A friend of mine emailed me today, worried. The email asked whether I’d seen the latest review on one of my books. I said, no, I largely don’t read ’em anymore. She didn’t believe me, and was aghast at the complaints over the writing in the book. Outraged, more like it.
Here’s my take: criticism is a difficult topic to approach dispassionately as a content creator of any kind, but if you’re to succeed you need to have a system for evaluating it so you can learn from the meritorious critiques and flush the garbage.
~ ~ ~
I used to design and build luxury homes. Big ones. Six, seven thousand feet, on the beach.
When you design homes, it’s much like writing a book, in that your target audience (the client) will express preferences in the style of architecture they favor. Some like contemporary, others Mediterranean. Some demand as many columns and arches and curves as possible, others want only straight, clean lines. One person’s fugly might be another’s treasure. Rather like babies, that. And nobody’s really wrong, assuming the design’s competently executed.
~ ~ ~
There are three components to a book that people generally review: The story/characters, the mechanics (grammar, editing), and the style. I’ll take them one by one.
With story/characters, some will leave poor reviews if they simply dislike the message/tone/moral of the story, or the language used, or the characters – often because the reader wanted them to do X, and instead they did Y, or because they were mean, or deplorable, or unlikable – or find just the story itself unappealing due to genre (“I hate conspiracy books. This conspiracy thriller reminds me why”). Others will dislike the structure of the story – it doesn’t flow well, there are plot holes, it wasn’t believable. The first complaints address the style of the story, the second, the structure of it. I’ve found it’s worth taking a hard look if you get a lot of reviews complaining about the structure – you may have a weakness in your plotting that’s invisible to you but obvious to others.
Mechanics are more straightforward. Is the grammar correct? Punctuation? Is it edited decently? This is pretty binary – yes or no. Now, you can choose to eschew proper grammar, for stylistic reasons, or because in dialog your characters wouldn’t speak the Queen’s English, and that’s fine – as long as you actually know how to write according to the set of rules consensus agrees are the correct ones, and are deliberately choosing to break the rules for effect. If you aren’t, and you don’t, my advice is don’t publish your book, because it isn’t ready. If you’re going to ask people to pay you for it, or even take their precious time to read it, you better have mastered the basic skills involved in writing before putting it out there.
Style is the tricky one, because it’s often like design: everyone’s got a preference, and none is “right.”
But surely, some are better than others, no?
Not necessarily. It entirely depends on reader reaction. If the majority of readers you’re targeting enjoy your style of writing, it’s right for you and them.
Some prefer short, simple sentences, eschewing any description beyond the most necessary. This is a school of writing made famous by Hemingway. It can be quite effective. It can also bore the crap out of some. Others prefer involved, evocative prose like that of Joyce or James Lee Burke. But those who prefer the former style will likely hate the latter, as there are too many words, too much extraneous detail, etc. Some enjoy very basic prose – almost The Cat Saw The Rat level. Others view that as puerile and illiterate.
The point being that these are all preferences. One person’s overwritten or purple may be another’s amazing read.
Now, authors especially, will tend to confuse their preferences with the “right” or “correct” or “good” way of writing. They’re emotionally invested in it. They’ve taken a stand, decided (or more likely, took some courses in school or read a few books on craft) on a preference, and by God, that’s the way people should write, and if you deviate from it, the work is deficient. And they have been known to leave reviews stating the writing is terrible, florid, overwrought, or alternatively, simple-minded, monosyllabic, barely readable, sophomoric. They might also find work clumsy and inept. And they’re no more right than they are wrong. If it’s clumsy and inept to them, they’re right. But that doesn’t mean it is to everyone else.
Readers also have preferences. A reader of 50 Shades of Gray would probably not be that interested in the stylings of a David Foster Wallace. Likewise, a reader of Faulkner probably wouldn’t be all that excited about a NA romance written in the first person at a third grade level.
And that’s all good. Fine. There are different styles to suit every fancy.
When you read your reviews, or any review, it helps to determine, certainly on negative ones, where the reviewer is coming from. Do they have a problem with the story, the mechanics, or the style? If a story/character problem, is it a stylistic dislike (Bo was an a-hole – I hate him! Sue should have wound up with Jeb!) or a structural dislike (The story was disjointed, lacked veracity, and the plot had holes large enough to drive a semi through)?
