Cleolinda Jones (cleolinda) wrote,
Cleolinda Jones

Wherein I am nervous about daring to offer advice

I have many thoughts, but it took me a couple of days to write this, and then I didn't want to bury it under the Golden Globes liveblog, so:

The first two weeks of 2012 have been kind of nutty in the book world. It seems like a ton of writers, mostly in the YA genre (and a couple of their agents) decided to denounce, harass and/or retaliate against book bloggers who gave them negative reviews. Twitter, GoodReads, blogs, leaked email, ~drama~. Jane at Dear Author has a really interesting discussion of the divide between reader and author paradigms, which I think explains a lot about what has happened, and she describes and links to a number of incidents. And that post doesn't even cover all of them; new writer-reader spats are still cropping up. And because a lot of this is happening on GoodReads, this isn't even like the classic literary lion/professional critic feuds of old. These are writers attacking readers who have a lot less power; I'm pretty sure most of them are amateur reviewers who just do it for love of books. For a general taste, see "Diary of an Author" from Meljean Brooks, which starts here, but the fourth entry is where it turns into a Greatest Hits reenactment of the last two weeks. "LORD COCKMONSTER IS NOT AN ASSHOLE AND IT SAYS SO RIGHT ON PAGE 374!!!!!" People, much of that is paraphrased from things that actually happened. It is that bad.

So there have been a number of blog posts about how writers need to sit down (by other writers, even), but going by yet another incident this weekend, I am starting to wonder if there is an end in sight. Sure, bad reviews hurt. If you can't handle negative feedback, don't force yourself to read it. Honestly, I think I read about five reviews of my own book total, and that's including positive reader reviews. I just really decided not to tempt the fates and go looking for them. So walk on by, don't read your reviews, and for the sweet love of sparkle don't ever whine about it online or curse reviewers out or scheme with your clique to downvote the review out of sight. You know that saying about how the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome? The YA genre is currently going through a massive bout of author "insanity" wherein these writers keep Taking It To The Streets and thinking that somehow, this time, it's not going to blow up in their face. Seriously. Don't. Didn't work last year, didn't work the other ten times it happened this month, not gonna work for you.

However, IF YOU ARE INTERESTED IN LEVELING UP AS A WRITER AND YOU HAVE A BOTTLE OF WHISKEY ON HAND, read your reviews. Yeah, I didn't read a whole lot of reviews for the Movies in Fifteen Minutes book, but I took a metric shitload of writing workshops throughout college and grad school, where you get an entire classful of critiques every time you turn something in. Often out loud. And you can't say anything back, even when they are wrong, ~so wrong~ about your Arrrrrt, they do not understaaaand you, and also they keep disagreeing with each other so you don't even know which criticism is the one to feel hurt over, and you can't leave the room. When you take that many workshops, you start to learn something. And what you learn isn't necessarily to write better; it's to take criticism better. So, forthwith, a different approach to reading reviews of your work, be it professional or fannish, if you want to try it:

It is your mission, if you choose to accept it, to go through and identify the things that your reviewers consistently mention.

What do reviewers say is good?

Yay! This is the fun feel-good part! Write this down. Pull quotes and paste 'em in a Word document. Wallow in it... for now. You're going to need it. They love your sense of humor! They love Whoever Girl and Fangy Broodsome and Lupus McWolfenstein! They love the good ship Nobody Dies so much that they just want to live on it forever! Take note of what multiple people say you did well, think about how you did it, and make sure you keep doing it.

And then remember: opinion is not fact. An opinion is a feeling. It might coincide with fact, but not necessarily. Keep saying this to yourself. There are many people with many feelings. A review that says, "This is the best book EVER!" does not mean that you wrote The Best Book Ever. I mean, statistically: in the annals of literature, this is pretty unlikely, sorry to say. What it means is that someone loved your work so much that they felt compelled to gush about it, which is, in itself, wonderful. Good reviews mean that you made readers happy. And I admit, I had to recalibrate my hopes from "unanimously glowing professional reviews" to "making readers happy," and I hope I managed the latter, at least. As much as I respect book critics, if I had to choose between one five-star professional review and a hundred happy readers, my personal mathematics value the latter. So if you're going to flail around on your blog about how EVERYOOOOONE loves your book, how DARE this one GoodReads reviewer contradict them--well, then be happy with the readers you did make happy, see what you can learn from reviews to make even more of them even happier, and sit down. It's a fine line between counting your blessings and believing your own press, is what I'm saying.

