Author John Lacombe's Response to the Winter Games Controversy

In response to the controversy over the SPR review of the novel, Winter GamesReviewing the Reviewers. – further explored in the post,

I was recently made aware of the controversy that followed Carol Buchanan’s review of my novel Winter Games. I have been following the string of comments below Ms. Buchanan’s review with mixed emotions.

On one hand, it stirs an amount of pride in me to see so many readers coming to the defense of Winter Games. On the other hand, the dialogue has, at times, reached a cringe-worthy level of vitriol. I belong to several list-serves that, like this site, are populated by intelligent, reasonable people, and I’m saddened to report that this level of animosity pops up in those places as well. People often check their normal social reserve at the door before they sit down at the keyboard. Sad, but true.

I think it’s important, though, to introduce a new perspective by trying to respond to the issues at hand specifically as an author. Authors have a different mindset relative to these issues, and I believe this fine website to be as valuable a resource for aspiring novelists as it is for readers.

Simply put, authors do not and can not look at reviews the same way that readers do. To a reader(and by extension, a reviewer), the most important aspect of a review is quality. To an author, the most important aspect is tone.

To a reader, a review is a tool with which to gauge the quality of a book. A fiction enthusiast curious about a novel can read the available reviews he/she can find, then make a value judgment on whether or not to purchase that novel. To an author, however, a review is a vastly different kind of tool.

Authors use reviews in two ways. First, positive reviews can provide motivation which drive a writer onward in his/her next project. Second, positive reviews can become marketing tools that an author can use to promote his/her book. Negative reviews, even excellently-crafted ones, have limited value to an author for reasons that I will elaborate on shortly. Many authors simply choose not to read any reviews at all: They have publicists to do their promoting, and success has given them all of the motivation they need. (I, myself, have neither a publicist nor an endless reservoir of pep, so I continue to read away.)

Reviewers, in turn, neither do nor should expect that authors will alter their approach to writing based on reviews; constructive criticism is the job of an editor. Reviewers’ responsibility, rightfully, is to the consumer. Carol Buchanan and Steven Reynolds have both earned their stripes as reviewers with keen insight that has been proven to steer readers in the right direction. And the string of comments that followed Ms. Buchanan’s review of Winter Games showed, ultimately, that a large readership has come to value and respect both her and Mr. Reynold’s opinions.

To me, the author, however, the two reviews are not of equal value. I read Mr. Reynolds’ review, smiled, and tucked it away in my memory banks for future reference. I read Ms. Buchanan’s review, took note of her sound criticism, and moved on; I simply don’t have the luxury of dwelling on negative reactions to my past work. As a novelist, I depend on the ability to carry with me only that which benefits me emotionally and professionally.

This ability to detach holds the utmost value to authors, particularly self-published ones. We punch no time clock, we have no boss, and we are solely responsible for the dissemination of our work; we must think, therefore, only in terms of what will spur us onward and what will help our work succeed. This mindset extends well beyond reviews of our books.

Take, for example, the process of finding a literary agent. Authors who choose not to self-publish tend, unfortunately, to try to “humanize” this process as much as possible. I attended the Midwest Writer’s Workshop this past summer, and the two agents who sat on the faculty of this event were quickly set upon by aspiring novelists looking to form working relationships with them. Similarly, many writers will only submit query letters to a handful of agents and will quickly form emotional attachments to these chosen few. Then, when this small group of agents rejects their work, these writers are devastated and submit no more, believing their books to be inferior. The reality, of course, is that detached, thorough research could have yielded 200 agents who might have been interested in the writers’ query letters. And if only one of those 200 liked their product, the writers would have been on their way to lasting and productive author/agent relationships.

Writing contests are another example. The Hollywood Book Festival wasn’t the only contest I submitted Winter Games to; there were many, many others. And amidst the piles and piles of submissions all of these contests received, my humble book did not light a spark in the eyes of reviewers…until one day, when the judges at the Hollywood Festival gave it a thorough read and decided that they loved it. If I’d “tested the waters” by only submitting to the contests I knew best, and then taken it to heart when the response to these initial submissions was negative, I might never have landed that plane ticket to LA.

Reviewers and readers depend on a symbiotic relationship that itself relies both on the quality of the reviews that reviewers provide and the trust returned to these reviewers by the readers. Authors, if I may cornily borrow from Winter Games, must play the role of Sarah: Detached, and yes, “robotic” outsiders, coolly determining what is and is not useful.

Keep reading, and keep writing!

John Lacombe

  • Corrine

    As impressed as I am with the quality of John Lacombe’s guest piece, I am even more impressed with the presence and character demonstrated within. It was a complete pleasure reading that.