If a mechanical problem (“the grammar was TERRIBLE”) does it seem like they have a point, or, not? You can usually tell after a few pages of the look inside whether the book’s written competently from a mechanical standpoint. Likewise, the editing, or lack thereof, will show through pretty quickly.
But when it comes to style, you have to really take a hard look at what the reviewer is complaining about. Often, as in 90% of the time, they’re saying that their preference doesn’t align with the book’s contents. That’s what it all boils down to. That in their opinion, it’s deficient because it doesn’t meet their style preferences, or alternatively, that the performance was a poor one within the given style attempted.
All of which is entirely subjective. In the reader’s opinion, the writing could have been more X or Y or Z, or was too M or N or P. For them, the writing didn’t work.
This is where you have to step back and take a deep breath.
It’s entirely possible that the book’s poorly written within the style it pursues. If there are 90% four and five star reviews, probably not. More likely, the reviewer in question has different standards than the target reader, either because they are an author and believe anything below their quality determination is inferior, or because they are having a bad day, or because they spent six months studying the “right” way to write and this doesn’t adhere stylistically to what they learned, or they’ve read thousands of books and find anything less than an out-of-the-park performance objectionable. Or they just didn’t like the writing because of X.
My usual steps if I have doubts about a review on someone else’s book are to first read the book’s look inside and see if there’s any merit to the poor review, and then look at the other reviews that reviewer’s left. Is this the only book ever reviewed? Hmm – might it be the review is deliberately negative for reasons that have nothing to do with the book? If not, are the preponderance of reviews the reviewer’s left for other books one and two star? If not, are the other books reviewed in a different genre?
Look, there are tons of poorly written books. Tons.
There are also plenty of what I’d consider poorly written books in a stylistic sense that have sold many millions, making their readers extremely happy even as their critics rail about their deficiencies. I recall one in particular from The NY Times lambasting the latest Ludlum years ago – trust me it was about as nasty as anything you can imagine. Of course, he probably didn’t care, because he sold hundreds of millions.
Can’t please everyone, and in my opinion, you shouldn’t try. You should be writing to your audience’s expectations and keeping them happy. Not people who aren’t your audience. Because you’ll never make them happy. And you can’t please everyone. If you’ve told the story competently, and the grammar and editing are good, you have to look at complaints about style with a jaundiced eye. I’m not saying ignore negative feedback by any means. It could be you sort of suck at the style you’re shooting for. We all usually start out sucking at whatever we’re new at, and get better with practice, time, and application. It would be wonderful if we could pick up a cello and sound like Yo Yo Ma. Ain’t gonna happen. And sometimes you can practice for years, but you’re still not going to be Yo Yo because he’s got a different talent. World’s not fair. Boo hoo.
But assuming you’ve got your chops down, if someone doesn’t like the way you write, it’s like someone at a singles bar not wanting to sleep with you. You’re not looking for the ones that don’t want to, you’re looking for the ones that do. Maybe the rejection you just got prefers taller, thinner, blonder, or shorter, heavier, darker, or any and all variations in between. Could be a million reasons, none of which are anything but stylistic preferences.
For the record, I’ve designed literally every style of home you can imagine, and while within each style there are conventions you have to follow and need to know, no one style is “right” while the others aren’t. There’s simply well executed, and poorly executed, and the majority, which are average. But one owner’s average house may be the home of their dreams, making them happy with each new day, whereas another’s average may be a constant disappointment due to their expectations, their eye, their preferences. Worse, as a designer and builder, I’m the absolutely most critical of my own home, so often finding deficiencies – while most who come over think it’s beautiful.
Takes a lot of flavors to make a stew. If most of your reviews are honest, and are good, and you’re selling at a level you’re happy with, then you’re hitting your audience right, and keep on keeping on. Don’t let criticism bring you down. Some exist solely to criticize (yes, Mom, I’m giving you the squint eye), others to further unknown agendas, still others just hate your frigging guts for myriad reasons you’ll never understand. It’s all part of the game.
I had a long discussion with a friend who’s an aspiring author about how to move the plot along and engage the reader at every turn. To that end, I thought I’d share some things about how I plan and outline my own work. If you find it helpful, good. If not, well, it was worth what you paid for it.
