Writing and Reading Reviews

I’ve been reviewing books for online and print magazines for a while now. Close on ten years. It’s an interesting business as I don’t consider myself qualified to give really critical reviews. I don’t have a college degree stating I am educated in the art of reading and reviewing. But, like most dedicated readers, I read a lot of books. Aside from what appeals to me, personally, I have an idea of what works and what doesn’t.

Characters don’t always need to be appealing. I’ve read to the end of a book featuring characters that drew very little sympathy from me as a reader. But they still worked because they felt real. Either they were bastards or weirdly bland or just distasteful people, but well written enough that I had an opinion. I still cared about the character and the story, even if I didn’t care for them.

I could read a book that simply followed the development of a character. A slice of life or a coming of age type thing. But most books have a plot. It’s a sort of necessary kind of feature. I can come up with a hundred analogies for why a story needs a plot, but as I mentioned before, I’m not highly educated. So, bear with me as I describe a plot as a clothesline. It’s somewhere to hang the clothes.

Not going to embellish that one, just going to move on.

I’m also not going to examine plots, or describe the elements required to make a good one. That’s not the point of this ramble. I just wanted to put down the couple of things necessary for a book to be engaging. Sounds simple, but apparently it isn’t.

As a reviewer, I see a lot of really poorly executed books. They often have great ideas, but there is no actual plot, or it’s not evident or clear or sensible. Or, the characters are lacking. They all sound the same, so that I’m not sure if it was Luke or Mark who just died and I’m certainly not reaching for the tissues because I didn’t have a good feel for who the poor bugger was. Just another voice in the dialogue.

When I write reviews, I try to come across as a reader, one who has certain expectations—particularly when I’m reading a favourite or well-known author—and one who has definite preferences. I like to point out what I really enjoyed, and if a book didn’t work for me, I try to figure out, and communicate, why. Not because I think the author will read it, but more to explain why I tossed the book or gave it five stars.

Or, simply because I though the book was amazing and I want to tell all my friends about it. Or, I was horribly disappointed and want to share that opinion.

With so many people getting their hands on ARCs, there are a lot more non-critical reviews floating around the internet. These reviews are stirring up trouble (Goodreads and their author protection policy) and sometimes they feel less objective than might seem necessary. But, the point of having a personal blog is to express your opinion, isn’t it? Being invited to leave a review offers an invitation for exactly that, too. An opinion.

I think both can be done with respect—for the material and the people responsible for publishing it.

I don’t like writing bad reviews. Regardless, I do write them. I call them unfavourable reviews and I try to avoid stating: This is the worst book I’ve ever read. First off, I probably tossed the worst book. Life’s too short to read books that don’t appeal. Secondly, even before I had a book out there, flapping innocently in the breeze of critical readership, I didn’t like telling people they couldn’t write. Everyone can write. Not everyone can write well. Even then, though, most books need editing and some editors are better than others.

So, what’s the point of this ramble? Aside from explaining how I review books (which I also talk about on my reviewing page), I wanted to share my experience of being reviewed.

It hasn’t been as harrowing as I might have imagined. I haven’t had a terrible review yet, so that helps. But the first rating I got on Goodreads was two stars, which translates to: It was okay. It stung to imagine someone thought my book was merely okay, but I didn’t beat myself up over it because I expected my story wouldn’t appeal to every reader. Of course it wouldn’t. Just like everyone doesn’t like anchovies on their pizza. We all have individual tastes.

I did wonder what it was about my story that didn’t appeal, but the reviewer did not elaborate. Probably a good thing, eh? But, if she had, I’d have read it and accepted the judgment. I wrote a book and I put it out there. I expected—wanted—people to share their opinion of it.

Should an author ever respond to a review? This is a tricky one. I know that as a reviewer, I’ve been delighted when an author has contacted me to thank me for a nice review.  I like seeing that little ‘like’ button on Goodreads light up (figuratively, of course) with their click. I hope my opinion of their book makes them feel good. As a writer and a recently published author, I understand what goes in to every book. They deserve the kudos, in my opinion, particularly if it was a good book!