What do reviewers say is bad?

The good news is, if an opinion is just a feeling, then not all bad feelings have to be taken seriously, either. There are some criticisms you're just going to have to shrug off--cliffhangers and "oh look! this is the first book in a series!" endings seem to piss people off a good bit, based on the reviews I've seen. Well, you chose to do that; you took that risk and they don't have to like it. My personal example is, I had a couple of professional reviewers complain that the Movies in Fifteen Minutes book's sense of humor was "too internet-based" or "studenty." I had actually toned down a lot of the meme-ier elements so the book wouldn't date itself quite so quickly, so I felt like I'd done my part to be cognizant of that; what was left, well--that was my tone, that was my sense of humor, those were the wares I was putting out for sale. You have to file this away into the "If you like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you will like" category of reviewing--"There was too much romance in the book"; "I'm tired of vampires"; "Another book about spaceships??" Well, you wrote romance/vampires/spaceships; a reader doesn't have to like it, but you don't have to feel bad about writing it, either.

Now, if a reader says they like spaceship vampire romance, but they didn't like how you wrote it, you may have to investigate further. If a bunch of readers say it, you've got to.

What criticisms are showing up across reviews?

The comment I saw across all the professional reviews of the Movies in Fifteen Minutes book was "it's too long." Ironically, I'd decided to give the horse a little rein, as it were, and let the parodies go on longer than I usually would have--because I was afraid people would complain they weren't getting their money's worth. Like, that over there is what you got for free online, and this is the super-size all-new stuff you get in the published book. A lot of readers told me that they really liked the overstuffed length, but I think the reviewers were right. I did consciously make that choice, but in the end, I think I made the wrong one. (And I think it's more important to really consider criticism, whether constructive or hostile, than just yell BUT THE READERS SUPPORT ME IN EMAIL SO STUPID CRITICS YOU DON'T KNOOOOW.) So I started trying to write the next batch of online parodies more tightly, and I think my writing improved as a result. Sometimes I still give the horse a little rein, but only in the scenes I'm pretty sure people particularly want to hear about. Which also takes criticism into account--people commenting on previous parodies to say, "You moved too quickly through this one, I wish you'd let it run longer." There are going to be elements where you have to strive for balance, where you have to make choices in different contexts, without completely losing your sense of the direction you want to take.

There are other times when you are just going to have to bite the bullet and admit that you didn't do something so well--wait, no. Think of it as this is something I can do better next time. The most common criticisms, particularly in terms of YA and/or genre fiction, are probably:

1) the characterization was weak (bland, interchangeable, characters didn't seem real or fleshed out, didn't seem like individuals, etc.)

2) the hero/ine was too passive (only reacts to other people and events rather than take action)

3) the world-building was thin, if you were writing fantasy, sci-fi, dystopia, etc. (vague, not a lot of detail, not very deeply thought out, too similar to other writers' books)
3b) the research was insufficient, if you were writing in a historical genre (key historical details/concepts screamingly wrong, not a lot of detail at all, felt too modern)

4) the style was simplistic or trite, the voice was dull or bland (often part of the catch-all criticism "the writing was not good")

5) the story was derivative or unoriginal (more simply, it sounds a lot a particular book that's really big right now, or a patchwork of several)

6) the story seemed unrealistic or unbelievable (was it Twain who said that the truth doesn't have to sound believable, because it's the truth?)

