Patricia Cornwell and the Almighty Review
Updated: May 22
I published my first book in December 2012. It was a book I’d worked on for many years. I sent out at least a hundred query letters to both literary agents and publishers all over the U.S. Many of them said they were interested and asked me to send them a sample chapter. Some of them said, “thanks, but no thanks,” and one agent in New York City wrote me an amazing letter telling me how much he liked it and what he thought I should do to make it better. I took all of it to heart … the good, the bad and the ugly. Then I put it all away when I got pregnant with my first child, and I put my personal writing on hold.
Twelve years later, I pulled that document up again. It was more than 600 pages long. The idea was solid, but it was convoluted, and I’d worked for two publishers since I’d seen it last. I’d learned a thing or two about writing and editing, and I was looking at it through new eyes. I still loved the story, so I put the old manuscript aside and I started over.
I knew nothing about the publishing business. I’d written for as long as I could remember. I used writing as a sort of therapy. Whenever I was struggling with something, the only way I could think clearly about it was if I sat down and “wrote through it”, but that was just a personal thing. All the articles or news pieces I’d ever written while employed by magazines had been published for me. I worried about writing and editing and the rest was taken care of. I’d been a lifelong lover of books, but that was other people’s writing, not my own. I had my favorite authors. I had bookshelves and boxes full of hardbound and paperback treasures, but I knew nothing of the world of books from an author’s perspective. I did a lot of research. I jumped in the deep end and hoped I could figure out how to swim. I made a lot of mistakes, and I spent a lot of money I wish I still had in my bank account. I also learned about the importance of the almighty review.
Back in 1990, an author by the name of Patricia Cornwell published a book called Postmortem. It was the first book in her now wildly popular Kay Scarpetta series, and it was a big deal in the book world. Goodreads claims that it was the first bona fide forensics thriller, and in the first year of its release, it won the Edgar, Creasey, Anthony, and Macavity awards as well as the French Prix du Roman d’Aventure prize. Ms. Cornwell has gone on to write more than thirty New York Times bestsellers, and, if I’m not mistaken, I believe the Kay Scarpetta series is now twenty-five novels strong.
I can’t recall exactly when Kay Scarpetta and I crossed paths. I’m certain it wasn’t more than a few years after that first novel was released, and Patricia Cornwell immediately became one of my favorite authors. I quickly devoured the series from the beginning. Then I waited as each new book was released. I was very dedicated to Kay, Marino, Lucy and Benton. I enjoyed Ms. Cornwell’s writing style and her storytelling. I was both disgusted and intrigued by the forensic detail, thrilled by the mystery and suspense, and captivated by what might happen next. Ms. Cornwell, who had worked as a computer analyst at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Richmond, Virginia, introduced me to and schooled me on things I’d never had knowledge of before, from law enforcement to forensic science to flying helicopters. I was hooked. It wasn’t until book number twelve, Blow Fly, that I felt my loyalty to the series waver.
In Point of Origin, book number nine, Ms. Cornwell pulled the rug out from underneath me and the rest of her readers when she killed one of her characters. I don’t like spoilers, so you won’t hear any more detail than that from me. I will tell you, however, that this death hit me hard. Kudos to Ms. Cornwell. She properly wrecked me as she no doubt set out to do. That’s the power of a great writer, is it not? The turmoil that the other characters go through in the next two books is palpable. It also made me wary. The characters were turning on me—and each other—because of this event … and I didn’t like the way things were unfolding. Then I read Blow Fly. Patricia Cornwell had earned my trust, my loyalty throughout the series. Her characters had done the same thing. With book number twelve, I felt betrayed. I felt angry. Damn it, Ms. Cornwell. I felt as though I couldn’t go on. And I didn’t.
Years later, after publishing a few novels and receiving some reviews of my own—some of them wonderful, many of them mediocre … some of them downright disheartening—I found myself frustrated. It had taken me a long time to get my books out there. I’d worked hard. I was happy to do that. Writing is a passion, but that doesn’t mean that it’s easy. The words don’t always flow, ideas don’t always meld, and sometimes what sounds good in my head doesn’t translate so well on the written page. I took every single review personally. Especially the not so great ones. I really hated the not so great ones.
