On Reviews: Should I Be a Little Less Atheist?

Mousetrapped will be out a year on March 29 and I think it’s high time for a second edition. The beauty of using POD to produce your book is that you can do this at any time by simply uploading new files, which I intend to do in time for its first birthday. There’s a few ickle typos I want to amend, a table of contents I want to pull out and some other little things I want to put in. I’m also changing the back cover – the way it is now was my idea but I’ve always felt, looking at it, that it is a bit on the simplistic side and edging every so slightly towards the obviously-self-published.

Ultimately my goal is to produce the best product I can, which is why my mind now turns to reviews.

Now I’m not complaining; I’ve had overwhelmingly positive reviews and I thank everyone who took the time to even write a sentence about what they thought about my book. But – of course – the ones I can recite word for word are the bad ones, the negative and occasionally nasty reviews written by people who weren’t impressed, found Mousetrapped boring, ‘didn’t like being lectured’ or all of the above.

I read a blog post once that described the relationship between novelist and editor and how you were supposed to know which of you was right when a change was suggested or vetoed. The blog’s author said that you just know: the suggestion resonates with you; it settles in your gut; it illuminates something that perhaps you knew already but were keeping down. It makes sense.

Recently I had a meeting with Someone Important about Novel No.1 (don’t get excited; no news to report) that up until I went to the meeting, I thought was pretty hot shit. Everything can be improved upon, obviously, but I couldn’t see any major flaws in it. But then this Someone asked me a question (this won’t make any sense to you but it was ‘Who is the joke on?’) and it was like a sucker punch to the gut. Or in a less violent scenario, a blindfold torn away. Who was the joke on? I didn’t know. And in that instant, I could see what was wrong with the book. It made perfect sense to me.

But it works both ways. When someone says something you know comes down purely to personal taste and isn’t fact, it’s like water off a duck’s back.

My bad reviews all seem to say one of (or all of!) three things:

  • It’s boring. (‘The chapter on Kennedy Space Centre reads like an unending Wikipedia entry.’)
  • It’s not a negative Disney exposé, which is what they were expecting.
  • I lecture my readers about Atheism.

Now first of all – boring? One bad reviewer said that I went on and on about the Space Shuttle launch and left out what ‘seemed like far more interesting’ stories, such as how I ended up going to the airport in a stretch limo. Well, I ended up in the limo because I’d left my boarding card at work, and had to leave my car parked there for the weekend as I’d no time to park it at the airport and instead of getting a taxi I was able to catch a ride from a friend at the hotel who happened to be one of our limo drivers. Now is that really more exciting than a spaceship taking off from the earth? Really? Because if you really think so, then I’m afraid I can’t help you.

Second of all, no, I didn’t work for Disney directly but I worked in a hotel operated by a third party steps from Disney’s Boardwalk Resort and across the street from Disney MGM-Studios. All staff had to attend Traditions, Disney’s orientation program. We said ‘costume’ instead of uniform and I was a ‘Cast Member’ not an employee. I did work in Walt Disney World. And ‘Mousetrapped’ – which one reviewer called ‘a lie’ – actually referred to being trapped geographically in Disney World. Last time I checked that word didn’t mean ’employed by the Walt Disney Company’. If you’re going to review my book based on how it squared with your erroneous expectations instead of what it actually is, then I can’t help you either.

But while I don’t take any notice of the complaints above, something niggles at me when readers say things like, ‘Well, I wasn’t expecting a lecture on Atheism!’ At first I dismissed them too but over time I’ve come to wonder if perhaps they have a point.

If you haven’t read the book, there is a chapter towards the end where I visit a religious theme park in Orlando. To put my reaction in context, I explain that I’m an Atheist and I talk a little bit about how that came about. It’s written in the exact same way as the rest of the book which (I hope!) is light, funny and self-deprecating. Then, at the very end of it, after I’ve left the theme park, is this:

“When people of faith discover that you’re an atheist, they inevitably adopt a tone of two parts incredulity and three parts condescension and demand that you explain, as a supposed spokesperson for All of Science, what they consider to be the great mysteries of the universe.

‘So where do you think we came from, then?’

‘What about all the miracles?’

‘What about people who’ve died and seen a bright white tunnel with their loved ones at the end of it?’

‘How do you know what’s right and what’s wrong?’

‘If there is no God, then what’s it all for?’