I think when an author responds to a poor review (one that picks the story apart rather than explains simply and respectfully why the reader didn’t like it), then they are losing perspective. They’re forgetting that not everyone likes anchovies on their pizza.

What if a review slips into slanderous territory, or becomes a personal attack? Ignore it. I’m sure it’s hard, but there’s a reason for that old adage. Things that are ignored often do just go way.

I think the thing to remember—and what I try to keep in mind—is to be respectful, no matter which side of the review you’re on.

If you made it this far, thanks for listening. I welcome your comments. Oh, and as for my own book, I’ve received some really lovely reviews. It’s been a joy to read them and nice to click that little ‘like’ button.

Plot Holes

I just found a plot hole in my copy-edited manuscript. The manuscript they plan to put a cover on and try to sell. It’s in the first chapter. Not on the first page, but… IT’S IN THE FIRST CHAPTER.

I can plug the hole with a single sentence. It’s not a huge tear in the fabric of reality. We, meaning me and a number of editors, missed it. Consistently. For six months. Of course, a hole the size of our planet might easily be missed as well. We could have fallen through without touching the sides.

The copy editor missed it as well. She or he was too busy adding and deleting commas.

(I know some of you are questioning these added commas. I am known for sprinkling them liberally throughout everything I write. The idea someone might actually add some, well, it’s a bit like finding a plot hole, isn’t it?)

So what am I going to do? Well, as with everything to do with being published, there is a process.

The first step is a panicked email to a friend, which, by the way, was loaded with commas and expletives. Then an email to the editor I worked most closely with. Fewer commas, no expletives.

Next step is to hyperventilate for a while. Passing out is always sound therapy. Naps are good.

Ranting and raving comes after I wake up. Stamping my feet and flailing is optional, but also good. Movement is essential in situations like this. It fosters a feeling of being constructive.

Next, shopping. It’s a distraction. As this step occurs after a conversation with my husband about how much we’ve been spending lately (and on top of thoughts about how no one is going to buy this book, so I shouldn’t spend any money, ever), shopping is limited to essential items and one weird looking blue tank top that looks like someone wore it for twenty years before donating it to a thrift store.

It’s only ten dollars.

I’ll have to sell something like twenty-two books (I think) to pay for it.

Finally, after lunch, a cup of tea and an hour on the couch with a book that may or may not contain plot holes (it’s science fiction and full of weird ideas and science I only just grasp), I am ready to add that sentence.

Why couldn’t I add it before I went nuts and bought an ugly tank top?

Because life is full of plot holes. It’s inexplicable. Sometimes it just does not make sense. Your best course of action is to just hang on and enjoy the ride.


Inspiration Versus Perspiration

panicI just submitted the third round of edits for Less Than Perfect. I’m pretty excited—not only because I think these are the last major edits, but because I believe, again, my story is awesome. I know not everyone will share my point of view and I know I’ll need thick skin come September when readers start posting comments. (We’re going to pretend people will buy and read it, and be sufficiently moved to comment, okay?) But it’s my story and I like it. I love it. And remembering that simple fact will help me maintain perspective.

It didn’t take long to write my first draft. Five days of three, four hour stints at laptop. I think it was about twenty thousand words. Not a bad effort—it won me a contract, after all. The second draft, a year later, didn’t actually take long either. Ten days of three, four hour stints at the laptop for about forty thousand words. Over a month passed between receipt of that first letter detailing the issues with my first draft and the submission of that second draft, however.

Some of that month was spent looking inspiration, definitely. I found some of it at the bottom of a paper bag, the one I used to keep from hyperventilating, and gained the rest from my friends—those who listened as I breathed, panicked and breathed. I spent another week thinking things through. Then I got to work and did what I needed to do.

