22 April 2015 by Published in: Uncategorized 10 comments

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’d have better 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 prose 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 second 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, Ludlum 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.

 

 

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Comments

  1. Wed 22nd Apr 2015 at 5:00 pm

    Terrific analysis, Russell. This should be required or at least heavily underlined reading for authors. Thanks for taking the time to dish it out.

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Wed 22nd Apr 2015 at 5:40 pm

      Gracias. I wish someone had told me all this when I was starting out. Would have saved me a lot of hair pulling.

      Reply
  2. Wed 22nd Apr 2015 at 5:32 pm

    I still read my reviews. Maybe I won’t after I’ve written a ton of books. I learn from the good and the bad ones, especially if they explain what it was they did or didn’t like.

    I heart Yo Yo Ma.

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Wed 22nd Apr 2015 at 5:52 pm

      I’m not militant about not reading them, I just don’t find that I learn much from them anymore. I mean, I pen the story I intend to, and it’s edited and proofread, and the style is one I enjoy writing and a few readers enjoy reading. I’ll periodically scan the ratio of four and five to one and two, and if it seems to be getting higher than fifteen or twenty percent negative, might look deeper. My belief is that I can’t and shouldn’t try to write to what a few reviewers like or didn’t – I’m looking for trends that tell me I have a problem. One reviewer saying they hated my ending and I’m a f#cktard and should die because I don’t know anything, vs. another saying it’s the best book ever in the whole world, doesn’t really give me much useful information.

      Additionally, I’ve had folks critique my work while looking for editors, and you know what? Some people can sound authoritative and knowledgeable, but they’re also wrong. That’s why you get second opinions when confronted with a medical problem: because even the most sincere and reputable seeming authority might be flat out wrong. It happens.

      Reply
  3. Wed 22nd Apr 2015 at 6:17 pm

    Spot on summary of reviews. 🙂

    I still love my first review “I though I was buying a novel and there was only 7 pages”.

    Actually, the size of the file was listed, the price was free, and there were 17 pages, not 7. I laughed, added cover text to say “Short Story”, and watched in amazement as more and more downloads happened. I changed the price to $0.99 and sill more sold. I upped the price to $2.99 and still more sold, then I reverted the price to $0.99 and, yes, sill more sales.

    Oh, the joy of reviews! 🙂

    Reply
  4. Mona Ingram
    Wed 22nd Apr 2015 at 7:00 pm

    Nicely said.

    Reply
  5. Wed 22nd Apr 2015 at 10:31 pm

    Thanks Russell. My favorite take away:
    You can’t please everyone and you shouldn’t even try.
    I’m sure I will be crushed and then pissed by my first bad review. I’ll hire the Black Ops Pandas to exact revenge on the reviewer. But I will keep writing, remembering your words. Thanks for the advice!

    Reply
  6. Sarah Brabazon
    Fri 24th Apr 2015 at 6:57 am

    I totally agree that one person’s AMAZEBALLS is another’s *yawn* ‘Gimme the remote woodja?’
    Enough people loved (as in it’s the only book they’ve ever read outside of school, and they’ve gone through the trilogy at least a dozen times) Fifty Shades of Grey to breathe life into an entire sub-genre. Yet writers will trample each other in their eagerness to denounce it and outline its faults.
    My take away from all this is that the only way a book won’t offend anyone is if you never publish it.

    Reply
  7. Fri 08th May 2015 at 4:23 pm

    When I finished reading Lee Child‘s third Jack Reacher novel, Tripwire. I give it five stars. Then I browsed on Goodreads for other reviews of the book and noticed a two-star review of the same novel. There’s no accounting for taste.

    Reply
  8. Sun 21st May 2017 at 8:39 pm

    Great first chapter! Best I have ever read.

    Reply

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