I'm sure there are others, but those are the criticisms I've noticed most often while browsing Amazon or GoodReads. I didn't include the "heroine is a Mary Sue" complaint in that list because "Mary Sue" is starting to lose all meaning as a criticism. But, for the record, if your heroine is the prettiest girl ever (even if she doesn't think so), and all the boys like her (even if she doesn't like them), and all the other girls are "sluts" or "bitches" in comparison, she has all the skills, does everything better than everyone else, she has no one to answer to, her awesomeness solves the plot too quickly, and her only flaws are just kind of mild and winsome (like the perennial job-interview answer: "My worst flaw is that I just work too hard")--you may want to reconsider how you characterize heroines. It's natural for someone to have strengths and weaknesses, things they can do and things they can't, things they like and things they don't, people who like them and people who don't. We want to read about people who are awesome and capable. But when they're awesome to the detriment of all the other characters, it gets weird and off-putting and unsatisfying. If people keep dogging your heroine as a "Mary Sue," what they're really saying is that there's something about her that doesn't seem real; she doesn't seem to have earned what she has or the way other characters feel about her. Don't get hung up on shouting down the label; use your reviews to figure out what's causing that impression, and whether it's something you really do need to correct.

Compare elements across good and bad reviews.

There's a book that's a big deal right now; people mostly gush over it for the world-building/setting. (I have it, but it's still in my to-read pile.) The biggest criticism I've heard is that the characterization is thin. But then I see a few reviews that specifically say the characterization is good. Since all the reviews gush about the setting, it sounds like it really was well done; the characterization seems like a matter of taste. That's the kind of distinction you're going to have to make for yourself. If there had been no reviews praising or defending the book's characterization... that's when I would have been concerned. I've seen reviews that said they loved a book's sense of humor and reviews that said they hated it, it was trying to hard, the humor fell flat. Some people adore Fangy Broodsome; some don't get what the big deal is and resent the readers who do. Some people think Whoever Girl is an awesome heroine and a great role model; some think she's a ludicrous Mary Sue. Some people think the good ship Nobody Dies is a brilliantly realized setting; some people think your grasp of spaceship mechanics is crap. If your reviews are mixed, it's worth seeing if the negative ones imply any way to improve the things other readers do like ("I should probably read up more on vampire spaceship science"); in the end, you may just have to write it off as a matter of taste that you can't do anything about ("I WRITE ABOUT SPACE VAMPIRES, I DO WHAT I WANT"). But if the happy readers love Lupus McWolfenstein, and the haters loathe him and his little brother Clawy... and even the happy readers are like, "Yeah... I could do without Clawy," that's a red flag. So you're going to have to look at recurring themes within good reviews and within bad reviews, and then across good and bad reviews, if you are really serious about this Better Writing Through Bad Reviews thing, and you think you can hack it. I really don't know if I'll be able to, if when the time comes. There's nothing wrong with getting your feedback during the writing process, but then not reading any reviews once the book is published and you can't change anything. In fact, that might be more advisable. But if I were helping a friend go through her reviews, those are the issues I would pull out for her.

Not all complaints are valid.

If I'm looking for fantasy and someone says, "I hate fantasy," that's fine, but their subsequent opinions on fantasy books are going to be pretty useless to me, as both a reader and a writer. There are also certain subjects some people are just going to object to, often on some "moral" ground, like gay characters, non-white characters, social issues, "dark" themes--I won't say they're bad people for not wanting to spend their own time reading about an issue they have negative feelings about. But once I hit "this book has too much gay in it," as I did the other day, that opinion, to me--as both a reader and a writer--ceases to matter. You just have to be careful that you don't dismiss this or that concern just to make yourself feel better. "Calling my heroine a Mary Sue is sexist so LA LA LA LA LA" isn't going to help you improve. Be honest with yourself, sieve out what's useful, and leave the rest.

wut u mean i got bad grammer lol .?