  • Jake Fielder

    The post on Angela Wilson’s link, indicates that she “retooled” her original article and that authors do that all the time. Okay. . . .but then she let’s readers know that she was quickly set upon by his fans, for accusing author John Lacombe of “taking to the internet,” to solicit supporters to “lambast” (her word) Carol Buchanan. Lacombe did not do that. Wilson encourages readers to check out the article and make their own judgement. Trouble is, they can’t, because she changed it. The latest version includes a new and extremely key phrase –and others–which indeed, clarifies the original more accusatory version. Her change directs focus to “others,” as opposed to John. Had she originally posted the latest version, fans more than likely wouldn’t have cried foul. At any rate, if she wants readers to form their own conclusions, she’d have to show both versions. Journalists do indeed make corrections all the time. However, they usually include a statement that, in this case, might have said, “A sentence in paragraph three should have included the phrase “and others.” Angela Wilson regrets the error.” Her attempt to spin this doesn’t work with me, and my guess is it won’t with other fans, either.

  • Sam

    Yeah, Jake’s right. I printed out the original and it most definitely did NOT have the words “and others.” She’s now giving John props, and well she should. John’s article is stellar. But her actions are pretty lame. She should have admitted her mistake and apologized. Being the kind of guy John is, he overlooked it. I loved his statement about negative reviews being of no benefit to an author.

  • Priscilla

    I admire and respect Carol Buchanan and enjoyed her western God’s Thunderbolt: Vigilantes of Montana. “Fear of Horses,” is excellent, as well. As John Lacombe states above, Carol has earned her stripes. After reading Carol’s review of Receive Me Falling, by Erika Robuck, I decided to pass on the book. Carol wrote, “Unfortunately, flaws in the writing and editing kept pulling me out of the story. Too many homonyms interfered with the reading.” After reading Carol’s review of Winter Games by John Lacombe, particularly her dissection of his writing, I made a similar decision to skip the book.

    I initially defended her review of Winter Games, based on my respect for Carol’s credentials and commentary. John writes above, that the reviewer’s responsibility is to the consumer. I would add that, because of that responsibility, she must be fair and accurate in the best interest of those consumers she serves.

    After reading John’s piece above, a couple of red flags were raised in my mind. First, it’s an incredible, almost flawless piece of writing. But most important, it’s full of depth and insight. This young man presents as well educated and extremely thoughtful. One doesn’t form a similar impression of the author from reading Carol’s review of his book. Rather, a reader might—at least I did—get the impression that Winter Games, like so many self-published books, is poorly written.

    I picked up a copy of the book last night, and let me tell you, it isn’t. I’m only on page 69, but I want to take a moment to comment on one character in particular. Sarah. Part of Winter Games is set at a secure military site in Vermont. In her personal quest to infiltrate its perimeter, something no MALE soldier has been able to do, she immerses herself in the icy waters of the Connecticut River. Quoting from the novel– “The following seconds were the kind that drove Sarah’s existence. They were the latest leg in an eternal journey to the limits of her own potential. . .First came the pain. It was discussed in hushed circles by unlucky ice fisherman and Navy S.E.A.L.S.—those unfortunate enough to have experienced the icy electrocution of one’s flesh. Every inch of the body. Over and over and over again. For most people, simply remaining sane was a victory.”

    As the author describes this pain in masterful detail, I began shivering.

    Sarah is no robot. And although she tries to remain “detached” as Lacombe states above, she most certainly experiences pain and intentionally places herself on death’s edge. By presenting Sarah as a science fictionish kind of robot, Carol does John Lacombe a tremendous disservice. That disservice is exacerbated by her implication that the story is ill constructed. As I said, I’m only on page 69, but I can’t wait to read more.

    And now, out of respect for John Lacombe and his wonderfully executed thriller, I’m going to go finish the book.

  • Great letter, John. I haven’t read your book and I’m not interested in getting involved in this continued thread in defense of your novel (which really belongs on the page of the review rather than here), but I enjoyed reading your take on the discussion.

  • Bob

    John, your perspective as an author is both enlightening and thought provoking. Thanks for taking the time to put that together. And kudos to Henry Baum for inviting your commentary.

  • William

    John, you have written a gracious and charitable response.

    You remind me of the English philosopher Edmond Burke, who wrote, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

  • JoAnn

    You write in your excellent response that you have “mixed feelings” about the controversy and comments that have followed Carol Buchanan’s review. I can see how some of the things some critics have written might be upsetting to you. There are a couple of things I want you to know. One, I was able to wade through the “vitriol” and pay attention to what really counts. And two, I just ordered a hardcover of Winter Games on Amazon. I encouraged a friend to do the same. There is a special place reserved for young people with the class you demonstrate. Keep the faith!


  • Jerry

    John, I didn’t realize until recently that you self-published Winter Games. I was wondering at what point you decided to go that route. It sounds like this has been an interesting journey for you. But do you look back and wish you had stuck it out a bit longer and submitted the book to more publishing companies? What are your plans for the next book?

  • Betty


    I’m not sure how often John Lacombe checks this post, if at all. So here’s a nice article that goes into his decision to self publish.


    Also, you can contact him at authorjohnlacombe.com

    He’s also doing several workshops on self-publishing in the Chicago area, if you’re anywhere near there. I think there’s one tomorrow. 🙂

  • This has really been a fabulous opportunity for others to promote John’s work. What more could a self-published author ask for? (Well, aside from a traditional publishing deal… 🙂 )

  • Don

    Great article, John. Really, really fine.

  • John, I didn’t realize until recently that you self-published Winter Games.