I had never paid much attention to reviews, let alone write them. Becoming an author myself made me pay a lot more attention. I decided to go through and look at some of the reviews that had been left for some of the authors I enjoyed reading. The big guns. The leaders of the literary world. I looked at reviews written for Stephen King, Dean Koontz, even the amazing Harper Lee. I read reviews left for Nora Roberts, Michael Crichton, Neil Gaiman, and, yes, Patricia Cornwell, and what I found was that they, too, received wonderful, mediocre and disheartening reviews just like I had. It was probably one of the best things I could have done for myself as an author. It put the whole review thing into perspective for me. It made me realize something I should have already known. I did know it, deep down. Whether you’re a NYT bestselling author or a little indie just trying to make it on the Amazon charts, not everyone is going to like your book. And that’s okay. No, that’s good. How can one author write something that pleases everyone? They can’t. It isn’t possible. I needed to learn from the reviews I received, but I couldn’t let them control me. My books and I, we were chai tea. There are a lot of chai tea drinkers out there, but then again, a lot of people prefer coffee.
While doing this research on reviews, I found a few less than complimentary ones left for Patricia Cornwell’s Blow Fly. I remember how I’d reacted to that book, and it was obvious after reading some comments left by other readers that fans had quite a lot to say about it. I was seeing things a little differently about publishing books and reviewing, and, while Ms. Cornwell didn’t need anyone, especially me, taking up for her, I decided I needed to give the book—and the Kay Scarpetta series—another go.
I started from the beginning. I’d collected the first twelve novels over the years, so I pulled Postmortem out and started reading. Yes! I remembered how much I’d enjoyed that first book, and then the second and third and fourth. It was a fantastic series. There was so much there to enjoy. And as I got to book nine, where Ms. Cornwell threw me for a loop years before, I became increasingly uneasy. By the time I’d finished Blow Fly, I went back, read the reviews for the book again, and realized it was time for me to sit down and “write it out”.
I was seeing those reviews through different eyes. Author eyes. And I realized that I was feeling a bit defensive of the author and her books. I decided I wanted to post my own review, be a calming voice of reason among the readers who had typed out their thoughts and feelings for this novel. Truth was, though, I wasn’t doing it for her. I had definite feelings about what other readers wrote about that book. It was a personal thing for me—an author thing—and writing my own review was simply my way of “writing it out”.
After I posted the review, I felt relieved. Just like countless times in the past, the act of “writing it out” helped me come to terms with something I’d been struggling with. Seeing what other readers had written about other, much more esteemed and well-known authors than myself helped me come to terms with the whole reviewing process when it came to my own writing and what people thought of it. I knew Patricia Cornwell would never read what I’d written about Blow Fly, nor would she care if she happened to come across it. That wasn’t the point. I’d done for myself what I needed to do, and then I forgot about it.
That review was posted on Goodreads on July 8, 2013. Since then, it has earned twenty-one likes. Wait a second. Twenty-one likes? There have actually been twenty-one people who have read my musings about a Patricia Cornwell novel? Why? I have no idea. Furthermore, there are several comments about what I wrote … the last two of them written in just the past month. Six years after the review was posted. No one has ever paid much attention to any of the other reviews I’ve ever written, but this one pops up every so often. I will probably always shake my head about that.
I’ll probably never understand what it is about this particular review, but I do know that it taught me some valuable lessons. These may or may not apply to other authors, but I know they apply to me. Reviews are a pain in the ass to get, and it’s annoying that statistically, they’re incredibly important for authors. It’s amazing to find a reader who truly loves a book I’ve written, and I’d be happy to sit and read those kinds of glowing reviews all day long … but I’ve learned that reviews in general shouldn’t be all consuming. I try to take from them things that will help me grow as an author, but I don’t let them define my craft or shape the kind of writer I am. If I’m true to myself, if I write what makes me happy, what feeds my soul, I’ll find readers who love my words and my stories.
Something else I think might be true? If I had a chance to ask her, Patricia Cornwell might tell me that she agrees.