Stop. Do not pass go. Get this checked out. Whether it's your writing or it's publisher error (apparently a lot of e-books have errors that do not appear in print copies?), you need to look into it. (This is particularly important for writers who are self-publishing and have no publisher oversight.) If your grammar and spelling is atrocious, your only excuse is if you wrote, like, Flowers for Algernon. Dialogue is obviously a different story; real people usually don't speak with perfect grammar. When I'm writing a blog post like this, I'm going to try to write mostly the way I speak, for a conversational tone--since you can comment at the end, it is dialogue, it's a dialogue between you and me. And a first-person narrative--technically it's monologue, but when a character is telling you the story, it's an implied conversation with the reader, isn't it? The "voice" of the book, then, is the voice of the main character, of the narrative speaking to you; that's what "voice" means in a literary context. And yes, third-person narrators (limited or omniscient) have voices as well; they just tend to be more formal or correct than a first-person POV. Non-standard grammar and spelling can reflect that, but if you're not using it on purpose, to achieve a certain effect, you need a proofreader. Even then, I would be careful with a narrative that depended heavily on intentionally "bad" grammar and spelling. Like heavy dialect in dialogue--maybe it's there for a reason, but that doesn't mean it's not tiresome. If reviews complain about non-standard language that you used on purpose, consider that it's just not providing the reading experience that you want.

I think that's really the best way to think of this process, actually--the reading experience that you want to provide. If you are not getting that experience across, if people don't have a whole lot of sympathy for your beloved heroine or thought your suspense thriller was kind of predictable, then you have something to work on. If the problem is that you are getting what you wanted across (too much spaceship vampire romance omg!) and people just categorically don't like what it's about--well, that's what you wanted to write about, so their preferences are not your problem. That's when you have to put in an order for thicker skin and deal with the fact that you're proud of what you wrote and that maybe the whole world isn't going to fall in love with it the way your ego was hoping.

If the very idea that someone might not like your book own gives you pain, this is not the exercise for you.

I've read my reviews and somehow survived. What next?

1) Drink.

2) Call up a sympathetic friend and vent if necessary (it will be necessary).

3) Think about which criticisms you can honestly use to improve your writing.

4) Drink more.


What I have learned from writer meltdowns over the last two weeks: DON'T. "But I just really want to say that--" NO. I am not trying to thwack you with a newspaper as if you were an untrained puppy. I am down on my internet knees begging you, walk on by. SAVE YOURSELF. Getting in a public huff, getting indignant, harassing reviewers and calling them out, venting on your blog, retaliating, scheming vengefully on Twitter, canvassing your acquaintances to downvote negative reviews--it doesn't work, it never has worked, it's never going to work. I read an F+ review (yes, there is such a thing) the other day, and the review was so entertaining that I kind of wanted to read the book anyway. Negative reviews can produce a variety of results: "That book really does sound terrible, I won't read it"; "That premise actually sounds kind of interesting, I want to try it anyway"; "That review sounds mean and unreasonable, I don't believe it"; "Nothing could be that bad, I have to see this for myself"; "That sounds awesomely bad, I have to check that out." Negative behavior gets one result, and that result is, "That person sounds terrible and I do not want to support her work." You have nothing to gain by throwing a fit and everything to lose. On GoodReads, you can sort your books into shelves, like lists, and people have begun making DNR ("do not read") shelves for books by writers who have harassed and denounced readers. And I can't blame them. If nothing else, people are going to want to know which authors take the time to attack readers who dare to give their books two stars. (Caveat: authorial hissyfits are not the only reason books get shelved as DNR. I am pretty sure that, for example, Cormac McCarthy has not had an internet meltdown lately. That I know of.) So if you're brave or foolish enough to read reviews of your work, sit on your hands if you feel a burning vicious urge to respond. And while you're sitting on them, maybe you can settle in with a drink (straws are useful for people with occupied hands, I recommend one of those curly loop-de-loop ones) and try to profit from the experience.

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Tags: alcohol is in it, books, kerfuffles, publishing, reviews, this is going to end well

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  • Ow

    As I just said on Twitter, I keep forgetting that chronic health issues are chronic and that I can't just wait them out. "Oh, I feel like shit…

  • This is simply to say

    that I am having a REALLY hard time concentrating, despite having an Outline of Update Posts to work from. (Refer to previous entry.) So I'm still…

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