I can’t really answer these questions, although I’ll try: See The Big Bang, primordial soup and evolution for question one; I’ll start taking miracles seriously when someone miraculously regenerates an amputated limb; no one who has actually died for real, i.e. died and stayed that way, has been able to tell us about bright lights, tunnels, etc. and these images could well be the hallucinations or symptoms of a dying brain; are you saying that the only reason you don’t rape or murder is because you fear the judgment of God if he caught you doing it?; it’s for life, to see the world and everything in it, to be lucky enough to be here feeling the full spectrum of the human experience – love, joy, friendship – for as long as it lasts. More to the point, I don’t need to answer them because I don’t believe in anything. I’m not the one carrying the burden of proof.

If I came to you and said that last night three little green men flew in through my bedroom window, abducted me and took me aboard their alien mothership for an unpleasant medical exam and you said it was a dream I had, on whom would be the onus to prove they were telling the truth?

Just because many people believe a particular thing and it has been believed for a long, long time, doesn’t make it fact. There was a time when everyone on earth, including its greatest minds, believed it was flat.

Moreover, I don’t want to talk about it. Asking me to talk about religion is like asking me to talk about my career in the army – neither of them exist in my life, so why even ask?

The only other thing I will say about this atheist business is that the contempt, hatred and scorn directed towards us scares and upsets me. Professor Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, regularly gets death threats – which doesn’t seem very Christian to me – and there’s many a ‘F*%k Atheists’ group on Facebook and in real life.

But why?

People of faith seem to think that atheists can’t be anything other than blasphemous sinners who habitually lie, swear, cheat, steal, drink, take drugs, have sex before marriage, work on Sundays and kill people. But we’re not evil. We’re as good if not better than our religious counterparts.

I know that I, for one, am just lovely.”

This is different to the rest of the chapter, which starts with me wondering where Jurassic Park meets The Bible, then goes on to describe the whole ‘Happy Holidays’ debacle and Creationism in schools debate that Central Florida was experiencing over Christmas 2006, and then moves to the religious theme park. I think this bit (above) IS a lecture, or at least reads like one. I thought it was balancing out the chapter, a counteraction to the arguments I knew would be rising up in readers’ minds, but now I think it’s just leaving them with a bad taste in their mouths.

When I read or hear people say they don’t like this or it seems out of place, it’s like that ‘Who is the joke on?’ question all over again. It makes sense to me.

So I’m considering taking it out. Not the entire chapter, just the bit reprinted above. Instead it will end with me being told ‘Be blessed’ by an employee of the religious theme park in the same way Disney Cast Members bid you a ‘Have a magical day.’ But before I do, I’d love some feedback. So tell me:

What do YOU think?

Should I just leave it the way it is? I am pandering to the vocal few instead of taking into consideration the silent majority? Or is leaving that bit doing a disservice to the rest of the book? Leave a comment below or email me via the Contact page, pretty please.

P.S. Fun fact: the ‘IN GOD WE TRUST’ chapter was originally supposed to end like this: “I know that I, for one, am just lovely. But now I better go. I’ve a Sunday morning drug-fueled f–king orgy to get to.” Can you imagine the reviews then?!

29 thoughts on “On Reviews: Should I Be a Little Less Atheist?

  1. FlossieT says:

    If you’re going to review my book based on how it squared with your erroneous expectations instead of what it actually is, then I can’t help you.

    It still amazing me what a large percentage of reviews do this – not just of your book, but generally. A review of a book that doesn’t engage with it on its own terms seems to me a complete waste of time.

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      Absolutely. Amazon – of course – is the worst for this. I looked up a book the other day on there and saw 1 ‘1 star’ review out of loads of 4 and 5, so I clicked on it to see what the reviewer’s problems were. Turns out it was nothing to do with the book but the third party seller he’d bough it from, sending it later and being a bit optimistic about the book’s condition. WTF?! And of course that affect’s that author’s star rating at the very top of the screen. I despair, I really do…!

  2. Rebecca Brown says:

    I think if you’re not quite happy with that bit, if YOU think it’s a valid point, then change it. If you take it out but feel annoyed or resentful about doing so, you know it’s pandering to a vocal minority. It’s your book, which you’ve done a brilliant job with. Go with your instinct, it’s served you well so far. X

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      I think my instinct is telling me to take at least that part out. It wouldn’t annoy me at all – I think the only thing that would annoy me is other people thinking I’m editing a book by committee or something…? Decisions, decisions…!