About four days after I received the second pass edit letter from my editor, one of my friends observed a pattern. I apparently required a certain amount of time to flail and moan before thinking rationally. I don’t think I’m the only one, but my pattern is pretty distinct and it doesn’t only apply to writing. So, when I received this last set of edit notes, I just let it happen. I indulged in feelings of despair, regarded my manuscript with loathing and suspicion and wondered why, oh why, anyone ever tried to get published. I also stated, loudly if not somewhat plaintively, that I would never do this again.

Then I sat down and did what needed to be done.

I had to look up the saying about inspiration versus perspiration because I couldn’t remember which of the two claimed the greater part. It’s perspiration. In my case, it’s more like nine parts agitation, one part perspiration, which doesn’t make a good saying at all.

Ramble: Words

Thoughts, so far, on being published:

The First Draft (not the first one you wrote, or even the first one you showed someone else, the fifth, sixth or seventh iteration, the one you finally send to a publisher) is your IDEA. And like all ideas, some parts of it just don’t work. So you have to let go of pieces. You have to let go of words, know that that paragraph you thought was absolutely perfect will never be read. It’s sad.

Then, when you’re finished learning to let go of stuff, mourning the loss of your words (sentimentality has no place here), you have to write new words. You have to take that IDEA and turn it into a story.

And you can’t help wondering if this Second Draft (which won’t be a first attempt, either, it will be honed and refined before anyone sees it, then tweaked again before being sent to your editor) is just another IDEA.

Hopefully it’s a better one?

I suppose it’s possible that, eventually, whatever decides to spill from your fingers and take over your life for a while will combine an idea with the right words and you actually start writing stories.

(Image borrowed from: Words of Yankees and Southerners)

Review: Self-Editing for Fiction Writers

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself Into Print by Renni Browne

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I should have read this book seven years ago, which is when I bought it. I find non-fiction (and any story lacking the presence of aliens) difficult to focus on, though. Maybe I thought having it on my shelf, or the simple purchase, itself, would make me a better writer. I could look up at the spine now and again and say, “Yeah. I have that book. I’m a writer.”

I am a writer—anyone can be one of those. But according to this book, I’m not a very good one. Yet. I’ll get there, but it won’t be because I have such books lined up on my shelf keeping me company. Won’t be because I’ve read them, either. It will be because I kept writing, reading, recognizing my errors and working to fix them. Because I practiced.

I recently submitted a story to a publisher. To my astonishment and joy, they offered me a contract. Then they sent me four pages of first pass edit notes. Astonishment morphed into that squicky feeling at the bottom of my stomach and joy simply evaporated. I think I actually whined at my laptop. My editor referenced Self-Editing for Fiction Writers and suggested I read the first chapter. I looked up at my reference shelf and studied the row of shiny, un-cracked spines. Yep, there it was. Pristine, perfect and pathetically untouched.

I read the first chapter (the squicky feeling in my gut revolved a few times while I seriously considered replying to my editor, “Why for the love of all that is holy did you buy my story? It’s CRAP!”) and then I read the second chapter. Aliens had not made an appearance by the third, but I kept reading and the sick feeling moved through several recognizable stages along the way. Mountains and valleys of elation and depression. I also babbled out loud. “So that’s what that’s called. Okay, I can do that. Oh, my God, I do that all the time. Hey, I can do that. I do do that. I don’t do that. I’m good at that.” And so on.

Needing to read this book made it a more relevant and therefore enjoyable experience. The tone is not condescending and the advice is dispensed with good humor. There are plenty of examples to make every point and every chapter is followed by a checklist and exercises. The lessons are very clear; I understood the purpose of each chapter and I understood why certain things don’t work or how they can be improved. I didn’t put the book down and think, “Forget it. I can’t do this.” I put the put book down and wrote this review instead.

Now I’m going to print out my story and work through it from beginning to end, using what I have learned. No doubt, it will be a soul crushing exercise. But I feel prepared to tackle it.