoJo Moyes which didn’t have a HEA for the couple but, in the main, romance stories will follow the familiar conventions and that does include predictable elements. But I defy anyone to say that everything in the book is predictable and this is what upsets me. I take great pride in my work, carefully constructing the plots and sub plots so that my books are NOT predictable. Chasing Dreams in Hedgehog Hollow in particular presents a mystery and I’ve had feedback from a lot of readers that it isn’t predictable. Yes, readers will know that heroine Lauren is likely to get together with a certain character and I would be happy for readers to predict that because, let’s face it, that’s why that character is there. But her backstory is not predictable and neither are several other aspects so I struggle not to be insulted by a review which uses ‘predictable’ as a blanket term. The romance? Yes, because that’s the point. Everything else? No!
The Boldwood authors are all part of a Facebook group where we ask questions and support each other and predictability has come up as a common bug-bear which crosses all genres. Author Jane Lovering made me laugh in one of the discussions, citing Basil Fawlty’s famous rant from the Fawlty Towers sitcom of the 1970s. Hotel owner Basil has taken a customer to her room and she has expressed disappointment with the view. Their exchange builds up to Basil exploding with, “Well may I ask what you expected to see out of a Torquay hotel bedroom window? Sydney Opera House perhaps? The Hanging Gardens of Babylon? Herds of wildebeest sweeping majestically across the plain…” We wonder sometimes if this is what readers expect from our novels! And yet if we moved away from the predictable (familiar) tropes and structure and did something completely way off the mark, readers would very likely hate it.
Let me turn to another genre: crime. The predictable criticism is frequently levelled at authors of crime novels. Why? Is the book predictable because the detective or sleuth catches the murder/solves the mystery? That’s no different to saying that a romance is predictable because the boy and girl got together. The whole point is to solve it. Or is it predictable because the reader guessed who the killer was? But isn’t that the whole point of crime novels too? Isn’t part of the journey seeing if you can be the sleuth and put the clues together to solve the crime?
In the 1930s, several prolific British crime writers joined together to form the Detection Club. Members included Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, Robert Knox and many others. They developed ‘Knox’s Commandments’ which were a set of guidelines around ensuring that the reader had a chance of solving the clues alongside the sleuth. These were considered to be fair-play ‘rules’ and some members like Christie adhered to them, skilfully peppering the clues for the reader. Others were less strict about this. The Detection Club is still in existence today although the members don’t necessarily follow these ‘rules’ anymore. However, most good crime writers would argue that it doesn’t make for good reading if some random person is introduced at the eleventh hour with no connection to any of the storyline so far and found guilty as the murderer. I think most readers would feel cheated if that happened. So some level of predictability exists and, with crime novels, the reader is surely trying to guess and their reward is if they were right. It doesn’t mean the book was too predictable. It simply means they happened to pull together those clues in the right way. Or they got lucky with their guess.
I absolutely love the TV series Vera based on the books by Ann Cleeves. We watch it as a family and try to guess whodunnit. We’re rarely correct or, if we do guess, our reasoning is wrong. But on the rare occasion we get it, it’s lucky. We’d pat ourselves on the back but we’d never, ever say, “Oh, that was predictable”. Because it wasn’t. The only things we can predict are that Vera is probably going to help herself to someone else’s food at some point, and that’s part of the fun too.
What do you think? As a reader, do you like books that are ‘predictable’? Perhaps ‘familiar’ should be a better word? If you’re an author, how do you feel when you see the word ‘predictable’ in a review? Can it be meant in a positive way? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
That’s my rant over for now. I’m off to write another predictable story 😉
(Or maybe I shouldn’t end it like that because that’s predictable too!)