  3. Ciara says:

    I’m torn on this, between agreeing with you as an atheist myself, what I know are my own issues with pleasing people (even angry, negative reviewers) and giving the best advice possible.
    I don’t think it should be taken out, this is your book and it’s non-fiction. These are your real beliefs and if you’re not being overly strident. And some things are always going to offend some people.
    That being said, if you do feel you should take something out or even tone something down, it could be from the sentence “…; although I’ll try…” to the end of that para.
    Hope this is helpful…but again, it’s your book and you can’t please all of the people all of the time. Or any of the time, sigh… 😛


    • catherineryanhoward says:

      Oh I am well aware you can’t please all! ;-D

      I know I’ve said in the past that this is MY book, etc. etc. but then I’ve also gone on about treating it like a business and giving the reader the product I advertised, etc. so I’m a bit conflicted. On one hand, I really want to leave The Holy Land experience in. This is a book about Orlando, and that is one of the most interesting things IN Orlando. But in order to include that, I *have* to bring people up to speed on my own beliefs or lack thereof (don’t I?) but I think that bit above strays over the line. And because it’s right at the end of the chapter, readers take away that they’ve been lectured, even if they didn’t feel that for the rest of it. Ugh! Nightmare..

  4. Vel says:

    I read your book and loved it! I am also an atheist and felt you made a wonderfully cogent argument in defense of atheists and atheism. But I always felt that a strong editor would have argued you remove the entire chapter. Not because it’s not well written but because it’s not in service to the rest of your book. It feels jarring, like finding a chunk of salmon in your donut. Sure, it’s good for you (better, in fact than the donut). But it’s out of context.

    Put another way, writing a book is like dancing with your audience. Yes, you’re leading but you still have to connect with your partner. They trust you won’t start breakdancing in the middle of a Paso Doble.

    Whatever you choose, I remain a huge fan and will be first in line for your next novel.

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      Wow – I am loving all this salmon in donuts and breakdancing in a paso talk! 🙂

      I totally get what you’re saying though and I find it especially interesting as you liked the book AND you are an atheist, but yet you still feel it was out of place. I just don’t know what to do because that theme park is so ripe for mockery (atheist or no) and a real interesting place, and the book is about Orlando after all.

      What I don’t want is for it to be a ‘defense’ of any nature. I didn’t intend that but I know that’s how that last bit comes off, and it was purely because as I was writing it I was thinking, ‘well, the reader is going to say this, and this, and that’ and I was shooting down – or trying to shoot down – their objects. But that IS out of a place, without a doubt.

      thanks for the feedback!

  5. James says:

    Catherine, I happened upon your book by chance while searching for interesting behind the scenes stories about Disney and was pleasantly surprised at all the other things you included. Of course the NASA parts were great, and they should stay as they are (Wikipedia entry my arse) and I enjoyed the creationist park visit too.

    However, I was a bit taken out of your book by the atheism run too, despite the fact that I have traveled through a great range of religiousness in my time. The passage you quote above, while interesting and one that I nearly entirely agree with, does not share the tone of the rest of the book. In fact, it reads like you are venting and trying to use this forum that you have to get back at those who have frustrated you in the past.

    I’d nix it. The end you propose is great – shoot even the second more sarcastic end would be a great ending to the edited version of the chapter!

    Thanks for asking the readers what we think. And thanks for making the book available on the Kindle! (BTW: you could probably charge a few dollars more and still rope in the unsuspecting browsers-by such as myself)

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      Hi James,

      Thanks so much for commenting – glad you liked the book and I have to totally agree with you: I WAS venting and I was in some unconscious way ‘getting back’ at people who have asked me those questions in the past and who were probably asking them again as they read the chapter. I just don’t want to lose the religious theme-park thing .. I’ll have to see how I can include that but leave out my ranting! 🙂

      Mousetrapped will be $2.99 on the Kindle forever more. I think the price is why I have such good e-book sales! I’m sure I’d find a few people who’d consider paying more but with so much on offer for 99c, $1.99, etc. I have to be careful. People are more willing to take a chance on something that is priced so low, but not so low that think it’s likely to be rubbish.

      Thanks for the feedback!

  6. Lindsay Edmunds says:

    My opinion: the pro-atheist part should go NOT because it offends anyone, but because it hits a jarring note. I believe in God and wasn’t offended by it (I think my opinion of the theme park would be close to your own), but I didn’t see the argument coming and it stung a little.