Let me say up front that there is no one or “right” way to write a novel. Some start writing with barely an idea, others do 50 page outlines. So I can’t advise the only way to write a compelling draft, I can only explain the system I use.
Here’s how I do it: First, I ensure that if it’s an action book, there are sufficient beats to keep the reader engaged. I do this visually, as I outline (I do single sentence summaries of each chapter, usually in three acts, approximately 15 chapters per act), by color coding my chapters with action beats or reversals. So if my typical book has, say, 45 chapters, and I don’t have a beat every two or three chapters, it’s probably going to be a snoozefest. I’d rather know that going in and contrive more story than discover I lack beats once written.
As discussed, my outline will be single sentence chapters, a la “Giant panda storms Tokyo,” “Protag introduced, narrowly escapes,” “Romantic interest introduced, helps her across river,” etc. The action beats will be highlighted red (or in romance, the conflict beats). I want to see a lot of red in one of my action adventure tomes.
When I do my single sentences, I focus on who’s in it, why they’re in it, and what’s happening. If it’s not essential to moving the story along or imparting important info of some sort, my philosophy is it should be cut – it serves no purpose but to occupy space, and it’s a better read if every chapter has impact, a specific purpose. Purposeful outlining, and then hopefully, writing, is a key in creating a gripping read.
I also try for as many reversals as I can achieve. She’s being chased, the situation reverses, she’s now the hunter, the prey eludes her, and doubles back, putting her in harm’s way again. She was on top, now she’s scrambling. The love interest was making advances, now he’s distant. Reversals make it interesting. The more the merrier, and if you can achieve multiples within a chapter, so much the better.
Probably the biggest thing in a larger sense is to try to demonstrate qualities about the characters, what they’re feeling, attributes, without doing so explicitly, i.e. showing vs. telling, because even the fastest moving novel will lose reader interest pretty quickly if everything’s explicate and obvious.
And finally, on second and third draft, I ask myself with each sentence whether it needs to be there – does it tell us something vital about the story, characters, etc.? Is there a better way to say it? Is it repetition of something I said earlier? Is it setting a tone or mood? Does the reader already know this? Are the characters logically consistent in their behavior?
One of my pet peeves is when a character has to behave stupidly or illogically (outside of the framework of the world I’ve crafted) in order to move the plot forward. So I’m careful to watch for that – although note that in something like my NA trilogy, I deliberately have the protag behaving in contradictory ways, but that’s because when you’re a teen, you can have contradictory impulses in a short period of time. That’s how it was for me. Part of becoming a mature adult is being fairly responsible, but being a teen is the path toward that, so I want that push pull of emotions, that “should I or shouldn’t I” instability. It’s the instability that adds to veracity, that even, while frustrating in a kind of “No, don’t do that!” way, feels true and real, even if annoying that the character is doing something that isn’t in her or his best interests.
And then finally, I’ll check for echoes, which are repeated or overused words. I have an entire list, but it seems like every book has a few new chestnuts I find, new lazy habits.
In summary, I strive for pacing and consistency. I’m not immune to the lure of prose, to the well turned phrase or the bordering-on-purple description, but that’s a personal style preference. I know many books and courses counsel the Hemingway/Chandler school of sparse prose and economic description, and that’s fine, but it’s a preference, nothing more. I do look for readability as a final check – is there musicality to it? Lyricism? Is there suitable difference in sentence structure to avoid monotony? Is there a cadence, and if so, is it one that I like, or could I do better?
The big takeaway is that color coding your chapters might work for you, might not, but I’ve found it a reasonable way to do what a content editor might, on my own, and ensure my characters get into sufficient trouble to keep it interesting. That will help with structural issues and pacing, and then the rest is block and tackling of multiple drafts to get the prose right.
Now, go buy my crap. JET – Ops Files, Terror Alert, is out and garnering impressive reviews, and Ramsey’s Gold is on preorder for release end of May. Both are worthy of a hard look. Terror Alert is as good an example as any of how my approach to pacing unfolds, so it’s not a bad place to look for the structure within the chapters. And Ramsey’s a blockbuster read. Trust me on this.
As to my situation, I’ve got a mountain of work to get done over the next ten days, so will be in and out.
Hope this little glimpse into my process resonates. Now go write something.