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      Thanks for the feedback Lindsay. I totally agree. I’ve just been thinking about the start of the chapter too. You turn the page after the space shuttle bit I think and you get ‘When I was 12, I stopped believing in God’ which I can imagine is a bit of a shock! I’m kinda thinking I should introduce the chapter differently – putting the another theme park bit front and centre – and then weave the other stuff in around it AND remove the final section (above). This is all really helpful though I’m so glad I asked you guys! 🙂

  7. Erin says:

    Please leave the passage in. Mousetrapped is your experience, your perspective, and written in the first person. Readers’ expectations are–in my not-so-humble opinions–irrelevant. I a reader can’t open a book with an open mind, so be it. Your opinions are just that, and readers are surely free to disagree, but you need not deprive future readers of them. Also, it’s a simple marketing truth that when readers like a book, they tell their friends; when they do not, they tell the author. Oh, and smoothly controversy is not a bad thing!

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      “It’s a simple marketing truth that when readers like a book, they tell their friends; when they do not, they tell the author” – love that!

      My fear is that future readers will be turned off because of the vocal few who go on Amazon and elsewhere and make Mousetrapped sound like a Pagan manifesto or something. Also, is it really in keeping with the rest of the book? I don’t know. It doesn’t exist in a vacuum; there’s little in having a book if nobody’s reading it.

      I think the only thing to do is somewhere in between, a compromise of sorts. But then as you say, some controversy can be a good thing! 🙂

  8. Jane Travers says:

    I agree with everything you said in that passage, Catherine, but I have to admit that even at the time of reading it originally I thought it was a little long-winded.

    If you disregard the subject matter and try to read it objectively then it comes across as over long and in need of editing. So, I for one wouldn’t cut it completely, but I would truncate it somewhat.

    Dunno if that helps at all!

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      I think that’s what I’m going to end up doing, Jane. I want to keep in the theme-park but find a way to do it without shoving anything down peoples’ throats – that’s what it’s supposed to be, after all: about the theme park. I think if I chop most of the other stuff I won’t be pretending to be something I’m not or hiding what I am while still feeling okay with it.

      That makes no sense – but you know what I mean!!;-D

  9. diane says:

    Hi Catherine, As you know I loved the book, and for me this was a minor niggle, but it was probably my least favourite part. I was interested in the religious theme park because… (I was going to say “holy hell” there, but that’s not right) that’s really unusual and something most of us haven’t read about.
    But I did think it got a little lecture-y, and for me that took away from the humour and took me out of the story. It didn’t offend me as I’m not religious, and I related to your being criticised and misunderstood because of your beliefs, but I think you’re capable of getting the same message across with a lighter touch.
    Please don’t get rid of any of the space center stuff — I’m not that interested in space and I thought it was great (the launch chapter especially, made me cry).
    I would have liked to have known a bit more about your travels towards the end of your stay, they were summarised pretty briefly, but I understand you perhaps just wanted to focus on Florida.
    I think you know deep down what you should do (know it’s a bit annoying when people say that, but it’s usually true!)

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      Thanks Diane.

      There is NO FEAR that I’ll be removing as much as a letter from the Space chapters – that would interfere with my evil plan to convert the entire world to Apollo space nuts. 🙂

      I think a lighter touch there is really what I need to do, especially taking into consideration my audience. I was contemplating scrapping the chapter altogether but I think now I’m going to rewrite it, keeping in the theme park but keeping it JUST about the theme park.

      As for the travels at the end (you mean where I went to New Orleans and stuff?) you’re exactly right: I wanted to focus on Florida – which is why I didn’t go into too much detail about Washington D.C either – and basically all we did in New Orleans is drink anyway, so it wouldn’t have made much of a story! ;-D And that’s what this is about: http://mousetrappedbook.com/more-mousetrapped/.

      But you’re totally right: I already know what to do. I knew all along, I suppose. And the people I was consciously or unconsciously thinking of when I wrote that chapter have already read it so job done!!! ;-D

      • diane says:

        Oh, yay! I’m excited for that, and will sign up immediately. (See how good you are at internet marketing?)

        “And the people I was consciously or unconsciously thinking of when I wrote that chapter have already read it so job done!!! ;-D”

        Hee! I’ve definitely written things in the past as a way of explaining myself to/debating with people I know (it usually works better for me than talking, in fact..) but I’m sure the new chapter will be great even without that 🙂

  10. Ellie says:

    I read your post as soon as it hit my email and have been pondering ever since. I just wanted to comment on this part,

    ‘One bad reviewer said that I went on and on about the Space Shuttle launch and left out what ‘seemed like far more interesting’ stories, such as how I ended up going to the airport in a stretch limo’

    Personally I would take this as a compliment. The fact that you left the reader wanting more can only be a positive. It is a testament to your writing.

    I think with reviews you need to read between the lines, was she compelled to moan because of the space shuttle…not really. She just needed to find a part that you could have cut down to allow space for everything else.

    Most importantly, a review, good or bad, provoked the reader to discuss your work. All feedback is good feedback, something I think think we sometimes forget.

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      I get what you’re saying Ellie but I think in this instance the reviewer WAS compelled to moan because of the Space Shuttle, etc. – she called these chapters – and the book in general – boring, and that wasn’t the worst thing she said in her review.

      I didn’t really mean to complain about bad reviews with this post – getting them is just a fact of life – more to illustrate that when I read complaints about the Holy Land chapter they struck a cord with me, so that must mean I agree in some way and it needs changing. When people say the book is boring I really don’t take any notice, because I just don’t think it is! 🙂

  11. Maria Staal says:

    I haven´t read your book (yet), but I can understand your dilemma. I had something similar with my book.
    In my story (which is a travelogue about the time I worked on container ships), I had to choose if I was going to mention America’s impending invasion of Iraq. While I was on the ship this subject was rather important and I felt it should be mentioned in my book.
    After I had finished my book, I happen to read a book that was written by a man who had been a passenger on a container ship on 9/11 and in his story he focused a lot on it, which really irritated me after a while. The parts of his book that dealt with being on the ship were really interesting, but the 9/11 stuff seemed out of place. He explained in the preface that he mentioned it because he was from New York, so it’s understandable that he put it in. Yet, it didn’t feel right.
    Re-reading my own manuscript, I realised that I had focused on the invasion of Iraq quite a bit myself, mostly because, specifically for the US part of my book, it did play an important part as we crew talked about it a lot and we were actually in New York at the time of the invasion.
    However, I decided to radically cut out some of the parts that mentioned the invasion and only left in the bits that were the most important and without which the story wouldn’t flow.
    I am very glad that I did. So far no one who has read the book, has complained that I mention Iraq too much.
    I understand that this is not entirely the same as your dilemma, but I hope it helps you a little bit. 🙂

  12. Bob Prendergast says:

    I thought the book was quite good. It didn’t seem to be structured as traditionally as many, but I think you definitely got across what you were trying to.

    If you pander to the vocal minority – then you end up with a watered down book – essentially written by committee and not you. Every book will have good reviews, and every book will have poor reviews. Stick to writing for yourself, and you’ll not have any regrets about it.

  13. Christy says:

    Ok, that is a *terrible* review and I wasn’t even able to read the whole thing because it was so cringe-inducing. That woman is a LITTLE too close to your subject matter.
    But, in defense of negative reviews (not that one), I often read them in regards to non-story books because finding out what they aren’t, or what they don’t cover, or how they’re misrepresented by marketing, has saved me from more than a few bad book purchases. 🙂

  14. Christy says:

    Or, I should clarify, not even necessarily bad book purchases, just not what I was looking for. And having a long preview really helps – I bough Mousetrapped from Smashwords because I wanted to finish reading it.

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      That’s definitely the worst review I’ve had – you can imagine how *I* felt reading it! It’s one thing to not like my book, but it’s quite another to accuse me of lying or misrepresentation. And she’s takes everything so literally – I called the Jungle Cruise operatives amateur comedians because of the way they behave not because I believe they are actually planning on becoming comedians! I despair, I really do. But I clicked the ‘See All My Reviews’ button and all of her book reviews are written in the same snotty, let’s-start-out-negative-and-see-where-we-go tone AND she rubbishes books I really like. She even complained that ‘A Letter to American Airlines’ isn’t really a complaint letter – it’s not, it’s A NOVEL!!!!!

      Sorry – am using this to vent. But now the review is up on Amazon and even though she has some valid points, it makes my book sound like it should be used for toilet paper.

      But I get what you’re saying. MT is not a Disney memoir (which, apparently, it should be because I had the cheek to use ‘Mouse’ in the title) and it’s not confined to Orlando’s city limits. Nor does it pretend to be. And I guess she’ll scare off anyone who’s looking for a book about that…! 😀

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